In my most recent message, Gentle Readers, I lauded Toni Morrison's latest, a mercy.
I also mentioned a female writer who came out of the Harlem Renaissance but never had the success she deserved. Zora Neale Hurston ended her life working as a maid in Florida, her home state.
Before she succumbed to domesticity of just about the worst kind -- you're in charge of the house but it ain't your house and you get paid about diddly squat for gettin' down on your knees and scrubbin' the floor -- Hurston wrote a book I truly love, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
If you haven't read this amazing book, I hope you will, and if you have, I hope you will re-read and perhaps take into consideration my comments on it.
Here's what Lola has to say about Janie's Quest:
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Crawford longs for freedom, but as an African American woman, she is doubly oppressed. However, Janie is courageous enough to make her dreams a reality. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston uses the symbolism of Janie's marriages along with biblical allusions to develop the theme of a black woman's quest for love and for identity as an individual.
As Janie moves from one marriage to the next, Hurston charts the course of blacks in the United States. Janie's first marriage is to Logan Killicks. Janie's grandmother, Nanny, tells Janie:
Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah ben able tuh find out. Maybe it's someplace way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don't know nothin' but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don't tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin' fuh it tuh be different wid you.
Nanny believes that Janie's life can be different if she will "marry off decent like" to "Brother Logan Killicks." Janie resists marriage, for "the vision of Logan Killicks . . . desecrat[es]" Janie's dreams of love and a full life, but Nanny "slaps[s]" Janie's "face violently, and force[s] her head back so that their eyes [meet] in struggle." Then, Nanny begs Janie to "have some sympathy fuh" her and marry so she can "die easy." Nanny "twist[s]" Janie "in the name of love." Thus, she marries Killicks.
Janie hopes to find love and relief from loneliness in marriage, but she is disappointed. Killicks lives up to his name by killing Janie's "first dream" that marriage would "make love." Killicks has "de onliest organ in town, amongst colored folks" and "a house bought and paid for and sixty acres uh land right on de big road," but Janie would "ruther be shot wid tacks than tuh turn over in de bed and stir up de air whilst he is in dere." Although for a time he "chops all de wood" and "keeps both water buckets full," after Nanny's death, Killicks expects Janie to become his mule: "'Janie!' Logan called harshly. 'Come help me move dis manure pile befo' de sun gits hot. You don't take a bit of interest in dis place. 'Tain't no use in foolin' round in dat kitchen all day long.'" Nanny had "set" Janie "in the market-place to sell," had "whipped [her] like a cur dog, and run [her] off down a back road after things." Symbolically, Nanny has sold Janie into slavery by giving her in marriage to Killicks. Therefore, Janie does not own herself; she has no identity.
Janie escapes slavery by leaving Logan Killicks for another marriage that leads to more disappointment. Her second husband, Joe Starks, is a "cityfied, stylish dressed man" with "three hundred dollars, yes indeed, right here in his pocket." Starks wants "to be a big voice" in "dis place dat colored folks was buildin' theirselves." He promises to "be a big ruler of things with her reaping the benefits," but a ruler, however benevolent, is still a ruler. Starks opens a store in the new town and becomes the mayor. He is "kind of portly like rich white folks," and no one in town has "the temerity to challenge him." When "the other women ha[ve] on percale and calico," Starks insists that Janie wear "silken ruffles." Also, "the wife of the Mayor [is] not just another woman"; she cannot "get but so close" to others in the town "in spirit." This period in Janie's life represents the attempt by some black Americans to emulate white behavior.
Although Starks loves his postion in the town, Janie is uncomfortable with her role as "Mrs. Mayor." She is not even a black woman with Starks. She is lonely and unhappy. She tells Starks: "You'se always off talkin' and fixin' things, and Ah feels lak Ah'm jus' markin' time." Starks tells Janie she should appreciate her position as his wife; he is unable to see her as an individual: "He wanted her submission and he'd keep on fighting until he felt he had it." Starks also insists that Janie work in the store although it "kept her with a sick headache." With Starks, Janie may be a higher class of mule, but she is still a mule. Moreover, she still has no identity as a mere appendage to Starks.
When Joe Starks dies, Janie makes considerable progress in her quest. She decides: "Ah done lived Grandma's way, now Ah means tuh live mine." Janie can finally begin to enjoy life, and she does so with Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods. Janie is no mule to Tea Cake: "He wouldn't let her get him any breakfast at all. He wanted her to get her rest." Significantly, Janie has economic independence, so she does not need a man to support her, but Tea Cake insists upon providing for Janie anyway. Tea Cake takes Janie "down in de Everglades" where "folks don't do nothin' down dere but make money and fun and foolishness." She finds that "the men h[o]ld big arguments here like they used to do on the store porch. Only here, she could listen and laugh and even talk some herself if she wanted to. She got so she could tell big stories herself from listening to the rest." With Tea Cake, Janie has an identity. They work together, play together, and love together. Their marriage represents a celebration of black culture and traditions--especially those concerned with language and storytelling--similar to that of the Harlem Renaissance.
Additionally, Janie's relationship with Tea Cake is a celebration of selflessness filled with biblical allusions. When Janie has Tea Cake's love, and she has an identity, she finds that her love for Tea Cake is so great, she no longer needs to worry about herself: "He drifted off into sleep and Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place." When Janie "gain[s] the whole world" through possessions with Killicks and Starks, she has no soul (Matthew 16:26). But when she loses herself in complete love for another, she gains her soul: "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it" (Matthew 16:25). Of course, the sacrifice of Tea Cake's life for Janie is the culmination of their unrestricted love.
Janie's celebration does not end with Tea Cake's death, although her grief is tremendous. No man tells the story of Janie's life; Janie can tell it herself. She tells her close fiend, Phoeby, who "done growed ten feet higher from jus' listenin' tuh" Janie, and she urges Phoeby to teach others about love: "That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowhip with us" (1 John 1:3). As for Janie, she is alone but at "peace. The light in her hand was like a spark of sun-stuff washing her face in fire."
"This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all." (1 John 1:5)
Janie knows Tea Cake can "never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking": "For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life . . . . And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full" (1 John 1:2, 4).