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The Great Okeechobee Hurricane

palm beach

The central historical event of Their Eyes Were Watching God is the Great Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928. The hurricane had already wreaked havoc across the Caribbean, most notably on the Leeward Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas. The storm made landfall in South Florida on September 17 in Palm Beach County. The internal pressure of the storm was 929 millibars, with wind speeds of around 145 mph, ranking it sixth on the list of most intense storms to hit the United States. Only four storms have made landfall in Florida with higher wind speeds: the unnamed hurricane of 1919, the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Charley in 2004. The Saffir-Simpson scale that divides hurricanes into categories had not yet been invented, but based on these measurements, the Great Okeechobee hurricane would have made landfall in Florida at Category 4.

map2Although the storm caused a great deal of property damage in Palm Beach and other coastal areas, the real devastation happened as the storm moved inland over Lake Okeechobee (Okeechobee is a Seminole word for “big water”). Strong rains in the weeks before the storm had raised the water level in the lake. Storm winds drove water to the south end of the lake, and in two locations, the levee surrounding the lake broke.

In his book Okeechobee Hurricane, Lawrence E. Will described the flood this way:

The period of the lull here had apparently been between 8:30 and 9:30 that night. The exact time of the breaking of the dike is difficult to determine. There were several breaks and they may have occurred at slightly different times. Although it took an appreciable time for the flood to arrive in Belle Glade, those in the hotel said that when it did arrive, it rose on the steps at the rate of an inch a minute. The highest crest, which was during the maximum velocity of the wind during the second phase of the storm, was, according to my recollection, at 10:20 PM. This crest was a rolling swell of short duration, after which the water fell about a foot and remained nearly constant for twenty minutes. This mark in Belle Glade was about seven feet above the ground, nearer the lake it was a great deal higher, for example, in Stein’s house at Chosen, 11 feet 3 inches, and on Torry (Island) 11 feet, 8 inches, and similar heights in South Bay. As the flood advanced, it necessarily fanned out, becoming shallower. At the (University of Florida) Experiment Station its maximum depth was three feet, and that, strangely enough, according to foreman Tedder, was after daylight.

caneAs the category 4 hurricane moved inland, the strong winds piled the water up at the south end of the lake, ultimately topping the levee and rushing out onto the fertile land. The storm surge alone was nearly ten feet. The floodwaters in Belle Glade, on the southern shore of the lake, rose at a rate of one inch per minute and nearly topped seven feet. Thousands of people, mostly non-white migrant farm workers, drowned as water several feet deep spread over an area approximately 6 miles deep and 75 miles long around the south end of the lake.

The initial death toll set by the Red Cross was just under 2,000 people. However, that number most likely minimized the actual loss of life in order to prevent a negative effect on tourism to the state. The fact that most of the dead were migrant workers also played a part. The National Weather Service set the official death toll at more than 2,500* in 2003. The asterisk exists because the true death toll is unknown. Many of the bodies of the migrant workers were washed into the Everglades and never recovered. This storm was the second most devastating in terms of loss of life in U.S. history, ranking behind the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.

The burial scenes depicted in Their Eyes Were Watching God illustrate the difficulty in dealing with the huge loss of life, animal and human, and the necessity of burying so many in the short time required by Florida’s heat and humidity. They also call into attention the additional effect that segregation had on the tragedy. Whites were buried first, as many in private graves as possible until the heat demanded other measures. Blacks were more likely to have been interred in mass graves. Separate memorial services were held for white and black victims. Markers commemorating the mass burials may be found in West Palm Beach, one at Woodlawn Cemetery, where nearly 70 whites were buried, and another close to the intersection of 25th Street and Tamarind Avenue which marks the resting place of nearly 700 blacks. This marker is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Liz Doup’s story in the Broward Sun-Sentinel discusses the human cost of the hurricane, including interviews from survivors. Read the story here.

Information from:
Hurricanes: Science and Society, http://www.hurricanescience.org/history/storms/1920s/Okeechobee/
Memorial Page for the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane, http://www.srh.noaa.gov/mfl/?n=okeechobee

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Up on the Porch: The Center of Town Life


Their Eyes Were Watching God begins with Janie’s return to Eatonville, told primarily through the onlookers gathered on the porch in front of Joe Starks’s store: “It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.”

Throughout the Eatonville section of the novel, the porch serves as the center of town life. It’s the place to go for a game of checkers or a cold drink on a hot day, the one place you want to be to hear the news, swap stories, “play the dozens,” and gossip. “When the people sat around on the porch and passed around the pictures of their thoughts for the others to look at and see, it was nice.” (Chapter 6)

Janie realizes the importance of the porch as a way to integrate fully into the life of the town. Jody’s determination to keep her in the store reinforces his belief of her as something better than the rest of the townswomen, the “bell cow” whose prominence complements his own.

Porches serve as a touchstone in much of Hurston’s work, like her story “Sweat” and her novel Seraph on the Suwanee. In her autobiography Dust Tracks on A Road, Hurston recounted her early experiences in Eatonville:

“I know that Joe Clarke’s store was the heart and spring of the town. Men sat around the store on boxes and benches and passed this world and the next one through their mouths. The right and the wrong, the who, when and why was passed on, and nobody doubted the conclusions…For me, the store porch was the most interesting place that I could think of. I was not allowed to sit around there, naturally. But, I could and did drag my feet going in and out whenever I was sent there…But what I really loved to hear was the menfollks holding a “lying” session. That is, straining against each other in telling folktales. God, Devil, Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Sis Cat, Brer Bear, Lion, Tiger, Buzzard, and all the wood folk walked and talked like natural men.”

As a cultural anthropologist, Hurston certainly knew the connections between the stories and folktales she heard on those porches and those of West Africa. Trickster tales of Anansi the Spider migrated across the Middle Passage and found new homes in the American South, Anansi becoming the fabled trickster Brer Rabbit (and his Brooklyn-accented descendant, Bugs Bunny) and the porch taking the place of the talking stool reserved for the tribal chief.

The Act I Setting of Mule Bone, written in 1930 by Langston Hughes and Hurston from her story “A Bone of Contention,” describes how the porch should look.

SETTING: The raised porch of JOE CLARKE’s Store and the street in front. Porch stretches almost completely across the stage, with a plank bench at either end. At the center of the porch three steps leading from street. Rear of porch, center, door to store. On either side are single windows on which signs, at left, “POST OFFICE,” and at right, “GENERAL STORE” are painted. Soap boxes, axe handles, small kegs, etc., on porch on which townspeople sit and lounge during action. Above the roof of the porch the “false front,” or imitation second story of the shop, is seen with large sign painted across it “JOE CLARKE’S GENERAL STORE.” Large kerosene street lamp on post at right in front of the porch.

Saturday afternoon and the villagers are gathered around the store. Several men sitting on boxes at edge of porch chewing sugar cane, spitting tobacco juice, arguing, some whittling, others eating peanuts. During the act the women all dressed up in starched dresses parade in and out of store. People buying groceries, kids playing in the street, etc. General noise of conversation, laughter and children shouting. But when the curtain rises there is a momentary lull for cane-chewing. At left of porch four men are playing cards on a soap box, and seated on the edge of the porch at extreme right two children are engaged in a checker game, with the board on the floor between them.

mule boneMule Bone was based on an African-American folktale. The play was intended to be the first of what Hurston hoped would be a truly “black vernacular” theater; however, a falling out between the authors prevented the play from ever being produced in their lifetimes. A production of Mule Bone finally made its debut in 1991. The fascinating story behind the conflict may be found here.

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Hurston’s Use of Dialect

zora2In addition to being a fine writer of fiction, Zora Neale Hurston was a folklorist and cultural anthropologist. About her writing, Hurston once said, “I tried…not to pander to the folks who expect a clown and a villain in every Negro. Neither did I want to pander to those “race” people among us who see nothing but perfection in all of us.” In a letter to her friend and fellow writer Fannie Hurst, Hurston wrote, “I know I cannot straighten out with a few pen-strokes what God and men took centuries to mess up. So I tried to deal with life as we actually live it–not as the sociologists imagine it.”

Hurston’s efforts were not universally appreciated by other members of the Harlem Renaissance, most notably Richard Wright. In a 1937 review for New Masses, Wright chided Hurston for not focusing on “motive fiction” or “social document fiction” and had particularly stinging things to say about her use of dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God:

Her dialogue manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that’s as far as it goes.

Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the “white folks” laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.

Like Mark Twain before her, Hurston was exacting in her reproduction of speech patterns, both writers valuing authenticity over the preferences of the time. The following is a passage from “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” written by Hurston and published in Negro, 1934.

If we are to believe the majority of writers of Negro dialect and the burnt-cork artists, Negro speech is a weird thing, full of “ams” and “Ises.” Fortunately, we don’t have to believe them. We may go directly to the Negro and let him speak for himself.

I know that I run the risk of being damned as an infidel for declaring that nowhere can be found the Negro who asks “am it?” nor yet his brother who announces “Ise uh gwinter.” He exists only for a certain type of writers and performers.

Very few Negroes, educated or not, use a clear clipped “I.” It verges more or less upon “Ah.” I think the lip form is responsible for this to a great extent. By experiment the reader will find that a sharp “i” is very much easier with a thin taut lip than with a full soft lip. Like tightening violin strings.

If one listens closely one will not too that a word is slurred in one position in the sentence but clearly pronounced in another. This is particularly true of the pronouns. A pronoun as a subject is likely to be clearly enunciated, but slurred as an object. For example: “You better not let me ketch yuh.”

There is a tendency in some localities to add the “h” to “it” and pronounce it “hit.” Probably a vestige of Old English. In some localities “if” is “ef.”

In story telling “so” is universally the connective. It is used even as an introductory word, at the very beginning of the story. In religious expression “and” is used. The trend in stories is to state conclusions; in religion, to enumerate.

I am mentioning only the most general rules in dialect because there are so many quirks that belong only to certain localities that nothing less than a volume would be adequate.

Additional material from the National Endowment for the Arts’ “The Big Read” Reader’ Guide to Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Meeting Zora Neale Hurston


Hurston 1

“Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at de sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”
From Dust Tracks on a Road


Although Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama on January 7, 1891, she moved to Eatonville, Florida when she was a toddler and claimed that as her hometown. Eatonville, the first black-incorporated town in the United States, served as the backdrop for her most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in addition to providing a rich vein of African-American folklore that resounds throughout her writing. Trained as a cultural anthropologist, Hurston sought to incorporate the black culture and dialect that she knew best into her writing. Her positive outlook on black culture as it was created friction between Hurston and other luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance movement. After a few decades of literary success, Hurston fell into obscurity. Her works went out of print. It wasn’t until novelist Alice Walker, who had read Their Eyes Were Watching God and who became a passionate advocate of her work, published the essay “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in a 1975 issue of Ms. Magazine that scholars renewed their focus on the Hurston, her amazing life story, and her contribution to American literature. Their Eyes Were Watching God is now one of the most widely-taught and best-known of African-American novels. Hurston died in Ft. Pierce, FL on January 28, 1960.

Hurston’s Perspective

What strikes the contemporary reader is that Hurston was deeply passionate about the people whose dreams and desires, whose traumas and foibles she describes with such élan, and that she loved the fictional language in which she cloaks their tales; hers is not the urgency of the essayist or the columnist, intent upon reducing human complexity to a sociological or political point. Above all else, Hurston is concerned to register a distinct sense of space—an African-American cultural space. The Hurston voice of these stories is never in a hurry or a rush, pausing over—indeed, luxuriating in—the nuances of speech or the timbre of voice that give a storyteller her or his distinctiveness.

—Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sieglinde Lemke,
Introduction to Zora Neale Hurston: The Complete Stories

In the twenties, thirties, and forties, there were tremendous pressures on black writers. Militant organizations, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, expected them to be “race” people, defending black people, protesting against racism and oppression; while the advocates of the genteel school of literature wanted black writers to create respectable characters that would be “a credit to the race.” Many black writers chafed under these restrictions, including Hurston, who chose to write about the positive side of black experience and to ignore the brutal side. She saw black lives as psychologically integral—not humiliated half-lives, stunted by the effects of racism and poverty. She simply could not depict blacks as defeated, humiliated, degraded, or victimized, because she did not experience black people or herself that way.

Mary Helen Washington, “Zora Neale Hurston: A Woman Half in Shadow”

 Hurston 2“I tried … not to pander to the folks who expect a clown and a villain in every Negro,” Hurston said of Their Eyes Were Watching God. “Neither did I want to pander to those ‘race’ people among us who see nothing but perfection in all of us.”                               

Hurston’s Language

Reading Their Eyes Were Watching God for perhaps the eleventh time, I am still amazed that Hurston wrote it in seven weeks; that it speaks to me as no novel, past or present, has ever done; and that the language of the characters, that “comical nigger ‘dialect’” that has been laughed at, denied, ignored, or “improved” so that white folks and educated black folks can understand it, is simply beautiful. There is enough self-love in that one book—love of community, culture, traditions—to restore a world. Or create a new one.

Alice Walker, “On Refusing to be Humbled By Second Place in a Contest You Did Not Design: A Tradition by Now”


Hurston Resources

The PBS program Do You Speak American? includes an excellent essay on African-American women writers including Hurston, Alice Walker, and Nobel prizewinner Toni Morrison. Hurston’s use of dialect is discussed in detail. The essay also includes links to sounds clips and other info:


The idea that there are proscribed ways for people of varied races to speak still exists these days. In her podcast “Sounding Black,” produced for Studio 360, performer Sarah Jones discusses “blaccents” and their impact on communication and the 2008 presidential election.


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Their Eyes Were Watching God Foldable


Hurston’s novel embodies the philosophy of visual thinking as the narrator says: “There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought.”

As old Nanny sits rocking Janie in the second chapter, “Mind pictures brought feelings, and feelings dragged out dramas from the hollows of her heart.”  Using construction paper, printed images, colored pencils, or whatever other art supplies you choose, you will visually organize the plot, the literary techniques, and the character changes Janie undergoes. By developing this foldable, we can trace the changes in Janie through the four phases of her life.


Begin with a sheet of 11×17 paper. Fold the paper in half, then fold each edge into the center. Crease along the center to form a booklet. While the paper is still folded into a booklet, print the title, and author’s name, and your name on the outside to make a cover. You may decorate this how you choose.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a frame story, with the beginning and end chapters consisting of Janie’s return to Eatonville and her conversation with Pheoby which frame the flashback segments making up the middle part of the book. Opening the booklet will reveal the opening and closing parts of the frame.

LEFT FLAP: Write about the opening chapter where Janie walks down the street, ignoring the porch sitters as she returns to Eatonville and begins to tell her story to Pheoby. What is your initial impression of Janie? Use illustrations or quotations to explain your perception.

RIGHT FLAP: On the right flap, write about the closing chapter. Janie finishes her conversation with Pheoby, who is amazed by Janie’s transformation. Using illustrations and quotations from Chapter 20, show us how Janie—and your perception of her—has changed.

CENTER SECTIONS: Folding back the flaps will reveal the center, which is creased into four sections. In this novel, Janie journeys through four stages of life in her quest for respect, independence, and wholeness. Each of the four sections of the foldable represents one of those stages. Her life is controlled by others in the first three stages, first her grandmother (Nanny), then Logan Killicks, and Joe (Jody) Starks. After Jody’s death, she is able to make her own decisions leading to her relationship to Tea Cake, and she begins to celebrate her own worth and independence. You will illustrate and explain the stages of her journey, helping you draw conclusions about her character development.


  • Give each section a title that expresses what that section is about.
  • In each section sketch one visual image (a symbol or icon that you think most expresses an important part of that section; it can be an object, a visual image of an event or place essential to this part of the story) that stands out to you, and use colors that remind you of the mood, setting, or characters. Explain the importance of that symbol or image. EXAMPLE: an axe could symbolize that Logan at first chops wood for Janie, but later they fight over his demands that she chop wood and work in the fields.
  • Write about the events in that section, especially the ones that lead to a change in Janie, using quotes from the text. Information in each panel can include where Janie lived, the person who most influenced her life, events of that part of the story, and how Janie changed to meet the challenges of these events and influences. DON’T JUST SUMMARIZE THE STORY. You must use quotes in each section that show stages of Janie’s journey and character development and explain their meaning.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is rich in symbols, imagery, metaphor, and other literary devices. I strongly suggest you complete each section of the project as you finish reading the appropriate chapters. That way, you won’t have to go back and hunt for specifics as you complete each section.

Your project will be graded on its completeness, attention to detail, evidence of thoughtful interpretation, and presentation. This isn’t an art class, so the quality of your art (i.e. hand-drawn vs. pasted images) isn’t the issue, but everyone is expected to submit a neat and professional-looking project.

Untitled painting of Eatonville life, painted c. 1930-40 by Jules Andre Smith, founder of the Research Studio, now known as the Maitland Art Center.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God Shmoop Review

Alas, Prof. Sparky Sweets has not yet created a Thug Notes for Their Eyes Were Watching God. This summary by the fine folks at Shmoop will have to do for now.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God Vocabulary

coverPlease study the following words for your vocabulary test, which will be given on Wednesday, March 6.






Choose two additional words from the remainder of the list to study.

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