BOOK CLUB: Their Eyes Were Watching God

eyes watching god“Love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”

So ruminates Janie Crawford, the protagonist of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The novel follows Janie over the course of three decades of her life, as she “washes upon the shores” of her three very different husbands.

I really appreciated the novel for Hurston’s insights into the female mind, as well as her depictions of African American culture in 1920’s southern Florida. And I loved her eloquent, almost lyrical prose. 

By the end of the novel, Janie had become a real person to me. On one level, Janie was very particularly as black woman, living in a black world. But on another level, she was just a woman, like me. I was certainly rooting for her!

I did find it curious that Janie never had children, and never mentioned why she didn’t. Especially with the recurring image of the bee and the pear tree, which in my mind connotes not only sex, but reproduction as well. (Hurston herself didn’t have children.) Did anyone else wonder about that?

“The sun was gone…It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths.”

Hurston’s depictions of African American life and culture—away from, separate from, not in response to white culture—were so vivid I felt like I was there with her. I appreciated the way she subtly translated her culture to those of us outside of it.

The men sitting on the store porch, playing the dozens. The music. The young men catcalling the young women. The complex issues surrounding of the degree of darkness of Black women’s skin, of the “blackness” of her hair.

When Hurston first published Their Eyes in 1937, many of the others artists who along with her were a part of the Harlem Renaissance criticized her for exposing some of the deeper, more hidden aspects of African American culture to a wider, whiter audience. I can understand that, but selfishly I’m grateful for her beautiful rendering of her culture and (because much of Their Eyes is believed to be autobiographical) her experience.

I did some research and learned that Eatonville, Florida, is a real place. It was one of the first all-black towns formed after the Emancipation Proclamation (so much earlier than the book depicts.) Hurston actually grew up there. It’s now part of the greater Orlando area, and its population is still 90% African American.

I also learned that a catastrophic hurricane really did sweep through southern Florida in 1928. It’s referred to as the Okeechobee Hurricane, named after the lake featured in the book. It was one of the top 10 most intense—and deadliest—hurricanes ever to strike U.S. soil. Most deaths occurred when a storm surge from Lake Okeechobee breached the dike surrounding the lake, flooding an area covering hundreds of square miles. Approximately 75% of the causalities were black migrant farm workers. It was the Katrina of its time. Because the flood waters took weeks to recede and many bodies were washed into the Everglades, it’s impossible to know the exact death count. A mass grave containing 1600 bodies exists to this day.

Oprah Winfrey produced a made-for-TV version of Their Eyes, starring Halle Berry as Janie, in 2005. But I’m hesitant to watch it because 1) critics say it was pretty lame and 2) Hurston created such vibrant pictures in my mind, I’m hesitant to replace those with lesser images.

How about you…What did you think of the book? When did you first read it? Did you watch the movie when it came out? What did you think of Janie? Why do you think Hurston picked that particular phrase from the book for its title?

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