Their Eyes Were Watching God is best understood as the precursor to a major literary movement in the United States: writing for and about Black American women. Hurston drew upon the tradition of storytelling and folklore in Black communities, which she extensively studied as part of her anthropology work while in college. Their Eyes Were Watching God was released in 1937, long after the literary experimentation of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston’s story of a Black woman’s quest toward independence stood in stark contrast to the “social realism” novels of the 1930s, which were typically marked by gritty portrayals of the social injustices in the world.

While her novel was harshly criticized as being too romantic by many prolific social realist writers, including Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, Hurston’s work was brought into the Black American canon by feminist writers in the 1960s and 70s. Hurston’s work inspired other Black writers, particularly women—such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison—who built upon Hurston’s desire to present everyday Black life as worthy of being captured in literature, while also dealing with the oppression the community still faced and the civil rights they sought.

Read more about work inspired by Hurston in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.