I was 18 years old when I saw the film Their Eyes Were Watching God starring Halle Berry as Janie and Michael Ealy as Tea Cake. This movie quickly became one of my favorites. As an avid reader, I try really hard to not watch a movie before I read the book. However, at 18, I am not sure I even knew that the film was an adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel of the same title. I should say that I did not know this book even existed.
Perusing a book haul, I came across a used copy of the book and decided to purchase it. I typically buy more books than I can and oftentimes books will sit on my shelf for months or years even. However, I decided to give the book a go right away. Hurston’s book is incredibly written. The story of Janie and her journey to her relationship with Tea Cake is captivating.
Part of the reason why I try not to watch a movie before I read a book is because then I feel like I am not using my imagination to picture the characters, but I am using the filmmaker’s interpretation of these characters. However, I was not disappointed in this case. Hurston paints a picture of a love so deep and meaningful set against the backdrop of the early 1900s in the South.
That period of time for African Americans was extremely difficult. Following the end of the Civil War, whites sought to reestablish their supremacy and enacted Jim Crow laws, which severely restricted African American progress. Add that with the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan and life for blacks was not only oppressive, but they were constantly in danger. Hurston’s ability to give an air of hope for her characters despite these conditions speaks volumes to her quality of storytelling.
Hurston’s novel touches on many themes including, but not limited to, love, death, race, and female empowerment. Anyone who is a fan of a good love story, or just good literature in general, would do themselves a disservice if they did not take the time to read this book. More than 80 years after its original publication Their Eyes Were Watching God remains a novel worth reading.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Perennial Classics, 1990.
A Review of Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in American's Legendary Suburb, by David Kushner
Jared Kushner is not a historian. He makes that very clear in the “Author’s Note” of his book Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb. I do not believe that I would have read the book and thought, “He is not a historian.” The book is excellently written and well-researched. His access to Bea and Lew Wechsler and Daisy Myers, via his mother-in-law, the real people who lived through these events is evident by the number of intimate details he is able to provide.
Since its founding, the United States’ identity has been one wrought with contradictions. The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” What was not explicitly written, but implicitly meant, was that all white land-owning men were created equal. This excluded women and most certainly blacks. Even after the abolishment of slavery, blacks were treated as second class citizens throughout much of the United States.
Many African Americans went overseas during World War II to help secure peace in Europe against Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Upon their return, the freedoms they helped Europe fight for, they were denied themselves. For Daisy Myers’ husband Bill, his situation was no different. He wanted what most Americans want, a safe place and a home where he and his wife could raise their children.
Many communities during that time period would not sell homes to African Americans due to an irrational and racist fear that blacks would somehow lower the value of the homes and the neighborhood. Levitt and Sons, who changed the home building industry, was no different. They built Levittown, an idealistic community that Donna Reed would have been proud to live in. This American dream was available to everyone, unless you were African American.
Levittown tells the story of how a Jewish communist couple and an African American couple set the world on fire by demanding equal housing opportunity, regardless of your race. The Myers made a completely selfless decision, essentially putting themselves at risk, to defend their right and ultimately the rights of so many others to be able to have a little piece of the American dream without fear of retaliation due to racist and bigoted beliefs. Kushner, while not a historian, exposes this story so brilliantly that the reader will find themselves captivated by the strength and determination of both the Myers and the Wechslers.
Kushner, David. Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb. New York: Walker & Company, 2009.
For many African Americans genealogical research is difficult. Even if they have good information on family members names and where they lived, it is likely that the legacy of slavery will halt their research. Most slaveholders did not keep detailed records of their slaves. Even if they did, the information they maintained would not be enough to facilitate thorough genealogical research. The Ball family of South Carolina was unique in that for generations of slaveholding, they kept intricate details on the slaves they held in bondage.
Edward Ball grew up hearing stories of his family’s history of being a part of the plantation elite and of their slaves. In his work Slaves in the Family, Ball details his journey to discovering the descendants of the slaves that his family owned. He does an excellent job of detailing his own family’s history, from the arrival of the first Ball in the colonies to the end of their slaveholding past following the end of the Civil War.
More impressive is his ability to thoroughly research the documents left by his ancestors, engage in difficult conversations with his own family members who have chosen to forget or ignore the family history, and his ability to track down many descendants of the Ball family slaves. While, he was able to track down quite a few descendants, he spent a lot of time discussing his own family history, leaving that part of the story feeling unfinished.
Despite this shortfall, Ball inspires a desire to connect with one’s past. His methodology, while aided by the fact that the Balls kept such detailed records, gives the reader the feeling that they, too, could research their family with success. Furthermore, he provokes a strong consideration for the legacy of the intimate relationship between slave and master. While many believers of the Lost Cause narrative would rejoice at the discovery that some slaves were in fact loyal to their masters, Ball shows that this was only sometimes the case.
Ball’s work is unique in that it was difficult to find another work that detailed the relationship between slave masters and their slaves. However, it could be compared to Annette Gordeon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello. Thomas Jefferson had a relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings and fathered her children. The scandal of this relationship was similar to the part of the conversation that some of Edward Ball’s relatives did not want to address.
Slaves in the Family provides something that many African American’s will never have. A connection to their past. While his ability to trace these histories is incredible, for most African Americans, they will never know who their ancestors were beyond a few generations. Despite this, Ball’s work is an important addition to the understanding of America’s history of bondage and oppression.
Ball, Edward. Slaves in the Family. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
Following the end of the Civil War, Southerners worked rapidly to change the narrative of why the war was fought. Most historians have reached a consensus that the central cause of the Civil War was slavery. Today it is not uncommon to see white Americans, Southern or not, flying a Confederate flag. Anyone who has traveled on I-95 South crossing into Virginia from Maryland can attest to the large, conspicuous displays of the Confederate flag. There have been numerous debates regarding the removal of Confederate statues and memorials. Many Americans, especially white Southerners will argue that the Civil War was not fought because of slavery, but it was in fact fought over states’ rights and as an attempt to resist the overreaching of the federal government in matters that Southerners felt should be left up to the states.
In addition to this rewriting of history, the plantation south has been romanticized. Movies like Gone with the Wind have painted an inaccurate image of what life was like in the plantation south. In an effort to defend the peculiar institution of slavery, images of happy and loyal slaves have been shared over and over again to disprove the argument that slavery was a brutal institution, and to further prove that slaves were content with their situation. In Tara Revisited: Women, War, & the Plantation Legend, American History professor Catherine Clinton details how this plantation legend and the rewriting of history transpired. Furthermore, she addresses how the rise and fall of the Confederacy affected women, both black and white, who were there to witness it.
Clinton addresses the lack of historical scholarship on the women involved and how important their role was during and following the war. She also addresses how the plantation legend was born and its implications for historical understanding today and what role the women of the south played in the creation of that legend. Her analysis is spot-on, drawing from a number of sources including letters and diaries written by those very women.
With the image of Gone with the Wind’s heroine Scarlett O’Hara imbedded into the minds of many, she notes that although women like her existed, they were few and far between. Clinton’s goal of painting a more realistic picture of the “Old South” is accomplished. She effortlessly shows how important it is to acknowledge the illegitimacy of these legends and to further acknowledge the truth about that era.
Clinton, Catherine. Tara Revisited: Women, War, & the Plantation Legend. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1995.
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