Source of Book: Borrowed from the library
This is my second annual Black History Month post. Last year, I read and reviewed a poetry collection by James Weldon Johnson, 50 Years and Other Poems. [Note: posted on Facebook, and recently re-published in Res Ipsa Loquitur, the magazine for the Kern County Bar Association.] This year, I chose another selection from the Harlem Renaissance, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
The scope of the Harlem Renaissance is beyond the scope of a simple blog post, and I am hardly the person to write it. I have long admired the poetry that came out of the movement – Johnson, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes. I have read a few essays as well, but this is my first real plunge into the fiction of the era.
This book was written in the 1930s, and was largely forgotten. It was “rediscovered” in the 1970s through the efforts of such luminaries as Alice Walker, who worked to bring it to the attention of a wider audience.
I would classify this book as a novella. In the edition I read, it was a little more than 200 pages – double spaced with plenty of white space. While a quick read, it contains a significant degree of dialect, so an acclimatization period is necessary. I found a few expressions to be unusual. Hurston describes the “honeymoon” phase of a relationship as the man talking or speaking in rhymes. I had never heard this used before, and was unable to find a good reference to it online. It does inspire me to keep my words to my wife poetic –at least occasionally.
How should this book be described? Is it an adventure story? A coming-of-age story? A romance? Perhaps it is a bit of each, all mixed together. The central character, a light skinned African American woman, is a fascinating and well developed character. Her life and growth is the story. Her grandmother, her three husbands, a hurricane, life, death, longing. These all impact her, but she remains. She is the story.
Allegedly, Hurston wrote this book in a mere seven weeks during a trip to Haiti. If so, it would be a remarkable accomplishment. As it is, this is a remarkable book regardless of its genesis.
Zora Neale Huston
Two things particularly struck me about the development of the characters. First, Janie, the protagonist, is a remarkably nuanced character. Despite the short length of the book, and despite the “exotic” feel of the setting, Hurston does a remarkable job of placing the reader inside the head of a complex and dynamic character. Second, Hurston creates a cast of people, not caricatures. Nobody is perfect. Each is deeply flawed, but still sympathetic at some level. In some cases, this was disturbing, as all the characters seem to accept domestic violence as normal and ordinary – something foreign to a reader like myself from twenty-first century white America.
Hurston begins her story at the end, by recounting Janie’s return to the town she left several years ago. The town gossips, sitting on their porches, are eager to dissect Janie, the returning town prodigal. Janie chooses to tell her story to her closest friend, Pheoby. I loved Pheoby’s husband Sam’s description of the gossips.
“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.”
Hurston’s perspective on racial relations from the early 1900s is also interesting. Janie’s grandmother (another nuanced and not quite sympathetic character) gives Janie her philosophy of life.
“Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh 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.”
This might be the best known line from the book – one I had heard without knowing its source.
The mule is one of the themes of the book. Not only does Hurston use the metaphor above, she devotes the better part of a chapter to the life, death, and burial of a mule. The original owner practically starves the beast, while complaining about its supposed intractability. Eventually, Janie’s second husband, Joe, buys the animal as a pet for Janie. When it eventually expires of old age, it is given a lavish funeral. This episode parallels the narrative in two ways. First, Janie is largely treated as a mule by Joe. While he is basically an honorable and hard working man, he views Janie as a lesser being, fit for working for his goals, while being emotionally starved. Second, the funeral has a counterpart near the end of the book when Janie throws a big funeral for her third husband – the one she actually loves – after he dies in tragic and dramatic circumstances.
One of the most jarring things about this book was the casual misogyny. Not just the acceptance of violence, but the automatic dismissal of women by the men. Joe and Janie have a telling exchange, and in public too!
“You sho loves to tell me whut to do, but Ah can’t tell you nothing, Ah see!”
“Dat’s ‘cause you need tellin’,” he rejoined hotly. “It would be pitiful if Ah didn’t. Somebody got to think for women and chillum and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don’t think none theirselves.”
“Ah knows uh few things, and womenfolks thinks sometimes too!”
“Aw naw they don’t. They just thin they’s thinkin’. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don’t understand one.”
This devastating break in the relationship culminates when Joe is on his deathbed, and Janie proceeds to berate him in an excruciating evisceration lasting up until the moment of his death. This scene will linger in my memory for its devastating impact using a minimum of words. I would absolutely prefer that my wife disembowel me in the literal sense than make me suffer what Janie inflicts on Joe.
And yet, one cannot completely hate Janie for this. Joe is one of those flawed men who consider others as raw materials to be used for his own ends. If he had simply granted Janie a little love and respect. If he had only defended her when other men made her the target of their sexist remarks, things would have been different. In this respect, the portion of the story devoted to the marriage of Janie and Joe is a tragedy in the classical sense: the lives of good people destroyed by a fatal flaw.
Janie is an example of the quasi-feminist heroine popular in her time. I can see some clear connections with some contemporary literary characters, such as Kate Chopin’s protagonists, the Schlegel girls from Forster’s Howards End, and others. In addition, Janie clearly influenced Alice Walker and Toni Morrison in their treatment of the unfulfilled woman oppressed by piggish men.
After Joe’s death, Janie runs away with a much younger, poor man, nicknamed “Tea Cake”. Their marriage is in many ways the ideal of a true love, although, once again, violence is casual and expected. Janie is finally allowed to function as an equal. She learns to shoot, eventually surpassing her husband in skill. (I know a little about this from personal experience.) She wears overalls and works in the fields along side Tea Cake. She gets to experience the world in ways that change her forever.
Throughout the narrative, Hurston explores the nature of racial prejudice, lending it a unique perspective. Like Janie, Hurston was of mixed race, not quite fully black. Interestingly, Hurston was attuned to the fine degrees of racism that exist in all subcultures. Those of us whose ancestors immigrated in the 1890s have heard tales of how German, Scandinavian, and Italian immigrants were considered “dirty” and “low class” compared to those who came over on the Mayflower or in the early days of the nation. In my own experience, I have seen how Central and South American immigrants are considered to be the similarly “dirty” and “low class” by the Mexican immigrants. Somehow, this must be ingrained in the human psyche to be so universal. In Hurston’s narrative, Janie is revered by another mulatto, while the darker Tea Cake is reviled. Likewise, Janie is never fully accepted by the darker blacks, being considered too “white” to be truly safe.
This distinction is further reinforced by Hurston’s use of terms in referring to white and black. Those of higher, usually white, social standing are referred to as “people”, while the lower classes, typically black or other minorities, are referred to as “folk”.
In the final catastrophe, however, Hurston hints at a higher vision. A hurricane approaches, and Janie and Tea Cake and others are waiting to see if they will have to flee their homes. Hurston describes the scene by using the title of the novel.
“The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”
God is present not only in the storm, but in the aftermath. The poor laborers are conscripted to bury the dead, but instructed to determine whether each body is black or white. The whites get coffins, while the blacks are buried in ditches, covered with quicklime to disintegrate the bodies.
“They’s mighty particular how dese dead folks goes tuh judgment,” Tea Cake observed to the man working next to him. “Look lak dey think God don’t know nothin’ ‘bout de Jim Crow Law.”
And now, nearly one hundred years later, Jim Crow is largely a relic of the past. A black man is in the White House. One in twelve marriages is interracial. While racism is far from gone, there are some promising signs for the future. For those of us in Generation X, a book like this is as foreign as a novel describing English nobility.
The Harlem Renaissance aspired to the creation of true art that would conquer prejudice. While no art can truly heal all wounds, books like this can go a long way in sharing experience. I look forward each year to exploring a perspective that, while somewhat unfamiliar, is also recognizably and deeply human and universal.