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Their Eyes Were Watching God

Posted Dec 1 2008

Hurston addresses common topics such as racism and sexism, but also class and skin color differences within the African American community. While in modern times these issues are more widely discussed, the original printing was in 1937, from a woman no less.

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While my effort to catch up on my literary classics has been a mixed bag, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I’ve heard about it for years, but I didn’t realize the controversy behind it as Hurston addresses common topics such as racism and sexism, but also class and skin color differences within the African American community. While in modern times these issues are more widely discussed, the original printing was in 1937, from a woman no less. The book revolves around a woman named Janie and her quest for self determination and self identification. For the most part, her identity comes from her relationships with men, which has been a source of criticism, but truth be told, most of everyone’s sense of self comes from our relationship with other people. The partners she deals with lead to vastly different experiences, serving as metaphors for how our own expectations of life may or may not correlate with others expectations of us. In particular, one husband sees her as primarily a worker, another as a trophy wife, and another as an equal. Janie goes through her shares of ups and downs, including spousal abuse and natural disaster, keeping the reader from getting too comfortable.

Hurston’s real life story is interesting itself as she went against the grain of many of her peers at the time, even supporting segregated schools as she felt integration would not improve the plight of Black students and would weaken the passing down of cultural traditions. In a broader sense, the government should not force integration if people didn’t want it. Her own life was filled with success and hardships, receiving praise for her writings, yet she passed away in a welfare home and had an unmarked grave. Understanding her history contributed to the feeling of this as an historical piece. The most obvious was her use of dialect such as “Ah don’t see it dat way atall” which tends to irritate me, but it worked for me here. Her use of the dozens and other African American traditions didn’t feel contrived and settings which include the real life African American city of Eatonville, Florida also contributed to this feeling. Her politics also come out in her writing as she shows the psychological roots behind her characters interactions, as well as the complexities of race, gender, and class. In some cases, local Whites are more sensitive to Janie’s plight than other African Americans. None of this takes away from the fact that African Americans were second-class citizens, but more that African American life wasn’t solely based on responding to White racism and that the interactions of African Americans was complex, making the book more realistic. On a more personal note, as someone who thrives off of the cultures of our world, Hurston’s inclusion of Bahamians and Seminoles in the community, while minimal, was appreciated as the mainstream U.S. is still struggling to see the world beyond shades of Black and White.

Comments

1. The Galley said at December 30, 2008 2:49 pm:

Currently reading it. The poetry is really outstanding. I read in the foreword that the work was not well received by her peers (such as Richard Wright) who thought it not to be representative of the struggle. I have only read the first two chapters and I cannot say I agree with Wright. She makes more of a case for the human struggle. And like you said, "None of this takes away from the fact that African Americans were second-class citizens, but more that African American life wasn’t solely based on responding to White racism and that the interactions of African Americans was complex, making the book more realistic. On a more personal note, as someone who thrives off of the cultures of our world, Hurston’s inclusion of Bahamians and Seminoles in the community, while minimal, was appreciated as the mainstream U.S. is still struggling to see the world beyond shades of Black and White."

2. Daniel said at January 4, 2009 1:21 am:

Glad you're enjoying it. At times, when I go back and read or reread some of the classics I find myself wondering what's so great about them, at least the writing. They might've been powerful due to the climate and context in which they came out, but the writing doesn't move me. I was still enthralled with this one, decades later.

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