Their Eyes Were Watching God
Updated: Oct 5
Today is Zora Neale Hurston's birthday, and she's trending on Twitter.
Hurston was a paid writer of the Harlem Renaissance, making her living on folk tales. When she published Their Eyes Were Watching God near the end of the 1930’s, she was heavily criticized by black male literary figures of the day for painting a too-pretty picture of African-American life in the south. In their eyes, Hurston had skirted her duty by not focusing on the plight of her people. As a result, she was ousted from the black writing community and spent the last decade of her life working as a maid. When she died, she was buried in an unmarked grave.
All because her writing was too positive.
I feel like those who ostracized her didn't actually read this book. Nearly every woman in the story is raped or beaten at some point, the trials and pain of segregation were heartrending, and the main character (Janie) searches her entire life - nearly in vain - for peace.
Perhaps what these critics disliked was Janie’s reaction to her situation. She is a strong character who decides early in life that, despite what she was born into, she deserves to be happy. Forces work against her and there are times when lesser souls would have given in, resigned to their fate. Instead, she looks at the life she is offered and does not accept it. She demands better for herself, and she eventually gets it. It's a great message, and one clearly missed by her peers. But not one missed, evidently, by Twitter. In the 1970s, Alice Walker, a professor at Wellesley College, introduced one of the first African-American women’s literature courses. She taught this book in that course, and when she discovered the tragic tale of Hurston’s final years, she set out to find her unmarked grave. After some searching, Walker discovered Hurston’s grave, and marked it with a headstone that dubbed the writer “A Genius of the South.” Happy birthday, Zora.