Thank You, Alice Walker, for Rescuing Zora Neale Hurston

I recently read Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).  It is the second time I have picked up this book.  The first time occurred about a decade ago, and I got intimidated and stopped reading.  Sometimes I do that.  I let the first few pages of a book slide through my brain like a bad television show and the book doesn’t get a fair shake with me.  I love classics and heavy reading, but occasionally I pick up one at the wrong time, like when I need a break through a Shopaholic book, and the classic novel goes by the wayside.

Luckily, I found Their Eyes Were Watching God at the thrift store, and I felt guilty for abandoning it all those years ago.  It really is a must read for any serious student of literature, which I pretend to be.  I picked it back up with determination and found myself transported.  Why had I not gotten into this book before?  I wanted to scold my younger self.  From the first line, this book held me.  It says, “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board” (1).  From there, we get to know Janie, through her discussion with Phoeby of her life story, and we discover the wishes Janie had for herself.  Her life didn’t go exactly as planned, but she does find the chance to love deeply, and this freedom of life and love is what makes this novel feminist.  Henry Louis Gates Jr. says in the afterword, “Their Eyes is a bold feminist novel, the first to be explicitly so in the Afro-American tradition” (197). For this, I admire Hurston.

Zora Neale Hurston from U.S. Library of Congress, public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

Yet sadly, the book was not recognized.  Her work, as a novelist and anthropologist, was forgotten for several decades before Alice Walker found her and revived her.  Walker wrote “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” for Ms. Magazine in 1975, and subsequently an MLA session for minority literature was held at Yale in which copies of Their Eyes were distributed.  Walker is also responsible for laying a marker at Hurston’s grave.  This information expands my view of another of Walker’s essays, “Saving the Life That is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life,” which I sometimes use for my English 1010 classes.  The students don’t seem to appreciate the essay like I do. Walker speaks of Vincent Van Gogh’s lack of models, and I can see how Hurston is a model for Walker, along with Virginia Woolf because of her frequent allusions to them.

As to the story, Their Eyes reminded me of Hurricane Katrina, and again brings to my attention the plight of African Americans even more than 150 years after emancipation.  My interest in this can be read here, but I again want to reiterate that education is the key to alleviating poverty.

The novel also highlights the fact that prejudice doesn’t only come from white people.  A lighter-skinned black person, a woman who could probably pass, becomes a thorn in Janie’s marriage to Tea Cake.  Janie is light-skinned and has long beautiful hair.  Mrs. Turner tries to set her up with her brother, telling Janie that Tea Cake is too dark and low class for her.  In turn, the other men, also dark like Tea Cake, run Mrs. Turner out of town in one of the novel’s more comical scenes.  Despite its comedic effects, the scene highlights divisive issue in our nation and even among those who seem to be alike.  I guess any community can suffer from divisiveness, class issues, and pride, but when one’s community is an oppressed race, it makes little sense to continue to oppress one’s own people.

It is this judgment that encapsulates the novel.  The people throughout, no matter the circumstance or time in Janie’s life, are constantly judging her, each other, and her husband’s in succession.  There is no escape from those who will spread lies and hurt.  There is no escape from their listening ears and watching eyes, yet for Janie and Tea Cake, their eyes are watching God, and they learn this under the most strenuous circumstances, a hurricane.  There is a truth in life.  It is in those times of deepest hurt or hardest trial that we tend to need God most, and I know that for me it is in those times that I watch God more intently and more humbly.  In the hurricane that Janie and Tea Cake experience, God’s majesty and ultimate control is displayed in their helplessness in the face of nature.  Their tale reminds me of the great Bible story in which Christ calms the storm on the ocean when his disciples are afraid of the winds and the rain.  Janie’s story illustrates this same idea: we are dependent on God for everything, no matter who we are.  The judgment of others does not matter, and Janie ultimately teaches us how to do this.

This theme of judgment is one that I constantly struggle with.  It is hard not to look at a person’s outward appearance and to then think that I know all there is to know about them.  I have done this many times in my life, written off a person because of how they look or what they said in a first meeting.  Yet, over and over, these people become my friends and I realize how wrong I was.  Hopefully, I can eventually learn not to jump to conclusions, but to love first.  I don’t want to be among those in the novel whose eyes are so busy watching others, like Tea Cake and Janie, that they forget to watch God.

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11 thoughts on “Thank You, Alice Walker, for Rescuing Zora Neale Hurston

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  1. I really like the last line in your post – I should also remember not to be so busy watching others that I forget to watch God.
    At first glance, this book doesn’t seem like one that would interest me – but I think after reading your post, I may actually find a lot that I would enjoy in this book.

  2. Great post! I read this for the first time a few months ago and absolutely loved it, though I think you’ve illuminated some great points that passed me by. Thanks for sharing!

  3. There is some famous phrases in this book. Hurston makes Janie’s grandmother to say ” A slave woman is like a mule” and “When a white man hands his luggage over a black man, the black man passes the luggage into his woman.” These are not exact phrases but the expressions are similar. Anyway, ther are so famous that almost every black women writers quote them or use them in a paraphrased expression.

    Janie married three times and she chosed her husband (though the first one is not her decision it is her grandmother’s decision). If my memory is right, the time setting is 1930s, to select a husband according to her own will is quite rare at that time. And Janie wanted to be equal with her husband not like other woman. You remember the scene Janie insults her second husband in public by mentioning his sexual ability. Of course it is a reaction of her husband insulting her. But this is rare thing too in that times. Women are always thought inferior to men. Therefore nobody dares to express those things in public.

    And the third husband, Tea Cake, he treats Janie as his company not his servant like the other men. That is the subject of this novel. A woman who tries to get equality in her life.

  4. Lovely post. I’m glad you mentioned the dimension of strain between light-skinned and dark-skinned characters in the novel. It’s easy, I think, for white readers to misunderstand their role in creating that divisiveness and subsequently giving rise to the idea of moral difference among black Americans. The same themes are present in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, where land-owning black families look down on renting black families, and the most popular girl in school is the one who takes the most pains to perform white femininity in her dress and demeanor. This self-pathologizing of blackness has its roots in white privilege, and authors like Zora Neale Hurson and Toni Morrison do an excellent job of exploring those social dimensions through fiction.

    1. I really love these authors and their way of exploring these social dimensions. I’m glad you do too! I forgot about that part of The Bluest Eye. Have you read any Gloria Naylor? You might really enjoy her book Linden Hills, which is about economic divides within a community, but her book Mama Day is also fantastic.

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