African-American novelist Zora Neale Hurston was as independent in her artistic expression as her heroine Janie Crawford was in her search for love and independence.
Hurston published her seminal book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, during a time when racism was being propagated through Jim Crow laws and pro-white literature, which described blacks as intellectually inferior and sexually aggressive. To counter the negative and false stereotypes of African Americans, W.E.B. Du Bois initiated the Uplift agenda, which focused on writing about blacks in a positive light and pointing out racial subjugation.
As a writer during the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston participated in redefining cultural black identity, but she did it on her own terms and in a nonconformist manner — to the chagrin of many in her circle.
In writing Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston made no political statement; instead, she told the tale of her heroine Janie, who, after having survived three marriages to three very different men, ultimately found emotional, financial and sexual empowerment by defying the norms of Southern black society. Janie's driving force? Her unabashed self-love.
Hurston's novel did not go over so well with some of her Harlem Renaissance peers. On reading it, novelist Richard Wright wrote the following scathing commentary for The New Masses publication:
"Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatsoever to move in the direction of serious fiction… [She] can write; but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley... Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears."
Adding to that, novelist Ralph Ellison concluded that Hurston's work included a "blight of calculated burlesque," while writer Otis Ferguson believed that while the novel wasn't a disappointment, "it deserves to be better."
Responding to why she didn't address racial injustices in her book, Hurston replied: "Because I was writing a novel and not a treatise on sociology. [...] I have ceased to think in terms of race; I think only in terms of individuals. I am interested in you now, not as a Negro man but as a man. I am not interested in the race problem, but I am interested in the problems of individuals, white ones and black ones."
Regardless of Hurston's critics within her own community, mainstream white critics generally received Their Eyes Were Watching God warmly. The New York Herald Tribune's Sheila Hibben described the work as "a flashing, gleaming riot of black people, with a limitless sense of humor, and a wild, strange sadness." Lucille Tompkins of the New York Times said Their Eyes was a story "... about Negroes... but really it is about every one, or at least every one who isn't so civilized that he has lost the capacity for glory."
Hurston died in 1960 amid health and financial problems, never receiving proper due for her most famous work. It would only be after her death that she would be later celebrated as the "black Faulkner" and a decade would pass before a new wave of Black feminism and the Black Aesthetic movement — heralded by Alice Walker and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. — would rediscover the genius of Their Eyes Were Watching God.
"Her work had a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings and that was crucial to me as a writer," stated Walker about Hurston. About Their Eyes, Walker admitted it would become her ultimate inspiration. "There is no book more important to me than this one."