Racial climate in the early 1900s
With legislation like the Jim Crow laws, enacted from 1890 to 1910, many African-Americans were disfranchised. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan terrorized black citizens, leading to the steady decline of African-American political representation. Tenant farming and sharecropping systems constituted the de facto re-enslavement of African Americans in the South, where Hurston's novel is based.
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 The Birth of a Nation, portraying African-American men in an unintelligent, sexually aggressive light (1915). During the Harlem Renaissance, African-American writers were urged to write toward an Uplift program, to improve the image of African-Americans in society.
Hurston, racial uplift, and the Harlem Renaissance
Where many of her fellow writers were participating first in W. E. B. Du Bois' Uplift agenda and, later, in the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston refused to comply. The renaissance was meant to be a liberating response to the restrictive standards of the Racial Uplift program, encouraging writers and artists to expose racist oppression in American society. In an essay by Nick Aaron Ford, Hurston is quoted to have to said, "Many Negroes criticise my book, because I did not make it a lecture on the race problem." When asked why she chose not to comment on the race problem in her novel, Hurston replied, "Because I was writing a novel and not a treatise on sociology. [...] I have ceased to think in terms of race; I think only in terms of individuals. I am interested in you now, not as a Negro man but as a man. I am not interested in the race problem, but I am interested in the problems of individuals, white ones and black ones."
Similar to Hurston, 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 Their Eyes Were Watching God, used vernacular southern African-American English. Hurston viewed her work as distinct from the work of fellow Harlem Renaissance writers she described as the "sobbing school of Negrohood" that portrayed the lives of black people as constantly miserable, downtrodden and deprived. Instead, Hurston celebrated the rural, southern African-American communities as she found them. In addition, Hurston refused to censor women's sexuality, writing in beautiful innuendo to embrace the physical dimension of her main character's romances. 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. A Baltimore Afro-American reviewer wrote that he "just tossed the first issue of FIRE!! into the fire".