The African American Oppression in Their Eyes Were Watching God

Upon its release in 1937, long overdue from the age of African American expressionism that materialized during what we now know as the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God drew widespread criticism from many prominent and contemporary writers for Hurston’s failure to take on racial tensions and racial discrimination. Perhaps the most trenchant of criticism came from Richard Wright, a fellow contemporary author and civil rights activist who typically used his writing as a means of exposing and attacking racism against African Americans.

Richard Wright claimed that the novel did not qualify as “serious fiction” and that it “carries no theme, no message, no thought.” Since Wright believed that Their Eyes Were Watching God contained nothing but “minstrel technique that makes ‘White Folks’ laugh,” he totally overlooked the true value of Hurston’s novel. Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God represents a strong and protesting voice from African American women advocating for justice and equality for themselves.

The failure to recognize this true value of the novel constitutes Wright egregious error. Wright’s criticism served as nothing but a parochial and specious tirade, while Hurston provides a powerful and compelling message, one which elucidates the oppression that African American females face from their male counterparts.

The fundamental message of Their Eyes Were Watching God, as seen from the portrayal of the protagonist, Janie Crawford, lies not in the racial dichotomy between black society and white society or the oppression of whites over the blacks, but in the struggles of the African American women being oppressed by African American males.

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In their pursuit of discovering their own voices and exploring their sexualities, the African American women find themselves circumscribed by the stereotypical gender roles that dominated American society in 1920s.

Upon her marriage to Joe Starks, an overly presumptuous mayor and an imperious husband, Janie promptly realizes that it is the insidious societal norm for women that force women to perform their tasks doggedly and to never step beyond their roles as deferential servants. Janie receives her first taste of prejudice, as she is about to make her speech at the grand opening of the store, when Joe abruptly denies all requests, stating that he, “never married her for nothin’ lak dat. She’s uh woman and her place is in de home” (Hurston, 108).

While Janie works in the store, Joe also states that Janie’s “hair was NOT going to show in the store” (Hurston, 115). By correlating the fact that Janie is “uh woman” with her “place” being “in de home,” Joe essentially establishes what limits Janie is not a personal flaw in her character but rather her general classification as a woman.

The binding of the hair symbolizes the confinement African American women feel conceived from the prejudice they face, in conjunction with Joe’s dictatorial demeanor represent the various assumptions made by men about African American women based on oppressed stereotypes, thus not allowing women to show their individuality and feminine traits and personalities. With the death of her oppressive husband, Janie would soon to come realize that the prejudice she faced from Joe was nonetheless just a specimen from the societal oppression placed on women.

After Joe’s death, men would drive considerable distances to offer their services as they believed that women “need aid and assistance,” since “God never meant ’em tuh try tuh stand by theirselves” (Hurston, 140). The significance of the oppression, which Janie faces, is that it is deeply ingrained in society, as Joe’s death, which seemingly symbolized the death of oppression Janie faced, proves as nothing more than a fanciful illusion, because Janie still faces the oppression and stereotyping after Joe’s death. Essentially, because Janie is born as a woman, she will indefinitely be subjugated under incessant oppression whether her husband is alive or dead, the central issue that Hurston is highlighting in this novel.

Richard Wright, by picking on several scenes that go against his ideology of black society being oppressed by whites, he derides Hurston’s novel. Just because Hurston’s novel does deal with racial discrimination does not necessarily makes it a novel devoid of a message. Thus, Wright’s denunciation of what many consider as an accurate portrayal of an African American woman’s struggle to find her own voice can only be dubious at best. Although Wright may be correct that Hurston employs “minstrel technique,” as Hurston does create several lethargic characters such as Motorboat, Wright has tragically missed the central purpose of Hurston’s novel.

What Wright does not realize is that a novel devoid of addressing racial oppression to a major degree is not necessarily a novel devoid of meaning, since as thoroughly proven above, Hurston’s novel serves as a highlight to the real-time oppression in which black woman suffering due to stereotypes based on gender roles. Thus, it is illogical for Wright to state that Hurston’s novel creates “no claim, no meaning, and no message,” which he so brazenly claims true.

In fact, the biggest fallacy in Wright’s argument arises when he contrasts Hurston’s novel with one from fellow author Walter Turpin, which he believes to be almost as atrocious. Upon comparing the two novels, Wright states that “Turpin’s faults as a writer are of those an honest man trying desperately to say something; but Zora Neale Hurston lacks even that excuse.” As stated earlier, Wright claims that neither novel has a “basic idea or theme that lends itself to significant interpretation.” There are several key takeaways from this series of quotes.

By modifying “interpretation” with the word “significant,” Wright is acknowledging that a basic theme or idea is still in place, but that does not yield substantial and serious analysis, thus comically contradicting his own claim of the novel containing “no theme.” In fact, the “excuse” which he claims Hurston lacks lies not in the idea she doesn’t “desperately try to say something,” but rather in the fact that she lacks the excuse of being a “man.”

Essentially, given the historical era in which Wright writes this review, he does not believe that Hurston is a respectable writer due to her gender. The significance lies in the fact that Wright can be directly juxtaposed to Joe Starks, as both Wright and Joe Starks doubt that their black female counterparts possess the literary ability to create any meaningful works, simply because they are female. Wright himself is one of the very perpetrators of female stereotyping and gender oppression. This point alone ironically further extends the significance of Hurston’s message detailing the struggles of oppressive stereotypes African American women face.

Through her colorful storytelling of a young girl turned aging woman tirelessly seeking for love and her true voice, Zora Neale Hurston, in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, surfaces the struggles African American women face when being oppressed and stereotyped by their chauvinistic male counterparts. Thus, the criticism imposed by fellow contemporary and bitter rival Richard Wright, which states that Hurston’s novel contains “no claim, no theme, no message” due to its failure to address the racial tensions, flagrantly misses the message of the novel. By outright disregarding the plea for gender equality that Hurston makes, Wright only further affirms the societal condoning of gender stereotypes oppressing women, ironically augmenting the importance relevance of Hurston’s novel that he had tried so hard to deem ineffectual.

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The African American Oppression in Their Eyes Were Watching God. (2023, May 06). Retrieved from

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