Their Eyes Were Watching God

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I was prompted to put this Zora Neale Hurston book on my get-at-library list after reading this article at Reason by Damon Root last year: Zora Neale Hurston’s Inconvenient Individualism. If you're interested, John McWhorter's 2011 take is also expectedly good: Zora Neale Hurston Was a Conservative. Confession: I like both those things!

But enough about the politics, what about the book? Published in 1937, it's the rocky odyssey of Janie Crawford, as she navigates through her young life and three marriages. (I might have missed something, but I'm not sure she bothered to get a divorce from Husband One before taking up with Husband Two.) It's set in 1920s Florida, and it's a—no pun intended—colorful tale of black folks navigating in a Jim Crow world. And they did a decent job of it.

Janie is abandoned by her mother, and raised by her grandma. Who notices her eventual budding interest in men, and responds by arranging a loveless marriage to a much older farmer. Janie is neglected and abused, and is therefore easy pickings for Jody, a very glib go-getter, who takes her to the black township of Eatonville (an actual place with a fascinating history, where Hurston grew up). Jody soon becomes a relatively wealthy shopowner, and mayor of the town. But he disrespects Janie. Who eventually commits the unforgivable sin of disrespecting him back, in public. Which winds up seemingly killing him. Janie's left with a fortune.

But she's still easy pickings for the fast-talking, guitar-playing, dice-throwing "Tea Cake". He sweeps her off her feet, taking her (and her money) off to the swampy Everglades. Their wedded bliss is soon interrupted by a massive hurricane. Their efforts to escape the storm seem successful, but Tea Cake is… well, no spoilers, but there's some courtroom drama as Janie goes on trial for murder.

One of the barriers to enjoying the book was its unapologetic and relentless use of black dialect. ("What dat ole forty year ole 'oman doin' wid her hair swingin' down her back lak some young gal?") Note: Hurston was a trained anthropologist and it's a safe bet this is accurate and honest.

And I couldn't help but notice a precursor to modern "Yo mama's so fat" jokes: the "Yo mule's so skinny" jokes (Chapter 6).

Last Modified 2024-01-10 5:47 AM EDT