About the Book

Book Protagonist: Janie Crawford
Publication Date: 1937
Genre: Coming of Age, Historical Fiction

Historical Context

Their Eyes Were Watching God

By Zora Neale Hurston

Two great historical events are key to the making and success of Zora Neale Hurston’s best work in ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’; the 1917 to 1930s Harlem Renaissance, and the Great Depression of 1929 to 1939.

Although Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ post dates the Harlem Renaissance and comes towards the end of the Great Depression as it was published in September of 1937, the impacts of these two events are heavily felt in the book. In this article, major historical backgrounds to Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ will be examined.

The Great Depression and ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God

Perhaps an event with a far greater impact on the book, The Great Depression proves to be an important backstory to Zora Neale Hurston’s story of ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God, and it becomes very easy for the reader to see signs of this as they are spread across the book’s plot. 

The Great Depression was a crucial time in America’s economic history characterized by a sheer decline in national unemployment rates – with nearly one-third of Americans losing their jobs or were reportedly jobless at the time. 

Job search also proved extremely difficult even for skilled and qualified Americans. Few government-affiliated programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, helped create a few jobs, but it still wouldn’t be enough for the overwhelming 126 million-plus then population of America.

These times were hard enough for everyone – but it was especially harder for black people who, even when the economy was green, didn’t get the best of jobs or work opportunities.

Hurston makes this play out throughout the pages of ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ and across various key characters like Joe Starks, Nanny, and even Janie herself. Take Joe Starks, for example, a talented and ambitious young African American, who couldn’t land a decent position in a white-dominated job economy and had to struggle to find his foot after he moved to Eatonville finally. 

Hurston’s inclusion of such a narrative showed how essential such times were for black people and their fight for social recognition.

The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance marked a very important time in the whole of human history, particularly for America and black people and their struggle to recover through years of slavery, wars, and discrimination. 

The location was Harlem, New York, a small town that was increasingly turning into something like a safe haven for black intellectuals to express their inner talents without worrying about being ruled out, unfairly criticized, and called a pervert. 

The movement – which started in the early 1920s and ended towards the middle 30s – was simply a solidarity call that erected an all-black community that shared a single dream of fighting for and securing black rights in America. 

The slave trade had ended a few decades ago, and black soldiers had just returned from the Great War of the world, ready to renegotiate their total emancipation in America. It was leaders like Alain Locke who pushed for a more peaceful approach to attain the American dream for blacks rather than taking recourse to force out freedom through racial conflicts and disputes.

Zora Neale Hurston in the Harlem Renaissance

Zora Neale Hurston showed interest in the Harlem Renaissance project around the mid-1920s following several invitations and calls by her black contemporaries who were already with the movement and saw her talent and how tremendously such talent could help develop the Harlem Project. 

And even though the author began sending in her works which were published by Opportunity magazine, it would take a few more years before she would relocate to Harlem, New York City, to meet and socialize with other brilliant African American creatives such as herself.

A Hub For African American Creatives 

Hurston settled quite well in Harlem and soon began meeting other visionaries in the town. She had the privilege of rubbing minds with the likes of W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Marcus Garvey, and Claude McKay, among other great minds. 

The movement was an important era for black rights and recognition in America as it allowed black people with any sort of creative skill – such as singing, dancing, prose or poetry writing, crafts, etcetera – to express themselves and shine with no stringent limitations. 

The inspiration from such solidarity stemmed from a sort of unique experiences of slavery, racism, and a certain popular white supremacy culture at the time – each with its own personalized, unique story to tell. Hurston and other black intellectuals like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen were fundamental to this movement- as they leveraged the platform to express themselves and help black underprivileged like themselves find their voice.

Their Eyes Were Watching God‘ and The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance served as an important foundation for Zora Neale Hurston’s later work in ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God,’ and even though the event doesn’t seem to be markedly depicted in Hurston’s book, it still served as a major influence for a few reasons. The way that the black Harlem people lived and coexisted was certainly felt in the book – even though the author can be argued to have incorporated more of her native Eatonville culture in the book.

Another impact of this movement on Hurston’s book was that it provided the right industry connections as it served as a platform to associate and share ideas with other top prominent writers and publishers of such age – all of which became vital for the author’s 1937 book publication.


Was ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ banned?

Twenty-six years ago in Brentsville, Virginia, a group of parents was rooting for Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ to be banned because they thought the book was controversial and sexually explicit and unworthy of inclusion in high school syllabus for children. 

Where was ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ written, and how long did it take? 

Zora Neale Hurston wrote ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ while on an academic fellowship in Haiti, and only took about seven weeks for the author to finish the book.

Who criticized ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ shortly after it was published? 

Some prominent authors of the Harlem Renaissance – particularly male – were among the first people to be overly critical of the book ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God.’ They found Hurston’s ideas to deviate from the integrity of a true African American narrative. 

What social impact does the book ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ have?

Since its publication, ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ has been advocating for black rights and women’s recognition in society.

What historical period was ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ written?

The book was written in 1937 – during The Great Depression, which was a trying economic time for Americans, especially for black people such as the author herself.

Victor Onuorah
About Victor Onuorah
Victor is as much a prolific writer as he is an avid reader. With a degree in Journalism, he goes around scouring literary storehouses and archives; picking up, dusting the dirt off, and leaving clean even the most crooked pieces of literature all with the skill of analysis.
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