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Where is the setting of the color struck Zora Neale Hurston?


Zora Neale Hurston was a prolific African American author, anthropologist, and filmmaker who was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance. She is best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is considered a classic of African American literature. The novel explores themes of race, gender, and social class through the life experiences of Janie Crawford, a Black woman living in central Florida in the early 20th century.

The setting of the novel is integral to both the plot and symbolic meanings of the story. Hurston vividly depicts the geographical setting of central Florida as well as the cultural setting of the rural Black towns Janie lives in. The novel moves between several all-Black towns like Eatonville, the first incorporated African American town in the United States, where Janie’s story begins and ends. Understanding the setting provides insights into Hurston’s portrayal of race relations and Black identity in the early 20th century American South.

All-Black Towns in Central Florida

Hurston sets much of Their Eyes Were Watching God in all-Black towns in central Florida like Eatonville. These towns were formed by African Americans to have self-governance and economic self-sufficiency in the years after Emancipation from slavery. The rural, isolated setting of these towns provides a unique lens into African American lives in the early 1900s, when racial segregation and discrimination were still widespread, especially in the South.

Eatonville, Florida, where Janie’s story begins and ends, was an important model of an all-Black incorporated town. Eatonville was founded in 1887 and incorporated in 1893. At the time it was one of the few places in the United States where African Americans could live freely on their own terms, elect their own government, and develop their own institutions like churches and schools. Residents were mainly farmers and laborers. The town became a hub of African American culture that attracted intellectuals and artists of the Harlem Renaissance like Hurston herself and writer Langston Hughes.

Other all-Black towns Janie lives in or passes through include Sanford, Winter Garden, Altamonte Springs, and Maitland. Like Eatonville, these rural segregated towns provided self-sufficiency and economic independence for African American life disconnected from white society. The citrus industry provided jobs for many town residents. Hurston’s experience living in these central Florida towns from the 1910s to 1930s informed her fictional portrayal of them.

All-Black Town in Their Eyes Were Watching God Background
Eatonville Founded: 1887
Incorporated: 1893
Main Industry: Citrus, Farming
Sanford Founded: 1870
Incorporated: 1877
Main Industry: Agriculture, Citrus
Winter Garden Founded: 1908
Incorporated: 1908
Main Industry: Citrus
Altamonte Springs Founded: 1920
Incorporated: 1920
Main Industry: Agriculture, Citrus
Maitland Founded: 1885
Incorporated: 1885
Main Industry: Citrus

Rural Florida Landscape

In addition to the all-Black towns, Hurston provides detailed description of the natural environment of central Florida – the vegetation, wildlife, climate, and bodies of water that surrounded the rural towns.

She describes the dense forest vegetation with palms, pines, cypresses, mangroves, and magnolias. There are sawgrass prairies and hammocks, which are stands of hardwood trees and shrubs. The habitat supports diverse wildlife like migratory birds, alligators, snakes, turtles, and fish. Janie spends time observing and connecting with this natural world, like when she watches the horizon as “the sun flung up the billowing sails of cloud on the skyline of the world.”

The climate consists of long, hot summers with daily rain showers and thunderstorms. Winters are short and mild. The town of Eatonville itself sits on the shores of Lake Maitland and Lake Bell. Residents fish and boat on the lakes. The local geography also includes the St. Johns River, the longest river that is entirely within the state of Florida.

This landscape deeply embedded in Janie’s story, providing a lush but sometimes foreboding or isolating backdrop for her journey through three relationships and personal growth. The intrinsic connection between the characters and their natural environment illustrates Hurston’s skill for conveying setting as character.

Racial Dynamics

Within this vividly realized Central Florida setting, Hurston explores early 20th century dynamics of racism, discrimination, and violence alongside African American traditions, dialect, and community.

The all-Black towns provided some insulation from wider American racist attitudes and allowed residents to govern themselves. However, the surrounding areas were still marked by racism, Jim Crow laws, and the legacy of slavery. For instance, Janie faces discrimination in a white store in Sanford.

Racial violence emerges when a group of white men confronts Janie and Tea Cake for playing checkers in the Florida Everglades. A white mob brutally attacks them, showing that rural Florida was not entirely a racial haven. Janie must still navigate the complexities of being a Black woman in a racist society, even within the relative independence of an all-Black town.

Through her lyrical descriptions of the natural environment and distinct African American dialect, Hurston creates a rich sense of place that is globally unique and culturally specific. The Florida setting shapes Janie’s journey and personal liberation in a story that proudly centers Black traditions, speech, relationships, and social dynamics.


In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston uses the all-Black towns and landscapes of Central Florida as a vivid backdrop for Janie Crawford’s journey. The rural setting shapes the characters’ experiences and symbolic meanings of the novel. Understanding Hurston’s depiction of Eatonville and other African American towns provides insights into early 20th century Black life and Hurston’s anthropological interests. The Florida landscape also acts as an integral character, providing a lush but sometimes isolating setting for Janie’s development and relationships. Within this uniquely realized place, Hurston explores themes of race, gender, and identity through Janie’s eyes. The novel’s rich setting makes a significant contribution to its enduring importance as a classic of African American literature.