To appreciate this novel one has first to place it in its historical context: the 1930's, at the core of the Harlem Renaissance, known then as “The New Negro Movement.” Or does one?
Nature speaks to Janie Crawford, Hurston’s heroine, nature and its open spaces; so when her grandmother forces her into an arranged marriage, Janie feels locked into a place that turns her dreams into ashes. Leaving her husband in order to widen her horizons and following her vision is indeed a revolutionary act in the Black America of the 1930's. What if I sliced off the adjective in the sentence? Would that make the act revolutionary? How about the country? Indeed any woman leaving her husband in the 1930's would commit an act of undeniable courage. But Janie assumes this dream is linked to another man, that she cannot dream alone. At the time, that may be true. Still, if her ambitious and authoritarian second husband uses her as the continuation of his dream, he also makes her a rich widow. What has been crushed and repressed in Janie has not necessarily died, however; there is a phoenix somewhere ready to fly out from these ashes. At first, this phoenix looks like Tea Cake, a charming man younger than Janie as well as a gambler not keen on rational thinking. With him she will let her hair free, assume her womanhood. Although Tea Cake is the winner in this trio of husbands, he does hit her, if only once. Hurston could have chosen to have a completely gentle character here. Her lucid eye, albeit compassionate, compels her to honesty. There is a lot of progress to be made when it concerns respect toward women, be it in Black or White culture. Even the best men are prisoners of that culture. Although Janie discovers love with all the moments of joy that passion can convey, she never completely finds herself while living her adventurous epopee with Tea Cake. This said, during all these years of struggle that will culminate with the flood that eventually kills Tea Cake, Janie builds herself. And her return to her place in men overalls and amidst waves of female nasty gossip is a triumph of sorts. They can say what they want. She has finally found herself. Because she dared to take the journey.
And so did Hurston. For the novel, with its subject, metaphors, and singular pacing, makes for a great act of valor. The author does not hesitate to portray a black racist among her bunch, a business owner who would rather serve white or light colored people than people her own color. A woman in constant need of bleaching out her own identity. This is a profoundly tragic character, brainwashed by the domineering culture and denying her own self.
One can understand why the great Alice Walker played the phoenix here, that is brought Hurston back to life in the mid 1970's. With her flowing use of the vernacular, her compassionate yet perspicacious view of human nature, Walker is a brilliant Hurston inheritor. What Hurston brought to the literary scene can make the Harlem Renaissance proud, but like Janie herself who despises limits, her work goes beyond borders, as the universality of Watching God in undeniable. Women know Janie Crawford the minute they meet her. They understand the way she talks to nature, the way she dreams her space, the way her reality is beyond definition. Defining the undefinable and universalizing a theme while maintaining the identity of a culture, is a tour de force that only a central author could achieve. So thank you, Ms Walker, for kicking unjust oblivion you know where and placing Zora Neale Hurston right where she should be.