- “[J]us’ listenin’ tuh you”: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and the Gospel Impulse
Don’t care how good anybody could play a harp, God would rather to hear a guitar. That brought them back to Tea Cake. How come he couldn’t hit that box a lick or two? Well, all right now, make us know it.—Zora Neal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard.—James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”
The night before the hurricane in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, those who haven’t left the muck for higher ground gather at Janie and Tea Cake’s house for beans and sweet biscuits, stories about Big John de Conquer, rhymes, songs, dances, and games. The highlight of the evening is dice, “a show-off game,” which continues until only two players remain: “Tea Cake with his shy grin and Motor Boat with his face like a little black cherubim just from a church tower doing amazing things with anybody’s dice” (157). After emphasizing both the skills of the individual throwers and the supreme entertainment value of the spectacle, Hurston simply states, “It was art” (158). This scene exemplifies Hurston’s art as well. Earlier in the novel, when Janie readies herself to tell her friend Pheoby where she’s been for the past year and a half, she [End Page 109] says, “ ‘[T]ain’t no use in me telling you somethin’ unless Ah give you de understandin’ to go ’long wid it” (9). That “understandin’ ” is a history both personal and shared, a history that engendered rich expressive traditions—music, dance, tales, games—inseparable from Janie’s “telling.” Hurston tries, like Tea Cake with his guitar, to “make us know it” in Their Eyes Were Watching God by telling, singing, and dramatizing Janie’s story. And like Pheoby, who “held her tongue for a long time” but “couldn’t help moving her feet” (8), we readers must listen and respond, actively participating in the dynamic associated with African American musical traditions—call-and-response. Hurston suggests a new understanding of call-and-response as a literary dynamic by bringing a gospel vision to the slave narrative tradition in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Raised in Eatonville, Florida—an all-black town, incorporated in 1886—Hurston carried the traditions of her father’s Baptist church with her to New York where she sparred with Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, and others over the proper way to present the spirituals. In his literary biography, Robert Hemenway—largely responsible for the rediscovery of Hurston in the 1970s—notes that Locke and Johnson shared the common assumption in the 1920s that the spirituals lacked “the formal discipline of art” (55). Hurston, on the other hand, applauded the talent of such artists as Paul Robeson but argued that those attending his concerts were hearing “neo-spirituals,” not “genuine” spirituals. In an essay included in Nancy Cunard’s Negro (1935), Hurston defines genuine spirituals as “Negro religious songs, sung by a group, and a group bent on expression of feelings and not on sound effects” (223). She stresses that the congregation “is bound by no rules. No two times singing is alike, so that we must consider the rendition of a song, not as a final thing, but as a mood” (224). We can assume that Hurston’s various productions of The Great Day, her 1932 folklore musical, reflected her understanding of the spirituals as “unceasing variations around a theme” which was not always sorrowful (223). Hurston’s fierce commitment to what we might call inspired performances suggests a more complex understanding of the ways in which African American musical forms—gospel, blues, and jazz—inform her best-known work, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Richard Wright unintentionally identified the connection between Their Eyes Were Watching God and the blues in his 1937 review for New Masses. Titled “Between Laughter and Tears,” Wright’s infamous dismissal of Hurston’s novel precedes Ralph Ellison’s famous definition of...