This curriculum unit includes tested and proven materials for teaching Their Eyes Were Watching God to high school students. We have developed it to offer other teachers a sample plan that introduces students to a contemporary novel written by Zora Neale Hurston, a major writer during the Harlem Renaissance. It is a book that June Jordan called “the prototypical Black novel of affirmation . . . the most successful, convincing, and exemplary novel of Black love that we have.”
First published in 1937, the novel was out of print for several decades but became the focus of renewed attention and interest after the 1975 publication of “Looking for Zora,” an essay by Alice Walker, printed in the March 1975 issue of Ms. Magazine. We have included Walker’s essay (from “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose”) for you and your students to read and are grateful to Harcourt Brace and Company for giving permission to reprint it. We use the essay at the end of the unit and find that Walker’s story about locating Hurston’s grave has a deep impact on our students. Our students have liked the story and say they enjoy reading about a woman who succeeds in the end against difficult odds. They like Janie Crawford’s determination and perseverance and her refusal to give up on her idea of love and happiness. They have said that the dialect is challenging at first but that its cadence and conversational patterns make it easy to follow after they get into the work.
We would like to comment on the language Hurston uses in her novel. As English teachers, we recognize that certain books, from Huck Finn to Their Eyes Were Watching God, contain such words as “nigger,” “darky,” and “coon.” We feel a moral obligation to comment on the use of these words before we start reading. We want our students to know where we stand on demeaning and hurtful words like this– that such language is unacceptable and offensive and that it reflects attitudes and beliefs in our society (both past and present) that need inspection and therefore may appear in literature.
We tell our students that we want them to be aware of the destructive power of such language and remind them that authors use such words for particular and carefully reasoned purposes. We then need to discuss the use of “negro” (also Negro) and “colored people,” both of which Hurston uses in her book. Our students are not usually aware of the changing names used to identify African Americans over the last century. It has been helpful to explain these latter forms as acceptable words in past generations but no longer used by educated and thoughtful people.
Their Eyes Were Watching God can be taught in one of several ways. Some teachers give it as homework to be finished by a specific date; others have students read it by chapters; still others read it aloud with less skilled readers. All of these approaches work. You will notice that the sample time line suggests a five-week unit. This is the most common schedule when we teach it to eleventh graders, but we have done it in a variety of other sequences.
This brings us to one final comment: this unit is very flexible. We offer approaches based on firsthand experience, but we know that there are many other combinations that will work as well. We believe that all teachers adapt ideas to fit their own teaching styles, and this format, like those in all of our curriculum packets, is easily and successfully modified, and we hope that these materials will make the teacher’s job easier and more productive.