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Zora Neale Hurston,
Transcript of Zora Neale Hurston,
Their Eyes Were Watching God
"Women and chillun and chickens and cows"
Janie has a deep appreciation for nature, which she romanticizes.
We see this first with her sneaking out to kiss boys under the pear tree, which she associates with romance and freedom.
The pear tree represents Janie’s idealized views of nature. She talks about the bees’ interaction with the pear tree flowers as a perfect moment in nature. It is erotic, passionate, blissful, and harmonious, and Janie chases after this ideal of romance and harmony throughout the book.
We also see this with her compassion for Matt Bonner's mule, which Jody only saves because he sees her compassion. Janie even notes (to herself) that people have a responsibility to care for "helpless things" (67) like the mule.
What Janie doesn't see is that she is a helpless thing, too. What makes Tea Cake so special is that he doesn't treat her that way.
Jody does treat her that way, though, associating teaching her to run the store and do menial tasks with training animals and likening the lowered mental capacities of all "helpless things" including "women and chillun and chickens and cows" (77)
The Significance of Hair
Janie has little resistance to oppression available to her, but one way that she is able to negotiate the doubleness of her position as a black woman in the newly-freed black communities of the American South is with her hair.
Janie’s hair becomes a symbol of her power and her refusal to adhere to the standards set down for her. It represents her strength in the face of adversity and her unique individuality.
We can see this first through the town’s critique of her hair at the very beginning of the novel; the men and women who gossip on porches considered it undignified for a woman of Janie’s age (in her late thirties!) to wear her hair down. But, Janie refuses to adhere to their norms and prejudices.
Janie's hair also pretty obviously functions as a phallic symbol. When Hurston describes her braid, she presents it as long, hard, and frequently inducing jealously (in women) and sexual desire (in men). Janie's hair represents power and potency, blurring gender lines, and threatening Jody's masculinity.
But, even Janie's hair has its own doubleness; it is split between two identities:
Its blackness is part of what makes it so threatening, but
Its straightness also functions as a symbol of whiteness. For example, Mrs. Turner loves Janie because of her straight hair and other Caucasian characteristics. Her hair, along with her being raised in a white household, all add to the variation of white male power that she has and helps her disrupt traditional power binaries (male over female, white over black).
"The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House"
American poet Audre Lorde wrote this metaphor in support of messing with language: “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”
Years later, contemporary American poet Harryette Mullen responded to this by saying: “I never thought this was a helpful metaphor. It seems to me that tools can be used to build or destroy. It all depends on who uses them for what purpose. … That statement doesn’t work on a literal level and doesn’t really work on the metaphorical level either. ... You can ‘fight the powers that be’ by using the same language. Why not? Didn’t Audre Lorde speak and write English?”
Mullen goes on to argue that it is possible to use the language of the oppressor for revolutionary means. But, she adds, “it takes a kind of mental transformation, so if you buy into the logic of oppression, then you can’t see that you could use the language in that way.”
Part of what sets
apart from other racialized narratives from the US in the early twentieth century is that it performs both Lorde's and Mullen's ideas of black anti-oppression literature at the same time (even though Lorde and Mullen wouldn't add their two-cents until many decades later.
The distinction between the narration and the speech works as a kind of minor literature, performing literary slang popular of the American canon (think Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and other heavy hitters like that).
Something to think about, in light of what Lorde and Mullen are saying: does the phonetic transcription of black vernacular encourage readers to identify or sympathize with the African-Americans in the book, or is it a way for the reader to patronize and condescend to those illiterate-sounding characters?
Another way to ask that question is: is this book written for white folks or black folks? Something to discuss in the forums!
Many Voices in Hurston
Diaspora in Context: Black America and the Harlem Renaissance
Diaspora in Context: What is Minor Literature?
One of the reasons
Their Eyes Were Watching God
has become so popular is because of Hurston's unique and interesting use of different voices; most obviously, there is the difference in narration from the juxtaposition of the literary narration in "good" (read: white, educated) grammar and representation of the black dialects of the American South.
uses a unique narrative structure; Hurston splits the presentation of the story between high literary narration and idiomatic (or slang) discourse.
Hurston writes long passages of dialogue (both spoken and internal) in order to celebrate the culturally rich voices of Janie’s world (which spans the American South from the Everglades in Florida to Jacksonville, Mississippi.
These characters speak quite differently from most characters in American literature, with a distinctive grammar, vocabulary, and tone to mark different characters from different locales.
It is easy to see the parallel between Hurston's use of these voices (an attempt to find her unique literary voice, and Janie's struggle to find her own narrative.
American scholar Henry Louis gates referred to Hurston's writing as “the project of finding a voice, with language as an instrument of injury and salvation, of selfhood and empowerment.”
We can better understand Hurston's methodology in this novel by putting her in the context of a literary movement called the Harlem Renaissance
The term "Harlem Renaissance" refers to literary, philosophical, artistic, and social movement in the US in around the 1920's; during the time it was known as the "New Negro Movement" but the name changed with history looking back on it because of a popular anthology of the time (and because white scholars hate having to name blackness)...
At the forefront of the movement is Langston Hughes, a poet who we will read next week, but the most famous woman in the movement was Hurston. In fact, the two were close friends.
Hurston was so important to the movement because it was really male-dominated (by Hughes, but also by critic W. E. B. Du Bois.
Hurston also differed from Hughes and Du Bois and the other men of the Harlem Renaissance because she was really interested in the individual and didn't care much for speaking "for her race" so much as showing the incredible variety of the black experience in the US at the time;
is a big part of that effort.
So, Hurston was a huge part of a kind of early feminism; she considered race at a time when mainstream feminism was mainly serving white upper- and middle- class women getting the vote and wearing fancy hats
She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.
This business of the head-rag irked her endlessly. But Jody was set on it. Her hair was NOT going to show in the store. It didn’t seem sensible at all. That was because Joe never told Janie how jealous he was. He never told her how often he had seen the other men figuratively wallowing in it as she went about things in the store. And one night he had caught Walter standing behind and brushing the back of his hand back and forth across the loose end of her braid ever so lightly so as to enjoy the feel of it without Janie knowing what he was doing. Joe was at the back of the store and Walter didn’t see him. He felt like rushing forth with the meat knife and chopping off the offending hand. That night he ordered Janie to tie up her hair around the store. That was all. She was there in the store for him to look at, not those others.
I would also like to use this opportunity to introduce a concept to you that we will keep coming back to throughout the term: "minor literature"
The concept of a "minor literature" was first proposed by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their book
Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature
They define a minor literature as a literature by a minority group that works to destabilize and deconstruct majority or canonical literature and much of diaspora literature falls under this category
For Deleuze and Guattari, minor literature is defined by three important characteristics:
First, it "deterritorializes" language; that means that it works to disrupt the language that is dominant (think: Queen's English) by finding a voice for an oppressed or minor community
Second, it has an explicit and obvious political element
Third, it has collective value and works to represent a community
Their Eyes is a pretty important work of minor literature because it does all three: it articulates a strange, new language to speak for a new group; it articulates a politics of race and of gender; and, it speaks about a community that, at the point that Hurston was writing, had not really had a chance to be articulated in literature.
Deleuze and Guattari argue that minor literature is important because the literary is important to nation-building