Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Dream is the Truth

‘Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.’ — first line of Their Eyes Were Watching God


She was part of the Harlem Renaissance at its height. She held a degree in anthropology from Columbia University, published four novels and over fifty short stories, essays and plays and received a Guggenheim Fellowship twice. At one time her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was being taught in seventeen different courses at Yale University, a book she wrote over the course of seven weeks in Haiti. 

Twenty-three years later Zora Neale Hurston died in a Fort Pierce, Florida County Welfare Home, quickly buried among weeds in an unmarked grave and just as quickly forgotten. 

She was born in a small Alabama town in 1891 but grew up in Eatonville, Florida, an all black town located just six miles west of Orlando. She published her first story in 1921 and in 1925 arrived in New York at a time when the Harlem Renaissance was at its peak. Hurston quickly became an integral part of that movement, collaborating with Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman. Over time, Hurston fell out of favor among prominent black writers for her reluctance to take a political stance in her writing and for her use of black dialect for her characters. In 1937 she published her second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, a work destined to become a classic of African-American literature. Her last novel, Seraph on the Suwanee was published in 1948, but for reasons that remain cloudy, her work more and more went unpublished. An essay, “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism” published in American Legion magazine in 1951 was the last work published before her death. 

In 1975, after a research trip to Florida, Alice Walker published the essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in Ms. The article ignited a revival of interest in Hurston which has continued to flourish with re-printings of her books and stories, biographies, films and PBS documentaries, as well as a resurgence of her place in university classrooms.


Their Eyes Were Watching God, set for the most part in the black Florida community of Eatonville tells the story of Janie Crawford, a black woman in search of true love and her true self. A voice like none other, Janie sparkles with wit, beauty and wisdom as she narrates a life through the trials of poverty, three marriages, repressed ambition and the ultimate and freeing discovery of romantic love. Described by many as an African-American feminist classic, the description is much too bland for a novel both vibrant and achingly human, one that transcends labels. The story follows Janie Crawford’s ripening from a spirited but voiceless teenage girl into a woman with strong convictions about her destiny. Though written in a brief seven weeks, Their Eyes Were Watching God pulses with the blood of rich experience and is possibly the most widely read and highly praised novel in all of African-American literature.

One of the most contentious aspects of Hurston’s writing has always been her unique use of language, specifically a mastery of the rural southern black dialect, criticized as making her characters (and southern blacks in particular) cartoon-like, Brer Rabbit type personalities that support a stereotype. What cannot be missed though is a narrative structure that divides the flow of language between polished literary narration and idiomatic dialogue. In the afterword to modern editions of the book, Henry Louis Gates Jr. suggests that Their Eyes Were Watching God is concerned with ‘…finding a voice, with language as an instrument of injury and salvation, of selfhood and empowerment.’ This is seen in her relations with husband Jody when he stifles her speech and prevents her from talking, a clear suppression of her individuality — “Thank yuh fuh yo’ compliments, but mah wife don’t know nothin’ ’bout no speech-makin’. Ah never married her for nothin’ lak dat. She’s uh woman and her place is in de home.” 

The opposite is seen in Janie’s later relationship with Tea Cake, who engages her in conversation, putting her on equal terms with respect for her individuality, and it is from this respect that her great love for him springs. For Janie language is both the source of her identity and her empowerment.

Putting aside the argument that Hurston’s language supports an unflattering stereotype, would it not be better to take Alice Walker’s suggestion and view the writer as an artist and not as the artist-politician that most black writers have been required to be, that in the case of Their Eyes Were Watching God it is a more fulfilling read to see it as a fervent human quest rather than a distinctly black one?


Hurston was often the butt of criticism from fellow black artists who disliked what they saw as a  subservient adoption of the “happy darkie” persona for benefit of a white audience in search of stereotypes. Langston Hughes gave example of that in his autobiography, The Big Sea
‘…Zora Neale Hurston was certainly the most amusing. Only to reach a wider audience, need she ever write books—because she is a perfect book of entertainment in herself. In her youth she was always getting scholarships and things from white people, some of whom simply paid her just to sit around and represent the Negro race for them, she did it in such a racy fashion. She was full of side-splitting anecdotes, humorous tales, and tragicomic stories, remembered out of her life in the south…She could make you laugh one minute and cry the next. To many of her white friends, no doubt she was a perfect “darkie”, in the nice meaning they gave that term—that is a naive, childlike, sweetly humorous and highly colored Negro.’

Like me, perhaps others find this picture of Hurston not altogether distressing for at the root of it all is Hurston’s desire and problem as a writer to communicate faithfully the cultural wealth of a black folk tradition. She was after all a mix of writer, folklorist and anthropologist.

Sometimes the case with even the biggest names, I came to Zora Neale Hurston late. A name familiar from conversation and books, it is my loss that her stories and novels came to hand only in the past weeks. Frankly, I am astonished at the power of her words and her themes. Much too unsophisticated to set Hurston among African-American feminists and leave it at that, readers will discover in her writing a treasure house of humanity, passion, magical realism, folklore and wisdom. Eight stories and one novel are enough to convince me that the name and writing of Zora Neale Hurston will be around for a long time to come.

3 comments:

  1. Like too many writers she has gotten her due long after it should have come. It's good her writing lives on, that she created something lasting and that will be read for generations down the road.

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  2. Thank you for introducing me to a new and interesting author

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  3. Her hometown is only 3 miles from me. Each year the incorporated community honors her memory with a Zora Neale Hurston Day. I will tell you when it is planned as you may enjoy attending.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America