This is my first review for the Fifty Classic Books challenge. I had started a different book but abandoned it and decided I would not subject myself to prolonged boredom while working on this challenge. So I switched to Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston writes the story of Janie Crawford in the deep South of the early Twentieth Century. It’s not a boring story.
The book describes Janie’s striving for self-actualization and the constraints that society and culture threw up to hinder her search. Janie didn’t know anything about self-actualization or even that it was something to pursue. Her pursuit was more of a yearning that she sought to fulfill. The obvious constraint she faced was racism. She lived smack in the middle of Jim Crow country in the heart of the Jim Crow era. She faced other obstacles including sexism and an insidious sort of class consciousness.
Janie is in her mid-teens at the start of the story. She was
full of that oldest human longing – self-revelation.
She searched as much of the world as she could from the top of the front steps and then went on down to the front gate and leaned over to gaze up and down the road. Looking, waiting, breathing short with impatience. Waiting for the world to be made.
She didn’t know anything about the world or what it would bring. She was looking for . . . sun-up and pollen and blooming trees . . . flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything.
Janie’s life from that point on was not springtime and blooming trees. Her era was not just Jim Crow, it was also a man’s world. Janie’s grandmother, before marrying her off, offers Janie her insights about the world they lived in:
Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh to find out. . . . So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.
Here are some comments from the men in Janie’s life who needed to be in control:
“Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don’t think none theirselves. . . . ” He wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it.
[Joe] wanted to be friendly with her again. His big, big laugh was as much for her as for the baiting. He was longing for peace but on his own terms [her submission].
Before the week was over he [Tea Cake] had whipped Janie. Not because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss.
Janie withdrew into herself; a prolonged stifling of her desires until she met and went off with Tea Cake, who rarely tried to control Janie. Their relationship was closer to one of equals although Tea Cake sometimes acted out because of his fears and insecurities.
The racism of that era is encapsulated in a court scene when Janie is charged with killing Tea Cake to save herself when he was in the end-stages of rabies madness. She is tried by a white judge, twelve white, male jurists, and a white prosecutor. All the African-American friends of Janie and Tea Cake have to sit or stand in the back of the courtroom. After the State rests its case, a spokesman for the blacks asks to be heard:
“Mistah Prescott [the prosecutor], Ah got somethin’ tuh say.”
Mr. Prescott replies, “If you know what’s good for you, you better shut your mouth up until somebody calls you.”
“Yassuh, Mr. Prescott.”
“We are handling this case. Another word out of you, out of any of you niggers back there, and I’ll bind you over to the big court.”
[After which] the white women made a little applause.
There is also class consciousness. Even those on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder need to have a group of people lower than them that they can disdain. In this case, those within the African-American community with darker skin and more pronounced features.
Ah [Mrs. Turner] ain’t useter ‘ssociatin’ wid black folks. Mah son claims dey draws lighting. . . . Ah jus’ couldn’t see mahself married to no black man. It’s too many black folks already. We oughta lighten up de race. . . . You’se different from me. Ah can’t stand black niggers. Ah doon’t blame de white folks from hatin’ ‘em ‘cause Ah can’t stand ‘em maself. ‘Nother thing, Ah hates tuh see folds lak me and you miced up wid ‘em. Us oughta class off.’ [check spelling]
[Janie replies] Us can’t do it. We’se uh mingled people and all of us got black kinfolks as well as yaller kinfolks.
[Mrs. Turner again] Look at me! Ah ain’t got no flat nose and liver lips. Ah’m uh featured woman. Ah got white folks’ features in my face. Still and all Ah got tuh be lumped in wid all de rest. It ain’t fair. Even if dey don’t take us in wid de whites, dey oughta make us uh class tuh ourselves.
Hurston does not forget other universal human foibles.
Gossip: “An envious heart makes a treacherous ear.”
Envy: One of the regulars on the porch of Joe’s store: “Us colored folks is too envious of one ‘nother. Dat’s how come us don’t git no further than us do. Us talks about de white man keepin’ us down. Shucks! He don’t have tuh. Us keeps our own selves down.”
And as Thurston writes, “. . .there was no doubt that the town respected him and even admired him in a way. But any man who walks in the way of power and property is bound to meet hate.”
Not to mention meanness, dislike of those who do things differently, greed, social climbing.
The racism and sexism in the book were too ingrained in American society to expect any sort of resolution in Their Eyes Were Watching God. On the other hand, Thurston has many of the characters in Janie’s social world overcoming what I describe above as human foibles. Often, the characters exhibit them, but given some time and better information they come to more humane thoughts and behaviors. The friends of Janie and Tea Cake first condemned Janie for killing Tea Cake but eventually realized that she killed Tea Cake in self-defence and in doing so protected the community from an infectious and deadly disease.
And what of Janie? What about her search for something better? I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot. Suffice it to say that Janie survives.
She went over to the dresser and looked hard at her skin and features. The young girl was gone, but a handsome women had taken her place. She tore off the kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair. The weight, the length, the glory was there.
” . . . you got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They go tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”
Hurston writes with unexpected descriptive phrases that are clear, concise, unique. I often wondered how a person could come up with these ways to describe things? Very out of the ordinary. Here are a few examples:
Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her.
She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels.
Sorrow dogged by sorrow is in mah heart.
Last summer that multiplied cockroach wuz round heah tryin’ tuh sell gophers.
Ah’m stone dead from standin’ still and tryin’ tuh smile.
Something stood like an oxen’s foot on her tongue, and then too, Jody, no Joe, gave her a ferocious look. A look with all the unthinkable coldness of outer space.
All night now the jooks clanged and clamored. Pianos living three lifetimes in one. Blues made and used right on the spot.
It was the meanest moment of eternity.
She was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief.
Hurston’s humor usually shows up in the dialogue:
Yeah, Sam say most of ‘em goes to church so they’ll be sure to rise in Judgment. Dat’s de day dat every secret is s’posed to be made known. They wants to be there and hear it all.
Sam is too crazy. You can’t stop laughing when youse round him.
Uuh huun. He says he aims to be there hisself so he can find out who stole his corn-cob pipe.
There is also a wonderful story about a yaller mule that becomes a dead yaller mule that ends with a description of the neighborhood’s buzzards gathering to dispose of the mule. One reads about the buzzards and thinks, “yeah, that’s exactly how buzzards go about doing their thing.” And it’s a funny description.
Hurston’s dialogue is in an African-American vernacular which I first found irritating. I actually made this note in the margin on page 10: “End of patois. Good”. I found that it made the text harder to read and understand. I eventually was able to overlook the dialect to the extent that it didn’t interfere with my appreciation of the book. Henry Louis Gates, Jr writes in an afterword that people read Their Eyes Were Watching God in part “. . . because she used black vernacular speech and rituals, in ways subtle and various, to chart the coming to consciousness of black women, so glaringly absent in other black fiction.” She used the dialogue of peripheral characters speaking the vernacular to give voice to commentaries on life.
Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937. Gates’s afterword mentions this about Zora Neale Hurston’s subsequent life.
Hurston’s fame reached its zenith in 1943 with a Saturday Review cover story honoring the success of Dust Tracks. Seven years later she would be serving as a maid in Rivo Alto, Florida; ten years after that she would die in the County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce, Florida.
She deserved better, much better.
Since I finished Their Eyes Were Watching God, I’ve wondered how much has changed since those days. I thought about some of the books I’ve read that helped me understand that not enough progress has been made. The problems described in Their Eyes Were Watching God are still with us.
I thought about the Easy Rawlins series of detective novels by Walter Mosely that describe the African-American experience in southern California in the decades after World War Two. Stanley Crouch’s Nighthawk Rising, a biography of Charlie Parker, and Gordon Parks’ autobiography Choice Of Weapons confirm the accuracy of Mosely’s fictional works. I found more confirmation in Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth Of Other Suns and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. There are recent novels like those of Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing and Salvage the Bones. Most recently for me, the mystery Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke which takes places in contemporary, rural Texas and has an African-American Texas Ranger as its protagonist show that progress has been made – a black Texas Ranger! – but not nearly enough given that the novel also involves the White Aryan Brotherhood.
We need to keep pushing forward, especially now when we seem to be regressing.