Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

On publication, Their Eyes Were Watching God was judged as a purely ‘black’ novel of nominal value. Written at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, the novel appeared at a time when African-American writers, artists and musicians were making important steps towards celebrating their afro-centricity and criticising white America for her oppression; and so Hurston’s novel was poorly received. Set in the black township of Eatonville, Their Eyes Were Watching God charts the life of Janie Stark, and her dream for self-fulfilment and ‘that oldest human longing, self-revelation’. Unfortunately, the African-American community viewed the work, which is essentially a romantic novel, as highly sentimental and sympathetic to ‘white’ America. Hurston was accused of pandering to the ‘minstrel technique’ and of being unrepresentative of the harsh treatment of black people. However, in the 1970s when the women’s movement became more strident, the book was re examined as a piece of black feminist writing and a new depth and message began to unravel.
Pioneering African-American female writers such as Alice Walker, have argued that it was not Hurston’s intention to just represent the harsh treatment of black people, but more specifically to chronicle the difficulties and struggles of a black woman’s journey. This is a journey of self-discovery in a society that has oppressed her because of her race and (primarily in Their Eyes Were Watching God) that has negated and subjugated her because of her gender. Perhaps the best example of this is in Nanny’s famous observation that ‘de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tu pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he dont tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule of the world’.
For me, Hurston’s writing style is not parodic of the minstrel style, but powerful, and her use of language twofold. She manipulates the traditional conventions of the oral tradition to affirm the cultural autonomy of the African-American people and adopts a rich black vernacular to chart the female’s quest for a voice within that community. Hurston simultaneously accredits the black idiom as a source of identity and empowerment and thus marks the inception of feminism in African-American literature.

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