American literary Canon, Black women's narratives, Feminism, Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, Literature, Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, Their Eyes Were Watching God, White Priviledge, Zora Neale Hurston
White Privilege exists in our nation, and anyone who denies it is fooling themselves. Sorry, but it’s best to start out strong and work your way down from there. I’ve often had to defend this opinion to others who deny it, affirming the position further by showing them that I am living white privilege. I attended a private Christian grade school from pre-k through the twelfth grade, that accommodated the children of noted doctors, lawyers, engineers, and even politicians (one was actually the son of a Texas senator, and surprise surprise he was a complete asshole who masturbated in classroom and didn’t get expelled, try to contain my amazement). The kids in my own grade group were fairly nice people, at least what I remember of them, but all around there was a sense of entitlement. Everyone drove nice cars, everyone was going to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer and make lots of money. But always what struck me was that within my grade of fifty to sixty there were two black boys. There were no black or Hispanic girls.
Now before you begin my interest is not to badmouth my high school (meet me in person and I’ll do that, believe me, I have dossiers) but instead to blend a highly contested public debate with a facet of academia. In my entire life I have only once had a teacher or professor who was a person of color. My readings in academia have only on occasion actually dealt with literature written by African Americans, Hispanic Americans, or Asian Americans. And out of this long literary training I have only on a few occasions, perhaps seven times at the most, have I read a literary work written by a black woman.
This of course leads me Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston.
I was blessed with having an openly liberal English teacher in high school (in East Texas that’s an impressive feat), and for our Junior year reading , once we had completed most of the Harlem Renaissance, we were assigned this short but wonderful work. The story is of a young idealistic woman, the half black daughter of a former slave and her master that raped her, named Janie Crawford. Janie marries young because she is lost, looking for something to complete her. When this marriage fails to satisfy her she runs away with an older man who founds a store with her, runs for mayor, and over the years strips her of her sense of self. Eventually shaming him in public Janie meets and falls in love with a man several years her young named Tea Cake. Their love blossoms as they live together in the everglades of Florida and live their life in relative peace (the marriage ain’t perfect but we’ll get to that later) until a great hurricane strikes and sends a terrible flood. While they try to find their way back to civilization Tea Cake is bitten by a mad dog and develops rabies. Janie, in the end, faces off against a by now mad Tea Cake and shoots him in self defense when he tries to kill her. She’s tried for murder but is acquitted and Janie ends the novel returning to her home town, with an understanding of herself, and the world she inhabits.
Now the novel, after this VERY brief description (especially for me), may not sound terrifically empowering, and after all this is the issue. My wife, being the fiercely intelligent woman she is, follows the track of contemporary feminism and civil rights much more closely than I am and has often brought up an important point. The women who often protest that feminism is no longer important and that men and women are equal all have one thing in common: they’re white. Much the same way that the people who protest that racism no longer in exists tend to be white.
In our society it is hard enough to discuss the troubles young black men face, it is an even greater uphill struggle to even get someone to acknowledge that in this white male dominant society, black women tend to get the shaft. Now dear reader you might immediately protest, you might argue that African American women have plenty of opportunities in our world.
While some this may be true, it would be foolish to suggest that black women, at least in fiction, for that is my area of expertise, have as many opportunities as white men to have their stories even told. If we return to the novel for a moment, Zora Neale Hurston had difficulty even getting the novel published. The Harlem Renaissance was an artistic movement dominated by black men that were interested in praising the idea of “the New Negro” as something of pride. While Hurston didn’t object to celebrating the negro experience (I’m using that word only because it became an important idea to the movement, I apologize vociferously), she was trained as an anthropologist and so she was unwilling to alter her novel so that the males in her book, who not only dominate their wives but also physically beat them when they “speak out of line.” Men like Langston Hughes and Richard Wright didn’t appreciate or care for this image, and so Hurston had to fight, just to have her book published, and even after it was, it received little readership.
One of the reasons for this may be because the character of Janie is, to quote my lovely-lady-wife, a headstrong independent wo-man. Midway through the novel her husband Joe Starks berates her vocally, though he’s often beaten her for making mistakes around the shop, and Janie finally snaps back:
Naw, ah ain’t no young gal no mo’ but den Ah ain’t no old woman neither. Ah reckon ah look mah age too. But ah’m uh woman every inch of me, and Ah know it. Dat’s uh whole lot more’n you kin say. You big-bellies round here and put out a lot of brag, but tain’t nothing to it but yo’ big voice. Humph! Talkin’ ‘bout me lookin’ old! When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life. (75)
Hurston’s language is strong and unrelenting in her honest presentation of what life was for many black women of the time. The reader may at first have difficulty with the dialogue, but once the rhythms are learned the apostrophizes that seem to run higgledy piggeldy (god I really am a white) about the place become just part of the visual linguistic treat the novel offers.
Now it should be asked now the important question, so what? Why should I care about a novel about a young black woman who talks back to her husband and keeps looking for something more out of life?
You should care dear reader, because that is the human experience. Their Eyes Were Watching God gets to the core of what it means to have dreams and wonder if they are attainable. In the very beg nning passage of the novel we’re given a taste of what Hurston is capable of just in terms of language:
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.
So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. (1)
My dream, as of this writing, is to at least be able to teach sophomore level American Literature courses to college students, because I do not believe were truly educating our citizens about the cultural achievements of our nation. Most importantly I want to contest the idea that the only literary achievements have been performed by dead white straight men. I would place Their Eyes Were Watching God alongside The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick any day, because Hurston’s language sings. Reading her novel is like breathing a language that surpasses reality, and I enter a world of passions, physical sensations, and I’m able to believe in an ideal of life where, even if my dreams crash like waves on a shore, there is still a satisfaction in the knowledge that in my time I have, for a moment, held them like petals of a summer flower.
But because Hurston is a black female author, it becomes difficult, for whatever reason (*cough* Racism*cough*) to just get people to even bother to listen.
It may be because many simply don’t see the relevance to their own lives. I have noted that almost all of the previous essays written on this blog were done over works by white writers. For god’s sake even the title reeks of upscale white intellectualism, because I am, after all, a privileged white man, and therein may lay the deeper problem. Those of us that are comfortable in this life, who don’t suffer the same problems as the underprivileged don’t like being burdened with guilt. “My family didn’t own slaves, and I have car payments, I wouldn’t call that privilege.” While that may be, you don’t have to put up with the Klan, you don’t have to put up with stupid white people using the word nigger and not caring that you’re offended, you don’t have to worry about your sons being killed by police officers, you don’t have to worry about your husband leaving you for a “fairer skinned woman,” you don’t have to worry about the legal system demonstrating bias against you because you’re black, and, this can’t be emphasized enough, you at least got your story told. Those of us that have it well in this life (like I’m some kind of fucking millionaire) don’t want to understand or acknowledge that we have been blessed and that others have had a rougher life because that knowledge is inconvenient, it makes us feel guilty which is the wrong response. Once there is recognition of privilege the next response should not be guilt and self pity, it should inspiration to level the playing field so that others can have the same opportunities as you have had.
Janie’s story is everyone’s story, for ultimately she feels that there is some part of her that is longing for something, an unknown alien sensation or feeling and so she lives life trying to find it.
Oh to be a pear tree—any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world! She was sixteen. She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her. Where were the singing bees for her? Nothing on the place nor in her grandma’s house answered her. She searched as much of the world as she could from the top of the front steps and then went on down to the front gate and leaned over to gaze up and down the road. Looking, waiting, breathing short with impatience. Waiting for the world to be made. (11).
If that strikes a familiar ear, it’s because that’s the way we all felt when we were sixteen. Therein is the final argument. As we read the stories of those who are supposedly separate from ourselves, we learn that human beings are homogenous in their life experiences and emotions. We yearn. We imagine. We look for some kind of comfort and purpose in this world.
The stories of black women are no different, in the broad sense, than those of a white man.
What are we missing by denying such women the right to have their stories told?
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper Perrenial, 1937. Print.