Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Their Eyes Were Watching God

There are so many good books and so many great authors I have never heard of. One of those was Zora Neale Hurston and I recently read her work of fiction,Their Eyes Were Watching God. I saw her book mentioned in a NY Times book column about Karen Russell who wrote Swamplandia which takes place in Florida. The interviewer asked her to suggest other influential Florida authors and she named Zora Neale Hurston at the top of her list. Hurston was born in 1891 in Alabama. Her parents were former slaves. Her father was a pastor and later mayor of Eatonville, FL which serves as the setting for her novel. Interestingly, Eatonville was an all-black town. Hurston's story takes place in the early 1900's, a time of segregation, virulent racism and ever present Jim Crow laws. Many stories about blacks in the South at this time, whether told by blacks or whites, define the black experience by the white experience. The black man or woman is who he or she is in relation to what the white experience allows them to be. Hurston's book does not do this. The few mentions of the white race in her book are matter of fact. Most of the white people in her book are decent people with the exception of the white slaveholder who raped Janie's grandmother and Janie's mother was conceived of that forced union. This was on the eve of Sherman's march in the South. Hurston tells Janie's story. In the telling, Janie becomes conscious of herself as a free black woman. Black in a white world which does not define her or keep her from living a full and free life and a woman in a man's world where she learns how to express herself on more or less equal terms. Writing in the black dialect of the time, Hurston shows Janie developing a sharp mind that appreciates the beauty of her existence as a black woman. Hurston's works did not sell well at the time. She did not write what white publishers wanted to print and male, black authors criticized her work for being indifferent to the racism of white culture. She died in 1960 in a county home in Fort Pierce, FL after suffering a stroke.She was buried nearby in an unmarked grave. The last ten years of her life were hard and she worked at low paying jobs to make ends meet. In 1975, her work was "discovered" when Alice Walker wrote about her in MS magazine. Today, her several books are in print again as well as a biography. (I discovered our local college English professor, Dr Griffin, did his doctoral dissertation on her only a few years ago!). Hurston's work is enriched with Biblical images and a message that life can be rich and fulfilling if you see the opportunities that are there for you and act upon them.