Representation of the 1920s and 1930s in the U.S As Described By Zora Neale Hurston in Her Book, Their Eyes Were Watching God

The 1920’s and 1930’s were a time of great change. Progressive reforms embodied the nation’s growing sense of social responsibility and economic policies led a booming economy to come crashing down. The novel Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston portrays this time period clearly and shows certain aspects of this time period that conventional historical studies do not.

The Great Depression was the hardest time economically for many nations in modern history. Begun in the United States after the stock market collapsed, the depression soon spread all over the world.

“Black Tuesday,” the day when the stock market crashed, occurred on October 29th, 1929. The end of the Great Depression varies from after FDR’s economic reform took place to the building up of WWII, depending on the source.

The causes of the Great Depression were both diverse and numerous. The stock market crash of 1929 was a major cause. This event plunged us into the economic hardship. Bank failures also drastically hurt America.

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During the 1930’s, over 9,000 banks failed (Top 5 causes of the Great Depression). The banks who managed to survive were fearful of lending money to investors, which hurt the economy to an even greater extent. Just as banks began to not give out as much money, consumers also began to buy less. With a smaller demand for items, there was also a smaller demand for jobs, raising unemployment. A new system of purchasing in installments had arisen in the 1920’s and now many people were unable to keep up with their payments.

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The ratio of supply and demand was now dangerously unbalanced.

America’s foreign policy also exacerbated the economic problems. In 1930, the Hawley-Smoot Tariff was passed. This was a high protective tariff, lessening trade with foreign countries (Top 5 Causes of the Great Depression). The drastic drought that occurred in the Mississippi Valley in 1930 only worsened the situation. Many farmers became unable to support themselves and had to sell their farms.

Herbert Hoover was elected the 31st president in 1928 with a great majority of electoral votes. Unluckily for Hoover, the economic meltdown occurred 8 months into his presidency. Hoover was seen as cold and uncaring by the public because of his economic policies. He stuck to his principles in not giving money directly to the people. He believed that this practice would make the public dependent on government hand-outs (pros 129). Instead of proposing direct welfare, Hoover initiated some government relief plans, cut taxes significantly, and supported several acts lending money to banks. (pros 129). Most of all, Hoover believed optimism was essential to recovery, which led him to announce to the American public that the hard times were over in the depths of the depression. Altogether, Hoover was an extremely ineffective president.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected the 32nd president on a wave of anti-Hoover enthusiasm. Roosevelt helped the nation to recover and move through the Great Depression though government action and optimism. During his inaugural speech, Roosevelt told the nation that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." (Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt)

Within his first 100 days in office, Roosevelt made many changes to agriculture, business and relief to the unemployed, according to his “New Deal.” When faced with criticism, Roosevelt responded with higher taxes on the rich, more control of banks, social security and work relief programs. Roosevelt’s policies’ success has been highly debated and cannot be seen as simply good or bad. Roosevelt was the only president to ever serve more than two terms. (Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt)

The Harlem Renaissance was a major presence during this time period. This movement was an intellectual blooming of the African American community, or as Alain Locke said, a “Spiritual Coming of Age” for the black community (Harlem Renaissance). This institution took place in Harlem, New York during the 1920’s.

This renaissance began for many reasons. These included the high amount of racism present in America and the Great Migration of southern blacks to northern cities. Prosperity was flowing during the early 1920’s and African Americans wanted to get their share. Many turned to literature and other creative pathways to achieve this success. African American writers began to cherish and celebrate their own heritage for the first time in African American history. Alain Locke correctly portrayed the sentiment among these authors when he stated that the Harlem Renaissance turned “social disillusionment to race pride.” (Harlem Renaissance)This time period helped to bring about a new black cultural identity and to change race shame to pride.

Among leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, one of the most influential was Alain Locke. Locke was born September 13, 1885 in Pennsylvania. He graduated from Harvard and was the first African American Rhodes Scholar. Over the course of his life, he taught at Howard University while working on many different thesis and books. Probably his most well know book, The New Negro, was published in 1925. This great work deeply inspired the Harlem Renaissance, and also Zora Neale Hurston. His philosophy in the New Negro was based in the concept of “race-building.” (Alain Locke). Locke taught both self-confidence and political awareness. Locke’s work helped to inspire many African Americans to claim equality and, fair treatment.

Another very important leader involved with the Harlem Renaissance was W.E.B. DuBois. One of DuBois’ greatest accomplishments was to help found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which is the oldest and largest civil rights organization in America. DuBois spoke passionately about race affairs, both in writing and during speeches. He was also an editor of “The Crisis,” an African American magazine of the time (W.E.B. DuBois). W.E.B. DuBois was an inspiring force behind the Harlem Renaissance.

The revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920’s greatly shaped the race relations of this time. The Klan was founded in 1866 in Georgia but had slowly faded from its original power. With the year 1915 came a great revival of the Klan and with it racism and nativism. The Klan had spread all across the nation by this time with as many members as two million men ("The KKK Expands Throughout the Nation" 60-65). The organization had originally been founded after the Civil War to terrorize former slaves but now, due to the recent influx of immigrants, harassed blacks, Roman Catholics, Jews, and other immigrants. The Klan even gained substantial control of local governments and many politicians were members of the Klan. The Klan’s legacy was to help support and prolong Jim Crow Laws and segregation.

One of the greatest scandals of its day, the Sacco and Vanzetti trial was a blatant representation of nativism and the improper use of the justice system. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian immigrants and confirmed anarchists. In early 1920, they both were arrested for the alleged robbery and murder of a shoe company paymaster ("Anti-Immigrant Feelings in the Early 1920s" 58). The trial began in May of 1920. Although the state prosecution was unable to prove conclusive guilt, Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted and sentenced to death in July, 1921.

Many people claimed that Sacco and Vanzetti were being prosecuted for their anarchist beliefs and their nationality. Although many different groups objected, Sacco and Vanzetti were finally executed on August 22, 1927. Unfortunately, this trial had a much greater effect than expected as many people lost faith in the American justice system.

Prohibition was one of the most controversial acts ever ratified by the government. In 1920, the 18th amendment was passed which banned the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol for consumption nationally. This almost socialist policy was supported vehemently many diverse groups of Americans, ranging from the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and many religious denominations, to the KKK.

The reasons for prohibition are very complex and numerous. Socially, alcohol consumption hurt many families because of alcoholism and the cost of alcohol. Politically, many politicians gained support by promising to support prohibition. Prohibition was also seen as good for the economy since many workers came to work drunk, hindering efficiency. Health effects of alcohol also had an effect on the issue (Prohibition in the United States). Sadly, prohibition did not stop alcohol consumption altogether but merely gave money to “bootleggers.” Mafia crime succeeded extremely well because of prohibition. The 18th amendment was later repealed with the ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933.

The historical surroundings of Their Eyes Were Watching God give a good insight into the novel. By exploring the roles expected of these characters, much can be perceived about their personalities. New ideas about social reasonability took the form of progressive reforms. Attitudes were changing along with African Americans’ and womens’ roles. The flowering of African American culture known as the Harlem Renaissance also influenced self perception of the characters in the novel. At the same time, an upsurge of racism and nativism affected all people of color living in this country. Probably most important of all, the economic depression that the nation faced was the most daunting economic obstacle to date. Unemployment and loss of opportunities affected everyone around the nation.

Their Eyes Were Watching God was written by Zora Neale Hurston in 1937. It follows the story of Janie Crawford through Janie’s autobiographical account to her friend Pheoby. The story is a journey of self discovery and spiritual fulfillment for Janie while fighting society’s expectations of her. Janie’s journey takes her through three husbands and all across the southern United States, and most importantly of all, down to her very identity.

The story begins with a tired and disheartened Janie Crawford returning to Eatonville after a substantial absence. As she returns to her old house, an old friend, Pheoby, comes by to ask about Janie’s story and to tell the town the newest gossip. Janie agrees to tell Pheoby her whole story, starting from when she was a child.

Janie has been raised by her grandmother who works as a nanny for a white family. Janie grew up playing with the white children and didn’t even realize her own ethnicity until she saw herself in a photograph.

As a teenager, Janie wonders about love and marriage and how the two are related. Her grandmother soon convinces her to enter into marriage with a local man named Logan Killicks. Janie doesn’t feel any affection towards Logan but hopes it will come with time. Three months go by and she still feels lonely so she visits and complains to her Nanny who tells her she will change her mind with time. Janie’s Nanny later shows regret at Janie’s unhappiness but knows she did her best. She died a month later.

Soon after this, Joe Starks comes by Janie’s house and introduces himself. He is an intelligent and ambitious man. He plans to buy land in Eatonville, a new all-black town. He asks Janie to leave Logan and come with him. Once, after Logan and Janie fight and Logan threatens Janie, Janie goes outside and left with Joe. They run away and get married.

Janie and Joe arrive in Eatonville and both are disappointed with the lack of organization in the community. Joe buys land quite a bit of land from the neighboring white and increased the size of the town. Joe calls a meeting of the town and decides to build both a general store that he would run and a post office. Joe becomes extremely influential in the town and was elected mayor. Unfortunately, Joe’s new power and responsibility strain his and Janie’s relationship.

Janie and Joe's relationship continues to fall apart. Joe becomes increasingly jealous and controlling of Janie. Many years pass and Janie learns to just be quiet instead of fighting with Joe. He tried to hide his own flaws by pointing out Janie’s to the entire town.

Joe began to insult Janie one day and instead of taking it like always, Janie stood up for herself and told Joe that he was nothing but a loud voice; he’s not even a real man. Joe’s pride is crushed and he refuses to talk to or see Janie, even as his health deteriorates. Janie tries to talk to Joe for one last time and to make things right but Joe dies without budging a bit.

Janie is now finally free. She is financially independent and has no man to obey. She meets a young man named Tea Cake and the pair hit it off. Tea Cake took Janie to do fun things and treated her well. While the town criticized Janie for ending her mourning and for seeing a much younger man, Janie disregards these comments and decides to marry Tea Cake and sell the store.

Janie and Tea Cake decide to move down to the Everglades because work is supposed to be good and life fun. Working as a farm hand, Tea Cake spent his days picking beans and Janie takes care of the house. Here, Janie is free to talk and laugh without being reprimanded as in Eatonville.

At the end of the farming season, Janie meets Mrs. Turner, a woman of mixed race who hates her own blackness. She tries to get Janie to leave dark-skinned Tea Cake for someone lighter. Tea Cake confronts Mrs. Turner saying that if hates black people, she should stay away from him and Janie.

One day, passing Seminole Indians warn of a coming hurricane but aren’t believed. Later that night, the weather becomes extremely bad. Tea Cake and Janie hide in their basement and are extremely fearful. The storm passes and the pair decide to leave the region on foot. On their way, the lake dam breaks and water soon surrounds them. Janie has trouble and falls but Tea Cake helps her to keep going. Suddenly, a rabid dog tries to attack and bite Janie but Tea Cake protects her, getting bit in the process. Janie is fearful of the bite and wants to find a doctor but Tea Cake insists that he’s alright.

Tea Cake starts to feel sick and Janie calls for a doctor. She tells the doctor how Tea Cake was bitten a month ago. The doctor diagnoses Tea Cake with rabies and tells Janie he will most likely die soon. He also advises Janie not to sleep with Tea Cake for fear or contracting rabies also. Tea Cake starts to have wild mood swings and behaves irrationally. He confronts Janie, gun in hand, and shots her as Janie shoots him with a rifle. Tea Cake was shot first and fell to the ground, dying. He bit Janie before he died. Janie was arrested and tried for murder but was acquitted.

Janie arranges proper funeral for Tea Cake and then returns Eatonville. The story returns to the present with Janie and Pheoby on the porch. Janie imparts a piece of wisdom upon Pheoby when she said “Two things everybody got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves."(Hurston 192). Janie tells Pheoby to tell her story to the townspeople, both to satisfy their curiosity and to maybe help them learn something about life. Janie realizes that Tea Cake is not dead as long as he is in her memory. Janie finally finds the peace she has been searching for all of her life.

Their Eyes Were Watching God presented me with two specific situations in history that conventional studies of history did not. One of these issues was the role of women during this time period, especially that of African American women. The other issue I perceived from this novel was the existence of race colonies. This novel is set in an all-black town and provides quite a bit of information about that type of settlement, which I had not learned about previously.

Janie’s grandmother imparted a great piece of wisdom to Janie before Janie left to be married. Her grandmother bemoaned the mistreatment of African American women, not only by white society, but also by their own black men. Janie’s grandmother said “So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” (Hurston 14). Even when the 19th amendment was passed, many black women were still not allowed to vote. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie’s husband Jody was so threatened by Janie that he tried to restrict her to the point of unhappiness. Instead of trying to help their wives, sisters, and daughters succeed, many black men took out their own burdens upon them. For many years, African American women were the scape goat for many African American men.

Their Eyes Were Watching God was, for the most part, set in Eatonville, Florida, an all-black community. This town was also the hometown of Zora Neale Hurston. After the Civil War, many newly freed slaves came to Florida and took up work as farm hands or in construction for neighboring white towns (Black Towns).

The novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is an important historical piece in African American woman’s literature. The 20’s and 30’s were a turbulent time period pictured in this novel. The events of the time period that it was centered on play an important role in the development of the plot.

Updated: Feb 22, 2024
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Representation of the 1920s and 1930s in the U.S As Described By Zora Neale Hurston in Her Book, Their Eyes Were Watching God. (2024, Feb 23). Retrieved from

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