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Archaeology of a Classic

Zora Neale Hurston and Their Eyes Were Watching God at 75

Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.

—Alice Walker
In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens
 
 
Though not intended only as a description of her literary ancestor Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker’s definition of “womanist” in her 1983 volume of essays In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens more than aptly describes Hurston, the “foremother” whose rediscovery is the partial subject of the book. In one essay, “Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View,” Walker begins, “I became aware of my need of Zora Neale Hurston’s work some time before I knew her work existed.” This desire was first felt when Walker was just beginning her writing career, researching a short story set in the 1930s whose plot turned on the complexities of African American folklore—she was unable to locate a black “authority” on such folkways. The need came again, even more viscerally, when as a student in an African American literature class taught by a well-known black woman poet, all of the texts on the syllabus were by men. In both cases, Hurston had been mentioned casually, as an off-hand remark in the classroom and as a footnote in a textbook, belying the fact that she was the only trained black anthropologist of African American life and culture in 1930s America, as well as an award-winning writer known for the distinctiveness of her voice. These two incidents taught Walker that to be a creative black woman, from the time of Phillis Wheatley at least up until the 1980s, was too often to be in a state of frustrating uniqueness or invisibility. Dissatisfied with this lack of models, with the perceived absence of a black women’s literary tradition, Walker went searching for her “mother’s gardens” and found Zora Neale Hurston and Their Eyes Were Watching God.
 
Alice Walker’s rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston was an act of personal and cultural salvation. In her effort to bring Hurston’s love of “the folk” and “herself,” back into print at a major press, Walker did excavation work on Hurston and other writers in order to “write all the things I should have been able to read.” Recovering Hurston and Their Eyes required Walker to visit many libraries, to fly to Florida, and to lie. In 1973, Walker set out to find out more about Hurston’s life by going to Eatonville, Florida, Hurston’s all- black hometown, the subject/setting of much of her work. In Eatonville, Walker discovered that Hurston’s last years in Florida were filled with hardships. The Great Depression and World War II were difficult times for black writers who had previously been supported by a combination of white patronage, philanthropic grants, and scholarships. Although Hurston wrote steadily and traveled even as her fortunes declined, she never garnered the same recognition she had in the 1920s.
 
Additionally, she struggled with changing racial mores both personally and politically. The author of five novels and 50 short stories, plays, and essays published during her lifetime, Hurston died in poverty near Eatonville, isolated from her family and most of her Harlem Renaissance-era friends. Her books were all out of print. Lying to local residents that she was Hurston’s niece in order to gain their trust, Walker journeyed to Florida to claim Hurston as an ancestor despite her troubles. In an act of veneration and appreciation, Walker paid the ultimate respect to Hurston on that trip—she located her unmarked grave in the snake-infested high grass of the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida, and placed a stone marker on it:
Zora Neale Hurston
‘A Genius of the South’
Novelist Folklorist Anthropologist
1901 – 1960
The placement of Hurston’s headstone and the story that Walker told of it in Ms. magazine in 1975 started a revolution in African American literature. The article, “Looking for Zora,” introduced Hurston to a new reading audience of black people and women just after or in the midst of the civil rights and women’s movements. Once passed around in photocopy by black women writers and academics in English-department hallways and at literature and black studies conferences, Their Eyes has now become a classic not just of the Harlem Renaissance, but of African American literature and literature in any language. First republished by small academic presses in the 1970s, Their Eyes and much of Hurston’s other work was issued by Harper Perennial in the 1990s. Hurston’s story of Janie Crawford, her struggle to love herself and believe in
the creation and telling of her own story, has inspired women everywhere to trust their own voices. Their Eyes is innovative in terms of its linguistic structure and told in Janie’s metaphor-rich, dynamic black vernacular—choices Hurston made to convey the complexity of black womanhood. As a literary ancestor, Their Eyes is a titan of a book; like its author, it is powerful, potent, more meaningful over time.
 
Walker’s pilgrimage inspired others to mine the archives, to search for the people and the work we all deserved to know. “Black Women’s Writing” courses now do not just begin with Hurston, but include women’s writing well before and after her time. Deservedly now a primary document of black women’s literature and history, Their Eyes, its author, and the story of their mutual disappearance and recovery, is, as Walker warned a “cautionary tale.” In the African American tradition, we’ve seen and sung about too many “motherless children.” At this 75th anniversary of the original publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God, let’s ensure that we nurture each other and the black literary tradition by giving everyone access to what Hurston claimed as the origin of her craft and an essential part of black culture—the ability to “say my say and sing my song” regardless.
 
—Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, used with permission granted by the Van Vechten Trust. Courtesy of the Barnard College archives.
—Illustration by Edel Rodriguez