"Sometimes I feel discrimated against but it doesn't make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company! It is beyond me." - Zora Neale Hurston, 1891 - 1960
When I first saw the syllabus for my Oral Traditions in Literature class and noticed that Their Eyes Were Watching God was on the list, I was surprised. I realized that I already owned the book but just never read it. I don’t even remember when I bought it, but I know why I bought it: a friend of mine had told me it was an important book. She said Zora Neale Hurston’s novel had changed her life. She even told me that if she ever had a daughter, she’d name her Janie. So, of course, I had to buy the book. I tried to read it at first. I think I read a lot of the first chapter and put it down for reasons that escape me. But I always knew that one day I’d get back to it.
I skipped the foreword for now; I didn’t want my interpretation of the book to be clouded by others’ just yet. After reading the first few sentences, it struck me that this would definitely be a book that I would need to read again and again. I love how melodic and poetic it is. Some sentences require multiple reading in order to catch the depth of the metaphors. Sometimes what I think it means at first changes once I’ve read more of the story, then I flip back a few pages and say “ahhh ok.”
The story, which is semi-autobiographical, is about a young girl named Janie who finds herself trapped in two loveless marriages until she finally meets the (much younger than her) man of her dreams, Teacake. But it's not simply a love story. It's one of self-discovery and self-acceptance. It's a Negro spiritual of sorts. it's a history book. It's a Zora-chronicle. It's too many things.
But beyond the book is the larger story of Zora herself. Here is this Black woman all on her own in the 1920s, travelling around southern U.S. collecting Negro folktales on a fellowship paid for by a wealthy white woman. Zora was quite a force to be reckoned with. She was feircely independent, yet dependent on her benefactors. It didn't stop her pen or her mouth. She often found herself in trouble by both. She had a penchant for telling off-color racial jokes in front of white people...embarrassing them. She didn't care. She grew up in a town where everyone was black...where there was no jail or no police. so her perception of the world outside of Eatonville, FL was vastly different than other Blacks. And for that reason, many Blacks at that time did not have a fondness for her.
When Their Eyes Were Watching God was published, the elite Black writers like Langston Hughes and Richard Wright came down hard on Zora. she was not telling Black stories the way they felt was appropriate. Her ample usage of 'slave language' was embarassing to them. But she did not care.
I could go on and on about why this woman is a hero to me. She was fearless. Trailblazing. Indignant. Proud. Beautiful. Free. and all at a time when it was forbidden for a woman, especially a black woman, to be any of those things.
As a writer, i'm well aware of the doors she blasted open for black women writers. No others were being widely published at that time. None. And i can't believe it has taken me this long to find out about her...