Their Eyes Were Watching God | Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston

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Their Eyes Were Watching God | Context


Racial Segregation in the American South

Their Eyes Were Watching God is set in the early 20th century in Florida during the era of strict racial segregation laws. Following passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and the end of the American Civil War in 1865, slavery was abolished. The period that followed the war, known as Reconstruction, was a time of great social, political, and cultural change in the South. While African Americans gained their freedom and males were given the right to vote, Southern whites worked to prevent them from gaining lasting economic or political power.

After Reconstruction ended in 1876, many states in the South passed laws to keep blacks and whites apart. In the 1890s these so-called "Jim Crow" laws (named after a popular minstrel character named Jim Crow) forced blacks and whites to live, travel, eat, worship, and play separately. In many states, for example, it was illegal for blacks and whites to attend the same schools, go to the same churches, or eat in the same restaurants. Blacks were only allowed to sit in certain seats on buses and trains. During the civil rights movement that began in earnest in the 1950s, protesters organized sit-ins, marches, and boycotts to protest these discriminatory laws. In 1964 Congress passed and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which helped end racial segregation in public places. At the time of the novel, however, those advances were far in the future.

Eatonville: "The Town That Freedom Built"

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie and Joe Starks, her second husband, live in Eatonville, Florida. Located in the central part of the state north of Orlando, Eatonville was settled by freed slaves from Alabama, Georgia, and other states in the 1880s. Similar to the way Joe Starks developed the fictional Eatonville, a former slave named Joseph C. Clarke bought more than 100 acres from Josiah Eaton, a white former U.S. Army captain. Clarke then divided the land into lots and sold them to African American families. On August 15, 1887, a group of 27 men voted to incorporate Eatonville, and the state government approved the new town charter. Zora Neale Hurston's family moved to Eatonville seven years later, and her father, John Hurston, was elected the town's mayor three times, starting in 1897. In 1990, the Zora Neale Hurston Museum of Fine Arts opened in Eatonville, and the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities is held there every January.

Florida's Everglades and the Okeechobee Hurricane

Another Florida setting in the novel is the Everglades, where Janie and Tea Cake earn a living planting seed and picking crops. As they discover, the land around Lake Okeechobee consists of fertile muck soil. From the late 1800s to the mid 1900s, developers, such as New Yorker William J. Connors, drained swamps in the Everglades for the purpose of developing commercial agriculture and other industries. In the 1920s people flocked to South Florida for the promise of cheap land and good jobs. Migrant workers came to southern Florida to pick sugar cane, peppers, peas, potatoes, beans, and tomatoes. The migrant workers who befriend Tea Cake and Janie are Motor Boat, Ed Dockery, Stew Beef, Sop-de-Bottom, Coodemay, Dick Sterrett, Lias, Bootyny, Double-Ugly, Muck-Boy, Gabriel, and Gabe.

Hurston drew on actual events in her novel. An example is the hurricane described in Chapter 18. In 1928 a hurricane with 135 mile-per-hour winds struck and devastated the Everglades. The storm caused the dirt levees around Lake Okeechobee to fail, unleashing a wall of water. As a result, more than 2,500 people were drowned, and thousands were left homeless. Most drowning victims were African American migrant workers like Tea Cake and Janie.

Hurston and the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance refers to the period between about 1917 and the mid-1930s when African American arts flourished. African American writers, artists, musicians, dancers, and actors were drawn to New York's Harlem, a vibrant community where they were encouraged to explore and celebrate their rich heritage. Hurston moved to Harlem in January 1925 with $1.50 in her pocket and soon met other writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance, such as the poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Their Eyes Were Watching God is considered one of this movement's most successful and influential works.

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