Black Boy And Their Eyes Were Watching God I. Abstract This paper examines the drastic differences in literary themes and styles of Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, two African–American writers from the early 1900’s. The portrayals of African-American women by each author are contrasted based on specific examples from their two most prominent novels, Native Son by Wright, and Their Eves Were Watching God by Hurston. With the intent to explain this divergence, the autobiographies of both authors (Black Boy and Dust Tracks on a Road) are also analyzed. Particular examples from the lives of each author are cited to demonstrate the contrasting lifestyles and experiences that created these disparities, drawing parallels between the authors’ lives and creative endeavors. It becomes apparent that Wright’s traumatic experiences involving females and Hurston’s identity as a strong, independent and successful Black artist contributed significantly to the ways in which they chose to depict African-American women and what goals they adhered to in reaching and touching a specific audience with the messages contained in their writing. Out of bitterness and rage caused by centuries of oppression at the hands of the white population, there has evolved in the African-American community, a strong tradition of protest literature. Several authors have gained prominence for delivering fierce messages of racial inequality through literature that is compelling, efficacious and articulate. One of the most notable authors in this classification of literature is Richard Wright, author of several pieces including his most celebrated novel, Native Son, and his autobiography, Black Boy.
A man violently opposed to and deeply enraged by the injustice that is at the roots of the African-American struggle, Wright is also known for his harsh criticisms of any author whose work, in his opinion, downplays or completely ignores the plight faced by the African-American community. One such author, whose portrayal of the African-American woman as a heroine, thus stirring Wright’s bitterest and deepest aversion and condemnation, is African-American female, Zora Neale Hurston. Like Wright, Hurston, also his contemporary, was a prolific artist, yet in a strikingly different style, and with drastically different thematic messages, she strayed from the tradition of bitterness and rage embraced by Wright. The study of African-American protest literature is useful in comprehending the depth of the racial plight in America. Richard Wright (1908-1960) and Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), two African-American authors sharing the same literary era, then, might be expected to produce similar works, if not in plot, then perhaps, and probably more likely, in theme. Typical African-American literature of this time period, especially that of Black males, carries strong messages of the injustice of racism, oppression and inequality in all facets of society.
Zora Neale Hurston, however, chose an inherently different path. In the words of Missy Dehn Kubitschek, Their Eyes Were Watching God provides an emblem of Hurston’s withdrawal from political concerns in favor of personal relationships (19). This course of action has warranted the intense criticism of Black males, among the harshest of whom was Richard Wright. In a review of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Wright contends that Miss Hurston can write; but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression. A major divergence of literary style is discovered when comparing both Hurston’s and Wright’s representations of female characters in their major novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God and Native Son, respectively.
This deviation is almost entirely specific to the authors’ portrayal of African-American women. While a female is the central character of Hurston’s novel, Wright consistently portrays women as hindrances to the ability of the African-American male to succeed despite the constraints created by white society. In order to discover some of the underlying origins of the very different gender roles in these two novels, a complementary comparison of the autobiographies of Wright and Hurston, Black Boy and Dust Tracks on a Road, respectively, is especially useful. To contrast the gender-related themes employed by Wright and Hurston, and to subsequently analyze the roots of these differences, is to create a portrait of two drastically dissenting views and literary techniques. These views have contributed to the creation of two distinct bodies of literature in the African-American community. The answer to this gender question can only begin to adequately analyze the factors that caused two astoundingly talented African-American artists of the same time period to create literature that is so vehemently contradictory.
V. Janie Zora Neale Hurston, in keeping with themes dealing with personal relationships and the female search for self-awareness in Their Eyes Were Watching God , has created a heroine in Janie Crawford. In fact, the female perspective is introduced immediately. 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 (Their Eyes 1).
On the very first page of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the contrast is made between men and women, thus initiating Janie’s search for her own dreams and foreshadowing the female quest theme of the rest of the novel. Detailing her quest for self-discovery and self-definition, it [Their Eyes] celebrates her [Janie] as an artist who enriches Eatonville by communicating her understanding (Kubitschek 22). Janie is a Black woman who asserts herself beyond expectation, with a persistence that characterizes her search for the love that she dreamed of as a girl. She understands the societal status that her life has handed her, yet she is determined to overcome this, and she is resentful toward anyone or anything that interferes with her quest for happiness. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up.
He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see, opines Janie’s grandmother in an attempt to justify the marriage that she has arranged for her granddaughter (Their Eyes 14). This excerpt establishes the existence of the inferior status of women in this society, a status which Janie must somehow overcome in order to emerge a heroine. This societal constraint does not deter Janie from attaining her dream.
She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman (Their Eyes 24). Janie is not afraid to defy the expectations that her grandmother has for her life, because she realizes that her grandmother’s antiquated views of women as weaklings in need of male protection even at the expense of a loving relationship, constitute limitations to her personal potential. She hated her grandmother . . .
.Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon (Their Eyes 85-86). Nevertheless, Janie is not afraid to follow her instincts, even when this means leaving her first husband to marry her second – without a divorce. Janie hurried out of the front gate and turned south. Even if Joe was not there waiting for her, the change was bound to do her good (Their Eyes 31). The gossip that spreads throughout her small town when she leaves with a younger man – after the death of her second husband leaves her a widow – does not slow her down in the least.
Finally, she finds happiness with Tea Cake, and it means so much more, because she has decided to go through with it on her own. Discovering the two things everybody’s got to do fuh theyselves, is Janie’s personal victory (Their Eyes 183). They got tuh go tuh God, and they got to find out about livin’ fuh theyselves, are the sentiments shared by Janie once her journey is over (Their Eyes 183). Embodying a theme of the novel, this discovery directly contradicts the anti – religion themes employed by Wright. Hurston has portrayed a female character as an emergent heroine, a creator of her own destiny, and one who has mastered the journey for self-awareness. Says Mary Helen Washington in the Foreword of Their Eyes Were Watching God, for most Black women readers discovering Their Eyes for the first time, what was most compelling was the figure of Janie Crawford – powerful, articulate, self-reliant, and radically different from any woman character they had ever before encountered in literature.
Janie Crawford is defiant; she defies men, but most importantly, she defies our own preconceived notions of what the role of an African-American woman should be in modern literature. VIII. Conclusion Richard Wright was adamant in his belief that the African-American intellectuals had a responsibility to all of America to use their talent to convey the suffering of their people to the white world, to collaborate with the white world in the fight against war. In criticizing writers that did not adhere to his ideals, Wright virtually deemed the Black female experience as nonexistent. He attributed this largely to the lack of political themes and racial tensions in the works of many female Black authors, most notably Hurston. In choosing to focus on topics other than the racial plight (as well as those that revolve around women), the Black female was often determined to be a traitor by the Black male, who considered her work to be in direct opposition to his own.
Initially, it seems rather ironic that two authors who are considered contemporaries, should create such drastically different pieces of literature. One might expect both Wright and Hurston to possess a need to express, not only their anger at, but also their interpretations of, the oppression that plagued them, their families and their colleagues. This was Wright’s mission; he considered it his obligation to inform the masses, to educate them, and in doing so, the traumas of his childhood emerged in his work. In the process of conveying the horror of the racial discrimination that threatened his own manhood, Wright included the influences of women as further impediments to his development. Careful analysis of Wright’s autobiography strongly suggests that these portrayals of women paralleled the personalities of real women in his life.
It is interesting then to examine what differences in Hurston’s life urged her to create literature that celebrates the African-American female and vibrantly portrays her search for identity apart from the male community. Hurston was one of these strong women – one who survived adversity, one who survived as an artist, one who survived without defining her identity based on that of a male companion. This, she decided, was worthy of written interpretation. Wright was decidedly unable to accept the African-American female as an individual – as a feeling, thinking and wondering person who had the ability and often the desire to exist entirely separate from his life, or that of any other male. He never observed an independent female role model and was forced to identify the only women in his life with negative forces and ill will. Wright and Hurston existed in separate, and very different worlds, resulting in their failure to concur on what was an appropriate portrayal of the African-American woman in modern literature. Hurston’s consciousness of the female experience, especially that of the African-American, is a major factor that sets her apart from her male contemporaries, especially Wright, whose own failure to acknowledge this (due largely to his upbringing) fueled his most intense criticism. English Essays.