RHC 2017: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: read a classic by an author of color.

Alternates: read a book published between 1900 and 1950; read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey; read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color. 

I feel like I need to tell you about my hometown before I attempt to clumsily talk about race.

I’m originally from Harrison, Arkansas, a small town in the beautiful north central part of the state with a terrible reputation. Harrison’s problems started in 1905, when a white mob ran a large portion of Harrison’s black population out of town and then finished the job in 1909 after a black man was accused of raping a white woman (seriously). After the 1909 violence, there was literally one person of color remaining in town. You can read the whole shameful story here if you’re interested (to be fair, Portland, Oregon has a strikingly similar history  – the idea that racism is a uniquely southern problem isn’t helpful for anyone, though I won’t argue that it doesn’t have a uniquely southern mode of expression).

Harrison was a particularly violent example of a sundown town – as in, “[slur], don’t let the sun set on you.” It wasn’t the only such community. North Central Arkansas aggressively established itself as a predominantly white region by actively discouraging non-white people from living there. Most rural communities in the region are still pretty white, though demographics are changing.

But Harrison’s problems don’t end there. In the 1970s, Tom Robb, the leader of the KKK set up shop in the nearby town of Zinc. There’s no post office in Zinc, and so he rented a post office box in Harrison for official KKK business. This meant that all of the KKK’s literature had a Harrison address stamped on it – the kind of bigot-attracting publicity that you can’t put a price tag on (though I guess in this case the price tag is the monthly cost of maintaining a PO box). Predictably enough, other hate groups started sprouting in the area like hate-filled racist mushrooms.

[An aside: I had a friend in school who lived out near Zinc. She lived in a very happy home that I wouldn’t exactly describe as a “a heap of marred trailers, dirt roads, and despair.” This part of the world is more complicated than the dominant national narrative would have you believe. Anyway.]

[Another aside: around the same time that Tom Rob was putting down his hateful roots in Zinc, the Ozarks were also hugely attractive to scores of back-to-the-land hippie types, making for a pretty bizarre cultural estuary. It’s surprisingly hard to guess the politics of the crowd packed into the local guitar shop for a jam band show where one might have found an awkward fourteen-year-old me perched on an amp trying desperately to fit in.]

My feelings about my hometown are complicated. I have a hard time talking about Harrison without sounding all #notallsundowntownresidents, but honestly, some of the best, smartest, most progressive people I know are from there, and many still live there. I’m proud to include my wonderful parents on that list. There was a vigorous community protest when an overtly racist billboard went up a few years back, as well as an act of heroic vandalism (here’s a Vice article about that which didn’t make me want to smash things – there have been multiple Vice articles about the area that have completely enraged me). There are good people that live there. Quite a few good people, really.

But I should state something obvious. I’m white. Like, white-white. So no, the hate groups in Harrison never directly affected me, and no, I don’t have the relevant experience to tell you just how racist Harrison actually is, because my melanin-deficient ass was entirely off the bigots’ radar. Nevertheless, I do know that this segment of Harrison’s population is real, vocal, and active, and I’m not trying to downplay that.

One of the hardest things for well-meaning white folks to wrap their heads around is that there’s more to racism than the torch-wielding white supremacist type. It’s necessary and important for Harrison residents to loudly, loudly denounce the hate groups that are currently defining their town, but true change for the better will have to involve a closer examination of whiteness and systemic oppression as well.

It’s particularly hard to swallow the concept of white privilege when you’re nearly completely surrounded by white people. When confronted with the concept, there’s a tendency to freak out and do things like vote for Donald Trump.

White fragility is not worth protecting at all, but it’s awfully hard to defeat. Fortunately, we do have the technology! One concrete step that Harrison could take to start combating the racial ignorance of its white population would be to convince every junior high and high school teacher to exclusively teach works by black authors  (though I’m cringing just thinking about the comments at that school board meeting).

There wasn’t a single black student in any of my classes in school. When I was a kid, I went through a phase of being terrified that I was a sleeper racist and wouldn’t know my condition until I actually spoke with a black person. I also didn’t read a single classic by an author of color during my entire secondary education. It was a galling experience to do a quick search for classics by black writers and realize how few of them I’d read at all.

So, all that’s to say, I’d never read Their Eyes Were Watching God. And that is to the detriment of me and every other Harrison student that missed out on it. I think my peers and I, who grew up in a nearly totally white community, would have benefited enormously from reading fiction set in an entirely black community.

Before I get much further into this, I invite you to read what some other online voices have to say about this book, because I’m not sure that the white lady from the sundown town has the most useful perspective here.

This is not a novel in which a black character teaches a white character / community a powerful lesson. In fact, there are hardly any white faces to be found in the book. A large portion of the novel takes place in Eatonville, Florida, an entirely black community (and one of the first incorporated black communities with black leadership in the country). Later, in the scenes in the Everglades, Native American and white workers are present, but more as background noise than anything else.

Don’t get me wrong, though – this is not a “colorblind” book. Janie’s life is powerfully shaped by her race and gender, before she even gets a chance to live it. Her grandmother is a former slave, and she’s desperate for Janie to have the comforts in life that she was denied. She then more or less forces Janie into a marriage with an older man to ensure that she gets those comforts. Janie finds herself trapped early as a result of both slavery and the fact that the only real upward mobility for women was to be found through marriage. Later, when her third husband Tea Cake beats Janie, it’s because Mrs. Taylor, a black woman who’s obsessed with light skin, tries to set Janie up with her light skinned brother. It can’t be a coincidence that the jarring incidence of violence in a romance otherwise predicated on mutual respect is related to skin privilege.

Kind of surprisingly, Richard Wright was not a fan. He basically called the novel a minstrel show. The novel is written in heavy dialect, and yes, it was pretty uncomfortable to read at first. To today’s ear, it does read like a pretty awful stereotype. I can appreciate the difficulties of presenting regional speech, hailing from them thar hills as I do. As the novel goes on, though, the dialect becomes one of its best characteristics – it’s funny, it’s fun to read, and it has its own logic, humor, and rhythm that feels genuine (but just to reiterate, I am not the best person to be commenting on this). Most importantly, the dialect doesn’t function as a shorthand for showing a character’s stupidity, innocence, or provincialism – it’s simply how language is used in the world of the novel.

And good god the writing in this book is incredible.

Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches (8).

It’s full of stuff like that. Janie is the kind of tough, determined heroine on whose behalf you wind up pumping your fist in the air. Her third and final husband Tea Cake is also a dreamboat of a third act minus the aforementioned beating – a scandalous number of years younger than Janie, sly, funny, and unafraid to share the world with her, no matter how frowned upon their relationship is.

If Richard Wright didn’t care for the book, Alice Walker was the one who went searching for Hurston’s unmarked grave and paid to put a headstone on it in the seventies (here’s Alice Walker reading several excerpts). She is quoted as saying “there is no book more important to me than this one.

This is one of those books that should be read, that I should have read a long time ago, and I’m very, very glad that I finally have.

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