Since the 75th anniversary of the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane in 2003, a growing number of journalists and historians writing about the disaster have incorporated Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God as part of the official historical record of the hurricane. These writers often border on depicting Their Eyes as the authentic experience of black migrant workers impacted by the hurricane and subsequent flood. Within the novel itself, however, Hurston theorizes on the potential epistemic violence that occurs when a piece of evidence—a photograph, fallen body, or verbal artifact—is used to judge a person. Without a person's ability to use self-representation to give an "understandin'" (7) to go along with the evidence, snapshots or textual evidence threaten to violently separate people from their prior knowledge of themselves. By offering the historical context of photographs of African Americans in the Post-Reconstruction South, I argue that Janie experiences this epistemic violence as a young girl when seeing a photograph of herself initiates her into the racial hierarchy of the South. A few decades later, while on trial for shooting her husband Tea Cake, Janie again faces epistemic violence when the evidence of Tea Cake's body is used to judge her and her marriage; however, by giving an understandin' to go along with the evidence through self-representation, Janie is able to clarify that which other forms of evidence distort and is able to go free. Modern texts appropriating Their Eyes run the risk of enacting epistemic violence on the victims of the hurricane, the novel, and history itself when they present the novel as the complete or authentic perspective of the migrant workers in the hurricane. By properly situating the novel as a historical text that offers a particular narrative of the hurricane rather than the complete or authentic experience of the victims, modern writers can honor Hurston's literary achievement without robbing the actual victims of the hurricane of their voice.
College and Department
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Rich, Katherine Ann, "Between the Camera and the Gun: The Problem of Epistemic Violence in Their Eyes Were Watching God" (2011). Theses and Dissertations. 3008.
Zora Neale Hurston, Okeechobee Hurricane, photography, guns, textual appropriations, epistemic violence