By: Pat Peters
2017 marks the 80th anniversary of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. This book has been challenged throughout the years for reasons related to its raw honesty and its realistic situations and characters.
In 1937, when Their Eyes Were Watching God was published, Hurston was criticized for not taking a political stand about the African American experience in the United States, cultural mores or social prejudices. Instead, she wrote a moving story of one woman’s search for love and identity.
Hurston’s setting is very specific, including a long period in Eatonville, Florida, the first town populated and governed by African Americans, where incidentally Hurston herself grew up. In addition, the dialect is often criticized by students or those who believe Hurston’s use of it makes the characters sound ignorant and uneducated. However, her training as an anthropologist came into play as she valiantly attempts to faithfully transcribe the dialects she heard during her own South Florida upbringing.
Hurston’s work was lost for decades as her work fell out of fashion and her reputation sank. Fortuntely, Alice Walker rediscovered her works following Hurston’s death. Since the rediscovery of Their Eyes Were Watching God in the 1970s by Alice Walker, it has become a staple on high school reading lists. And students complain loudly (if not literately) for several reasons. Here are just a few:
- The language is too hard to “translate.”
- The whole book is anti-male.
- It’s ridiculous for the protagonist in a feminist book to still allow her husbands to beat her.
- Janie is privileged because of her relatively light skin, and for that reason, she doesn’t understand the plight of other African-Americans.
Part of the problem seems to be that Their Eyes Were Watching God is often assigned for a summer read before discussing it in class. For students in the 21st century, the setting, story and characters all need context in order to understand what’s going on, so expecting high school (or even college) students to appreciate it with no preparation doesn’t seem like good pedagogy.
In 1997, a parent objected to “sexual explicitness and language” in this book when it was assigned to their child at Stonewall Jackson High School in Brentsville, Virginia. After review, the book was retained on the high school English reading list. Hurston’s protagonist does experience a sexual awakening, but the scenes are mild by today’s standards. There are references to rape as Janie learns of her own family story, but there is no description.
Hurston’s book was the first novel published by an African American woman, and her story of the search for love and self-identity is one that we can all relate to. As historical fiction with a specific setting, “the novel provides a rare glimpse into life as it was for some African Americans living in the Florida in the early 1900s, post-slavery,” according to a Berwick Public Library blog post. Overall, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God may not have been what other writers or critics wanted it to be, but it is nonetheless a valuable piece of literature from both a literary and a historical standpoint.
Pat Peters is director of the Decatur Public Library in Decatur, Texas. In her spare time, she is an adjunct professor of Library Science for Texas Woman’s University, having taught both graduate and undergraduate Children’s Literature and Youth Programming. Pat is the 2016-17 chair of the Texas Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee. Pat and her husband Jeff live in Denton, Texas. Pat can sometimes be found @PatriciaP628.