How do we define Blackness? How do we gather the information that helps us to determine what it means to be Black? History and community can only go so far; examining our media can help us shape how we define ourselves and the world around us. The first time I read about Zora Neale Hurston was through an essay by Zadie Smith. In her collection of essays, Changing My Mind , Smith writes about books that have influenced her own work and journey as a writer. The first essay—“ Their Eyes Were Watching God : What Does Soulful Mean?”—chronicled her experience with Their Eyes Were Watching God , Hurston’s best-known novel detailing Southern life through the eyes of willful and passionate Janie Crawford.
In Smith’s essay, she recalls her initial rejection of Hurston’s novel. Her mother, she writes, placed the book on her bedside table, and in teenage defiance, a young Smith didn’t want to enjoy it, for fear of conforming to expectation and obligation in liking something simply because she shared an identity with the author. “I had my own ideas of ‘good writing,’” writes Smith. “It was a category that did not include aphoristic or overtly ‘lyrical’ language, mythic language, accurately rendered ‘folk speech’ or the love tribulations of women.” But one afternoon, Smith read the first page, and the second, and then devoured the entire novel in three hours. “I was finished and crying a lot, for reasons that both were, and were not, to do with the tragic finale.”
I didn’t read Their Eyes Were Watching God until the summer I was twenty-one. I was navigating the space between a previous identity and a new one. This was the summer before my senior year in undergrad—I was trying to figure out what career I would have (because it hadn’t fully occurred to me exactly how to make writing work as a long-term career without sacrificing passion or getting a typical nine-to-five), where I would live, and ultimately, who I wanted to be. It seemed fitting that when I was the most confused about where my life was going Their Eyes Were Watching God found its way into my hands; it helped to give clarity and community to what had once been indescribable.
Once I closed the well-worn paperback after I read the final paragraph, I felt that in Hurston’s prose, she helped me to uncover the language I had been missing to describe what I wanted for myself; in writing “there are years that ask questions and years that answer,” Hurston gave me permission to embrace this uncertainty and to carve out my own definitions at a time when I didn’t know the answers were already inside of me. It’s more than the legacy of a once-forgotten writer who redefined what it means to be Black and a woman at a time when neither were celebrated. (Was there ever a time when Black women were celebrated?) Their Eyes Were Watching God gave me context to begin exploring social justice, Black feminism, and survival in times of resistance.
But to understand the weight of what these things all mean is to directly challenge our notions of what is political work. A lifelong lover of literature, I found solace in the idea of living lives through the words printed between the covers of a paperback or hardcover. But there was something jarring to me in knowing that I could devour Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and Catcher in the Rye , that I could study Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway and the most obscure female artists my high school library could hold, and yet I would go years without stumbling onto so much as a short story written about what it means to be Black. The political undertones of many of these works were evident, but it was especially jarring to not see a reflection of myself within the work heralded as being political and successful.
Most importantly, the disconnect between the political nature of literature and the activism that I was beginning to engage in was a huge challenge for me. In undergrad, I discovered feminist theory and became more active in unpacking racism, sexism, and social justice activism within the setting of oppression at my university, but I wanted to connect the two more closely. In my mind, both the visible social justice activism—leading workshops, discussion groups, protests, and open dialogues amongst different members of the community—and the work of marginalized authors that I was long overdue in discovering were political, but I was drawn in by the ways that it was effectively covert. That was how I understood that to engage in political work, I wouldn’t have to sacrifice.
In understanding my own identity, I had to unpack the internalized anti-Blackness that I built up in my head to deal with the weight of being othered . The summer that I turned twenty-one was the shifting tide in many ways; I realized that to understand myself, I had to examine the work of those who came before me. Black literature itself is inherently political, in that our right to exist is the most political act that we could make. Today, we see the success and support gained by movements like Black Lives Matter. Similarly, Black literature is a space where we define personal and movement-led resistance against oppression. It is how we begin to think about what life will look like once the battle has been won, and how to find joy as the fight continues.
There’s a history of Black creatives—novelists and writers in particular—who merge politics with imagination. Hurston’s work as a cultural anthropologist spills into her novel. Their Eyes Were Watching God looks at the ways in which Black life is preserved through strife. The novel’s dialect is distinct and consistent throughout, and has been one of the main pushbacks from non-Black individuals for not getting through the work itself. Smith writes, “In 1937, black readers were embarrassed by the unlettered nature of the dialogue and white readers preferred the exoticism of [Hurston’s] anthropological writings.” But by preserving AAVE and creating a literary work that celebrates rather than rejects Blackness is to reclaim how Blackness itself is defined by both the author and the reader.
The opening of the novel itself demonstrates this, as Hurston sets the mood for a novel that centers on Black womanhood:
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
“Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”
Hurston constructs a dynamic that separates Black manhood and Black womanhood as independent identities that coexist with each other. It was the first time that words so accurately voiced what I had begun to think about, of the duties that fall into the title of woman , as Janie herself struggles with. We see her defying the conformity forced onto women—Black or otherwise: having to be the caretaker of the dead, and the sick, and her friends, and of the men in her life. To see a Black woman—the main character in her own story—struggle to move beyond such conformities is the beginning of deconstructing our own limited view of Blackness, and how to reconstruct it in a way that is inclusive to the full human experience.
Janie’s defiance to the traditions of what Black womanhood should look like come to define her in the best ways. Raised by her grandmother, Janie believed that to conform to expectations of womanhood meant a life of relative safety, the most a Black woman could expect in the South. Thanks to her grandmother’s best efforts, Janie is married off to an older farmer, Logan Killicks, to ensure that she is well taken care of.
Over the course of the novel, Janie continues her search for freedom and happiness, and later marries the charismatic Tea Cake. Janie reclaims herself through being freely loved back by a man, and learns how to receive love instead of simply giving it:
“Janie awoke the next morning by feeling Tea Cake almost kissing her breath away. Holding her and caressing her as if he feared she might escape his grasp and fly away. Then he must dress hurriedly and get to his job on time. He wouldn’t let her get him any breakfast at all. He wanted her to get her rest. He made her stay where she was. In her heart she wanted to get his breakfast for him. But she stayed in bed long after he was gone.
“So much had been breathed out by the pores that Tea Cake still was there. She could feel him and almost see him bucking around the room in the upper air. After a long time of passive happiness, she got up and opened the window and let Tea Cake leap forth and mount to the sky on a wind. That was the beginning of things.”
By the end of the novel, Janie herself is alone following Tea Cake’s tragic death. But in the midst of the gossip that she faces from the townspeople after returning without Tea Cake, she instead finds peace:
“The day of the gun, and the bloody body, and the courthouse came and commenced to sing a sobbing sigh out of every corner of the room; out of each and every chair and thing. Commenced to sing, commenced to sob and sigh, singing and sobbing. Then Tea Cake came prancing around her where she was and the song of the sigh flew out of the window and lit in the top of the pine trees. Tea Cake, with the sun for a shawl. Of course he wasn’t dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.”
Hurston’s Janie helped me to see my own value. Janie survived the violence and struggles she faced everyday. And yet survival can be something as simple as finding peace with my own imperfections. It can be in finding the courage to love someone who is brave enough to love you back as well. In many ways, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a timeless novel that shows us the resilience of the human spirit. But to me, it will remain the first and most significant piece of work that signifies the strength that remains with Black identity, even in times of strife and struggle. In reading Hurston’s most famous novel, I began to find the words that helped me to find myself between the covers of that well-worn paperback.