Their Eyes Were Watching God
by Zora Neale Hurston
© 1937 First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition; published ©2006 in paperback
When my local library named Their Eyes Were Watching God as last year’s community-wide Big Read book, my first instinct was: been there; done that. But then I realized that I read it more than 50 years ago, when a college English instructor put it on our small reading list as an alternative choice. I found myself wondering how my perceptions might differ now.
Certainly when I read it for the first time, I was all but ignorant of the conditions described so vividly in the book. I grew up in a university town on the west coast, and was largely unaware of the hardcore segregation in the deep South. It wasn’t until I went East to college, and took an automobile trip through several Southern states en route, that I encountered drinking fountains and restrooms labeled 'White' and 'Colored'; restaurants with 'Whites Only' on the door; even a barbershop with a sign that said: “We don’t cut Negro hair.” For me, that ethos was what the book was all about — an eye opening education in how blacks were treated in the ‘30’s and, indeed, right up until the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60’s.
I considered those demeaning conditions to be the message of the book. Oh, I was mildly aware of Hurston’s ability to create intriguing characters, but somehow my own, immature reaction was to focus solely on the appalling injustices happening in the Southern states. I considered those the sole message of the book. I was amazed when my instructor led the classroom discussion with a cursory nod to the problems of segregation, and a huge focus on Hurston’s craft and gift for creating fully-rounded characters who transcended their circumscribed lives.
Some of my classmates had negative comments about Hurston’s use of the Southern black vernacular, as if it put distance between modern readers (which, in the ‘50’s, we considered ourselves to be) and the characters. This seemed to me to be an entirely spurious point of view, and my opinion on that hasn’t changed. There was, in my re-reading, never a moment when I found meaning to be obscured by the dialect. In fact, had Janie and Tombstone and all the other characters spoken standard English, I’d have found it hard to believe in them.
It was Hurston’s ability to present characters who spoke as they did and were forced to live as they did, but were nonetheless brilliantly, fully human beings, that made it possible for readers of any color or background to believe in their reality. Because I was reared in a different place and ethos, it is hard for me to put myself in the shoes of a white southerner, but I cannot believe that any sentient soul could read this book without being profoundly moved.
Well, that was then, and this is now. Then, I realized that the book was important. Now, I realize that it is a masterpiece.
Those of us who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s feel great pride in one another, and tend to think of ourselves as ground-breakers, but in fact, Zora Neale Hurston was a ground-breaker long before us, and with great intelligence and truth used her gift for telling a story to reach into our hearts and minds.
If you have never read Their Eyes Were Watching God, it is time to do so. If you read it long ago, consider another look.