Long before Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Alice Walker, and Terry McMillan blazed the shelves with their black feminist literature, Zora Neale Hurston blazed her own trail of black girl literary magic. It was Hurston who quoted her mother in saying "we all should look up at de sun" meaning that we as Black people should celebrate living our own lives. As a scholar, activist, and writer, Hurston became the example of the beauty in Blackness.
Literature honors Hurston by celebrating 80 years of Hurston's beloved classical tale of love, culture, and self-fulfillment Their Eyes Were Watching God. By far Hurston's magnum opus, the 1937 novel celebrates the life and times of Janie Crawford, a Black woman who writes her own narrative and tell her own story of searching through three different men to find herself.
Of the three, it is Tea Cake who takes Janie the furthest in her journey. Decades before Winston Shakespeare became the apple of McMillan's How Stella Got Her Groove Back, it was Tea Cake that balanced his youthful lust with Janie’s lifetime of love, loss, and pain.
When the novel begins, Janie returns "from burying the dead" looking to "find about love and livin'." Autobiographical in nature, scholars reveal that Hurston herself based the relationship between Janie and Tea Cake on her own whirlwind romantic affair with a much younger man. The relationship, said to be intense in nature, ended abruptly. Single and looking to find new life to examine, Hurston went off to Haiti and in six weeks had created the masterpiece that would change the face of American literature.
In retrospect, Their Eyes Were Watching God is deemed a classic in American literature, a far cry from its original debut status. Initial reception was lukewarm to Hurston, who was vilified for her to appear exploiting African American vernacular and female sexuality. Such reaction caused the novel and Hurston to roughly go into obscurity for over two decades prior to being rediscovered by fellow African American female writer Alice Walker in the 1970's.
“No less a writer than Alice Walker has hailed Hurston as her inspiration for writing in African-American dialect….” writes Elizabeth Mehren in her 1991 article for the Los Angeles Times, “Walker’s essay describing her quest to locate, and mark Hurston’s grave is a centerpiece in ‘Zora! Zora Neale Hurston: A Woman and Her Community,’ the retrospective from Sentinel Books.”
The spirit of Hurston's complex narrative and multi-faceted characters have been mirrored in stories of other female African American literary giants such as Alice Walker's the Third Eye of Grange Copeland (1970) and Meridian (1976). Arguing perhaps Hurston's spirit resides in the very nature of Black feminism, or womanism.
June Sawyers writes in her 1992 Chicago Tribune article, “Hurston`s pioneering stories and folklore laid the groundwork for generations of black female writers such as Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker to succeed…in writing about being a rural Southern black woman, Hurston captured, with pride and cheerful irreverence, the essence of black folk culture. Her characters are vibrant and blunt and full of life.”
Today, Their Eyes Were Watching God is read in hundreds of high school and college classrooms, providing a template for classical African American literature. Hurston is a celebrated figure, whose life and legacy has become an annual festival held in her hometown as well as the town central in the novel Eatonville, Florida. Saluting both Their Eyes Were Watching God and Zora Neale Hurston, the epitome of literary #BlackGIrlMagic and who taught us all to find out about love and living.