Zora Neale Hurston began her writing career at a time where the Slave Narrative was the ruling form of African-American literature. The Harlem Renaissance gave African-American artists a great opportunity to express their thoughts through art, music, and literature. Up until this point, the Slave Narrative was the biggest outlet for African-American writers. Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God sought to change the African-American writings from the Slave Narrative to a whole new way of storytelling. While There Eyes Were Watching God does have some aspects of the Slave Narrative in it, it is mostly very different.
The Slave Narrative had a few defining characteristics involved with them. The Slave Narrative normally involves a slave being abused by their white masters in some way. Normally, a child is born from some white man in power raping a black woman under his care. Hurston’s novel does have a few of these aspects in it. Janie’s origin is a good example of this. "Den they’d tell me not to be takin’ on over ... mah looks ‘cause they mama told ‘em ‘bout de hound dawgs huntin’ mah papa all night long. ‘Bout Mr. Washburn and de sheriff puttin’ de bloodhounds on de trail tuh ketch mah papa for whut he done tuh mah mama. Dey didn’t tell about how he wuz seen tryin tuh git in touch wid mah mama later on so he could marry her. Naw, dey didn’t talk dat part of it at all. Dey made it sound real bad so as tuh crumple mah feathers” (Hurston, 2006). This quote talks about Janie’s father and mother. Janie’s father was a white man who rapes Janie’s mother and gets her pregnant. Janie’s mother is also the product of a white man taking advantage of a black woman. Janie has to overcome this and is reminded by everyone around her of her origins. This really is the theme of a Slave Narrative.
However, this quote also gives an example of how this book is not an example of a Slave Narrative. Janie’s father does not try to just up and leave after he makes her mother pregnant. Instead he tries to get in touch with her in order to marry her. The white man takes responsibility for what he has done and attempts to make what he did right. Another example of how Their Eyes Were Watching God is not really a Slave Narrative. Janie, the main character, never plays the victim in this story. She has her issues and is described by the town’s folk as being beaten down like the road (Hurston, 2006). However, she rises above these issues to become a great independent woman. “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. ... For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men. Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly (Hurston, 2006).”
It is amazing that Hurston was able to break the bonds that held African-American literature to a lone style with this one book. Although she was disliked for it by her African-American artist friends, Hurston strode on, just like Janie, in a bold attempt to break from the literature stereotypes of the Slave Narrative.
Hurston, Z. N. (2006). Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York, New York: HarperCollins.