N is for Zora Neale Hurston

{Click here for the complete alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance.}

With great difficulty, let us put aside (IF WE CAN) the verifiable fact that Their Eyes Were Watching God is a masterpiece. A perfect book, where perfect does not mean without flaw, but does mean stands out against the background of the mundane world and is so boldly itself that discussion of its flaws does nothing to diminish its power. It’s lush and poetic and funny and heartbreaking, all at once. I know the vernacular dialogue can be hell on the eyes (and was criticized by Richard Wright at time of publication), but I do believe that if you don’t find marvels in this book, you may in fact have a rock where your heart should be. I tremble every time I read it: from bliss, from fear, from awe.

Cover image for Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Sepia-tone background. A dark-skinned woman with rosy cheeks and dark, full lips tilts her head toward the reader, eyes closed and brow slightly furrowed. Gold leaf flowers sprawl across the bottom third of the cover, lending a mystical, magical air.Like many people, I first encountered Janie Crawford/Killicks/Starks/Woods as part of a high school English class. We also read Jane Austen, and Jane Eyre, because all three books are considered fundamental parts of the Western literary canon. At least, they are now — none of them were overly popular in their time. All three had to be resurrected and dusted off by succeeding generations before they could be set up on the pedestals they currently occupy. Two of these Janes are widely considered foundational heroines of the romance genre. I don’t have to tell you which book is the odd one out, do I? (Hint: it’s the black woman.)

Romance authors and readers are only just beginning to discuss what a canon of the genre would look like (example: this Smart Bitches podcast). What are the most important texts of so rich and populated a tradition? The most influential? The most copied and rewritten? The most astonishing or moving or surprising or genre-changing? Lists inevitably grow long. Certain names come up often: Kathleen Woodiwiss, Julie Garwood, Georgette Heyer, Barbara Cartland, Jennifer Crusie, Nora Roberts, Susan Elizabeth Phillips. And, of course, Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, whose texts provide classic story patterns even though romance as a genre hadn’t really been established yet. Other books have also had influence, but are frequently disqualified as romances on account of their less-than-blissful arcs: Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, and as I recently, memorably discussedGone With the Wind. 

You may notice that all these authors are white. As are all but two of the authors on AAR’s Top 100 Romances Poll from 2013. (The exceptions are Sherry Thomas, who writes excellent 19th-century romances starring white people, and Nalini Singh — we should talk some time about race and paranormal/UF romance, because more of that conversation needs to happen.) There is a black romance tradition — a lengthy one, going back to the 19th century — but somehow those books and those authors never make best-of lists when readers line up to cite their favorites. Beverly Jenkins is often named as the Queen of African-American Historical Romance, but she’s never won a RITA. In fact, as far as I can tell from hours of focused and increasingly angry internet searching, no black author has ever won a RITA in the twenty-year history of the award. Only a handful have even been nominated.

It’s a serious gap that becomes more noticeable and less explainable the more you look at it, and learning more about the publication history of Hurston’s text. Their Eyes Were Watching God was first released in 1937, one year after Margaret Mitchell’s insanely popular Gone With the Wind — did you remember that won the fucking Pulitzer? because I did not — a novel which is often heavily criticized for its depictions of black characters (for instance Mammy, who’s getting an upcoming prequel authored by a white man, so help me God I want to smash something now). Mitchell’s book went on to inspire a major movie of Hollywood’s Golden Era and vast numbers of plantation-set romances, while Hurston’s work languished in obscurity until being rediscovered decades later by Alice Walker.

Part of this obscurity is no doubt due to the divide between commercial fiction (though apparently not too commercial for the Pulitzer Committee) and literary fiction; the former tends to have a much greater tendency to trickle over into romance. Hurston’s literary heirs are now numerous: they include Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Edwidge Danticat (who write the foreward for my digital edition of Hurston’s text). But at the time of TEwWG‘s debut, she was heavily criticized by black male writers, including Richard Wright, Alain Locke, and Ralph Ellison, who felt her works either pandered to the white gaze or had no relevant social urgency. The idea that black Americans could lead happy and fulfilled lives was difficult to untangle from the racist narrative that black Americans had led happy and fulfilled lives under slavery: much of the work of black writing was/is to undo white supremacist narratives that were/are designed to nullify and silence black voices — in this framework, Hurston’s lyrical, deeply personal prose lacked a direction and an agenda that many black authors at the time felt (and still feel! and rightly!) was necessary to their very survival as a race.

Black/white, literary/commercial, male/female — Their Eyes Were Watching God always seems to end up on the wrong side of history’s divides, though nowadays it’s closer to popular literature than it once was. This unlikely resurrection is both heartening and tantalizing: I dream of an alternate history where the novel was hugely influential on the romance genre. There are plenty of connection points ready and waiting: the focus on Janie’s personal journey toward happiness and the enduring value of love, the secondary characters drawn in economically brief but vivid and memorable ways, the small-town feel of both Eatonville and the ‘Glades, the melodrama of the trial scene. Romance is an omnivorous genre and the past few years have seen erotic retellings of Much Ado About Nothing and Regency reboots of The Brady Bunch, as well as creation of entirely new subgenres like New Adult and a groundswell of interest in sci-fi romance and the 1920s as a setting for historicals. Why shouldn’t authors turn to Hurston for inspiration as they turn to Austen and Brontë? But the race line in romance seems incredibly starkly drawn: there is mainstream (read: white) romance, and there is AA romance, and the two strains rarely meet.

It’s a sign of my profound privilege that I’m able to get mad at this only now: black romance authors have been caught in this mess for decades. Zora Neale Hurston herself articulated this problem half a century ago:

Now, do not leap to the conclusion that editors and producers constitute a special class of un-believers. That is far from true. Publishing houses and theatrical promoters are in business to make money. They will sponsor anything that they believe will sell. They shy away from romantic stories about Negroes and Jews because they feel that they know the public indifference to such works, unless the story or play involves racial tension. It can then be offered as a study in Sociology, with the romantic side subdued. They know the skepticism in general about the complicated emotions in the minorities. The average American just cannot conceive of it, and would be apt to reject the notion, and publishers and producers take the stand that they are not in business to educate, but to make money.

Beverly Jenkins’ description of getting the copyedits on her first book is heartbreaking proof that not enough has changed since then:

The draft went from the editor to a freelancer. Scenes were changed. The scene where Cara’s grandfather appears, “nigger, nigger” replaced his name. Characters were depicted as “black as coal.” I was devastated when I received the galley. I called Vivian Stephens, my agent, and told her that she should return the advance on the book. I did not want the book published like that. The editor called. She cried and apologized. For four and a half hours, the editor and I were on the telephone going over the revisions. There should be trust between editor and author.

The truism that white readers won’t buy romance books about black characters has echoes of similar truisms in other media. White readers won’t buy YA books with POC on the covers. Male gamers won’t buy games with female protagonists. Films with women as lead characters are box office poison. They are all self-fulfilling prophecies: it is not considered a wise financial strategy to throw good marketing money at a low-reward product, so movies with female leads and games with female protagonists and romances with POC heroines routinely get under-marketed and under-financed — that these books so rarely become wildfire hits is then taken as proof of the gatekeepers’ sound business sense, and the cycle repeats. Marginalization begets further marginalization.

Rereading Hurston’s book after Beverly Jenkins’ Vivid illuminated distinct similarities in structure. Both books take place in all-black towns, where white people’s oppression happen mostly on the fringes: racism is still a part of the characters’ lives, but not necessarily a central feature or most significant obstacle. I fully expected to see Hurston’s name crop up at some point in that IASPR interview. But it didn’t, and to further confound my assumptions Ms. Jenkins indicates that part of her project as an author is to show strong black women in the past working for the betterment of their society, putting her firmly in the Wright/Locke/Ellison camp:

I do know that what these illustrious foremothers stood for—justice, equality, education, a commitment to community and the desire to push the envelope on race and gender—is something I consciously place in each of my heroines. I “borrowed” the concept from the great historian Dorothy A. Sterling. Her book, We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the 19th Century, is my bible. In it, she states that nineteenth-century Black women had three gifts: a strong work ethic, a commitment to community, and a penchant to push the envelope on race and gender. Whether it’s schoolteacher Cara Lee Henson, journalist Kate Love, or banker Grace Atwood, I try to bestow at least one of Sterling’s gifts on them. Nineteenth-century Black women changed the world not only for themselves and the race but for women of other races as well. Women like Black abolitionist Maria Stewart, who in 1832 became the first woman in America of any race to lecture to a mixed audience; Rebecca Lee and other pioneering Black doctors of the late 1860s were often not only the first Black doctors, but many were the first doctors of any race in their communities. Their experiences helped shape crusading Dr. Viveca Lancaster, the heroine in my second novel, Vivid.

We are down to the heart of things now, where I have too many questions and no answers that aren’t uncomfortable: should we expect all literature to be morally uplifting? Is it hypocritical of me to want to defend Their Eyes Were Watching God against the requirement that it feature social protest and activism, even as I continue to criticize romance as a genre for its perpetuation of harmful attitudes and stereotypes? Romance in particular is often excused on the grounds of “escapism” — critics are told they’re overthinking an essentially trivial genre, that they’re ruining other readers’ fun or shaming them for their enjoyment. In this response there is a tiny grain of truth like the sand that starts the pearl, which is why this response is so irritating. But I think when the word “escapism” shows up there are two questions we should answer before letting the discussion proceed: Who do we imagine is escaping, and what are they escaping from? One person’s hilarious Southern romp is another person’s racist garbage nightmare. And one of the reasons I want to call out problematic tropes in romance is that their existence threatens my own sense of safety in my escapist reading: when a hero turns controlling and jealous, for instance, I feel the muscles in my neck kink up with fear, and the romance loses all its spark and sizzle. I don’t want to erase those books from existence — but I would like to know in advance which ones they are, so I can detour around them and read something more my style. In the growing debate about trigger/content warnings, I come down firmly on the side of more rather than fewer labels and tags.

There are harder, more shamefully personal questions as well: is my desire to connect Hurston’s text with the romance genre an act of appropriation, as I suspect it could easily be? How many of the similarities I see between Their Eyes and Vivid come from my own knowledge of their authors’ skin color? Unconscious biases are the blackberry vines of the mind: you think you’ve pulled them all up at the roots, but they seem to start growing back as soon as you put down the spade. I’ve thought and unthought and rethought every paragraph above: you can tell when my opinions are doubling back because I go very heavily in for parentheticals (which I’ve noticed I use when my thoughts are either too fast or too scattered or both).

I honestly don’t know where to go from here. The best I can say is this: it seems I have a great deal more reading (and listening) to do.

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The Zora Neale Hurston essay cited above, “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” is required reading and feels far more on-the-nose about 21st-century publishing than we might hope. Clearly my next post-April project is to read Hurston’s entire body of work, especially the essays and fiction.

A book-length analysis of black historical romances can be found in Black Women’s Activism: Reading African-American Women’s Historical Romances by Rita B. Dandrige.

A 2006 article from The Free Library about the founding of Harlequin’s Kimani line has some great names and data about African-American romance.

For some amusing hate-reading, here is one gentleman’s one-star opinion (via Goodreads) about how Their Eyes Were Watching God is just like a trashy romance novel.

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Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009. Ebook.

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7 thoughts on “N is for Zora Neale Hurston

  1. I don’t think a book about Black women needs to center on race or activism any more than any other novel, as their lives do not, but even if one doesn’t believe that, they’re not any less entitled to fantasy than the next person. One woman wants to fantasize about alphas, another wants to forget about oppression, another about her finances, etc., etc. Besides, as Jenkins says, she engages race in her books from a meta perspective by writing empowered Black female characters. (See Kimani’s standards.) This is probably the most common approach to feminism I see in romance, personally.

  2. It’s kind of a Catch-22, isn’t it? Focus on racism and oppression and you’ll be criticized for making all black people’s lives look miserable or emphasizing a victimhood mentality (a term that never fails to make me bristle, by the way); focus on escapism and empowerment and you risk people thinking you aren’t taking your literature seriously enough.

  3. Just stopping by from the A-Z list to say “Hi” and wish you good luck with the rest of the challenge 🙂

    Wow! Fascinating theme! x

  4. I’ve been arguing with myself for weeks about whether to say something here.

    I’m on the AAR top 100 list, and I’m hapa–specifically, my mother is Chinese.

    My argument with myself over whether to post has gone something like this:

    1. I have some white privilege–to the extent that people are not good at determining race, about half the time I get swept up into assumed white default. (Incidentally, I wonder sometimes if my online avatar doesn’t give me more white privilege online than I’d have in person–in profile, my face is flat, which is a racial characteristic that isn’t obvious from my author pictures.) (Also incidentally, when I weighed about 40 pounds less, more people assumed I wasn’t white–it was closer to 75/25 than 50/50. For whatever that’s worth.)

    2. This conversation highlights authors of color who are not getting mainstream attention. I like that. I don’t need or want any more light shone on me. I’m reluctant to put myself out as an author of color in this context because I’m afraid some people will pick me as a diverse author who is also familiar and say, “look, I read her, I’m done.” No, you’re not. Keep going.

    3. Also, thus far I have mostly written about white people.

    All these things make me want to hold my tongue.

    On the other hand:

    4. I’m not comfortable being labeled as white. I don’t like the idea that my mother vanishes simply because my father is white, and I’m not sure how I feel about keeping silent about her existence. I have white privilege in some circumstances, yes, but I don’t always have it, and some of the times when I haven’t had it have really shaped me as a person.

    5. Sometimes pointing out that only small numbers of racial minorities are visible can send the message that mainstream visibility is not possible. I argue with myself over whether my visibility as hapa is important.

    I don’t have coherent thoughts on what to do about any of this. My…semi solution was to wait until you were done with the month and then put this here, so that anyone who finds this post after the fact will see the amendment. Visibility without attention? I don’t know.

    I have really, really enjoyed all your hard work on this series. Thank you.

  5. Definitely one of the challenges I encountered during this post series was finding authors who I thought were mixed race? Maybe? But they weren’t putting it front and center? And the thought of guessing, and guessing WRONG, about someone’s heritage is cringe-worthy in the extreme (it’s a privileged blind spot at best, and hugely racist at worst, and both of those are things I’m actively trying to avoid). Which is to say, I completely understand your concerns about speaking up as hapa, and I really appreciate that you shared those here. I do think it’s important in terms of visibility, but it’s also important that individual authors make their own choices about the terms of their personal visibility. Thanks again, and I’m glad you enjoyed the series!

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