Zora Neale Hurston in 2017: How Art Can Help Us Remember and Understand Disaster

Princeton University Press will donate the net proceeds from the sale of The Flood Year 1927 to hurricane relief through December 31, 2017

by Susan Scott Parrish

ParrishHarvey. Irma. Jose. Maria. Since August 17, one hurricane has chased the tail winds of its predecessor without pause. Three of these have made landfall in the United States, making the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season a record-breaker in number and intensity. We are getting used to having each season push the previous one out of our awareness—out of that space we leave in our brains to house the images and statistics of environmental disasters. Can you who live outside Louisiana remember the interminable, flooding rains of August 2016? This season, though, the attention obliteration rate has sped up. In our minds, we hold maps of damage, YouTube clips of world-bending wind, or aerial shots of inundated neighborhoods for but one week, when the mind needs to clear out room for the newer data. If you or your loved ones have not been directly in harm’s way, what will it take to help you remember Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria?

This is where well-crafted works of art can make a difference. Here I am using a broad definition of “art” to include documentary and feature films, books of nonfiction and fiction, collage and painting, drama, in-depth podcasts and so on. Part of why we will long remember Katrina is because of the catastrophic human error at play. Another reason is the artists who fashioned durable cultural markers in its aftermath. From Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke to Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun to Natasha Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina to Kara Walker’s “Post Katrina, Adrift,” each artist put significant attention into choices about representation: Lee’s ironic or plangent juxtaposition of sound and image, Eggers’s tight point-of-view narrative focus, Trethewey’s alternation of memoir and lyric poetry, and Walker’s careful reworking of a Theodore Gericault monumental history painting. Their attention to aesthetics, to making meaning and form coalesce, calls us to give our attention to an event long after its apparent end.

Let us go back before 2005, then, and think about art’s relationship to a much older hurricane and flood, a disaster that might have slipped from history were it not for a remarkable work of fiction. I want to think about Zora Neale Huston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and how it has kept awareness of the Okeechobee hurricane and flood of 1928 alive all these years—and how it was virtually alone in doing so until historians and journalists told its story in nonfiction form in the early 21st century.

Located west of Palm Peach, Lake Okeechobee covers over seven hundred and twenty square miles, making it the third largest freshwater lake within U.S. borders. Okeechobee used to release its waters in a slow cascade southward through saw-grass prairies all the way down to the Bay of Florida. Beginning in the 1880s, entrepreneurs from the northern U.S. and Britain dug massive canals west, east, and south of the lake to drain off the vast and now arable acreage to its south. What had been the Everglades became nine foot-deep rich earth—“the muck”—which came to yield large crops of vegetables and, most of all, sugar cane. Knowing that flooding was a possibility in a hurricane-prone region, the state built, between 1923 and 1925, a five-foot-high mud dike along forty-seven miles of the lake’s southern border. Housing for the agricultural laborers, who had emigrated there from throughout the South and Caribbean, stood right up against the presumably contained lake.

On September 16, 1928, a hurricane touched land on the eastern coast of Florida at Lake Worth with 130mph winds. With an eye 25 to 30 miles across, the winds pummeled Palm Beach around 6:45pm and then, moving as a counter-clockwise whirl in the darkness, came at Lake Okeechobee from the northwest corner, pushing a ten-foot wall of water over its bottom rim, and breaking down the paltry dike across a twenty-one mile expanse. Between 2,500 and 3,000 people died that night, almost half of the local population. More than three-quarters of the dead were African-American and Afro-Caribbean. According to one historian, more people of African descent died on that day than any other single day in U.S. history. While sixty-nine white bodies were placed in a marked burial ground at Woodlawn Cemetery in Palm Beach, six hundred and seventy-four black bodies were placed in a mass grave at the pauper’s field in West Palm Beach; another sixteen hundred were interred in Port Mayaca, on high ground to the east of Okeechobee—sites which remained unmarked until 2003. Scores of corpses were lost in the Everglades, and scores more were burned in funeral pyres. African-Americans were conscripted at gunpoint to do all of this work of gruesome clean up, including the putative separation of bodies by race, something the bodies’ decay made unintelligible.

Because Florida leaders were trying to develop the state as a holiday oasis, and a sure real estate investment, they didn’t want news of the disaster to travel. Most of the deaths had taken place quickly, in the middle of the night, fifty miles west of Palm Beach, in a rural locale full of migrant workers. The powerful who had access to national media to broadcast the disaster chose to remain quiet. The powerless did not seem to have a storyteller of note. At least not right away.

Zora Neale Hurston was not in harm’s way during the September 16th hurricane and flood, but she heard oral accounts when in Florida the following spring. In 1935, she then spent time in Belle Glade, a town on Lake Okeechobee’s southeastern edge, when she was gathering music for the Library of Congress, at which point she surely gathered more oral testimony of the flood and its aftermath. In late 1936, while in Haiti, Hurston wrote what would become one of the great American novels of the century, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

It tells the story of Janie Crawford, her search for a natural-feeling and play-filled love, an adventure as big as the horizon, and a way to shed the plantation legacies of her family and region. Hurston the ethnographer included many scenes of tale-telling, believing that how a community amuses itself was as deep a truth as how it withstands assaults. Because of its humor, contemporaneous reviewers—like Richard Wright and Alain Locke—dismissed the novel for its “minstrel” echoes and its lack of “sharp” social analysis. When the novel was revived by black feminists in the 1970s, it was as a story that empowered black women—to seek their desires and to speak when and how they wanted. The 80s and 90s saw critical appreciation of how finely Hurston intertwined the oral black vernacular with standard written English. Since Katrina and the levee disaster of 2005, Hurston’s deep engagement with the overlapping histories of race and environment in the U.S. has become increasingly evident. In other words, people are now paying more attention to the hurricane and flood toward whose crescendo and violent denouement the entire novel moves.

About three-quarters of the way into the novel, Janie is finally married to someone, Tea Cake, whose sensitivity to the green world seems to match her own. They are “natural” together, more aware of fish and trees and bees than social propriety or acquiring property. Picking beans just southeast of Lake Okeechobee, the pair lives in low-lying company quarters pushed up against the massive lake. It is mid-September, 1928. As signs appear of the approaching hurricane, Tea Cake wagers that they should stay behind. He forgets his own environmental knowledge and puts trust in the white bosses who haven’t evacuated. Hurston’s narrator bitingly comments on the weakness of this decision: “if the castles thought themselves secure, the cabins needn’t worry. Their decision was already made as always.” Trusting white authority and distrusting one’s own affiliation with nature turns out to be a dismal mistake. The lake bursts through the feeble mud dike and reclaims its old wetlands sovereignty: Okeechobee “seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters.” All in all, “the sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.”

Evacuating too late from the ‘Glades, Tea Cake and Janie make their harrowing way eastward to Palm Beach. During the journey, Janie tries to cover them with debris but is instead carried aloft over and into water. While saving her, Tea Cake is bitten on the cheek by a rabid dog. They finally reach what they believe to be the “city of refuge,” Palm Beach. It turns out, though, that the violence of the storm has here turned into human-on-human violence. Two white guards force Tea Cake at gunpoint to join a “small army” to clear wreckage and separate dead bodies Jim Crow-style. Tea Cake soon goes mad from the rabies and becomes homicidal with his wife. Janie shoots and kills him in self-defense.

When the novel was first published in 1937, its cover featured a woodcut image of a harrowed landscape. A Jehovah-like figure is hurling bolts and winds at the earth; trees bow in response and a house squats in flood waters up to its roof. Clearly, Hurston saw the hurricane and flood, which provided the book’s climax, and brought about the death of its male hero, as central to the story. Though contemporaneous reviewers were distracted by what they took to be the novel’s “quaint” humor, they missed the storm and the fact that Hurston buries prophecies about the storm to come in that very humor. Later critics who focused exclusively on the romantic odyssey also missed the fact that Hurston, through the flood, judges the apparently fitting third husband, and finds him wanting. That he failed to listen to his own environmental experience and defers instead to his white boss indicates the limits of the potential for their love. Finally, the exposé of Jim Crow, deferred through so much of the novel to make space for a study of the southern black community on its own terms, finally arrives with—and in the shape of—the man-made disaster. Hurston carefully included historic details from the ’28 flood that she had gathered through oral research so that the flood would not be simply a dramatic device but also act as a memorial structure to the officially unmarked disaster.

Every time Their Eyes Were Watching God is read, there is the potential for a profound encounter with this almost ninety-year-old event. Though Florida boosters at the time did not want the story broadcast, Hurston slowly transformed its obscured details and hidden remains into a meaningful story to withstand the decades. This September, Florida officials have been transparent about the vulnerability of their state. And Florida mayors have been some of the first to prepare in advance for how climate change will change their coastal cities. Even in this condition of open-eyed avowal, artists continue to have a role. Artists’ capacities to summon human care for strangers encountered through narratives and representations and to invest them with meaning is a crucial part of our world.

Susan Scott Parrish is Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature and the Program in the Environment at the University of Michigan. She is the author of American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World and The Flood Year 1927: A Cultural History.