By Carol Howard
In the fall of 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, the writer and ethnographer Zora Neale Hurston arrived in the Bahamas to collect folk songs and folk dances. A year earlier, she had become the first African American graduate of Barnard College. While at Barnard and, later, during graduate studies at Columbia, she was a student of, and research assistant to, the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas. (Margaret Mead was also a student of Boas in the 1920s.) Earlier, Boas had encouraged Hurston to study folk traditions among African American communities in Florida and New Orleans, and she was thrilled with the opportunity for further research in the Caribbean.
It was during her time in Nassau, Hurston later wrote, that she narrowly survived a terrible hurricane that swept through the islands. This experience is believed to be the basis for the final chapters of her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). In the fictional account, a heroine named Janie endures a hurricane not in the Caribbean, but among a migrant farm community comprised of Bahamians and African Americans in the Florida Everglades.
In the novel, Janie has recently left her home of Eatonville, FL, where her former husband had served as the town’s first mayor. Hurston grew up in the actual Eatonville, the first incorporated and independent African American township in the US. Her preacher father served as the real town’s first mayor. The fictionalized version of the town represents African American autonomy and ingenuity, yet Janie never feels free to be herself or to speak her mind in a place where her husband is in charge.
With her new husband, a gambler and musician known as Tea Cake, Janie heads to the Everglades, with its unique ecosystems of sawgrass marshes and cypress swamps. There, she and Tea Cake become part of a seasonal migrant labor community who plant and pick beans and other crops. Although Tea Cake is something of a wastrel, he loves the rich soil and farm labor, has a green thumb and is a good partner for Janie. In real life, the 1920s saw the Everglades “muck bowl” wetlands engineered into agricultural lands a few miles inland from the real estate boom and bust that was taking place on the East coast.
The storm that arrives in Hurston’s fictional world is based on the actual September hurricanes of 1926 and 1928 that devastated towns and farming communities near Lake Okeechobee. The scene is a study of hubris giving way to humility. The overly confident Tea Cake would have been wise to follow the local Native Americans who, having read the portent of an unusual blooming of sawgrass sedge, calmly left for higher ground several days before the storm arrived. (Hurston drew the romanticized account of the Seminole prediction from local Florida newspapers.) As the inland farms and coastal hotels give way to nature’s reclamation of the low-lying terrain, the migrant farmers who decide to wait out the storm sit motionless in their shacks, while “their eyes were watching God.”
The awe-inspiring acts of God and nature that Janie endures in the hurricane scene are catastrophic, yet they inspire her with strength, creativity and a sense of reverence. In the aftermath of the hurricane, Janie returns home to Eatonville. She has found her voice and will become the storyteller of her own history.
Carol Howard is dean of academics at Warren Wilson College.