This article was first published inside Issue #3 of PETRIe E-Magazine.
The male writers of the Harlem Renaissance produced consistent work about the 'New Negro'. And yet, little existed in terms of a black female literary tradition. Enter Zora Neale Hurston: essayist, anthropologist, novelist, and a lone female voice in a largely male-dominated literary phenomenon characterised by the likes of Langston Hughes and W. E. Dubois.
Her individualism and disinterest in conforming to the standards set out by her race and gender made Hurston a controversial figure who often found herself alienated from the very black artists that she is now constantly compared to. Despite this, Hurston remained irreverent and fiercely unapologetic throughout her lifetime: "How can anybody deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me," she once asked.
Her seminal novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God - which is now widely acknowledged as a classic of the Harlem Renaissance - polarised audiences at the time of its publication. Of particular note is the scathing critique delivered by writer Richard Wright, who vilified Their Eyes Were Watching God for being empty of meaning, message and thought. Such criticisms, however, dismiss the importance of Hurston's work in addressing the largely unrepresented female African American experience within institutions that are not only racist, but also sexist.
At the time of Hurston's writing, issues of African American female sexuality were a source of anxiety for the black literary establishment, who sought to sanction widely-accepted representations of African American women as licentious and animalistic. Their Eyes Were Watching God chronicles the story of Janie, an African American woman and her three marriages. In many ways, it is a novel about sex. Significantly, however, it is a novel that treats African American female sexuality as something intrinsic, nuanced, and natural rather than as a caricatured and destructive force.
It is also a novel about female friendship and sisterhood; about longing and disappointment; about the way in which we turn the people we love into Gods and search for ourselves in them. It is, above all, a novel brimming with delight and cruelty, defying categorisation - much like Hurston herself. It isn't lacking in meaning, message and thought; on the contrary, it possesses all three in spades.
Hurston died in obscurity. She lived out her last years in a welfare home and was buried in an unmarked grave. Interest in her work was revived by the novelist, Alice Walker, who made a personal pilgrimage to Hurston's burial site, marking her place of rest with a headstone reading "Genius of the South." In making a painstaking effort to restore Hurston's writing, Walker finally enabled Hurston to claim her well-deserved place as a great American writer; one whose writing was sensitive without being saccharine and vulnerable without being weak.
Words: Catherine Karellis