An Appreciation of Zora Neale Hurston and Their Eyes Were Watching God

By Daniel Garrett 

Their Eyes Were Watching God (J.B. Lippincott, Inc., 1937; Harper Perennial, 2006) 


Zora Neale Hurston, Folklorist and Modernist, Creator and Critic 

“Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget.  The dream is the truth.  Then they act and do things accordingly,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston on the first page of her great novel of adventure, nature and community, conformity and liberation, cloistered girlhood and mid-life love, self-discovery and storytelling, Their Eyes Were Watching God (J.B. Lippincott, Inc., 1937; Harper Perennial, 2006).  The writer Zora Neale Hurston was the daughter of a preacher and carpenter father, John Hurston, and an encouraging schoolteacher mother, Lucy Potts Hurston, and she, Zora, was born, 1891, in Alabama, though Zora claimed Eatonville, Florida, an independent black town—with five lakes, two churches, two schools, and no jailhouse—to which Hurston’s family moved when she was a toddler.  Zora Neale Hurston had a censorious though practical grandmother, Sarah Potts, and a father who preferred her sister.  As a teen, Zora joined a touring troupe of theater performers; and after completing her interrupted high school education in 1918 in Baltimore’s Morgan Academy, Hurston received an associate degree in 1920 from Howard University.  Zora Hurston had a sense of language that was expressive, critical, vernacular—colloquial and communal, independent and ironic; and Hurston enteredOpportunity magazine literary contests in 1925 and won second place prizes for a story and a play.  That same year Hurston began studying at Barnard College (and, later, Columbia University) with the influential anthropologist Franz Boas, who critiqued received ideas about social organization and value, and accepted and interpreted the diversity of human cultures.  Zora Neale Hurston, a woman of sense and style, was part of 1920s Harlem, a legendary time and place.

Zora Neale Hurston knew the editor and art enthusiast Alain Locke, poet and playwright Langston Hughes, poet and critic Sterling Brown, poet Countee Cullen, fiction writer and editor Wallace Thurman, and entertainer Ethel Waters.  Hurston and Hughes shared a love for folk culture, for ordinary people, and traveled together but had a bitter conflict over a theatrical project, the play Mule Bone.  Zora Neale Hurston’s sense of black cultures, in America and abroad, was not merely affirmative or respectful—it was joyous (that love and pride is something she shares with Toni Morrison and Kathleen Collins).  Zora Neale Hurston did get financial support early in her career, including a scholarship, fellowship, and stipend (money for survival, rather than security); and Hurston’s work, whether fact or fiction, contains the experiences and beliefs, language, rituals, stories, songs, and sermons that others claim to value but often approach from an abstract or ideological angle.  Hurston, who would get her Barnard bachelor of arts degree in 1928, published some of her research in the Journal of Negro History(1927) and the Journal of American Folklore (1931).  Zora Neale Hurston wrote several stage projects in the early 1930s; and she published six essays in the anthology Negro (1934), edited by Nancy Cunard.  Hurston wrote the well-received novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934), a book admired by poet Carl Sandburg, about the pull between the sacred and the sensual, featuring a poetic preacher of spirited country services, John Buddy Pearson, a man with a strong appeal for women.  Zora Neale Hurston shared folktales in Mules and Men (1935), before writing her great novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), featuring Janie Crawford, who discovers herself through experience, alone and in family, and through several marriages, and in friendship.

The book Their Eyes Were Watching God, full of experience, metaphor, and wit, was controversial for a lack of direct confrontation with established politics (writer Richard Wright was one of the novel’s critics—he, thinking it a minstrel display, did not see its purpose; and Sterling Brown and Ralph Ellison were other detractors).  Time and thought would reveal the novel’s incisive concern with class and gender (and age)—and some would note the depicted discriminatory National Guard hurricane policy.  The radicality of the confident regard for African-American culture in Their Eyes Were Watching God is the most lasting, natural, and original political orientation—and it is a source and structure of art, an angle of interpretation, and a model of practice.  Do many people imagine that the only responses to literature are approval or disapproval, and pleasure or discomfort, rather than a more significantunderstanding—and learning?  How might African-American literature have looked, and how might it have sounded, if more people had accepted Their Eyes Were Watching God as an authorizing text, a model of artistic and critical practice?  Hurston’s Janie Crawford rejected security and materialism for genuine love—but she refused to die for love; and while willing to share her story with others she had learned that to know life and love one must live them oneself.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston, an appreciator of different kinds of language and literature, a modernist who remembered tradition, describes Janie Crawford’s stifling life and surprising growth with language that is, as needed, confiding, folksy, general, poetic, philosophical, or startlingly specific.  Janie Crawford, an innocent but instinctive and pretty girl, had listened to her loving but strict (once enslaved) West Florida grandmother, who wanted to praise black women on a public stage that did not exist for her and thought black women were treated as the mule of the world, and wanted Janie to avoid dangerous seductions and hard toil and have the protection of marriage with old, propertied farmer Logan Killicks, a loveless union that frustrates Janie.  Janie is sweet-talked away from Logan Killicks, who after a six-month honeymoon wants to put Janie behind a mule and plow; sweet-talked by a horizon-scanning, ambitious man of style, Joe Starks, who takes hold of the fifty-acre town, Eatonville, he and Janie go to, becoming mayor, expanding the town’s land size, building roads, putting in a store and post office, and attracting new residents.  However, Joe Starks wants Janie less as a partner and more as an adored object and public prize—and Janie, discouraged and lonely, begins to see the limit of that.  Joe Starks becomes too controlling, starving Janie’s love and spirit; and, as his own body fattens and softens, Joe, in anger, fear, and insecurity, mocks Janie in front of other men, and she reads loudly his own changes due to age, humbling him—and Joe strikes her.  Joe’s spirit is weakened, and so is his body (he has a neglected kidney problem), and Joe dies.  Janie meets a younger man, Vergible Woods, known as Tea Cake, casual but courteous, and by turns leisurely and lazy, hardworking and honest, sensitive, sensuous, simple, and sometimes impulsive, even violent; and despite the skeptical comment of others regarding his poverty and her age, the long-legged and musical Tea Cake—He looked like the lovethoughts of womenHe was a glance from God— teaches Janie how to play checkers and brings Janie strawberries, trout, and mid-life love, sharing daily life with her, fishing, hunting, movies, music, travel, and work in the Everglades.  Their story would become a lasting delight.

Zora Neale Hurston, then, published Tell My Horse (1938), a study of folk life and spirituality in Haiti, and the novel Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), featuring Moses as conjurer, magician, leader and negotiator amid a spiritual quest and social satire, one of my favorite books (I love Hurston’s description of Moses crossing over from one place to another, and from earthly power to spiritual power).  Zora Hurston published an acclaimed biography describing her life and her growth as a writer, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942).  Her last published novel, about love and marriage amid rural Euro-Americans, featuring the affectionate but mismatched pair Arvay and Jim, was Seraph on the Suwanee (1948).  (Hurston’s experiment in Seraph onthe Suwanee—a cast of characters with no significant African-American members; a demonstration of empathy, imagination, and insight—is one undertaken by William Attaway, Chester Himes, William Motley, Ann Petry, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin; and readers are sometimes suspicious of the motives—commerce? critique?—behind such a text, if not the text itself.)  Zora Hurston, in 1943, had made the cover of the Saturday Review of Literature, and the same year received an alumni award from Howard University; and, later, in 1956, received an education award from Bethune-Cookman College, where she had gone years before to create a drama department.

Writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston wrote books, plays, and essays, and taught at North Carolina College, and worked as story consultant for Paramount Pictures and as a librarian on an air force base, and for the Library of Congress.  (I did not know, or remember, that Hurston had been married: according to the chronology in the Harper Perennial edition ofTheir Eyes, Hurston married Herbert Sheen in 1927, separating in 1928 and divorcing him in 1931; and married Albert Price III in 1939 and filed for divorce in 1940, a divorce granted in 1943.)  Much of Zora Neale Hurston’s career was quite respectable; in fact more than that—admirable, groundbreaking, inspiring.  Zora Hurston’s reputation was hurt by accusations of child molestation in 1948, and by her criticism of the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision (she thought having to legislate shared space insulting to Negroes); and creditable reports claim Zora Hurston had trouble getting published in her last decade—her April 1950 Saturday Evening Post article was called “What White Publishers Won’t Print”—and Hurston did some teaching as a school substitute, and even some custodial work.  After several strokes, Hurston, who said that poverty smelled of death for its defeat of dreams, died while living in a Florida welfare home in 1960 (Richard Wright died the same year), and Hurston was buried in grave with no marker or stone.  Zora Neale Hurston deserved more than that, didn’t she?  A people does not throw its geniuses away, poet and fiction writer Alice Walker said.  Zora Neale Hurston’s work was written about by James W. Byrd in the 1955 Tennessee Folklore SocietyBulletin, James R. Giles in the Summer 1972 Negro American Literature Forum, Ann Rayson in the Summer 1973 Negro American Literature Forum, and June Jordan in the August 1974Black World, but it was the mid-1970s attention of writer Alice Walker, with a March 1975 Ms. magazine article—“In Search of Zora Neale Hurston”—then the 1977 Hurston biography by Robert Hemenway, that most significantly helped restore Zora Hurston to public attention.

Somewhere up there beyond blue ether’s bosom sat HeWasHe noticing what was going onaround hereHe must because He knew everything…Whether we can count on divine providence or justice on earth, remains an open question, and, often, one that is answered with faith rather than fact.  Certainly, the reputations of workers, in the arts, literature, and philosophy and elsewhere, depend on the conscientious attention, on the considerations and the evaluations, of learned men and women—and an engaged general public.  The work of Zora Neale Hurston has been a great inheritance, appreciated, neglected, forgotten, and now reclaimed.  Artists, critics, and scholars such as Toni Cade Bambara, Houston Baker, Valerie Boyd, and Henry Louis Gates and, among others, Karla Holloway, Barbara Johnson, Adele Newson, Barbara Smith, Robert Stepto, Cheryl A. Wall, and Mary Helen Washington, as well as John Edgar Wideman and Edwidge Danticat have written about Hurston too.  The Library of America published a two-volume set of Hurston’s work in 1995; and, among other posthumous publications, an accessible collection of Hurston’s short fiction was published in a 2008 HarperCollins paperback, The Complete Stories, introduced by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sieglinde Lemke; and in 2018, published was a Hurston work completed in 1931, calledBarracoon, about the last known survivor of the middle passage from Africa to America, Cudjoe Lewis.

Zora Neale Hurston was profiled in the long-gestating 2008 documentary film Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun, written by Kristy Andersen and directed by Sam Pollard, produced for Bay Bottom News and American Masters.  Hurston was featured in the 2019 Charles King study of Franz Boas, the book Gods of the Upper Air, as a significant member of Franz Boas’s influential circle of students and social scientists, including Ruth Benedict, Ella Cara Deloria, and Margaret Mead, deconstructing racial myths and affirming cultural integrity, pluralism, and relativity.  (Ella Cara Deloria, a South Dakota Native American, collaborated with Boas on the book Dakota Grammar.  Hurston recorded songs with Alan Lomax, and filmed church services with Margaret Mead: they captured the style and substance of daily life, in defiance of stereotypes.)  Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God remains an attractive text for ordinary readers as well as scholars—and film viewers.  Filmmaker Darnell Martin, who made the theatrical films I Like It Like That and Cadillac Records, directed an adaptation for television of Hurston’s greatest novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (2004), broadcast in March 2005 to more than twenty-four million viewers, starring the beautiful, disciplined, and gifted Halle Berry as Janie Crawford with Michael Ealy as her earthy, respectful, and sensuous lover Tea Cake.  Darnell Martin’s film was a portrait of intimacy and community, with a screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks, Misan Sagay, and Bobby Smith Jr., produced by literature enthusiast Oprah Winfrey with Quincy Jones and Matthew Carlisle; and it was a lovely and memorable production, verdant and vibrant, although some people complained that the story’s politics were bleached for a large audience.  Obviously, we—each of us—often mean very different things when we use the word politics.  Zora Neale Hurston was a brave, creative, and joyful woman, and one not afraid of a fight, a critic of colonialism, racism, stereotype and victimhood (a woman who said that people can be slaveships in shoes); and as a writer of fiction and biography, and an anthropologist and sharer of folk culture, Zora Neale Hurston is recognized as a progenitor of modern African-American literature and culture.

Daniel Garrett, a writer of fiction, poetry, essays and reviews; and my work has been published in a range of publications, including American Book Review, Cinetext, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, The Humanist, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. 

This article, part of a larger essay on filmmaker Kathleen Collins and writer Toni Morrison, completed in year 2019, was scheduled to appear in Film International (Volume 18, No. 2) in 2020, but because of the international health (coronavirus) and financial crises, was not properly published, distributed, or available.