Their Eyes Were Watching God-designed by Richie Pope

Professor Philip Joseph on Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

February 3, 2020

In our new series Wonderwork, CU Denver faculty, students, staff, and alumni recommend one book that deserves more readers. Our ultimate goal is to promote a diverse and inclusive book culture. February is Black History Month so our focus will be on works by African American authors. Nominate your favorite Wonderwork by emailing or posting on social media with #CUDenverwonderwork.

“I recommend Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance and also a folklorist who researched and studied African diaspora culture in the southern U.S. and the Caribbean. She was also a black feminist, although she would not have used that term. 

Their Eyes is important for a number of reasons. For one thing, it rejects the idea that African American culture is simply and reductively a product of white racism. From Hurston’s perspective, to dwell too much on the racism that was impossible to ignore was to risk portraying African Americans as a damaged people. She was controversial for this reason, and writers like Richard Wright criticized her for failing to reckon adequately with racism.

“But Hurston’s project was to explore and celebrate the oral traditions, the figurative language, and the community norms of southern African Americans, and to her that meant seeing that culture independent of white power and control. In addition, Hurston shifts the focus in African American literature to the lives of black women, who are struggling not only with white supremacy but with patriarchy within black communities. She examines how black men can reproduce some of the power structures of the white world and how black women are often expected to suppress their sexuality and their desire for full expression in order to dignify black leaders. 

Their Eyes is the story of an African American woman’s liberation—understood both in terms of her sexual expression and her participation in the storytelling culture that surrounds her.”

– Professor Philip Joseph, Chair of the English Department

Book art by artist Richie Pope at Litographs.