Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #42, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
“She didn’t read books so she didn’t know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop.” –Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
This summer, I took a road trip through the American south with my best friend. We do this from time to time, when the world starts to seem too small. Our road trips are characterized by both an extreme lack of planning and an unrealistically grand scale of ambition.
This road trip was no different, especially in terms of my reading list. In an overzealous fever, I compiled a list of novels that featured only two real rules: the author had to be dead, and he or she had to be from one of the states I was driving through. Halfway through compiling the list, I started to notice that it featured a distinct lack of diversity. I could only find two well-known women authors. And though books about the black experience were plenty, well-known black authors from the area were thin on the ground.
I thought about this again in the conversation surrounding the release of Michael Chabon’s latest, Telegraph Ave. Chabon writes a story of two friends, one of which is black and one of which is white. Because Chabon himself is white, much of the early buzz around the book naturally centered around the question: “Can A White Author Write Black Characters?” The answer is of course yes – lots of white authors have. The real question is can they do it well, and more importantly, should they?
I pondered this same question while reading Zora Neale Hurston’s seminal novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. As it turns out, finding dead non-white fiction writers from the South is a taller order than I’d imagined and as such Hurston was the one bastion of racial diversity in my road trip selection. I’d been meaning to read Their Eyes Were Watching God for some time, but always found a reason to put it off; I hate books that are written in dialect, which is one of the main characteristics of Hurston’s novel (I have the same problem with Flannery O’Connor though not, for some reason, with Mark Twain). As a result, when I was first reading I felt uncomfortable and out of my depth, until I realized that that was kind of the point. For my meager efforts, I was rewarded with an astounding, heartbreaking account of a richly-lived life. And it was this, more than anything else, that made me re-think the question of whether white writers should be telling black stories. After reading this book, the answer seemed obvious: sure, they can write them. But why would we want to read them when we could be reading and promoting the stories of authors like Hurston instead?
In the article linked above, Tanner Colby answers the question of whether or not white authors can and should write black characters with a definitive yes, pointing out that while fighting white male hegemony is important, “artistically, there can be no limits imposed, or even encouraged, in what subjects storytellers choose to approach.”
Tanner Colby is, of course, white.
That doesn’t necessarily follow that he’s wrong, of course. He’s right to say that imposing artistic limits on writers is a bad idea. And he’s right to point out that white people will use any excuse to not deal with the subject of race, so declaring race a taboo subject for white writers would only be excusing them from writing about tough subjects (though one wonders why white writers can’t write about race without race-appropriating. Probably because their white characters would look bad). Even so, he still manages to spectacularly miss the point.
Colby differentiates between white writers who have written well about race and those who haven’t; Mark Twain, Harper Lee and Harriet Beecher Stowe being examples of the former, and William Styron of the latter. Interestingly, William Styron initially made my list of road-trip authors; I had trouble coming up with dead Virginian authors, and didn’t know much about him. Certainly not enough to know about Confessions of Nat Turner, his novel which was widely criticized for its appropriation of the voice of a black slave. I didn’t get around to reading anything by Styron, but I’d feel safe betting that his writing about the black experience is much less affecting than Hurston’s.
Here’s why, and the point that Colby so handily missed: when white writers set out to write a black character, it’s often because they have something to say about black people. Whether that is true of Chabon or not I can’t yet say, but often white authors use black characters as a vehicle through which they choose to talk about race. That’s why it’s called “appropriation.” Black writers, however, live their whole lives black. It’s not a voice they can put on and take off. Therefore black voice = neutral to black writers, in the same way white voice = neutral to white writers (and readers, if you doubt that, consider the assumptions you make about your favorite literary characters before a word of physical description is given). Like in any piece of writing, it’s the authenticity of the experience that makes it a good or bad read. Ralph Ellison is always going to be a better writer of black characters than Harriet Beecher Stowe, because his voice is coming from authentic, lived experience.
Which brings us back to Zora Neale Hurston. In choosing to focus her writing on one woman, Janie, and her experiences in her community (some of which were based on Hurston’s observations of her own community, Eatonville, in which the majority of the novel is set), Hurston writes more affectingly and authentically on the black experience than any white writer could ever hope to.
Janie’s story begins with the promise of a sixteen-year-old girl sitting under a pear tree, dreaming about love. The story often comes back to this pear tree, as a metaphor for life’s disappointments, and expectations not met. Janie’s life is full of disappointments, beginning with her first marriage, arranged by her grandmother. Her first marriage brings her little in the way of the affection and meaning she had craves, and so Janie ups and leaves her first husband for her second: Joe Starks. Joe Starks is an ambitious man, who soon founds and becomes mayor of the first all-black town of Florida, Eatonville. Janie soon realizes that she is meant to be little more than his trophy wife, a role which she plays dutifully for twenty years, until his death. It is only after his death, and the state of relative financial security that he left her in, that Janie finally gets what she was looking for under that pear tree: a marriage based on love, with a charming young gambler named Tea Cake. Things out don’t turn out as well as she hoped, but not for the reasons you might expect.
Eatonville is based on the real town of Hurston’s youth, one of the first all-black towns that was founded after the Emancipation Proclamation. It is hear that she first tentatively explores the black experience in America at the time, through anecdotes of the lives of the Eatonville community. But it is after Janie and Tea Cake leave Eatonville for first Jacksonville and then the Everglades, that this experience becomes primary to the novel’s plot. Differences in race that were incidental in an all-black town become very important when disaster strikes the heavily mixed population of the South Florida, they turn out to matter quite a bit. Indeed, the similarities between the book’s climax and what would happen decades later in New Orleans in 2005 are eerie and heartbreaking.
Hurston’s book has been lauded as both a feminist tome and an integral piece in the history of Civil Rights literature. It is certainly both, but to limit it to those descriptors is to do the book a disservice. Hurston, see, didn’t have to set out to write a book about black female experience. She simply lived it. This is what makes her story, a simple tale of a girl-turned-woman Janie and her life, so resonant. Her writing is so subtle and brilliant that you hardly realize the impact of what you’ve read until hours after you’ve read it and because of this her quiet observations on race in America stay with you much longer.
This, to me, is the bottom line in the ongoing discussion over whether its appropriate for white authors to write intentional black characters. Is it allowed? Obviously, since it’s been happening since Mark Twain. Is it appropriate? It certainly can be, if the reason an author is writing a black character is simply because the character in their head is black, and not because they’d like to use them as a vehicle for grand pronouncements on race. But both of these questions miss the point, because they make it, as usual, all about the white person of the equation. What we should be doing is not whining for the right of our white literary darlings to be allowed to write in black voice without criticism, but firmly demanding more black voices in fiction (and eschewing the inevitable “But Zadie Smith!” tokenism in response). We should be complaining loudly about the fact that black writers get marginalized to the African American (or worse, “ethnic”) fiction section, whereas white writers have the benefit of belonging to the No-Qualifier-Needed fiction section. We should be wondering why Michael Chabon gets so much more coverage for his latest novel than Colson Whitehead.
Among many other things, Hurston’s novel forced me to come to terms with my own preferences. From my initial discomfort with the dialect, to the extra effort I had to intentionally seek out a non-white female author from one of the states I was driving through, it was clear to me that I do not often venture away from the white male hegemony when it comes to choosing what I read. It’s sad that it takes an effort to get outside of it. It’s stupid that we have to seek out alternative voices. But we should, because it’s worth the effort. It’s been three and a half months since I finished Their Eyes Were Watching God, but I can still hear Janie’s voice in my head. They don’t write them like that every day.
Recommended for: Tanner Colby.
Read When: You’re on a road trip through the American South, or just need a palate cleanser after reading an article by Tanner Colby
Listen With: Otis Redding. You should really be listening to most things with Otis Redding.