"Dat's de very prong all us black women gits hung on. Dis love! Dat's just whut's got us uh pullin' and uh haulin' and sweatin' and doin' from can't see in de mornin' till can't see at night. Dat's how come de ole folks say dat bein' uh fool don't kill nobody. It jus' makes you sweat." (Nanny to Janie, There Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston)
I love Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston for so many reasons. If I could sum it up in one line: it's a womanist novel about love. I see so many elements of myself in Janie. The balance of loving herself with loving someone else. The struggle to create and hold on to her own defintions of love when society is consistently saying otherwise. And desiring life-completing love, but not the suffocating kind. Because above all, she just wants to be free.
Zora Neale Hurston is not simply a writer, she is an anthropologist. This is apparent in her writing. She captures the landscape and culture of Black people living in Florida at that time, but doesn't try to neatly package it for consumption. The language, true to the region she writes about, is one of Zora's strengths in her writing. Her ability to personalize a story and bring the reader right into the space where the dialogue is taking place, happens in her depiction of the Black vernacular. To understand Janie, you have to grasp the people who both nuture and neglect her, her roots being barely removed from slavery and the dynamics that result. The reader has to trudge through the dialect, not viewing it as a impediment to the storyline, but a character in itself.
Their Eyes Were Watching God depicts the reliability and importance of relationships between women when oppression by men abounds. Hurston conjures a familiarity reading these conversations between Black women, even if you are not in or from the South, because it's filled with a candor that often happens when we are allowed to let our guards down. Revisiting this novel makes me appreciate Zora's writing style even more because it's in some of these often overlooked interactions that give Janie her depth and layered character, but also makes her story even more relatable.
I re-read this novel often and consider it probably one of the best written pieces of literature of all time. Apart from this book review, I think there is something to glean from Black literature in general, but specifically, Zora Neale Hurston's words are for everyone, regardless of identity, because Hurston's gift was studying and capturing the human experience. As much as Janie's story is about love, it simply is about humanity.
© Evangeline Lawson July 19, 2023