“I am Me, My Eyes Toward God”
Zora Neale Hurston an early twentieth century Afro-American feminist author, was raised in a predominately black community which gave her an unique perspective on race relations, evident in her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston drew on her on experiences as a feminist Afro-American female to create a story about the magical transformation of Janie, from a young unconfident girl to a thriving woman. Janie experiences many things that make her a compelling character who takes readers along as her companion, on her voyage to discover the mysteries and rewards life has to offer. Zora Neale Hurston was, the daughter of a Baptist minister and an educated scholar who still believed in the genius contained within the common southern black vernacular(Hook http://splavc.spjc.cc.fl.us/hooks/Zora.html). She was a woman who found her place, though unstable, in a typical male profession. Hurston was born on January 7, 1891 in Eatonville, Florida, the first all-incorporated black town in America. She found a special thing in this town, where she said, “ [I] grew like a like a gourd and yelled bass like a gator,” (Gale, 1). When Hurston was thirteen she was removed from school and sent to care for her brother’s children. She became a member of a traveling theater at the age of sixteen, and then found herself working as a maid for a white woman. This woman saw a spark that was waiting for fuel, so she arranged for Hurston to attend high school in Baltimore. She also attended Morgan Academy, now called Morgan State University, from which she graduated in June of 1918. She then enrolled in the Howard Prep School followed by later enrollment in Howard University. In 1928 Hurston attended Barnard College where she studied anthropology under Franz Boas. After she graduated, Zora returned to Eatonville to begin work on anthropology. Four years after Hurston received her B.A. from Barnard she enrolled in Columbia University to begin graduate work (Discovering Authors, 2-4). Hurston’s life seemed to be going well but she was soon to see the other side of reality.
Hurston never stayed at a job for too long, constantly refusing the advances of male employers, which showed part of her strong feminist disposition. But Hurston was still seeking true love throughout her travels and education. At Howard University, Hurston met Herburt Sheen whom she married on May 19, 1927 in St. Augstine, Florida (DA, 2). They divorced shortly after they got married because they could not continue the idealistic dreams they had shared in their youth. Zora Hurston’s second marriage to Albert Price III was also short lived. They were married in 1939 and divorced in 1943 (DA, 2). By the mid-1940s Hurston’s writing career had began to falter. While living in New York, Hurston was arrested and charged with committing an immoral act with a ten-year-old boy. The charges were later dropped when Hurston proved that she was in another country at the time the incident allegedly took place (Discovering Authors, 3). Hurston already was witnessing the rejection of all of her works submitted to her publisher, but the combined effects of the arrest and the ensuing journalistic attack on her image doomed the majority of her literary career. She wrote to a friend: “I care nothing for writing anything any more My race has seen fit to destroy me without reason, and with the vilest tools conceived by man so far” (Discovering Authors, 4). In approximately 1950 Hurston returned to Florida, where she worked as a cleaning woman in Rivo Alto. She later moved to Belle Glade, Florida, in hopes of reviving her writing career. She failed and worked as many jobs including: newspaper journalist, librarian, and substitute teacher (Baker, http://www.prodigy.com/ pages.html/chronology.htm). Hurston suffered a stroke in 1959 which demanded her admittance in the Saint Lucie County Florida Welfare Home. She died a broken, penniless, invalid in January 1960 (DA, 5).
All of Hurston’s trials built the basis for her best work. Therefore, the work that has denoted her as one of the twentieth century’s most influential authors did not come until after she had graduated from college. However, the literature she composed in college was by no means inferior. She was a defiant free-spirit even during her early college career. While working on an anthropological study for her mentor, Franz Boas, she was exposed to voo doo, which she quickly embraced. She was deeply interested in the subtle nuances that voo doo had left scattered throughout Afro-American culture. She also adopted this religion, which contrasted completely with her Baptist up-bringing , because it gave her a new artistic sense. Voo doo freed her from the institutional restraints that she experienced as a black woman in a white oligarchy (Hinton, 4). Her belief in voo doo appeared in almost all of her works, including Their Eyes Are Watching God, where Zora’s fictitious Eatonville seems to be controlled by supernatural forces (Hinton, 5). Hurston used her artistic talent to incorporate her cultural anthologies into her fiction by combining many of the traditions and cultural tinges she discovered while tracing Black culture into the fictional town of Eatonville (Hemenway, 13).
Hurston’s most acclaimed work , Their Eyes Were Watching God, has been read, adored, rejected, reviewed, and badgered by many literary critics and uneducated readers alike. “In a book rich with imagery and black oral tradition, Zora Neale Hurston tells us of a woman’s journey that gives the lie to Freud’s assertion that ‘the difficult development which leads to femininity seems to exhaust all the possibilities of the individual’” (Reich, 163). This statement is manifested in Their Eyes through Hurston’s vivid imagery and uncanny sense of her own needs. The plot centers around Janie, a character some critics say is mimicked after Hurston herself, and her journey toward self-discovery. As a victim of circumstance, Janie becomes a victim of her own position. She is raised to uphold the standards of her grandmother’s generation; she is taught to be passive and subject to whatever life gives her. But as Janie grows older she begins to realize that the world may not like it, but she has got to follow her desires, not suppress them. The story begins in her childhood, with Janie exalting material possessions and money, two things she has never had an abundance of. Janie marries twice, the second marriage being bigamous. She realizes that she must be self-reliant. She experiences all of these things in a totally Black community, where society is motivated by the most basic human instincts.
Hurston in-bedded her own life experiences into Their Eyes with her clever incorporation of prominent themes in society. While avoiding social prejudice, Zora seamlessly integrates her own racial-discovery into her novel. The reader does not feel that she is projecting social prejudices or personal attacks; but rather imparts a tender, gentle revelation to Janie that she is Black. Janie is raised with white children in the home of the family her Grandmother works for. She grows up playing, laughing, and enjoying the things that the white children do, so much so, that she is included in a family portrait. When she goes to look at the picture, she doesn’t see herself- but rather a dark girl with long hair. “Where is me? Ah don’t see me,” she complains (Their Eyes Were Watching God, 6). She had not realized till that moment, she was not white.
To further the story-line, Hurston takes Janie on a journey of self-discovery with a slightly feminist twist. Throughout the novel Janie is confronted with the compelling desire by others to make her a “proper” woman. She is taught to be submissive. She is taught to have no opinion and no initiative. However, she learns over time, she has the growing feeling that something is missing, possibly her lack of self-confidence. She soon becomes her own person, casting her given lot aside, and seeking a new one on her own path, discovering her dreams and her identify. In this novel, Hurston expresses many of her opinions on race relations. She is often criticized for her lack of confrontational forces in Their Eyes…, however she explained that she has clearly defined her position on race relations in her books. She has done it in a way that no group can actually ground a claim that her work is catered to any one audience. Many Black critics at the time of publication criticized Their Eyes… for its lack of racial awareness, while White critics, such as Otis Ferguson, claimed that the book is “.. absolutely free of Uncle Toms…” (DA, 2). Most contemporary critics feel Hurston’s novel is the culmination of all of Black culture. Hurston was often criticized for her writings. She was quick to reply: I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feeling are all hurt about it…. No, I do not weep at the world- I am to busy sharpening my oyster knife (Discovering Authors, 4).
Hurston showed her true opinions on race relations in her autobiography Dust Tracks on the Road when she declared black artists should celebrate the positive aspects of black American Negrohood. And that is exactly what Hurston did through her innovative characters in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie is raised by her grandmother. Grandmother sets Janie up for her journey of self-discovery. Janie’s grandmother set her goal for Janie’s life by saying, “Ah wanted you to look upon yo’ self. Ah don’t want yo’ feathers always crumpled by folks throwin’ up things in yo’ face” (Hurston, 14). Her grandmother has a desire to see Janie in a ’safe’ place, or in other words, a place where she will never have to want for anything. Janie loved her grandmother and wanted to please her even though she was not sure she agreed with all of the plans her grandmother had made. “Janie had been angry at her grandmother for having ‘taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon… and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her grandmother’s neck tight enough to choke her’” (Reich, 4). Her grandmother accomplishes this by arranging for Janie to marry Logan Killicks. Logan Killicks is a farmer who marries Janie shortly after she completes school. Killicks is the first antagonist that Janie encounters in the story. He is there for one purpose, to destroy Janie’s new sense of self-awareness. Janie does not love Logan nor does he love her. Janie is constantly looking for another horizon. She soon finds that horizon in Joe Starks.
Joe appears in Janie’s front yard one day. He says the ’sweet’ things that Janie wants to her. Janie leaves Logan the next day, and therefor takes another step in her journey. Joe is a man who is concerned with little except power. He wants it, and he is going to use Janie to get it. He is cruel to Janie, and stomps out all of her free will. He builds his town of Eatonville as the newly elected mayor, crushing all in his path, making many enemies, including Janie, along the way.
Teacake could be Janie’s knight in shining armor. He comes to her aid. He wants her to do the things she desires. “Sing, dance, have fun with me,” seems to be what Teacake is offering her-a new direction. Teacake is a good ol’ boy. He takes Janie to the Everglades. He lets her tell stories. However, she becomes what she set out to, only when she leaves Teacake. When she leaves Teacake Janie returns to Eatonville and the book ends where it began, as Janie finishes or dialogue with her friend Pheoby. When she walks back in to town, no longer ‘Ms. Mayor,’ as Joe was fond of calling her, Janie is truly her own person. She is proud and sure of her self and her place under the sun. There are so many literary and social implications contained within Their Eyes Were Watching God, that many criticisms have been written on particular aspects of Hurston’s work. One of the best criticisms, though not nationally published, demonstrates some of the true experiences that Hurston incorporated into her work. Hurston conjures powerful images by giving voice to all her disparate elements while simultaneously respecting the autonomy of each. She conjures images from the kitchen, from the rural landscape of Florida, and from the elemental forces of nature. and tempers her conjuring with the objectivity of the scholar while freely adorning it with the poetic beauty of black vernacular (Conjured into Being, 1).
The unknown author of this passage gave an elegant style to the point that Hurston used strong sensory and oratory descriptions to make her text come alive. She tried to pull from all the areas of her personality to develop something on paper, the way she experienced it in life. She showed her philosophy on how a person should live their and get the most out of it. In her autobiography she wrote: I had stifled longing. I used to climb to the top of one of the huge chinaberry trees which guarded our front gate, and look out over the world. The most interesting thing that I saw was the horizon… It grew upon me that I ought to walk out to the horizon and see what the end of the world was like. (Dust Tracks on the Road, 36), (Conjured into Being, 1). Like Hurston, Janie longs for the horizon. She finds that she must struggle to overcome the many obstacles society throws in her path.
Hurston’s frequent use of emotional metaphors is part of the power contained in her fiction. She uses nature to convey her emotions. The sun is a major image in the texts of Hurston, and the passage above illustrates her fascination with light. Ever since her mother told her to ‘jump at de sun’ when she was a young girl, Hurston self-confidently refused any feelings of victimization She like her character Janie, was not ‘tragically colored.’ In her early short story, “Drenched in Light,” a wealthy white woman comments on Isis, the happy child of Hurston’s your: ‘I would like just a little of her sunshine to soak into my soulspunk, 18}’(Conjured into Being, 4).”
This is one of many examples of Hurston’s emphasis on emotional identification in her fiction. She also believed strongly in the elements of the earth and how they showed a symbol for each emotion. “The elements of sun and fire cleanse and renew her. The wind, another elemental image, is first heard ‘picking at the pine trees.’ Pine trees, which Janie associates with young black men, like TeaCake, who are often seen ‘picking’ guitars” (Conjured into Being, 16).
The wind is commonly associated with love, the soul, and femininity. She expresses her feminist philosophy with the description of women not as weak creatures needing to be cared for, but as strong capable peers.
Bryan D. Bourn, with help of Dr. Laura Zlogar of the Wisconsin-River Falls University discusses the role of Afro-American women in Their Eyes Were Watching God. He explores the role of African-American women in early 1900’s society by examining Hurston’s writing. Historically, the job of women in society is to care for the husband, the home, and the children. As a homemaker, it has been up to the woman to support the husband and care for the house; as a mother, the role was to care for the children and pass along cultural traditions and values to the children. These roles are no different in the African-American community, except for the fact that they are magnified to even larger proportions. The image of the mother in African-American culture is on of guidance, love, and wisdom… Understanding the role of women in the African-American community starts by examining the roles… in Afro-American literature. (Bourn, 1).
Bourn goes on to state that the role of the mother-daughter relationship is expressed vividly in Their Eyes… by the relationship that develops between Janie and her Grandmother. “The strong relationship between mother and child is important… the conflict between Janie’s idyllic view of marriage and her [grandmother’s] wish for her to marry into stability… show how deep the respect and trust runs” (Bourn, 1). This excerpt tries to show the way that Janie, by marrying Logan, does what her grandmother wants out of respect. This is just one of the idealistic ways that Hurston expresses her opinions on society and life, not to exclude racial situations.
“Does Hurston ‘owe’ her race anything” (Hinton, 2)? As previously discussed, many of Hurston’s contemporaries criticized her lack of racial issues in her work. A good question to ask is “does Hurston’s fiction further racial equality?” (Hinton). Kip Hinton discusses Hurston’s approach to race relations in comparision to the common school of thought during her time. Alain Locke crticized Hurston for avoiding racial confrontations (Hinton, 2). All of Hurston’s critics said that she gave in to the stereotype of a typical African-American. This in turn furthered the sense of inequality present in society. The critics who held this view, according to Hinton, subscribed this style of confrontation: “They believed only by preaching to the white reader about how wonderful blacks really were and how horrible discrimination was, could equality be achieved” (Hinton, 2). This argument is really a feeble one. Hinton claims that this argument lacks reason because “telling a racist he’s a racist won’t make him change” (Hinton, 2). If the reader can not read Hurston’s work and see that she cared deeply about equality, dealing with it in her special way, then they will never change. The most important thing to keep in mind when you think of Zora Neale Hurston is that she was a literary genius. She may have been a woman, and an African-American, that is why someone wrote, “Zora would have been Zora even if she’d been an Eskimo” (Hinton, 3). That is why she was so clear on her definition of race relations. She believed that equality was achieved by showing the oppressor the wonderful things in life, not constantly pointing out the bad. Hurston put it best when she cried out, “at certain times I have no race, I AM ME.”