My husband and I just finished watching American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. I was eight years old when the trial was on television. I remember vague details and realize most of my impressions were filtered through the opinions of my parents. I was unaware of the larger elements of this trial: police violence, sexism leveled against female prosecutor Marcia Clark, and the suggestion that O.J. had worked his whole life to be accepted into rich, white Brentwood, CA, with its golf courses and gated communities, setting his blackness aside for wealth and celebrity, as if those things must be mutually exclusive. This series is excellent. It is probing and discomforting; my husband and I had many conversations concerning privilege and the construct of whiteness, trying to get outside of it or at least confront it. How does this filter impact the way we look at O.J., the police, Marcia Clark, and Johnnie Cochran?
No matter how aware I am of my own privilege, I wonder how possible it is to deconstruct it completely. Is awareness enough? The closest I can come to empathy are the experiences that I have had as a woman, but white women and black women endure very different prejudice, so my empathy can only go so far.
To confront the whiteness of our own bookshelves, Dotters thought it would be a good idea to write about books written by black authors. I thought, My resolve to intentionally read diverse voices will pay off - I’ve read some fantastic books by black authors lately. And yet, I feel this is insufficient. The struggle for Civil Rights continues amidst iterations of the same violence, disrespect, and dehumanization that occurred decades ago.
In this paralysis I realize I’ve never really thought about the purpose of Black History Month before (hello, privilege!). In 1976, Black History Month was officially recognized by President Gerald Ford as an “opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Relegating that “opportunity” to one month seems restrictive, but I digress...
I decided to feature a book that sat on my shelf for a long time, neglected as so many are, passed over for something newer and shinier: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.
Despite having heard this novel discussed as an important work in the literary canon, I knew very little about it or its author. Luckily, my copy has an Afterword written by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. called “Zora Neale Hurston: ‘A Negro Way of Saying,’” and it provided some context. Gates called Their Eyes Were Watching God “a bold feminist novel, the first to be explicitly so in the Afro-American tradition.” He also explains that Zora Neale Hurston was acknowledged as a talent when her work was first published, but quickly fell into obscurity, most likely because she fundamentally disagreed with established black male voices like Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, who believed “racism had reduced black people to mere ciphers, to beings who only react to an omnipresent racial oppression, whose culture is ‘deprived’ where different, and whose psyches are in the main ‘pathological.’” Hurston, on the other hand, “thought this idea degrading, its propogation a trap, and railed against it.”
Hurston’s love for black traditions and communities is made clear in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie, the heroine of the novel, grows up in Florida with her grandmother, who was a slave. She is married off, quite young, to the first man with interest. He works for white men and expects that Janie work for him. In her unhappiness she meets Jody. He tells her about a town inhabited only by black people; he is determined to settle there and become the mayor. She is inspired by his ambition and sense of freedom and runs away with him. Everything goes exactly as he plans and the town grows and legitimizes itself; he establishes a post office, a store, and a school, but Janie again feels trapped. Despite the absence of white people in the town, Jody mimics the structure of all the white towns that he has lived in. Like O.J. Simpson, he defines his success in relation to white people, and Janie consequently feels enslaved within herself.
Finally, after Jody’s death, Janie meets Tea Cake. He is ten years younger and celebrates his blackness. He plays guitar, hosts dances, and lets Janie play games that Jody never let her play as he expected her to be the dignified wife of the mayor. Tea Cake takes Janie down into the Everglades where she helps him work in the muck. Janie comes alive. In finally being allowed to embrace her own culture, her own blackness, Janie is free.
Zora Neale Hurston’s celebration of black culture as separate from and equal to white culture is best understood by Hurston herself: “‘Roll your eyes in ecstasy and ape his every move, but until we have placed something upon his street corner that is our own, we are right back where we were when they filed our iron collar off.’”