When, at sixteen, Janie is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before she meets the man of her dreams – who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds.
“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.”
I have been meaning to pick up Their Eyes Were Watching God since I read Janet Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness a few years back. Janet wrote of the book with so much love – and I wanted feel closer to Janet/continue to live inside of her brain, so I determined I would read it too so it could be like something we shared (does anyone understand what I mean by this?). It took me a few years, but, like most things, I finally got around to it. And let me tell you, there’s a reason people have such strong feelings about Zora Neale Hurston.
It’s really hard to use the words ‘women’s empowerment’ without cringing, but I’m going to ask that you allow me to do so here. Because Their Eyes Were Watching God is a complex and nuanced look at how one Black woman, Janie, empowers herself in 1930s America. In fact, I think we should remove the cringe factor altogether. We still live in a world where women’s empowerment is a political conversation – albeit one that has been hijacked by a very white, #GirlBoss style of feminism that is much more about buying things than changing things. But, when stripped of its corruption by capitalism, it is a political conversation still.
Janie’s story takes her through three husbands: Logan, a much older man Janie’s grandmother marries her off to because she believes it’ll give her her best chance – he’s rich; Jody, another older smooth talker Janie runs off with at the first opportunity; and, finally Teacake, the man who ends up being pretty much the love of her life.
I am deeply resistant to the idea of a woman’s empowerment being wrapped up in a man – as anyone who has ever read a review of mine may have picked up on… – so the structure of Janie’s story as one completely bound up in the men she was in relationship with challenged me, but, I think, ultimately showed me something I hadn’t really considered before.
Her first husband, and her second husband even more so, thought of Janie – young, beautiful – as a symbol of their own success. In the all-Black community of Eatonville, the town where she and Jody live together they are basically the ultimate power couple, owners of the General Store that is the centre of the town’s community, and eventually mayor and – I guess? – mayoress. But Jody is deeply controlling, and won’t allow Janie to participate in the town’s community – he barely even lets her to speak to people. He wants only to hold her up like a trophy, another of his achievements.
In a lot of ways this is what women are taught to want, right? It certainly seems like an enviable position to a lot of other women in Janie’s orbit. But it denies her freedom and agency; she is just another of those caged birds, cut off.
“She was borned in slavery when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me – don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn’t have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool tuh do nothin’. De object wuz tuh git dere. So Ah got up on de high stool lak she tol me, but Phoeby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere.”
When Teacake, a much younger man, comes along, he offers Janie everything she’s never had before. Fun, music, vitality, and actual love, the sort of active give and take that has very little to do with the alienating idolatry Janie has experienced before. This is not to say their relationship is perfect – it is in many episodes deeply problematic. Teacake often spends Janie’s money without asking, and there is sometimes violence in their relationship – but despite all this he is the man that Janie has chosen for herself. And it is that choice that represents such a turning point for Janie. She steps down off of the high chair and into her life. It’s a complicated life, with a guy we might not have chosen for her, but it is finally her own. As Zadie Smith writes in her introduction to the Virago Modern Classics edition: “the choice one makes between partners, between one man and another (or one woman and another) stretches far beyond romance. It is, in the end, the choice between values, possibilities, futures, hopes, arguments (shared concepts that fit the world as you experience it), languages (shared words that fit the world as you believe it to be) and lives.”
As you will note from the quotes I have chosen, this book includes a mix of omniscient narrator, written in standard English and speech written in dialect. Dialect puts a lot of people off, but it really needn’t. It takes a minute, but you tune in – and once you do the voices leap off the page. Or as Zadie puts it in her gorgeous intro,“her conversations reveal individual personalities, accurately, swiftly, as if they had no author at all.”
I note this mostly because I know dialect scares a lot of people away – might have scared me away if I had realised what I was getting myself into – but it really needn’t. Trust me.
Janie’s story is one you need to read.