There I was, sitting on the floor in the backroom of the Oxfam shop, sorting and pricing books, when I came across a well-thumbed copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. I’d never come across the author before, but it was a Virago Modern Classic, with an eye-catching painting on the front showing a woman in a red dress standing in a doorway, with an empty road running past her, and a brilliant blue sky above (taken from Edward Hopper’s ‘Carolina Morning’. So I started reading, just to see what it was about, and had to tear myself away because I was supposed to be working.
After that, of course, I had to buy it, and found it was totally unlike anything else I have read. The third sentence in tells us:
So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. Not the dead of the sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgement.
It’s not only the dead whose eyes are are flung wide open, for folk in the small all-black town, deep in the American south, are scandalised by the re-appearance of this woman in their lives. She is Janie, aged 40, unsuitably clad in overalls instead of dress, with her long hair ‘swingin’ down her back lak some young gal’. Worse still, the last time they saw her she left with a younger man…
Gradually Janie’s story comes to light as she tells a friend about her life. Raised by her grandmother, a former slave, she is married at 16 to farmer Logan Killicks, who is much older than she is, because Nanny believes it will protect her, and give her a better life. She tells Janie:
You know, honey, us coloured folk is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways. Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfill my dreams of what a woman oughta be and do. Dat’s one of de hold-backs of slavery. But nothing can’t stop you from wishin’.
And wishing is what Janie does. She wishes love would bloom like the flowers on the pear tree, delicate and beautiful, but her husband is unlovable, and she finds he expects her to help on the farm. So when Joe Starks walks past, with money in his pocket and a smart line in chatter, she is smitten, and she walks out of her old life and into a new one with Joe in a new town. On the face of it things are good. Joe opens a store and becomes Mayor – but Janie is no happier than she was before, and is treated like a possession rather than a person. She’s given no life outside her home, and is not even allowed to sit in the porch gossiping with other women, because it’s not fitting to Joe’s position.
Then, when Joe dies, she meets Vergible Woods, known to one and all as Tea Cake, and discovers what she has been searching for all her life. Tea Cake is younger than Janie, and lower down the social scale, but he loves her, and she loves him. They get married and work alongside each other ‘on the muck’ (a farm) in the Everglades. They are equals, and Tea Cake is the only man who lets Janie be herself, and doesn’t try to force into a role she doesn’t want. She has fun with him. He talks with her, and laughs with her.
The novel was written in 1937, in dialect, and is often very poetic, and very moving, but it’s Janie’s determination to live life on her own terms, and not to settle for second best, which shines out. And the fact that this novel is written by a black woman, about a black woman, is immaterial. Janie’s search for a relationship on equal terms, and to be accepted for who is she is, rather than what someone wants her to be, applies to any woman, whatever her colour or creed.
|Zora Neale Hurston
Hurston seems to have been forgotten for a good many years, but apparently Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou have all cited her influence on their writing. According to Holly Eley, who wrote the introduction to my edition, Hurston was one of the first African American women writers. Believed to have been born round about 1891 – she herself gave different dates on different occasions – she was brought up in Eatonville, Florida, the first black town in the United States, and held down various jobs before she enrolled at college and began to write. She was in involved in black and white literary communities, and went on to study cultural anthropology, and her work in this field took her all over the world.
She was a well known and somewhat controversial figure, but in the last years of her life (she died in 1960) she alienated the Civil Rights movement because she believed the campaign for integration did not acknowledge the value of segregated black institutions, and she claimed African Americans could be live as they wanted in their own autonomous communities, independent of white society. In a period when African American literature reflected the growing struggle for equality her work fell out of favour. People didn’t like her use of dialect, and accused her of writing what white people expected.