I’ve read a bit of African-American literature, but not enough for Henry Louis Gates, Jr. to Skype me. I’ve seen a few black movies, but not enough for Spike Lee to give me a fist bump. I clarify myself because any time a white man endeavors to make a “Best Of” list for black art, he had better show some self-awareness.
Regardless, I don’t think I’m stepping on too many toes when I say that Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the finest contributions to the black perspective since the Douglass narrative. (Well, Langston Hughes would disagree, but that’s a whole other sour grape.) For all of the dialects in black literature, offensive and appropriate, none has so encapsulated the struggle of a black woman well as Hurston did with Janie Crawford. This novel takes the old Twain quote (“Don’t say the fat lady screamed. Bring her on stage and let her scream.”) with regard to W.E.B. DuBois’ Souls of Black Folk. In this text, DuBois details his theory of double consciousness. I’m not doing it any justice (self-awareness point!), but it essentially characterized the humanity of African-American man as how others saw him and how he saw himself through the eyes of others.
The wickedness of whites in the repressed dialogue of a black character is one of the toughest racial lines to walk. Make the whites too kind and it downplays slavery. Strip away the regional dialect for the sake of eloquence and the black novel becomes disingenuous. Hurston solves that quandary with a highly intelligent and sophisticated narrative, as told by Janie. Her book is not just an excellent primer for double consciousness, but it is a feat almost greater than the theory itself, for it is a theory come to fruition. Indeed, a reader of any level upward of middle school can read her novel and understand the true frustration of a black woman who has marvelous contemplations but is tragically limited by her education. Many writers would stray from assigning a fully-realized, highly intellectual inner narrative to a woman who speaks with a seventh grade vocabulary at best; in the hands of Hurston, it is a rare triumph rather than a contradiction.
The other quasi-racist mistake authors make is having a character come upon an education by white providence, making the character “go white”, so to speak. Hurston does not play that amateur card. She keeps what is so prized to Janie: community, music, laughter, card games, and catharsis from the day’s work. With this ingenious literary device, the reader can experience the literate thoughts and reflections on black culture without any of the “well, look who’s back from Richtown” nonsense. And that is a really, really cool experience for a reader. Without Hurston, I would be left in the maddening land of triple consciousness (me seeing the character seeing herself through another’s eyes). And, honestly, my Denver, Colorado observations on the black community at the turn of the 20th century aren’t worth a damn, nor are the views of most adolescents alive today. (Self-awareness point.)