Zora Neal Hurston’s decision to use black slang in her book Their Eyes Were Watching God was an act of love for the people she adored and wanted to portray appropriately through her works. There was much controversy in this choice as there were some in the black community who saw this as a stepping stone for the negative stereotypes already circulating in American society. Hurston saw this style of writing as a way to express her proudness of the black culture and those who were deemed as lower than because of their speech and sometimes appearance.
Another artist who did the same in her writing such as The Color Purple is Alice Walker. Writing with the correct diphthongs and inflections of speech patterns truly does justice to works that attempt to provide a particular group of people in the truest light. This has been seen in popular dialects such as the British Cockney, Jamaican accents, as well as southern tones of the United States. Hurston’s style of vernacular closely resembles the latter. She has the majority of characters with this dialect, including the main protagonist Janie and her first, second, and third husband. In chapter 4 of the book her first husband Logan speaks about her modesty with house chores and states ” If Ah kin haul de wood heah and chop it fuh yuh, look lak you oughta be able tuh tote it inside. Mah fust wife never bothered me ’bout choppin’ no wood nohow. She’d grab dat ax and sling chips lak uh man. You done been spoilt rotten.” (Hurston 26) This text is easy enough to follow and would lose its authenticity if it was written soley as ‘If I can haul the wood here and chop it for you, looks as though you should be able to carry it inside. My first wife never bothered me about chopping any wood. She’d grab that axe and sling chips like a man. You have been spoiled rotten.’ One wouldn’t be able to gather where the people speaking are from or their perceived social status. This is why writing in dialect is very crucial in giving the reader the best experience of how a person or persons sound. There is really no need of painting a picture of poor black folks in the south and write their vernacular in standard English. It provides a disservice no matter how stereotypical it may seem. There is usually a truth behind every stereotype and there should be no shame given to those who honestly fit the description because of culture, education, or social standings.
This is what Hurston wanted to portray in her piece. She meant to celebrate these people how they were, without blemish or disgrace. The dialect of black people, especially southerners, was an identity stamp. Even today when someone from the south travels the world or even the United States their drawl is quite distinct and noticeable. It is a part of them. So in retrospect, Hurston could not fully make her characters without this fact.
Another telling characteristic of southerners, and one that Hurston again brought out in her writing, was that of hospitality. This was seen the most during Janie’s second marriage to Jody. He fashioned a grocery store for her and made it the center of all social gatherings. This is where the men came to challenge each other and gossip, the women sat around looking pretty, and where both genders shopped for necessities such as food and drinks. The porch was used as the opening scene to Their Eyes Were Watching God, and for good reason. She knew that this is where the information would fly on Janie’s return from her travels. The store porch gatherings is a treasured tradition in many southern and northern towns in the U.S and would have resonated with many of old country charm. It transcends any color barrier because it can be seen as a trademark of social etiquette of small towns.
The best example of how the porch functioned as social beacon is where the narrator states that “Jody was on the porch and the porch was full of Eatonville as usual at this time of the day. He was baiting Mrs. Tonx Robbins as he always did when she came to the store. Janie could see Jody watching her out of the corner of his eye while he joked roughly at Mrs. Robbins. He wanted to be friendly with her again. His big, big laugh was as much for her as for the baiting. He was longing for peace but on his own terms.”(Hurston 72) The scene painted here is that of familiarity. Everything is being done in its usual manner although an argument had ensued right before this. The townfolk found comfort in congregating around the porch even in times of stress. Even the protagonist, Janie, states that she enjoys the commotion around the store but her job as a store clerk is what dims the experience.
Hurston continues the black dialogue with the town people after this scene ensues. Jody starts to speak to the lady who he was baiting by stating ” I god, Mrs. Robbins, whut make you come heah and worry me when you see Ah’m readin’ mah newspaper? Mayor Starks lowered the paper in pretended annoyance.Mrs. Robbins struck her pity-pose and assume the voice.” Cause Ah’m hungry, Mist’ Starks. ‘Deed Ah is. Me and mah chillum is hungry. Tony don’t fee-eed me!”
These words give life to the text and allows the reader to breathe in the familiarities of the world that is being painted.
In summary, it was a courageous and excellent choice of Hurston to incorporate the sounds, speech, mindsets, and other qualities of the people she chose to write about in her acclaimed piece. It truly does do justice to the black people of that time regarding how and why they spoke, acted, or believed what they did. Her work truly edified her community.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. First Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2013.