“It was a time for sitting on porches beside the road … Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins … the sun and the bossman were gone, so the sins felt powerful and human.” This was the first generation of blacks born free, free from the bonds of slavery but not yet secure in their own civil rights. This was a time of segregated towns, schools, and public facilities. Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ could not have occurred in our world of modern technology, political correctness, and civil rights for all human beings and whales too. This novel could only survive in the window of time between the end of slavery and the beginning of the movements for black civil rights and women’s liberation.
Zora Neale Hurston began her writing career in the mid 1920’s during the Harlem Renaissance but did not publish her first novel until the 1930s at the encouragement of other Harlem Renaissance writers. Much like Janie, her character in ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’, Hurston did not receive the recognition she deserved during her life. And in fact many of her writings were lost until the early 1990s when Alice Walker began researching the long lost author and her works. During the Harlem Renaissance women writers were not as well known as the male writers mostly because they were still at this time not being recognized as human beings, let alone educated people with something to say. Hurston touches upon this in ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’. Hurston was often criticized for not being political enough and for portraying her characters as they were in real life and not how white people stereotyped them. Hurston was very outspoken and insisted upon writing about life as she knew it. This includes writing her dialogue as it sounds, allowing the reader to understand that black people have a language of their very own which is distinct and still alive today.
As Nanny holds Janie she tells her of the only life she knows where “de white man is the ruler of everyting … we don’t know nothin’ but what we see.” Even though the blacks are free, in there eyes the power still lies with the white man, for it is he who monopolizes government and business, who has the power in legislation and who has far greater access to higher and better education. Imagine an African American grandmother in 2002 explaining her views of life to her granddaughter. Her main focus would be the empowerment of the African American woman in society, the workplace, and in marriage. She would encourage her granddaughter to stand up and be viewed as equal to or better than any man despite his race or nationality. She would speak of a multicultural society where a countless number of African Americans continue to succeed in a country full of opportunities. Nanny does not see such promises on the horizon for herself or Janie. Her goal is to see Janie married not for love or for happiness but for safety and security; Nanny asserts “Mah daily prayer now is tuh let dese golden moments rolls on a few days longer till Ah see you safe in life.”
In Janie’s society the chain of command is such that it forbids opportunity for black women, where they are put of the same level with an animal bred for working: “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” Nanny explains the chain of command: the white man, to the black man, to the black woman/mule. In her society the woman’s place is in the home, cooking and cleaning. Janie’s second husband publicly affirms this when he is unanimously elected mayor of Eatonville and Janie is asked to give a speech as the wife of the new mayor. “Mah wife don’t know nothin’ ’bout no speech-makin’ … She’s uh woman and her place is in de home.” Unlike today this comment does not create a disturbance but is accepted as proper and customary. In today’s society a position such as the Mayor or President’s wife creates the obligation to speak at public engagements. Hillary Clinton went on her own tour speaking at different places across the United States and around the world. Joe Starks would never have such a thing, “Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows … sho don’t think none theirselves.” Joe is notorious for comments that in today’s society have the potential for getting him sued. Yet when placed in the time period just after slavery, such comments were not thought twice about.
The “porch” also plays a great role in the setting of this novel. It is viewed as the hierarchy of their society. Where the elite sit and place judgment upon all that dare to pass by: “They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs.” It was where their thoughts of the day and its occurrences came alive.” Because they were not able to participate audibly at their jobs they saved it all for the porch. Today our jobs are another place to express our opinion, welcome or not. We are not placed in a circumstance where we, at some time or another do not have the opportunity to put in our two-sense. The porch is a place for them to become human again. “So the skins felt powerful and human. They passed nations through their mouths.”
If it were not for the unique timing and circumstances of this novel, its powerful statements and character discoveries could not take place. Put in another time era other than the window of time between he end of slavery and the beginning of black civil rights and women liberation would not give it justice. Taking it out of its setting would result in a novel not as moving and as powerful as Zora Neale Hurston had intended, thus robbing it of its beauty and strength.