BBC Radio 4, 15-26 July 2013
First published in the 1930s,
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a classic text of African-American literature, recounting the experiences of Janie,
a young girl growing up in the South.
In Adjoa Andoh's beguiling performance, the tale came across as one where individuals have
to become accustomed to stereotypes, even if they resent being viewed as such. In her early years, Janie doesn't realize
that she is black, and that her skin colour determined her future life-choices. It is only when her grandmother reminds
her of this essential fact of pre-Civil Rights life that she understands its implications. Similarly, when she runs
away with Joe Stocks, she doesn't quite grasp the idea that, as a wife, she should remain totally subservient to her
husband, even to the extent of fetching and carrying for him. It is only after several years of drudgery, when she feels
that she has had all the life squeezed out of her, that she appears to resign herself to her inevitable fate.
However Hurston's text continually
reminds us that, in spite of her limited social and martial possibilities, Janie has hidden talents; she understands the conventions
of the world around her (even if she resents them), and at the same time looks for alternatives. She might not be able
to change the world, but she can try to manufacture new possibilities for herself.
The prose of the novel is at once mundane yet
vivid, dramatizing the experiences of someone not prepared to accept the roles imposed on her by a rigidly stratified world.
African-American culture in the South in the Thirties was as rigid in its social structure as any white culture; men were
expected to be the breadwinners and assume important roles, while women simply existed to support them as well as bearing
children and being "entertaining" (Hurston's term) in bed. It is a tribute to Janie's strength of character that she
tries to transform her life for the better, even if it only means retaining the freedom to think for herself.