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Janie Crawford and Eatonville: Turn of the Century Pioneers

Kristen has been writing for over 30 years. She graduated from UCF with a B.A. in English-Creative Writing.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

Eatonville Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston would tell you she was a writer, anthropologist, and intellectual during the Harlem Renaissance who felt “that the creative artist’s obligation was to give voice to the vitality of an African-American culture that was more than simply a reaction to white oppression,” (American National Biography). Tracy L. Bealer feels that “despite her skepticism about protest fiction, she was deeply engaged with the political landscape of the early to mid-twentieth century in America as an author and intellectual,” (331).

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. put it best when he wrote, “Hurston embodied a more or less harmonious but nevertheless problematic unity of opposites” (196). This is demonstrated in her written work. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, the town of Eatonville, and by extension Joe Sparks, and Janie Crawford both represent the ways the African American community fought against the pecking order of the day and prospered beyond, even doing so by adapting to those same ways.

The Actual Florida Town

The town of Eatonville was originally started by a group of black men who wanted to have their own locality away from the whites in the South. They felt that if they could not be equal in the established towns and cities throughout the region, then the solution was to remove themselves from that society. When the reader is first introduced to the town and the initial citizens of Eatonville, it is a “scant dozen of shame-faced houses scattered in the sand and palmetto roots…two men were sitting … under a huge live oak tree,” (Hurston 34-5) where they haven’t even elected a mayor. It may not be much to look at, but everyone is alike; there is no one person of a higher social status than anyone else. All they wish is to live their lives in peace. Yet this is how the black man was believed to be, lazy and unambitious.

This changes with the arrival of Joe Sparks. He has told Janie that he plans “to buy in big…to be a big voice” (Hurston 28). He comes to the town with money in his pocket, and starts making changes. First, he plans to purchase more land from Captain Eaton to expand the town (37). Then he proposes a general store, to be the economic and social heart of Eatonville, as well as build roads to it (38). The town can take in more people and they will not have to leave to get their supplies. This is all done to help improve the lives of the townsfolk, and it accomplishes that.

Then there is Joe’s house. He planned from the beginning to have the biggest house in town, “two stories, with porches, with banisters…rest of the town looked like servants’ quarters” (Hurston 47). Joe then works with the federal government to get Eatonville a post office located in his store (38). He has houses built and rented out to new families coming in (41). Then there was the issue of who would become mayor. With very little opposition, the people elect Joe to the position (43), one he holds till his death. Suddenly, the equal standing the original folks of Eatonville had hoped for was vanquished with Joe Sparks, store owner, landlord, postmaster and mayor, becoming the economic and political better of the others. He believed, “de man dat built things oughta boss it” (28) and it had come to fruition.

This is something that does not escape the watchful eyes of the primary founders who inhabited the town before Mayor Stark’s arrival. He is seen as someone they have to answer to. “They murmured about hotly about slavery being over, but every man filled his assignment. There was something about Joe Starks that cowed the town” (Hurston 47). The townspeople jump to action at his every word, he kicks Henry Pitts out of town after he catches him taking some of his merchandise (48), and even buys a mule from his abusive owner then lets it freely roam the town (58). Eatonville was envisioned as a place the African Americans could get away from their oppressors. Yet, it was to become just like any other municipality, and Joe Sparks was to become just like the white Southerners. The black man could become just as powerful as his former slave masters.

Breaking Norms

It is this flying in the face of convention that we also see in Janie. When Janie reaches adolescence, she “is urged to identify with the gender roles by ‘Nanny and the old folks’” (Gaal-Szabo 84). This is to marry a man that is affluent and can take care of her. This, in part, comes from what the former slave women, particularly her grandmother, saw as the ultimate goal of the wives of their masters, to sit around and be taken care of. The wives had someone to do everything for them: take care of their children, cook, and clean. Their husbands provided for them. For women who see this as they labor nearly every waking hour, this is the ideal.

This is not what Janie wants for herself. She wants to marry for love. This was a revolutionary idea, one that flew in the face of what Nanny and even Miss Washburn, her first authority figures, felt was the best that an orphaned black girl could hope for. Her rebellious nature is best conveyed by her actions right after she leaves Killicks; “That made her feel the apron tied around her waist. She untied it and flung it on a bush beside the road and walked on” (Hurston 32). The flinging of the apron is symbolic of her first steps to disposing of the old authority over her, namely her first husband and Nanny’s demands. Plus the woman walking away from marriage was not the norm.

Tea Cake is the second break from the old guard’s idea of a suitable marriage. Janie marries the younger, poorer man for love, and he shows her the affection and respect she did not get from her previous two husbands. By extension, this “cast Tea Cake as a Utopian alternative to the paradigm of masculinist domination identified by Janie's grandmother and typified by her second husband” (Bealer 311). It is also a bit of traditional role reversal, as Janie is the one who is well off. It is through her life with Tea Cake down in the muck, poor but happy and in love, that she is finally liberated from what had been expected of her.

A Happy Ending?

Yet, she is still not completely free of gender politics. Tea Cake insists that “from now on, you gointuh eat whatever mah money can buy yuh and wear de same” (Hurston 128). He also whips her when Mrs. Turner’s brother come to town to “reassured him in possession…to show he was the boss” (147). Though she is loved and has a degree of respect, the servitude role of the wife is still very much in play. A role she is quite willing to follow for what it has given her in return, but one she does not rely on for survival; staying with him is a choice.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, a community, a man and a woman attempt to throw off the shacks of the past and find a better way to exist past the expectancies of their respective oppressors. They are successful in many regards, even adapting to grow beyond what others expected. Janie found the love she always wanted, Eatonville became a successfully functioning African American town, and Joe Sparks could be as prosperous as any white man. They are pioneers of their day.

Works Cited

Bealer, Tracy L. "'The Kiss Of Memory': The Problem Of Love In Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God." African American Review 2-3 (2009): 311. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.

Gaal-Szabo, Peter. "'They Got Tuh Find Out About Livin' Fuh Theyselves': Female Places And Masculine Spaces In Their Eyes Were Watching God And Jonah's Gourd Vine." TheAnachronist (2011): 80. Literature Resource Center. Web. 10 Oct. 2014.

Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. Afterword. Their Eyes Were Watching God. By Zora Neale Hurston. 75th Anniversary Edition ed. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. 196. Print.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 75th Anniversary Edition ed. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. 32-147. Print.

Luker, Ralph E. "Zora Neale Hurston." American National Biography (From Oxford University Press) (2010): Research Starters. Web. 11 Oct. 2014.

© 2017 Kristen Willms