Racism in the early 1900s
African Americans like Hurston grew up in a hostile economic, political, and social climate. White Democrats had regained power in the South in the late 19th century through violence and intimidation around elections; once in power, they passed Jim Crow laws and, from 1890 to 1910, passed new constitutions and laws that disfranchised most blacks. The Ku Klux Klan terrorized blacks, leading to the steady decline of African-American political representation. In 1900, African-American Congressman George Henry White introduced an anti-lynching bill to the Judiciary Committee. It was defeated by a large majority, led by southern Democrats. Congressman White was the last African-American congressman to serve for more than a quarter of a century.
Tenant farming and sharecropping systems constituted the de facto re-enslavement of African Americans in the South, where Hurston's novel is based. The more than one million African Americans who migrated to the North between 1910 and 1920 found stiff competition from waves of European immigrants and continued to struggle with unemployment. Racism was gaining legitimacy in the decades leading up to Hurston's writing of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Baptist preacher Thomas Dixon, Jr. wrote The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden in 1902, asserting white supremacy amidst supposed African-American evil and corruption. The book was so popular that Dixon wrote a trilogy. His second novel, The Clansman, was adapted for the silent film Birth of a Nation (1915). It portrayed African-American men as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women.
The Racial Uplift program
In response to the hostile and inaccurate portrayals of his race, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote an article for the NAACP journal The Crisis. In that article, "Criteria of Negro Art", he argued that all art is propaganda and his art would always be political. He thus advocated an Uplift program to improve the image of African Americans in society. The Uplift agenda presented fine and upstanding African Americans who conformed to the social mores of the day. Pursuing this aim, the black women's club movement attempted to combat the stereotype of licentiousness for black women. Their response was a stigmatized or entirely muted presentation of black female sexuality in African-American literature and art.
Hurston and the Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance was a liberating response to the restrictive standards of the Racial Uplift agenda. Rather than responding to the hostile climate by simply presenting positive representations of African Americans, writers of the Harlem Renaissance attempted to expose the racist oppression in American society. Alain Locke wrote in his foreword to the literary collection The New Negro, "We turn therefore in the other direction to the elements of truest social portraiture... we shall let the Negro speak for himself." Locke believed African Americans lived in a world with political realities and thus needed to respond with a deliberate politics in their work. Yet other members of the Harlem Renaissance resented what they saw as lingering prescriptions and constraints on their work. Wallace Thurman rejected both the traditional Uplift politics and the agenda of the "New Negro". He organized a group of authors including Hurston to create their own magazine, FIRE!!, that would publish the African-American experience without any filters or censors. Hurston's contributions, like her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, used vernacular southern African-American English. Completely rejecting the Uplift agenda, the magazine also included homoerotic work as well as portrayals of prostitution. Foreshadowing the African-American community's response to Their Eyes Were Watching God, FIRE!! sold very poorly and was condemned as maligning the image of the community. The Baltimore Afro-American reviewer wrote that he "just tossed the first issue of FIRE!! into the fire".