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The other day, I was teaching a truly inspirational group of public school kids–they were sixth grade students who looked at a building from the Gilded Age, marveled at the materials, and then wondered about the black and Irish workers who must have been responsible for lifting the Italian marble off of the boats. They’d been taught well by some incredible teachers, but were curious, creative thinkers in their own right. One of them was named Zora. Her name, combined with the fact that many of these great kids hailed from Harlem, plus that they all were better versed in history than am I, AND that we were discussing Belle Da Costa Greene–a half African-American woman who passed as white at the turn of the last century and helmed, for forty years, the Morgan Library and Museum–made me feel a sharp pang of embarrassment at not yet having read any Zora Neale Hurston.

I have no idea what they were teaching me in high school but I never read anything I was supposed to have read (and, believe me, I did all my homework and then some). By the time my brother was in the same high school I think they were assigning Their Eyes Were Watching God–I think I remember him complaining about it–but I missed out and never filled in the gap. After teaching that class, though, I picked up a copy and this week finally righted one of my literary wrongs.

There is certainly a lot of scholarship about Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and of course, because there is so much to say. Reading the book within the context of our national history, Ms. Hurston’s personal history, politics, feminism or with an eye towards race or gender or the literary climate it was published into, the way it was received, forgotten for years, revived by Alice Walker–wow. A good place to start with all of this is the beautiful edition of the book I have, a Harper Perennial Modern Classic, which has a forward by Edwidge Danticat and an afterward by Henry Louis Gates Jr. I think what I’ll write about here, though, is the structure of the book. Not that that hasn’t been analyzed to death, too, but it seems more in line with what I talk about in these pages here to discuss that. Although, boy do I have a lot of thoughts about our protagonist, Janie.

At the start of Their Eyes Were Watching God, beautiful Janie trudges into the town where she once lived as the mayor’s wife, dressed in overalls and ugly shoes, and bypasses all the townspeople dying to know her story without even throwing them a glance. Janie’s friend Pheoby goes after her and asks her what happened–the ensuing book is the story she recounts; we only come back to the present day in the very final pages. There is a mysterious set of circumstances laid out at the beginning of the book that Janie knows Pheoby–and that Ms. Hurston knows the readers–will only understand if she goes back to the very beginning. Read the rest of this entry »