Is it true that the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God avoided the race issue? Some critics defend that Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God is avoiding the race issue in a context black people needed their voices to be heard. Is it true that she wasn't confrontational? If references available that would be good, but not necessary, just want to have specialists' ideas.    

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This topic is very good, and I enjoyed reading the replies. My view mostly echoes that of a number of the previous posters, but at the end of my post I give a bulleted list of items that have not yet been raised that illustrate that there is open conflict between blacks and whites in the novel.

Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is not at all concerned with the so-called “Negro problem” or the program of “racial uplift” that dominated much of the writing by African Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but it seems inaccurate to me to say that Hurston avoids the “race issue.” Race seems to me to be everywhere in the novel, and the novel would not be what it is without the emphasis on race.

Consider, for example, the extensive attention given to specifically black American speech patterns, practices and folklore and the equally extensive attention given to racist attitudes within the black American communities that Hurston depicts: Janie’s straight hair is an attention-grabber for pretty much all of the black men and women in the novel, and through Mrs. Turner and other characters, the novel explores the lasting hierarchies based on skin tone with African American communities.

The novel focuses on primarily on black American communities, and white characters play few important roles in the novel, but when white characters emerge, they are often (perhaps always?) shown to be in direct conflict with the blacks in the story. Consider, for example, this brief list:

  • the stories of what life was like during slavery
  • the passage “de white man is de ruler of everything,” which is part of Hurston’s retelling of a popular African American folktale about the origins of racist hiearchies
  • Joe Stark’s attempts to recreate the hierarchy of the plantation in the all-black community of Eatonville (e.g. his big white house)
  • the white men with rifles who immediately assume authority over Teacake, calling him “Jim” and forcing him to bury the dead (consider, too, who is buried in coffins and who is not!)

I am sure that other examples of the "race issue" can be found in the novel. The topic may not be immediately obvious, but it is certainly there.

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Zora Neale Hurston was not concerned with writing social protest literature; she said early on that she was not "tragically black."  Her novel, written in 1937, long before such potest literature became prevalent, instead, is a celebration of woman. Janie Crawford goes from being the property of an old man to becoming her own person.  Their Eyes Were Watching God  is a novel, depicting a woman's progress from self-awareness to self-fulfillment, an issue that knows no racial boundaries.

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It would be difficult to ignore the idea of race when reading this novel, as it is about a black culture living alongside (or within) a white culture. Color is an issue, but perhaps not in the way you mean. If by "race issue" you mean an adversarial relationship between blacks and whites, this novel does not spend much time on the race issue. If, however, you are referring to an accurate picture of a culture which has a diverse range of people, some of whom fit a stereotype and some of whom do not, this novel does address the race issue. Hurston was vilified by her own people for what they saw as her harsh depiction of black men;  her defense was that she wrote what she saw. The only real "race issue" or conflict, then, seems to be between various members of one race.

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No, I don't think Zora Neale Hurston avoided the race issue in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Although the novel does not explicitly address race relations, there are many scenes that present the issue for the consideration of the reader in the development of the main character Janie.

For example, early in the novel we learn that Janie thought she was wihite as a young child until a phtographer came and took a picture of her and other children. Likewise, the scene late in the novel with Mrs. Turner directly addresses the issue of prejudice even within the African American race.

In short, although ZNH did not choose to make an explicit issue of race in the main plot of the novel, it is certainly present in the various subplots of the story.

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Since it does not examine interracial relations directly, Their Eyes Were Watching God is often accused of over-simplification.  The author was considered naïve at best and pandering to whites at worst.  Some African-Americans felt that it was written for a white audience when it was published in 1937, so it was more popular with whites than blacks.  The book focuses on a black family in the 30s, and is considered a good depiction of the culture of blacks in the South then.  It is a part of American history, and an important part.

  The question is, is black culture defined by its interaction with white culture?  To a certain extent, every culture is defined by its clashes with other cultures and especially dominant cultures.  The fact that the culture and family can be celebrated in the absence of race, does not have to be negative.  We can explore and accept the culture for what it is, and rely on other books that accurately depict the struggles of racism.  Sometimes simplicity is not the same as naiveté. 

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