Noemi Martinez

December 2000

Clear Lines in Black Boy and Their Eyes were Watching God

 

After World War I, Harlem became known for the sudden emergence of literature, theater and music attributed to the migration of African Americans from the South and other cities. Both Zora Neal Hurston and Richard Wright emerged as writers this time, this, however, should not be the sole basis for comparison of their writing as writers themselves. Both Wright and Hurston had different agendas as writers and it is not as important to note their upbringing and backgrounds, but their audiences and the reason that drove them to write.

Zora Neal Hurston was born in Eatonville, Florida, an all black community in 1891. She is known mainly for her novels, but she was also an anthropologist and folklorist. She studied under Franz Boas while at Barnared College and conducted fieldwork in Harlem. This is important because it held her to systematically collect and study the legends, myths and dialect of her informants. Boas stressed that no culture is superior to another and cultures should be studied equally. Hurston was criticized for using dialect, being a "sensual" writer and writing for the mainstream (white) society. Her writing was unlike Wright's, whom Henry Louis Gates, Jr. calls "Hurston's dominant black male contemporary and rival" (188).

Richard Wright was born in 1908 in Mississippi and describes his childhood an autobiographical novel he published in 1945, Black Boy. Wright grew up in the racially charged South and sought to quench the physical hunger he has felt since his father abandoned the family and the spiritual hunger that he was unable to find even though his grandmother was very religious. This hunger, whether tangible or not, led him on a journey to the north. Wright starts chapter seven of Black Boy saying "hunger [was] still a vital part of my consciousness" (161). Wright set out to give a factual account of the hardships and discriminations African-Americans went through, from the point of view of a Black man and to give details of how oppressive the society in which he lived was. Jerry W. Ward. Jr, says "his autobiography is designed to illuminate how obscene was denial of access to full participation in the democratic process by law, custom, and the practice of race" (xv).

Both novels hold significance in American literary and each book has a devoted following of literi and readers, though Their Eyes were Watching God was reintroduced only recently. Both writers sought to tell "their" story. Hurston's writing is called "a rich and complicated text" (Washington xiii), yet Wright says "her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality" Hurston also comments on Wright's writing, saying "his dialect is a puzzling thing. One wonders how he arrived at it. Certainly he does not write by ear unless he is tone deaf." Jerry W. Ward, Jr. argues that Wright spoke to a "distant community" and that his text "demands attention to matters of a decidedly flexible genre and to the facts of race and gender"(xvi).

A fair explanation for the different opinions of each other's writing and writing in general is because they were different people, with different mindsets and each had their own personal method for attaining the results they aimed for. Black Boy can be called a sociological novel because it details the political and economic conditions that were prevalent when Wright was growing up. His novel is semi-factual and told in journalistic manner, providing in depth analysis of his life's hardships. For instance, when Wright explains his living conditions: "I was living in a culture and not a civilization and I could learn how that culture worked only by living with it" (196).

To fully understand the reason behind Wright's attacks on Hurston's writing, we should note Wright's depiction of women. In Black Boy, we can see several instances where women are portrayed as something lesser than men and not able to comprehend even the smallest of things. The girl on page 198 who "tossed her head saucily" after a white night watchman slapped her behind and did not seem bothered by it. Bess, whom Richard said that "her simplicity frightened him"(217). After staying several days at Bess and her mother's home, he "had grown to understand [their] peasant mentality"(214). While he is in Chicago, working as an insurance premium collector, he meets women, "comely black housewives" who "were willing to make bargains to escape paying a ten-cent premium"(289).

Wright criticized Hurston for her sensual writing, saying her novel "neither has a basic idea or theme that lends itself to a significant interpretation." He found the language used portrayed Blacks as comical and further justified society saying that African-Americans were not 'smart' enough to get an education. He also believed she did not write "serious fiction." It is agreed that Their Eyes were Watching God is highly sensual and emotional. Yet Wright's own novel is filled with poetic prose. For example, in a scene where his mother beats him for using foul language, he goes into an enlightened state where all things seem clear. "The days and hours began to speak now with a clearer tongue. … There was the breathlessly anxious fun of chasing and catching flitting fireflies on drowsy summer nights. There was the drenching hospitality in the pervading smell of sweet magnolias. There was the aura of limitless freedom distilled from the rolling sweep of tall green grass swaying and glinting in the wind and sun" (Wright 45). We also see several examples of this in the second part of the novel, The Horror and the Glory: "The days of my past, of my youth, were receding from me like a rolling tide, leaving me alone upon high, dry ground, leaving me with a quieter and deeper consciousness"(382).

The true reason these two writers did not see eye to eye is that each had their own definition as to what fiction and writing was. Hurston writes about the rich cultural traditions found in her culture. She awakened a sense of unity years after she died and wrote of Black people "as complete, complex and undiminished human beings" (Walker 85). She was before her time and not only do Black women identify with this novel, but women from other cultures sense the struggles of Janie trying to find her voice. When looking at Wright from Hurston's point of view, his writing seems to portray the Black community as weak, afraid to cause change and subservient to white society. Several characters can fall under this categorization. His 'Uncle Tom', his coworker who lets himself get kicked in the ass for a quarter. Wright says, "I longed to be like the smiling,

lazy, forgetful black boys in the noisy hotel locker rooms, with no torrential conflicts to resolve"(200). There is no character is his writing, either Black or white, who is attributed with characteristics such as goodness, humility, love, or kindness. His writing can be interpreted as a call to arms at a time when he felt Blacks were apathetic to the problems facing Blacks. The wide scope of these two writers shows how labels are used to categorize people, thus creating a stereotype.

 

Works Cited

 

Gates,Henry Louis Jr. Afterward. "Zora Neale Hurston: 'A Negro Way of Saying.'" Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. 1990 ed.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Perennial Library, 1990 ed.

Walker, Alice. "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston." Ms. (March 1975): 74-79, 85-89.

Ward, Jerry W. Jr. Introduction. Black Boy. 1998 ed.

Washington, Mary Helen. Foreword. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale

Hurston. 1990 ed.

Wright, Richard. Black Boy (American Hunger): A Record of Childhood and Youth.

1998 ed.

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