By: Kayla Hewitt
My whole life I’ve been taught about black history. Over and over and over again I’ve been educated on how Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, how Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus, and how Harriet Tubman helped slaves escape on the Underground Railroad. And for the most part, the adversity faced by these figures dominates the way we think about them. This is a theme that persists among many popularized pieces of literature and film that revolve around African-American protagonists. The portrayal of these characters is often consumed by their hardship and only viewed through a lense of pity, which essentially robs them of their humanity.
In America, there is an extremely one-sided view of black people as a whole. For the most part, we are defined by our blackness. For example, when telling a story, one would not simply refer to a character as “the girl”, but as “the black girl.” White seems to be the default in most people’s minds, and this has led to an inability to imagine non-white people with the same level of complexity granted to their white counterparts. In most movies, plays, and books with a non-white lead, the story mostly revolves around the character’s race, and while this does not make these stories any less important or meaningful, there are not many stories in which a non-white character has to deal with the emotions and feelings they have simply by virtue of being human.
It was not until my Freshman year in high school that I finally came across a book that painted a picture of a black woman, or really black people in general, as anything more than coat racks upon which the audience can hang their pity. That book is Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Unlike many of the books of this era about black people, Hurston tackles undeniably human emotions of love, yearning, and restlessness, while still fully embracing the fact that her protagonist, Janie, is a black woman. This ultimately shows her audience that the concepts of being black and being human are not mutually exclusive, because the story is not about a black woman, but simply a woman. Hurston writes characters that have their own singular wishes and imperfections independent of their skin color, as opposed to all of their passions and complexities being anchored upon their race.
As a writer myself, I have often run into a sense of guilt whenever writing about anything other than my heritage. I’ve been made to believe that the only way to acknowledge my own blackness and pay homage to those who came before me is to write exclusively about the struggles and conflicts that occur as a result of race. However, this tactic only succeeds in dehumanizing black people of both the past and present. The only way to truly empathize with those who face oppression is to take into account those conflicts, but to imagine them as people first. Then and only then can you honor them for who they are, not just for what they endure.
Books and movies like Their Eyes Were Watching God are important because they help to peel back the curtain on a group of people who have been solely characterized for one aspect of their being for so long. It’s stories like these that push us forward, because they breed compassion, and when we learn how to be compassionate, we are better able to view all people with the same complex light with which we view ourselves.