Zora Neale Hurston and Her “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

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Zora Neale Hurston is known for establishing and being one of the most prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance movement. The Harlem Renaissance movement was a pivotal time for arts within the Black community as they developed a new sense of identity. Artists, writers, fashion designers, and musicians developed new ways for Blacks to express their pride towards Black culture. Zora Neale Hurston used this major cultural moment in combination with her passion for storytelling to communicate her experiences to the world through her writing.

Hurston wrote about issues within the black community that were considered taboo and shared an outlook of the Black experience during the 20th century and her struggles as a Black women in America. I will answer the following questions in this paper— “What were Zora Neale Hurston’s views of history based on her book, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, “How does Zora Neale Hurston portray and describe the Black experience during the time period of the book, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”?”, and “How could Hurston’s book be used to criticize a philosopher like Hegel?”

“Their Eyes Were Watching God” is Hurston’s best known work. It was originally published on September 13, 1937 and it follows Janie Crawford, a Black woman living in Eatonville, Florida. The town of Eatonville, Florida holds significance as it was not only where Zora Neale Hurston grew up, but it was also one of the first incorporated Black towns in the United States, during the early 20th century in the 1930s. Eatonville provided safety as well as opportunities for Black Americans. During this time period, Eatonville was a place where the Black community had their own laws and the power to enforce those laws.

This story follows Janie as she tries to find out who she is and encounters both new and unpredictable obstacles that teach her about life and love. She discovers what is important to her when it comes to love and marriage, learning true love comes with consequences, and learning it’s better to have loved and lost rather than never knowing what it feels like to be loved. The lessons Janie learns along her journey help make her a better person and allows her to have an appreciative outlook towards her life.

Hurston portrayed that during the 1930s, slavery still had a great effect on the book even though it was abolished by this point. Throughout the book, you can see how slavery shaped some of the characters’ mentality to not want to be in a position where they need to work. Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, tells Janie that Black women are the “…mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” and she hopes that Janie will not have to deal with being treated this way (Hurston). Janie’s grandmother comparing black women to a mule is her way of saying that black women carry the load and do the things that white men, white women, and even black men do not want to carry. Black women do what other people do not want to do without receiving any praise, gratitude, or thanks in return.

Zora Neale Hurston also shows that black women dealt with not only racism, but also struggled with owning their own history and sexism under the power of men in addition to racism. Throughout this book, Hurston shows how women were excluded from power and usually encouraged to not speak their mind, remain silent, and to be a homemaker. An example of sexism in the book is her relationship with her second husband, Joe Starks also known as Jody. Joe acts like women are objects that are owned by men and men order women to complete tasks. Janie starts off the seventh chapter with her saying, “The years took all the fight out of Janie’s face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul. No matter what Jody did, she said nothing. She had learned how to talk some and leave some” (Hurston).

This shows the audience that she had grown to become very submissive towards Joe to avoid both verbal and physical abuse from him. Another example of sexism can be found when Joe and Janie are at the store and Steve Mixon is complaining about the fact that Janie cut his tobacco wrong. Steve Mixon said, “Looka heah, Brother Mayor, whut yo’ wife done took and done.” It was cut comical, so everybody laughed at it. “Uh woman and uh knife—no kind of uh knife, don’t b’long tuhgether” (Hurston). Steve Mixon saying this insinuates that he believes women should not be doing any type of labor and that it’s expected for a woman to mess up when it’s not related to being a homemaker and submissive.

Due to Zora Neale Hurston’s different approach to talking about history and the black experience in the United States, her novel received mixed reviews especially from other contemporary Black authors. Typically, black authors during this time period wrote protesting literature about the social and political conditions of blacks living in the United States. They mainly focused on racial topics in an assertive way to show blacks as being equal to whites and to give the Black community a platform to speak about the Black experience in America. Although Hurston does not directly address the topic of racism, she portrays the impact of racism on Blacks in the United States and colorism within the Black community in her book, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”.

The racial tensions caused by slavery between black and white people are depicted in the book as societal values. Hurston discusses how during the 1930s whites are at the top of the social hierarchy. An example of this can be seen in the second chapter of “Their Eyes Were Watching God”. The audience is introduced to Janie’s grandmother, Nanny and she tells Janie that whites are at the top when it comes to the social hierarchy in the United States. Nanny told Janie, “Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up” (Hurston, 14). This shows the reader that the black characters in this book accept that racism is prevalent within their current society and it’s viewed as a norm within their society.

Slavery also caused colorism within the Black community, which is when there are prejudices between different skin tones due to the unconscious or conscious acceptance of whites being the beauty standard within society. An example of this can be found when Jamie is talking with Mrs. Turner and Mrs. Turner talks about her dislike for blacks even though she is mixed. “You’se different from me. Ah can’t stand black niggers. Ah don’t blame de white folks from hatin’ ’em ’cause Ah can’t stand ’em mahself. ’Nother thing, Ah hates tuh see folks lak me and you mixed up wid ’em. Us oughta class off”, said Mrs. Tucker (Hurston). Janie does not agree with Mrs. Turner’s racist belief in blacks being inferior and mixed people being more superior to blacks because they could be mistaken for white. Janie replied, “Us can’t do it. We’se uh mingled people and all of us got black kinfolks as well as yaller kinfolks. How come you so against black?” (Hurston).

“Their Eyes Were Watching God” can be used to criticize Hegel as he believed history is only made by certain nations and certain races. According to Hegel, other nations or races only take part in history as long as it resembles European culture. He touches upon this topic with his theory of universal history. The purpose of universal history is to provide “an overview of the entire history of a people or a country, or of the world” (Hegel, 6). He talks about how historical writing for Germans “shows a great variety of reflection and intelligence—each historian taking it into his head to go his own peculiar way”. In addition, Hegel talks about how the English and the French people know how history should be written because “they stand more securely on a basis of general and national culture” (Hegel, 6).

Hegel’s way of thinking does not do justice to the richness of other cultures because each racial group in the United States has a unique history associated with them. The struggles and historical narrative Native Americans experienced is different from the struggles and historical narrative Black Americans experienced as each group has its own story to tell. “Their Eyes Were Watching God” allows readers the chance to learn about the circumstances and the realities of what it was like to be a black woman in America during the 1930s where Jim Crow laws were still in place and sexism as well as colorism were among the list of things black women and black people dealt with in the United States. It’s important to acknowledge everyone’s history and everyone’s contributions to making the world what it is today.

Cite this paper

Zora Neale Hurston and Her “Their Eyes Were Watching God”. (2021, Nov 22). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/zora-neale-hurston-and-her-their-eyes-were-watching-god/



What is Hurston purpose in Their Eyes Were Watching God?
Hurston's purpose in Their Eyes Were Watching God is to explore the life of an African American woman in the early 20th century. She uses the story to examine the issues of race, gender, and class in America.
What is the story Their Eyes Were Watching God about?
The story Their Eyes Were Watching God is about a woman who is searching for her true self. She goes through many trials and tribulations, but in the end she finds out who she really is.
What was Zora Neale Hurston's message?
Zora Neale Hurston's message is that African Americans should be proud of their heritage and culture. She also believed that everyone should be treated equally, regardless of race.
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