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Zora Neale Hurston, "Their Eyes Were Watching God"

The most successful and significant African American woman writer of the first half of the 20th century, Zora Neale Hurston never knew slavery, but had to struggle with racism. Her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, was considered “the finest black novel of its time” and “one of the finest of all time” (Hurston Zora Neale, 1990. Their eyes were watching God. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Page X). The novel deals with racial and gender identity and records woman’s evolution in her relationships with supportive black men and the dangers to black women’s identity in relationships with oppressive black men. Her voice, the voice of a woman who was searching for self-accomplishment, was finally heard and in 1942, when she published her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, she was profiled in Who's Who in America, Current Biography and Twentieth Century Authors. Much later, Time included Their Eyes in its 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.

Set in central and southern Florida in the early 20th century, Their Eyes Were Watching God was initially poorly received, because it rejected the Uplift programe (advocated by W.E.B. Du Bois) which fought to improve the image of African Americans in society and presented fine African Americans who conformed to the social mores of the day and the cultural standards of the white majority.  In opposition to this Uplift agenda, the Harlem Renaissance writers – a movement into which Hurston elbowed her way using her many talents – attempted to expose the racist oppression in American society and to „let the Negro speak for himself”, as Alain Locke wrote in his preface to the literary anthology “The New Negro” (1925) we can find in the preface of Neale Hurston’s book.  Hurston, however, did not support either of the two attitudes and chose to celebrate the rural Southern African-American black community as she found them. (Hurston Zora Neale, 1990. Their eyes were watching God. HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Page X)

How does a Negro speak for himself? How does a black woman speak of herself in an age when the voice of a woman seeking for her identity was hardly heard? Janie Crawford, the main character of the novel, tells the story of her life to her best friend Phoeby. For this, Hurston uses the flashback technique.

Janie Crawford is a woman who had three marriages and had been unsure of her identity until she met Tea Cake, her third husband, and became convinced that her marriage with him was the relationship that she had been looking for, because it was based on love and love was what she had always wanted, ever since her childhood, when she used to sit under a pear tree and wonder at the miracles of nature.

The identity issue is revealed from the beginning of the novel. Janie Crawford never met her mother or her father. She was raised by her grandmother, Nanny, and the white people Nanny was working for: “Ah ain't never seen mah papa. And Ah didn't know ’im if Ah did. Mah mama neither” (Hurston Zora Neale, 2006. Their eyes were watching God.  HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Page 8). In her childhood, she had identity issues she was not even aware of. She confesses to Phoeby that she had no idea she was “coloured”. She found it out only when she was about six and a man came and took a picture of her and the children she grew up with. "So when we looked at de picture and everybody got pointed out there wasn't nobody left except a real dark little girl with long hair standing by Eleanor. Dat’s where Ah wuz s’posed to be, but Ah couldn't recognize dat dark chile as me. So Ah ast, 'where is me? Ah don’t see me'” (Hurston Zora Neale, 2006. Their eyes were watching God.  HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Page 9). Only after she stares at the picture a long time and admits to herself that she recognises the dress as hers is she ready to recognise herself.

Not only is Janie unaware of the race she belongs to, but she also has many names: “Dey all useter call me Alphabet 'cause so many people had done named me different names” (Hurston Zora Neale, 2006. Their eyes were watching God.  HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Page 9). People called her by different names and she does not seem to care.

These are all marks of the absence of her identity as a child, but obviously such issues do not trouble her in her childhood. She is at an age when she thinks she is like everybody else and the colour of her skin does not matter. Finding out that she is not white is a revelation (“Aw, aw! Ah'm colored!”), but it does not affect her as much as the questions about love she will ask herself later, as a teenager, after her first kiss: “What? How? Why?” It is the moment in her life when she becomes aware of matters that she only “vaguely felt” before and were “buried in her flesh”, but “now they emerged and quested about her consciousness” (Hurston Zora Neale, 2006. Their eyes were watching God.  HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Page 10-11).  In other words, it was her way of passing from childhood to adolescence, a moment which her destiny chooses to seal with the kiss Johnny Taylor gives her.

Lying under a blossoming pear tree in her back yard, Janie sees the bees pollinating its flowers and thinks that love – and marriage – should be the human equivalent of this natural process. It is her second revelation (“So this was marriage!”). Much to her later disappointment, love and marriage will prove to be very different things, since she will marry twice before discovering the true love relationship with Tea Cake, despite their fights and bouts of jealousy.

The next step in Janie’s quest for self-identification starts with Nanny telling her off for letting Johnny Taylor kiss her. Janie confesses that “her conscious life had commenced at Nanny's gate” (Hurston, Zora Neale, 2006. Their eyes were watching God. Harper Collins Publishers, Inc. 2006: page 10). Nanny was a slave who became pregnant by her owner. She tried to create a good life for her daughter, but the latter is raped by her school teacher and becomes pregnant with Janie. Shortly after Janie's birth, Leafy runs away and Janie will be raised by Nanny, who wants her granddaughter to have a good life, a life neither she nor her mother had. Nanny is a harsh, but loving grandmother who fears Janie will become a “mule” to some man who will take her only for her body and labour. She will give Janie the first shock of her life, telling her that she will soon marry the older farmer Logan Killicks. This is how Nanny sees the complicated issue of a black woman’s identity which she identifies with will and desire: "You know, honey, us colored folks is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways. […] But nothing can't stop you from wishin’. You can't beat nobody down so low till you can rob ‘em of they will” (Hurston, Zora Neale, 2006. Their eyes were watching God. Harper Collins Publishers, Inc. 2006, page 22).

Nanny sees herself as a branch without roots – her origin is lost, as is her identity – but Janie compares herself the pear tree which the bees pollinate: “She was sixteen. She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her.” Unfortunately, her life will not be like the pear tree in blossom. Nanny dies. In her first marriage, she becomes a woman, discovers that marriage does not make love and her dream is shattered.  Janie is unhappy with her old husband Logan Killicks, who needs a servant more than a wife or a lover and works her like a mule. So she runs away to Eatonville with Jody Starks.

In her second marriage, Janie is miserable again, because although Starks is “pouring honor all over her; building a high chair for her to sit in and overlook the world” (Hurston, Zora Neale, 2006. Their eyes were watching God. Harper Collins Publishers, Inc. 2006, page 62) – as Nanny would have liked to see her – she feels that he treats her as if she were an object, his property.  He becomes mayor and he controls was she wears and what she says and always criticises her mistakes. For him, a woman can play only a certain part in a man’s life and she is not allowed to evolve, to find herself: “… 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.” When he dies, twenty years later, Janie becomes a respectable widow. She meets Tea Cake, who is twelve years younger than her, and falls in love with him. They marry and go to Everglades, where their life together ends sadly. She buries Tea Cake and returns to Eatonville, where she defies the gossiping residents and tells her story only to her best friend Phoeby. She challenges the way the community sees and defines her. The novel ends where it started.

Janie’s journey of self-discovery reveals her character. She is always “on the road” when she is not pleased with her life. Tea Cake opens a door she has never been allowed to open before. He offers her the chance to no longer live as her grandmother would advised her to live. He gives her the chance of freedom. She can dress as she likes, she can learn new things and speak her mind freely. The change in her appearance is a sign of an obvious change in her mind, in her individual quest for herself.

For Hurston, language is a source of identity. She masters the rural Southern black dialect and uses it in a unique manner. Janie’s story is divided between high literary narration and idiomatic discourse. The characters speak as few others in American literature. Their distinctive grammar, vocabulary, and tone shape their individuality. A special musicality, a special rhythm that can be associated only with black skin colour people from the South. In other words, language is part of the identity and in this novel we can see the effect when an author pays a lot of attention to the use of language. It is a very effective instrument for highlighting the individuality of the characters. Language individualises all the characters: Nanny is harsh, but loving, Joe Starks is a brute, Tea Cake is romantic.

There are several points of view regarding Janie’s voice in her journey self-discovery. As we read in the Foreword: “Professor Robert Stepto of Yale University, in his comments at an MLA convention in 1977, spoke about one of the highly controversial issues of the novel: is Janie eventually able to achieve her voice or not? Is she able to speak up, to discover her identity to herself and to those willing to listen to her?” In the courtroom scene, when she has to attempt to save her own life and liberty and to make the jury (and the readers) understand the true meaning of her life with Tea Cake, she, the main character of the novel, is very silent. Hurston chooses to tell her story in the omniscient third person. We do not hear Janie speak, not in her own first-person voice. As Professor Stepto was convinced, the frame story in which Janie speaks to Phoeby creates only the illusion that Janie has found her voice.

A second point of view is that of Henry Lewis Gates Jr. In the same electronic version of the book. In the afterword to the novel, he underlines the shift in the narrative from third to a blend of first and third person (known as "free indirect discourse"), which may signify “the awareness of self in Janie.”

According to Michael Awkward, at the end of the novel Janie chooses “a collective rather than an individual voice”. She wants to show “how close she is to the collective spirit of the African-American oral tradition”, so she tells Phoeby than she can tell her story to anyone who wants to hear it: “You can tell ’em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ’cause mah tongue is in mah friend's mout”. In my opinion, at this point Janie Crawford has found her self-identity, she knows what she wants and has a self-confident woman. The same can be said about the writer Zola Neale Hurston. It is interesting to see that any modern definition of identity is complex and fluid, in a constant reshaping. Maybe one criteria is more important than others and it is linked to the individual life path and moral virtues. We read on the official website dedicated to Zola Neale Hurston that (in a letter to Countee Cullen) she said about herself: “I have the nerve to walk my own way, however hard, in my search for reality, rather than climb upon the rattling wagon of wishful illusions.”

Edited By: Kyenila Taylor

Photo credit: https://www.etsy.com/listing/770710072/zora-neale-hurston-quote-note-card

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