I am participating in the Harlem Renaissance Tour that is being hosted by The Classics Circuit to celebrate Black History Month. I have had Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston sitting on my shelf for nine years (when my friend Lauren passed it on to me) and I decided this was the push I needed to finally read it.
I can’t believe I waited so long to read such an excellent novel! Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of Janie Crawford. Janie is a beautiful young girl that was raised by her grandmother. She is the product of violence. Her grandmother was impregnated during the civil war by her white slave owner and her mother was raped by her school teacher. Janie’s mother took to drink after her birth and disappeared. Janie’s grandmother is afraid that Janie will end up with a no good man so she marries her off to Logan Killicks, a well-of older farmer.
Janie has many ideas of marriage from a wonderful scene where bees are getting the nectar from a pear tree. “She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of tree from root to the tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was marriage!” Logan Killicks does not meet her definition of marriage, especially after he wants her to do hard labor on the farm.
At this point in time Janie meets Jody Sparks, a man with big plans and ideas. They elope and move to an all black community in Florida. Joe becomes Mayor of the town and starts a general store. Jealous of any attention paid to Janie, Joe berates her and makes her keep her hair tied up in a kerchief. Janie longs to participate in the wonderful storytelling on the porch, but Joe won’t allow it.
After 20 years of marriage, Joe passes away a bitter old man. Janie is a wealthy 40-year old widow and is in no hurry to meet anyone new. One day Janie meets Tea Cake, a younger idealist man. Tea Cake takes Janie fishing, listens to her, and allows her to experience life as no ever has. The two leave town to start life anew, but things do not always go as planned.
I had a hard time at first with the Southern African American dialect of the characters, but once I got used to it, it was easier to read the novel. I love how this novel is an important African American novel, but also an important feminist novel. I love Janie’s journey to find herself and her happiness. She finally found her “voice” with Tea Cake.
The introduction and afterward talked about Zora Neale Hurston and her said neglect in the cannon of the Harlem Renaissance. As this novel was a very feminist novel, the mail authors of the Harlem Renaissance, looked down on it. It went out of print and Hurston died at the St. Lucie County Welfare Home in 1960. She came back into prominence after Alice Walker searched for and marked her grave and then wrote a piece about it for Ms. Indeed, it was very easy to see reading the groundbreaking Their Eyes Were Watching God how much this work inspired works by Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.
Some of my favorite quotes:
Janie wondering about marriage when she is leaving Logan Killicks: “Did marriage end the cosmic loneliness of the unmated? Did marriage compel love like the sun the day?” I love the wording, so lyrical and beautiful.
Janie talking about her grandmother: “She was borned in slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh might fine thing tu her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me – don’t keer whut cost.” Poor Janie was forced to fulfill her grandmother’s dreams by marrying Logan Killicks, even though they were not her own dreams.
“Jane, Ah done watched it time and time again; each and every white man think he know all de GOOD darkies already . . . So far as he’s concerned, all dem he don’t know oughta be tried and sentenced tuh six months behind de United States privy house at hard smellin’.” Some things have not changed. Members of my family in the previous generation who shall remain nameless are sure that the few African Americans that they know are different than all others who fit the racist characterizations. Very sad.
Overall, this book was a beautifully written, compelling, and original work. I am very glad that I read it as part of Harlem Renaissance Tour.
Book Source: My friend Lauren passed it on to me 9 years ago!!! I need to now pass it on myself . . .