Zora Neal Hurston is considered by many to be among the best writers the Harlem Renaissance produced. It seems appropriate to include one or two of her best-known pieces: an excerpt from her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and her autobiographical essay “How it Feels to be Colored Me.” Both describe poignantly some of the profound differences between being black and being white in this culture, the former addressing some of the gross abuses perpetrated on black women during and following slavery, and the latter recounting the progression of Hurston’s black consciousness and exposing the white man as an outsider in the consciousness of black culture in the early 1900’s.
Either of these pieces lends itself to an activity that appears on the Language Arts section of the CAPT, that is: Write an initial response/reaction to the piece after you have read it. I always encourage students to hi-light or underline sentences or statements that they may want to question and to jot down notes in the margins as we are reading. Most often we read excerpts out loud. It is important when students practice this CAPT activity that they understand they need to write at least a half a page if they hope to receive a passing score. It is not enough for students simply to write that they liked or did not like the piece, or that they found it boring. Often when students practice this activity, it helps to give them some prompt questions from which they can frame a written response. For example, when students are reading the excerpt from Their Eyes Were Watching God, they will probably comment that they find the dialect difficult; so they might think about why the character called Nanny talks that way, whether she has attended school, ever in her life. What has her life been like? How do they feel about her? Do they like her, dislike her? Why? Do they feel sympathy or compassion for her? How do they feel about her wanting to “marry Janie off?” Do they think Janie does or does not marry the man? What makes them think so? Is Janie right or wrong, in wanting to defy Nanny? What might Nanny mean in her last line, “Put me down easy, Janie, Ah’m a cracked plate.”3
Another question that invariably appears in the Language Arts section of the CAPT is one that asks students to comment on the differences in characters, or how the characters feel about each other. Students might discuss the tension that Hurston develops between the characters of Nanny who is Janie’s grandmother who has raised her and Janie. Obviously these two black women love each other very much, but Nanny is determined that she will see Janie married to “brother Logan Killicks” before she dies (and she is very old), and Janie is equally determined that, at present, she is not the least interested in marrying anyone. Nanny, who slaps Janie violently when she resists, gives a compelling rationale for her decision by recounting abuses she sustained at the hands of whites, and says to Janie, “Tain’t Logan Killicks Ah wants you to have, baby, it’s protection.” 4 To add to the tension, it remains unclear, at the end of the excerpt, whether Janie will comply.