Their Eyes Were Watching God
Your eyes are watching Shmoop.
Forget the stuffy, straight-laced novels that often take center stage in the literary world. Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God is straight-up hilarious, with characters so real that they jump off the page and experiences so true that you feel like you're living them. Janie, the novel's heroine, is on a quest for true love. But trust us: this book is anything but mushy. Janie's journey takes her through some dark and lonely places and, although she eventually finds what she's looking for, it comes at a steep price. Was it worth it? We'll let you find out.
Get ready for boatloads of activities and creative projects that will
- help you recognize and articulate ways in which history, social issues, and politics influence art and literature.
- examine how Hurston's manipulation of language and imagery captures the folk tales and oral culture that form the center of the novel.
- give you the 4-1-1 on the basic structure of a quest—woman style.
- provide the low down on the Harlem Renaissance and the ability to recognize some of its most important contributors.
Unit 1. Their Eyes Were Watching God
This 15-lesson course will give you the ins, outs, and sidewayses of Zora Neale Hurston, the Harlem Renaissance, and this here masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Sample Lesson - Introduction
Lesson 2: The Skinny on the Harlem Renaissance
Their Eyes Were Watching God isn't about the Harlem Renaissance.
Nor is it set in Harlem.
Nor was it particularly well liked by some of the key figures of the Harlem Renaissance.
In fact, Richard Wright slammed Hurston's writing in Their Eyes Were Watching God, saying—among some other not-so-nice things—that "[t]he sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy" (source).
Basically, Hurston's political views and her refusal to write about blacks and their experiences in the "approved" way set her at odds with some of the leading voices of the Harlem Renaissance. The result? A falling out of favor followed by obscurity.
But back to Their Eyes Were Watching God and the Harlem Renaissance. The fact that Hurston's novel doesn't cater to the voice and views of other important people associated with the Harlem Renaissance doesn't mean that the novel doesn't participate in the cultural, philosophical, and political explosion of the time.
Zora was, well, Zora. Known for her outspokenness, her eccentricity, and her individuality, it's no wonder that she created a literary voice that echoed what she saw and experienced as a black American woman. If she decided to make her "life's goal to convince the world of African American folk culture's legitimacy as an art form" (source), then she would do it, regardless of whether or not other black writers, artists, and thinkers were behind her. And, at the end of the day, isn't that independence of spirit and celebration of the black experience, in whatever shape they come, the lifeblood of the Harlem Renaissance?
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 1.2: The Harlem Renaissance
Here's the lowdown: the Harlem Renaissance began in the 1920s in Harlem. It brought together some of the most important African Americans writers and artists of the time.
The keyword there, dear Shmoopers, is "African American." Before the Harlem Renaissance, there had never been a space where African-American people could explore or celebrate their own culture (at least not in safety). The results were extraordinary: some of the richest, liveliest, most energetic work ever produced, all in one place.
Shmoop's got everything you need to know about the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, and you can check out the Smithsonian and the Encyclopedia Britanica for more about the art of the period. We thought we would round out this lesson with a couple poems from some of the best writers of the time. We'll look at three: Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay.
Hughes and Harlem
How could we do a lesson on the Harlem Renaissance without mentioning Hughes or his poem "Harlem"? Often referred to as "Dream Deferred," after the most famous line in the poem, "Harlem" cemented Hughes' reputation as probably the most important poet of the Harlem Renaissance..
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Hughes was writing about the disappointment and the repressed rage that many African-Americans felt in that time period. You'll see a lot of that disappointment—but not much of Hughes' rage—in Hurston's work, particularly Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston was famous for not sharing the political views of her contemporaries, and that comes across in the novel, which avoids politics almost entirely in favor of depictions of everyday life.
Don't get us wrong. Hurston still has plenty to say about race, she just does it a different way. For more on that, check out Hurston's essay, How It Feels to Be Colored Me. Then check out Shmoop's line-by-line summary of "Harlem" to get all the little nuances in the Hughes poem.
Hurston and Cullen were good friends. She even wrote a letter to Cullen about her views on marriage and race that we'll read later in the course. (We tried writing one of our BFFs an excited letter about race and marriage recently, but, would you believe it? It went unanswered.)
Suffice it to say: Cullen was a good guy and a great poet. We're going to read his poem "Epitaphs," which is written in four stanzas, each addressed to a different person: a fool, one who gaily sowed his oats, a "wanton," and a preacher. We've never heard "wanton" used as a noun in a non-Chinese food context, but okay, Countee Cullen, we trust you.
For a Fool
On earth the wise man makes the rules,
And is the fool's adviser,
But here the wise are as the fools,
(And no man is the wiser).
For One Who Gaily Sowed His Oats
My days were a thing for me to live,
For others to deplore;
I took of life all it could give:
Rind, inner fruit, and core.
For a Wanton
To men no more than so much cover
For them to doff or try,
I found in death a constant lover;
Here in his arms I lie.
For a Preacher
Vanity of vanities,
All is vanity; yea,
Ever the rod He flayed you with
Crumbled and turned to clay.
Though properly called epitaphs, the sections of this poem read like parables—or the sorts of anecdotes someone might tell in Hurston's anthropological work. We'll read selections from her nonfiction work Mules and Men later in this course, but for now suffice it to say that the folklores collected in that book have some of the same wit and strangeness as the Countee Cullen poem (without any of the rhyming).
Another important poet from the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay, was known for his use of vernacular and his focus on themes of immigration and identity. McKay was born in Jamaica and moved to Harlem as a young man. Today we'll read his poem "America," which captures something of the experience of being an immigrant and having conflicted feelings about, you guessed it, America.
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
Like "Harlem," McKay's poem explores themes of disappointment and oppression, but it takes a different stance on it. McKay's voice is that of an outsider among outsiders: as an immigrant, he's even further removed from the status quo than his contemporaries are. It's the same with Hurston, who as a woman explored the themes of the Harlem Renaissance from a completely different viewpoint. Her disappointment is not with the racial climate, but with a woman's inability to speak up for herself and find love amidst oppression.
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 1.2a: Show What You Know
Appreciating Their Eyes Were Watching God and Hurston's place in the Harlem Renaissance means knowing about the Harlem Renaissance in the first place.
For this activity, you're going to spend a little quality time doing research, exploring background info, and, you know, basically becoming an expert in a hurry. Once you've done the whole point-and-click-your-way to some illuminating information, you'll turn that info into a little something we like to call a presentation. You may have heard of it.
We'll start by narrowing the field a bit. Given the historical, political, and cultural importance of the Harlem Renaissance as well as the many important figures associated with the time period, there are many, many, many directions you could take your research. This could become your life for the next year or so, but let's not do that.
Before going any further, give some serious thought to which aspect of the Harlem Renaissance piques your interest. What follows is by no means an exhaustive list, but it may help get those brain synapses firing:
- Are you smitten by the jazz of the era?
- Do you have a strong interest in any of the jazz musicians?
- Does the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance move you?
- Is there a particular poet you would like to explore?
- Are you intrigued by Harlem Renaissance art?
- Do you want to find out more about any of the artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance?
- Do the politics of the time period fascinate you?
- Do any of the activists associated with the Harlem Renaissance interest you?
- Are you interested in the culture of Harlem at that time?
- Do you need to know just what occurred to make the Harlem Renaissance possible?
Now that you've figured out your angle, you're going to need to do a bit more digging around to make sure that you really have a good grasp of your topic. To help make this step a bit easier, we here at Shmoop have done some of the legwork for you by compiling a list of noteworthy sites. But before we send you off to explore, keep this one basic point in mind:
- Regardless of which topic you've chosen, always, always, always come back to the Harlem Renaissance. What role did jazz, or your particular poet, or a specific activist play in the Harlem Renaissance? What contributions did ____________ make to the Harlem Renaissance? How did the music, politics, poetry, or whatever you're researching reflect the ideas or culture of the Harlem Renaissance?
See how easy that is?
So, as you read through articles, catch a few YouTube videos, and/or browse through the art or poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, remember to take notes on how exactly your topic connects or contributes to, reflects, promotes, or otherwise engages in the Harlem Renaissance.
Jot down your source info, too. You'll need it later for citations.
Oh, and before you panic at the number of resources we've assembled below, remember that (most likely) you will be focusing on one category. Keep in mind, too, that these are just starters. So if you don't find enough info here, go off, explore, see what else the good old WWW has to offer. Just don't get too lost.
And be selective. You wouldn't want to base your research off of what a third-grader wrote, for instance.
- Shmoop, Jazz, Dance, and the Harlem Renaissance video.
- Biography.com on "Famous Harlem Renaissance People." This site covers musicians and other notable people, so check out their credentials before diving in too deep.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, "Harlem Renaissance—Black Heritage and American Culture."
- The Harlem Renaissance care of U.S. History.org. A good, general overview that covers politics and the arts.
- African American History Place, "Harlem Renaissance"
- Poets.org, A Brief Guide to the Harlem Renaissance
- Encyclopedia Britannica, "Harlem Renaissance"
- Shmoop, Langston Hughes
- Shmoop, Harlem Renaissance Literature (you already scoped this out, but you can dig a little deeper here)
- Smithsonian American Art Museum, "African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond"
- Artcyclopedia, "The Harlem Renaissance"
- "The Harlem Renaissance: A Social Documentary through Art"
- Pratt Library, "African American Department: Harlem Renaissance Concept Guide"
For additional information regarding the Harlem Renaissance—some general, some topic-specific—explore these links:
- PBS NewsHour, "Harlem Renaissance"
- Issues and Controversies in American History, "Harlem Renaissance"
Okay, that was the hard part. Now it's time to put together all of the good stuff you discovered during your research, presentation-style. Before you open PowerPoint or log in to Prezi, you should do some planning: organize your information and figure out which fascinating facts should go where. Your target length: about five minutes. Here are a few tips:
- Think thesis. Yep, even presentations need a thesis. Once you've figured out what your central argument will be, then you can organize all of your material around that point. (Kind of like an essay. Fancy that!)
- Think brief. No one, and we really do mean no one, wants to read long, cumbersome sentences in a presentation. So keep your points short. Use bullets.
- Think talking points. You should be able to elaborate verbally (as in, while you're presenting) on the info that you choose to put into your presentation.
- Think intro and conclusion. Provide a bit of context and closure.
Got all that? Good. Once you've finished the outline for your presentation, feel free to move on.
You've done the research. You've got an outline, so now it's time to assemble the actual visual presentation. We recommend PowerPoint or Prezi.
Keep these pointers in mind as you work:
- Stick to the plan. You prepared an outline for a reason. Make sure your info flows logically and that it is organized around a clear central thesis.
- Remember that all the graphics and fonts and colors and transitions and whatever else you plan to throw in for added dramatic effect should be viewer-friendly.
- Avoid clutter.
- Strive for brief statements and bulleted points. Short. Sweet. To the point.
- Add a few well-chosen visuals to support or complement your text. Gaudy distractions need not apply.
- Provide citations as necessary.
- Fun extras: sound bytes? Embedded video? Gifs? Hey, if they help you make your case, then go for it.
Double-back to make sure that you met all of the requirements. Then spend some quality time with your presentation editing and proofreading to make sure that the final outcome looks professional and polished. (Glaring typos can be oh-so-embarrassing.)
Upload your presentation below, and be prepared because your teacher might make you actually present it. (Yeah, you saw that coming.)
Sample Lesson - Activity
Quiz 1.2b: Harlem Renaissance in Review
- Course Length: 3 weeks
- Grade Levels: 9, 10, 11, 12
- Course Type: Short Course
- High School
Just what the heck is a Shmoop Online Course?
Common Core Standards
The following Common Core Standards are covered in this course:CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.9-10.1