What Their Eyes Were Watching God Taught Me About Life, Love, and Writing
On the anniversary of the January 7th birthday of novelist, anthropologist, folklorist, essayist, and playwright Zora Neale Hurston I contemplate the meaning of one of her most well known and loved literary works, Their Eyes Were Watching God in my life.
Zora Neale Hurston, also known as “The Genius of the South” was born on January 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama. Hurston was raised in Eatonville, Florida. Hurston attended college at Howard University in Washington, DC and earned an associates’ degree in 1920. She studied anthropology at Barnard College in New York 1925–1927. In 1927, Hurston left New York to head to Florida to collect folklore. She earned the B.A. degree at Barnard College in 1928. Hurston traveled to Haiti on a fellowship in 1937 and wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in seven weeks. Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in the United States on September 18, 1937. As I reflect on the meaning of Hurston’s seminal work, I think about what I learned about life, love, and writing.
What I Learned About Writing
Hurston’s Their Eyes taught me to write what you know. Hurston’s mastery of the written word comes to life in her use of poetic, vernacular, and figurative language. A folklorist at heart, the stories of southern Black Floridians lived in Hurston’s voice, as she poured Janie Starks’ story onto the pages. The orality of Their Eyes Were Watching God was poetry in my mind. The same kind of poetry that could be spoken, set to music, dramatized, and meditated upon. Hurston was a writer who listened to the griot voices of the past and who took notes from the poetic voices of everyday people in her own time, voices that inspired her stories. These voices sang songs, laughed, played the dozens, signified, and spoke through great hyperbole in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston’s poetic language in Their Eyes:
“From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf buds to snowy virginity of bloom…The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her [Janie]through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep”(Hurston, 1937, 10).
Inspired by Hurston’s novel, as well as the poetry of Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Ntozake Shange, I embarked on my journey as a budding poet in New York City in the early 2000s. Writing poems about culture, community, and life as a woman, like Hurston, I drew upon the voices in my environment. I focused on telling stories that I knew.
What I Learned About Life
Their Eyes Watching God taught me that the minute you allow others to limit you, you diminish yourself and your potential. In the novel, Janie discovers that listening to her inner guidance is more powerful than listening to the fears, wants, and criticisms of others. Like her creator, Zora Neale Hurston in her time of living and writing, Janie would not have discovered her power or her truth had she stayed in the place society created for her. While I have been living and writing in a very different time, I have still encountered the fears’ of others that might have limited me, had I took their advice and perspectives into account on what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go.
Sometimes experience is your only teacher. No one can live your life but you. There were times when I took risks that others didn’t agree with. Sometimes my choice was criticized because they could not relate or because when they made the same choice it was disastrous. Following my heart and mind, I made the choices that most resonated with me at the time with the information that I had. Each decision resulted in lessons learned or a blessing that was waiting for me. Janie realized in her second marriage that her freedom of movement and thought was hampered by her second husband Joe Starks. She shared this with her best friend Phoeby:
“When Ah wasn’t in de store he wanted me tuh jes sit wid folded hands and sit dere. And Ah’d sit dere wid de walls creepin’ up on me and squeezin’ all de life outta me”(112).
What I Learned About Love
I read Their Eyes Were Watching God in my twenties. I understood Janie’s quest for unconditional love and identity through the men in her life. By the time I was twenty-five, the perfect idea of love was no longer a fantasy. For much of my young life, I left relationships alone and plunged headstrong into my art, work, and academics, believing it was just a better investment. But through Janie’s loves, I could dream and imagine myself making choices, some similar, some different than Janie’s.
Each man in Janie’s life had his failings, enough to make any woman of today walk. But Janie lived in a time when women were not considered equal and certainly were not encouraged to find happiness independent of a man. So Janie continued to look for a reflection of herself in the men in her life. She was met with pain and disappointment each time. I did the same for a while. Like Janie, I would have to construct my own identity as a woman, absent from the certainty that real love existed. Through the years I became more solidified in my purpose, even as I experienced disappointments. Determined to protect my heart and keep my dignity intact, like Janie, with each disappointment I didn’t die — I became stronger.
Janie’s third husband was the love of her life. Tea Cake, the jovial, younger man who played more than he worked, made her feel free and romantic after an abusive relationship with her second husband.
”Janie awoke next morning by feeling Tea Cake almost kissing her breath away …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” (107).
In the end, Janie would have to sacrifice the love she held for a man, and choose self-preservation. Janie’s song of self-love in Their Eyes Were Watching God can be seen as a feminist opus because the time in which she lived and loved did not welcome a woman’s voice or independence. Janie was supposed to purely exist at a man’s pleasure, but instead, she found a way to create her own. Hurston in my mind, created a heroine who became self-possessed even if the character didn’t set out to become that way.
I have probably read Their Eyes Were Watching God a dozen times. Hurston’s novel will always be a classic. The complex vernacular and engaging Southern dialect in the novel jumps out at me to form beautiful poetry that I will always cherish.