On the 80th anniversary of Zora Neale Hurston's most popular piece of literature, we explore how it continues to live in pop culture and in Black liberation.

Jehan Giles
Sep, 18, 2017

Zora Neale Hurston was intentional in the stories she documented and left behind.

The HBCU and Ivy League trained anthropologist collected stories, wrote stories, and shared stories of truth. Their Eyes Were Watching God was released in 1937 after Hurston was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study Obeah religious practices in Jamaica and Haiti. Their Eyes was released 10 years after The Okeechobee Hurricane, also known as San Felipe Segundo Hurricane, which serves as the setting of the novel.

The original manuscript of Their Eyes is housed at Yale University. Valerie Boyd, author of Wrapped In Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, says the original manuscript appeared to flow from Zora. Written in seven weeks, it contains few changes from its published version.

And eighty years later, the book still elicits intense reactions: In the years after its publication, Their Eyes was criticized for portraying women in control of their sexuality. It was criticized for defying the model of uplifting literature for the Black race coming out of the Harlem Renaissance. Their Eyes offered several perspectives of Black Liberation and Female Liberation through one character. It was for all intents and purposes, revolutionary for both its time and ours. And for that reason, it was nearly buried in societal norms that directly challenged the idea of femininity and agency.

When the late 1970’s ushered in Black Feminist Studies, it provided the perfect landscape for the rebirth of appreciation for Hurston and Their Eyes. Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison credit Hurston as an inspiration for their own work and lives. Alice Walker was so moved by the life and agency of Hurston that she went in search of her grave as published in Ms. Magazine. With this publication, Hurston was reborn. The republication of Their Eyes Were Watching God sold out of its 75,000 copies in one month in 1978.

The resurrection didn’t stop there. Oprah and Harpo Studios rebirthed Their Eyes in film adaptation, but it was met with much criticism for not including the themes of race and sexuality despite it being a made for TV film produced for ABC. Chautauqua scholar Phyllis McEwen rebirths Hurston with each carefully scripted performance she writes. Culture critics say Beyoncé rebirthed the author when she used imagery from Their Eyes in Lemonade. Valda Morris from the Folklife Project at the Library of Congress rebirths Hurston when she shares the archives of her anthropological collection.

Teachers keep Hurston alive in preschool through folklore. Teachers keep her alive in elementary school through music and dance via the Harlem Renaissance. Teachers keep Hurston alive in middle school through her interviews with the Federal Writers Project. They keep her alive in high school through examinations of Their Eyes Were Watching God. They keep her alive in college through her activism. Through resistance, through beauty, through academics and love, we have kept Hurston. And she has proven that her influence and teachings are relevant through eight decades as we celebrate one of Black literatures most treasured writings.

And that has never been more evident as we rise from the aftermath of Hurricane Irma and Harvey, as this book rose from San Felipe Segundo.

Hurston is an intentional ancestor. And she lives.