The purpose of a More Diverse Universe Challenge is to draw attention to authors of color. For my first book in the 2015 challenge I’d like to highlight a woman from the Harlem Renaissance era:
Zora Neale Hurston
Born in Alabama in 1891, Ms. Hurston attended Howard University where she was one of the founders of the university’s student newspaper. She also attended Barnard College and graduated with a degree in anthropology. Ms. Hurston’s career in anthropology was short-lived. She became known for her many folktales and literary writings. She published four novels and over fifty short stories as well as plays and essays.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is Zora Neale Hurston’s best known work. It was first published in 1937 and has been republished again and again. It’s the story of Janie Crawford, a woman in her mid-forties. It begins and ends in Eatonville, Florida, an all-black community. Janie is telling her friend Phoebe, her life story divided into three sections, her three marriages.
Janie’s first marriage, when she was a teenager, was arranged by her grandmother. Janie’s husband was an older man who needed a wife to help him on his farm. Janie had hoped for a love-filled marriage, but there was no love. After her grandmother’s death, Janie ran away with a man with big dreams and a way with words.
Her new husband, Jody Starks, takes her to Eatonville, an idea he is very excited about. The community has been founded and populated by African Americans only. When they arrive, Janie’s husband sees that the community isn’t living up to what he considers it’s real potential. Starks buys additional acreage, recruits more residents, starts a general store, becomes the mayor, and so forth. He is now running the town.
Unfortunately for Janie, this second marriage isn’t what Janie hoped for either. Her husband wants Janie to be just a show-piece for him. She’s left out of all the activity and has no social life. Janie is lonely and, again, without love.
After Starks’ death Janie was now a wealthy widow, pursued by many men. She wasn’t interested in any of them until a much younger man called Tea Cakes, comes along. They marry and move to the Everglad region. Finally, Janie marries for love, but life is not easy. I won’t spoil the ending of this story. I’ll only say that it’s very dramatic.
What makes this story so strong and so unique for me is the author’s portrayal of life exactly as it was in this culture and in this time period, the 1930s. There is no attempt to “white-wash” the life of these people. The author painted a picture of what each setting looked like and, with an abundance of dialogue in the vernacular of the times, how each character sounded.
The story was written so powerfully that I felt I was right there. I could see it all and hear everyone. Unfortunately, this is the greatest criticism Ms. Hurston received when it was published. Critics wanted her to portray African Americans in a positive way, one that would improve their image. In particular, they wanted black women to be seen as sexually repressed as they believed white women of the time were repressed. When the novel was first published it did not do well. However, over time it has come to be respected for it’s value in African American literature as well as Women’s literature.
Read Their Eyes Were Watching God in audiobook format. Because of all the dialogue as well as the descriptive language, it lends itself beautifully to the oral storytelling tradition. Actress Ruby Dee did an amazing job of capturing all the many characters and all the various accents, that I can’t imagine experiencing this book in any other format. Be sure to get the unabridged version as you’ll want to hear the whole story.
*Photo of Zora Neale Hurston and the First Edition came from Wikipedia.