Literature reflects the cultural views, political heartbeats, social reforms and failures of a society. The people rejoice in the progress that society makes but cries in the setbacks it experiences; such is the story of the Harlem Renaissance Period of literature. Slavery had been abolished, but injustices still occured, and prejudices still exisited. The writers of this time reflected these in their writing so that society, black and white, could read and empathize with the obstacles of the new Negro. In the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston uses her characters and their conflicts to mirror the experiences of Afro- American males and females in the United States after World War 1. This novel definitely exhibits most of the characteristics of this time period, with only a few exceptions.
Racial pride was one of the characteristics of the Harlem Renaissance period (Shmoop Editorial Team). Hurston uses the character of Janie Mae Crawford to show that the black community purses not only material wealth but also inner qualities, such as self-worth and pride. Janie could easily be a black woman in the Afro-American community in Harlem in the 1920s or 1930s. Janie and her Nanny live in the beauty. She is proud of who she is and especially her hair: “She tore off her kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair. The weight. The length, the glory was there,” (p.). Another way to show racial pride is through progressive politics. Hurston demonstrates this through the character of Jody as he is elected mayor of the small town of Eatonville. He is influential and is admired by the community at first. Not only is he elected mayor, but he buys a light pole and then has the setting of it approved by the people: “Nobody had ever thought of street lamps and some of them said it was a useless notion. They went so far as to vote against it, but the majority ruled,” (p.). This shows organization and leadership within the black community. The author uses both of the characters to show evidence of racial pride in her novel. This idea is also evident in the music and art of the Harlem Renaissance Period.
Another characteristic of this time period was that the authors produced works that highlighted their own cultures rather than imitating the styles of white writers (Shmoop Editorial Team). Hurston does this by using a Southern setting and dialect throughout the novel. During this time period many blacks had migrated north to pursue jobs and different lifestyle for their families. They longed for an identity far from an “ex-slave” who was owned and abused. Hurston chooses to leave her characters in a small town in Florida. Janie, the main character, lives here and in the “muck” or Florida Everglades. She and her husband Tea Cake live in a shanty which is reminiscent of slave quarters on the plantations: “They rattled nine miles in a borrowed car to the quarters hat squatted so close that only the dyke separated them from the great, sprawling Okeehobee, Janie fussed around the shack making a home while Tea Cake planted beans,” (p.). While lives in the real world have changed for the black and man woman. Hurston chooses a more relatable setting for her novel. The author also uses dialect to reflect the culture of the black community of the novel: quoted4. While the dialect makes for difficult reading, it emphasizes an obstacle the Afro-American had to overcome to integrate into the white society successfully during the Harlem Renaissance.
Finally, this novel is characteristically Harlem Renaissance because it promotes social equality, not only between races but also between genders (Shmoop Editorial Team). After Janie shoots Tea Cake towards the end of the novel, she must then stan trial for his murder. The jury consists of twelve white men who find a mixed racial woman not guilty; this hints at the absence of racial inequality. These men find the ability to look beyond the skin color to evaluate the evidence deliver a righteous verdict. After the verdict is delivered, the white woman in the courtroom offer support to Janie, while her black friends shuffled away from her: “ And the white woman cried and stood around her like a protecting wall and the Negroes with heads hung down, shuffled out and away, (p.). With this change in attitude, the black man and woman can shed the images of ex-slaves and now can be Americans pursuing their dreams. At the beginning of this novel Nanny speaks of the idea of inequality between genders when she advises Janie to basically marry the older Logan who own land and has some money. Love is overrated, according to Nanny; being protected and provided for is far more important than love: “Tam’t Logan Killicks Ah wants you to have, baby it’s protection, (p.). At this point Janie says what Nanny and society would expect her to say, but she has other words inside that she longs to speak. As the novel progresses so does Janie’s will and strength to speak. When she is married to Jody, she finally finds the voice to chastise him for his treatment of her. When she meets Tea Cake, he allows equality to exist between them that fosters a deep love from Janie. This is evident when he teaches her to shoot a gun: “Oh, you needs tuh learn how T’ain’t no need you not knowin’ how tu handle shootin’ tools. Even if you didn’t never find no game, it’s always some trashy rascal dat needs uh good killin,” he laughed” (p.). Throughout the remainder of the novel, Hurston enables Janie to stand alone and equally to all the others. Hurston and the other writers of this period did not forget their own humble beginnings, but preserved their trials and triumphs in their writings.
In the 1920s and 1930s many of the Afro- Americans migrated to the north to begin new lives in the cities and gain new identities (Shmoop Editorial Team). These characteristics were not evident in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston keeps her settings in small towns in the South while in the Harlem Renaissance Period, most of the people were making new beginnings around New York City and Harlem. They wanted to live in apartments and work all day and have their nights free, definitely a new way of life. Now they were factory workers, but there were mixed racial identities. Even though they were far away from the cotton fields and plantations, they were still confronted with the segregation of blacks and whites. Harlem was the center of black America, where new concepts and ideas and progress could occur.
Zora Neale Hurston’s novel exemplifies the Harlem Renaissance Period with its characteristics. It shows the coming-of-age of not just Janie but also the balck race as the author sees it. Hurston shows the progress of the blsck individual and community through the progress of Janie after she is married to three very different men. The word renaissance means “rebirth”, as the reader sees the rebirth of the main character, the United States saw the rebirth of the Afro-American who also experiences new places, new jobs, new identities, and new triumphs to gain a new self-respect and sense of worth