Their Eyes Were Watching God’s Publication History and Reception: Their Eyes Were Watching God is Zora Neale Hurston’s most popular work. Upon publication in 1937, it was generally well received by white critics. However, critical reception among the African American community was initially negative, with many reviewers citing the following criticisms:
- Oversimplification: Richard Wright, author of Native Son and other acclaimed novels, accused Hurston of intentionally oversimplifying the African American experience in order to pander to white audiences. For critics like Wright, Hurston’s oversimplification only perpetuated stereotypes originally established by white people. Interestingly, the mainstream white press raved about Their Eyes Were Watching God. The New York Times, for example, praised the novel for being “about every one, or at least every one who isn’t so civilized that he has lost the capacity for glory.”
- Fuel for Discrimination: Similar to Wright, some African American critics— predominantly male authors who rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance— criticized Hurston for failing to directly condemn discrimination against black people. Furthermore, they felt that Their Eyes Were Watching God portrayed white people as the enemy, which only fueled harmful stereotypes about black people.
The Harlem Renaissance: Their Eyes Were Watching God is set during the Harlem Renaissance, a social and artistic movement that originated in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in the 1920s. The Harlem Renaissance is widely considered the rebirth of African American arts, and Zora Neale Hurston became a major fixture after she moved to New York City in 1925.
- The Great Migration: In the first few decades following the Civil War, most African Americans lived in the southern United States. Oppressive segregationist laws and insufficient employment opportunities prompted many families to move north, where they often took industrial jobs that emerged during World War I. By 1920, nearly 300,000 African American families had moved to Harlem, which was a popular hub for black urban culture.
- A Golden Age for African American Arts: Writers, musicians, actors, and scholars of the Harlem Renaissance sought to separate African American identity from white stereotypes that heavily influenced how they related to their cultural roots—and to each other. Though the Harlem Renaissance cannot be characterized by a particular style, the influence of slavery, racism, and emerging African American artistic traditions on black identity were dominant themes across all art forms.
- Zora Neale Hurston and Fire!!: Zora Neale Hurston quickly became a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance when in 1926, she co-founded Fire!!, a literary magazine that celebrated African American literature and life in Harlem. Fire!! was poorly received because, according to critics, it did not represent the sophisticated image that African Americans had established in Harlem.
Racism and Oppression After the Civil War: Their Eyes Were Watching God is set in the early 20th century, not long after the Civil War ended. Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, is a former slave, and the turbulent aftermath of the Emancipation—and its impact on African American identity—figures prominently throughout the novel.
- The Reconstruction Era: After the Civil War ended in 1865, the Southern Confederate states underwent a period of rebuilding from 1865–1877. Under President Andrew Jackson’s administration, newly-liberated African Americans were faced with oppressive “Black Codes” in an attempt to restrict their newly-granted civil rights and liberties. Outrage in the north ended these codes and paved the way for a “Radical Reconstruction,” during which the first black people were elected to the United States Congress and to southern state legislatures. However, the violent backlash of hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan would reverse these progressive changes in the south within a decade.
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- Crow Laws:As white supremacy surged in the southern states during the 1870s, African Americans were faced with oppressive segregationist laws known as “Jim Crow” laws. Though the Black Codes were overturned during the Reconstruction Era, southern states prohibited black people from sharing the public facilities, school systems, drinking fountains, restaurants, and transportation available to white people. Furthermore, the facilities that were available to black people were often inferior and poorly-funded. Some did not exist at all. Jim Crow laws, which lasted until 1965, prompted the relocation of many black families to northern states.