Their Eyes Were Watching God at 80: The Season for Black Love

[By: Dr. Maryemma Graham]

In one of the most memorable scenes in Zora Neale Hurston’s now-classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Granny asks Janie, the child she is about to send off to marry, “Put me down easy, Janie, Ah’m a cracked plate.” The quote is a mere 20 pages into the novel after Janie has begun to recount her life adventures to her best friend, Pheoby Watson. From that point on, we know this is a novel about growth and about love… Black love.

The brief exchange between a loving grandmother and her dutiful granddaughter is enough to make us laugh and cry. The display of love is both a confession and a foreshadowing. Granny’s days are numbered, and Janie must begin a new journey. True to the setting and the time of the novel, Janie goes from her grandmother’s bed to her husband’s bed, from girlhood to womanhood overnight.

Granny’s maternal love is transformed into the custodial love that Logan Killicks offers Janie in exchange for the back-breaking work she does on his farm. Discovering that women are indeed the “mules of the world, ” she then enters a second, different kind of marriage. “Marrying up” as it were, she gains the hand of the soon-to-be-mayor of all-black Eatonville. Second husband Joe [Jody] Starks treats her as an object, like a trophy he has received from one of his many competitions as a businessman and politician. The violence and abuse of this second marriage drives Janie away, and finally as a mature woman, she finds her own black love in Tea Cake. Though short-lived as a result of his death, this third marriage provides a mutually fulfilling love, one that teaches Janie that even the best love, like life, is not free from pain and sorrow.

In this revolutionary novel, Hurston explored the taboo subject of Black love. She paid the price for her boldness and died in poverty. The novel quickly went out of print for decades, with little mention of its author or her expansive body of work.

80 years after its original publication, this primer on Black heterosexual love, Their Eyes Were Watching God  is one of the most widely read in the literary canon. For many readers today, Hurston also liberated Black womanhood, and that was perhaps the greater reason for the subsequent silencing of the novel in the eyes of many critics.

Robert Hemenway’s timely biography, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (1980), and Alice walker’s persistent search for foremothers helped to reawaken interest in Hurston. Both contributed to the founding of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc. (P.E.C.) in 1987, the major organization committed to sustaining her legacy today.

I’d like to think that Hurston would be pleased to see that Black love has come of age. Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966) and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) both gave us love stories set in slavery; Morrison even drew our attention to Black love during the 1920s (Jazz, 1992) and during the period of segregation (Love, 2003). James Baldwin may not have been confident in setting his well-received 1956 novel about love between two men in the US, choosing instead to set Giovanni’s Room in Italy. Yet, same sex love had much fictional and cinematic representation in subsequent years. New scholarship and literary works have explored its meaning, as letters long buried are being recovered, and as archives are mined for marriage documents, stories of enslaved couples, literary friendships and wartime correspondence.

Can we credit part of this contemporary resurgence of interest to our 44th president Barack Obama and his wife Michele, who are undeniably a high profile symbol of Black love, one that the world had not seen before? 

I’d like to offer another possibility as a reason for growing interest in Black love. The rise in violence, both racial, ethnic and gendered, and the roll back of democratic ideals in favor of a narrow nationalist agenda make all of today’s America more like the Black America of days past. None of the deplorable conditions of our existence– whether during slavery, Jim and Jane Crow segregation, or todays’ school to prison pipeline– could and can detract from Black love. Who would not want to have the freedom that we have been consistently told did not belong to us? How else could Black love be so enduring and exuberant?  Put another way, those who are often unloved, maligned and otherwise disrespected by many, know and appreciate love the best.

Zora Neal Hurston dared to present a love story in 1937. Hers was an act of the imagination, but it was grounded in her love of Black people.  These are the stories we tell each other; they exist in every one of our families, but remain hidden from plain view.  She gave us a story to pass on. Now television and film, music, fiction and life writing have begun to claim them.  Why? The mainstream reading, viewing, and listening public needs fresh, untold stories to meet the needs of new and expanded audiences. And they are now ours to tell.

Earlier this year, The American Black Film Festival (ABFF) publicly celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Love Jones, a generation-spanning symbol of Black love. The film’s stars Nia Long and Larenz Tate were reunited and performed selected poetry from the film. BET and HBO have both showcased the evolution of Black love through the eyes of independent, diverse Black women in Being Mary Jane and Insecure. Modern-day royalty Beyoncé and Jay-Z have both publicly shared the impact Black love in their lives most recently on their albums Lemonade and 4:44 respectively. The love of Black sisterhood and brotherhood is prominently on display in blockbuster films and the importance of the Black family has been elevated in one of the most popular network series of the 2016-2017 season, Black-ish

Not surprisingly, Oprah Winfrey has also begun to test the waters of Black love first with Greenleaf, then Queen Sugar and a multitude of other dramas. She has come full circle with her most recently premiered series, calling it simply, Black Love.

But these are not the only examples. Nearly two years ago, Drs. Ayesha Hardison and Randal Maurice Jelks at the University of Kansas dared to propose a “Black Love Symposium” marking the 80th anniversary of Their Eyes Were Watching God. The appropriateness of holding the gathering at KU, where Robert Hemenway served as Chancellor, is not lost on those scheduled to attend. Scholars, cultural critics and media professionals will explore Zora’s legacy during a weekend of activities. One hopes that the scholarship and dialogue that Their Eyes Were Watching God inspires will be yet another major contribution to deepening our understanding of what is human is us all.




It is the season for Black love. And Lord knows, we need it now more than ever.




Dr. Maryemma Graham is the Founder/Director of the Project on the History of Black Writing and Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Kansas.