ZORA NEALE HURSTON
Their Eyes Were
With a Foreword by Edwidge Danticat
To Henry Allen Moe
Janie’s Great Journey: A Reading Group Guide
Foreword by Edwidge Danticat
Foreword by Mary Helen Washington
1 Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.
2 Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf…
3 There are years that ask questions and years that answer.
4 Long before the year was up, Janie noticed that her…
5 On the train the next day, Joe didn’t make many…
6 Every morning the world flung it- self over and exposed the…
7 The years took all the fight out of Janie’s face.
8 After that night Jody moved his things and slept in…
9 Joe’s funeral was the finest thing Orange County had ever…
10 One day Hezekiah asked off from work to go off…
11 Janie wanted to ask Hezekiah about Tea Cake, but she…
12 It was after the picnic that the town began to…
13 Jacksonville. Tea Cake’s letter had said Jacksonville. He had worked…
14 To Janie’s strange eyes, everything in the Everglades was big…
15 Janie learned what it felt like to be jealous. A…
16 The season closed and people went away like they had…
17 A great deal of the old crowd were back. But…
18 Since Tea Cake and Janie had friended with the Bahaman…
19 And then again Him-with-the- square-toes had gone…
20 Because they really loved Janie just a little less than…
Afterword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
About the Author
Books by Zora Neale Hurston
About the Publisher
Janie’s Great Journey:
A Reading Group Guide
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
In her award-winning autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road(1942), Zora Neale Hurston claimed to have been born in Eatonville, Florida, in 1901. She was, in fact, born in Notasulga, Alabama, on January 7, 1891, the fifth child of John Hurston (farmer, carpenter, and Baptist preacher) and Lucy Ann Potts (school teacher). The author of numer- ous books, including Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Mules and Men, and Moses, Man of the Mountain, Hurston had achieved fame and sparked controversy as a novelist, anthropologist, outspoken essayist, lecturer, and theatrical producer during her sixty- nine years. Hurston’s finest work of fiction appeared at a time when artistic and political statements—whether single sentences or book- length fictions—were peculiarly conflated. Many works of fiction were informed by purely political motives; political pronouncements
frequently appeared in polished literary prose. And Hurston’s own political statements, relating to racial issues or addressing national politics, did not ingratiate her with her black male contemporaries. The end result was that Their Eyes Were Watching God went out of print not long after its first appearance and remained out of print for nearly thirty years. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has been one among many to ask: “How could the recipient of two Guggenheims and the author of four novels, a dozen short stories, two musicals, two books on black mythology, dozens of essays, and a prizewinning autobiography virtu- ally ‘disappear’ from her readership for three full decades?”
That question remains unanswered. The fact remains that every one of Hurston’s books went quickly out of print; and it was only through the determined efforts, in the 1970s, of Alice Walker, Robert Hemenway (Hurston’s biographer), Toni Cade Bambara, and other writers and scholars that all of her books are now back in print and that she has taken her rightful place in the pantheon of American authors.
In 1973, Walker, distressed that Hurston’s writings had been all but forgotten, found Hurston’s grave in the Garden of Heavenly Rest and installed a gravemarker. “After loving and teaching her work for a number of years,” Walker later reported, “I could not bear that she did not have a known grave.” The gravemarker now bears the words that Walker had inscribed there:
ZORA NEALE HURSTON
GENIUS OF THE SOUTH
NOVELIST FOLKLORIST ANTHROPOLOGIST
Questions for Discussion
1. What kind of God are the eyes of Hurston’s characters watching? What is the nature of that God and of their watching? Do any of them question God?
2. What is the importance of the concept of horizon? How do Janie and each of her men widen her horizons? What is the significance of the novel’s final sentences in this regard?
3. How does Janie’s journey—from West Florida, to Eatonville, to the Everglades—represent her, and the novel’s increasing immersion in black culture and traditions? What elements of individual action and communal life characterize that immersion?
4. To what extent does Janie acquire her own voice and the ability to shape her own life? How are the two related? Does Janie’s telling her story to Pheoby in flashback undermine her ability to tell her story directly in her own voice?
5. What are the differences between the language of the men and that of Janie and the other women? How do the differences in language reflect the two groups’ approaches to life, power, relationships, and self-realization? How do the novel’s first two paragraphs point to these differences?
6. In what ways does Janie conform to or diverge from the assump- tions that underlie the men’s attitudes toward women? How would you explain Hurston’s depiction of violence toward women? Does the novel substantiate Janie’s statement that “Sometimes God gits familiar wid us womenfolks too and talks His inside business”?
7. What is the importance in the novel of the “signifyin’” and “playin’ de dozens” on the front porch of Joe’s store and elsewhere? What
purpose do these stories, traded insults, exaggerations, and boasts have in the lives of these people? How does Janie counter them with her conjuring?
8. Why is adherence to received tradition so important to nearly all the people in Janie’s world? How does the community deal with those who are “different”?
9. After Joe Starks’s funeral, Janie realizes that “She had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people; it was important to all the world that she should find them and they find her.” Why is this important “to all the world”? In what ways does Janie’s self-awareness depend on her increased awareness of others?
10. How important is Hurston’s use of vernacular dialect to our un- derstanding of Janie and the other characters and their way of life? What do speech patterns reveal about the quality of these lives and the nature of these communities? In what ways are “their tongues cocked and loaded, the only real weapon” of these people?
The Estate of Zora Neale Hurston would like to thank those people who have worked so hard over the years in introducing new genera- tions of readers to the work of Zora Neale Hurston. We are indebted to Robert Hemenway, Alice Walker, and all the Modern Language Asso- ciation folks who helped usher in Zora’s rediscovery. We are also deeply appreciative of the hard work and support of our publisher, Cathy Hemming; our editor, Julia Serebrinsky; and our agent, Victoria Sanders, without whom this reissue would not have been possible.
BY EDWIDGE DANTICAT
I “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” So begins Zora Neale Hurston’s brilliant novel about a woman’s search for her authentic self and for real love. At first it might seem contradictory that a work whose central character is the remarkably resolute and re- silient Janie Crawford should start with a dictum about “the life of men.” However, that is one of the many shrewd manifestations of Zora Neale Hurston’s enormous talents: her ability to render a world com- plete with its codes and disciplines within a few sentences, and then placing in that world her vision of how her people—the women and men of her own creation, her characters—function, triumph, and sur- vive. So off that metaphorically distant ship comes our heroine Janie Crawford, and suddenly we realize that she had been on her own sin- gular journey all along, her dreams “mocked to death by Time,” but never totally defeated. And since women “remember everything they don’t want to forget,” Janie Crawford recalls all the crucial moments of her life, from the time she first discovers that she is a “colored” little girl by searching for her face in a group photograph, to the moment she returns to Eatonville, Florida, from the Everglades, not swindled and deceived, as had been expected, but heartbroken, yet boldly defi- ant, after having toiled in the bean fields, survived a hurricane, and lost the man she loved.
Janie Crawford is able to retrace her steps, disembark from her own ship, come home, and remember, because she has been close to death but has lived a very full life. So in spite of the judgmental voices that greet her upon her return, in spite of the “mass cruelty” invoked by her prodigal status, Janie has earned the right to be the griot of her own tale, the heroine of her own quest, the “member” of her own remembering.
In the loose call-and-response structure that frames the nov- el—Janie’s friend Pheoby asks her to tell her where she has been, and Janie responds with the story that constitutes the book—Janie’s is an intimate audience of one. She entrusts her adventures to Pheoby to re- tell to others only if Pheoby chooses. (“You can tell ’em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ’cause mah tongue is in mah friend’s mouf.”) Janie is recounting her story as much to Pheoby as to herself. Her response to Pheoby’s call is at the same time an echo, much like the nymph Echo who retains only her voice after having lit- erally been torn apart. Hurston herself also becomes Janie’s echo by picking up the narrative thread in intervals, places where in real life, or in real time, Janie might have simply grown tired of talking. Much like the porch sitters at the beginning of the book who are the first to see Janie arrive, Janie, Pheoby, and Zora Neale Hurston form their own storytelling chain, and it is through their linking of voices that we are taken on this intimate yet communal journey that is Their Eyes Were Watching God.
II I have always been extremely proud to remind all who would listen that Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was written, by her own account, in seven weeks, in my home- land, Haiti. I once made a complete fool of myself in front of a group of young women writers who had just created a book club and had
gracefully invited me to their first meeting. Soon after the book club’s newly elected president announced that the first book they’d be read- ing would be Their Eyes Were Watching God, I intervened to declare, “Did you know that Zora wrote it in seven weeks in Haiti?”
I was hastily rebuffed by a curt “So?” from one of the members.
“So?” I replied, embarrassed. “Could you write a book like that in seven weeks?”
Of course Hurston’s own account of how long it took to compose the novel has been debated and contested. However, I am awed by her ability to have found the time during her anthropological travels and constant research in Haiti to produce a novel—at all. As a writer, I am amazed by the way she often managed to use the places and circum- stances she found herself in to create a room, a world, of her own. Even with the menace of pennilessness always looming, she somehow unearthed the solace, or perhaps the desperation, to write.
Many of my contemporaries, including myself, often com- plain—sometimes with book contracts in tow—about not having enough time, money, and space to write. Yet Zora battled to write and she did, knowing, as Janie Crawford must have also known, that “there is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.” Thus, no matter how many times I have read this book, when Janie begins telling that untold story inside her, I am always doubly elated, both with the story itself and with the way in which it came to be. And so when I blurt out my favorite piece of Hurston trivia, I do it partially out of pride for her association with Haiti, but I also do it heeding Alice Walker’s extremely wise advice in her foreword to Robert E. He- menway’s literary biography of Hurston: “We are a People.” (And I in- clude all the international peoples of the African diaspora in this cat- egory.) “A People do not throw their geniuses away.”
Fortunately, over the years, I have met very few active readers of my generation (born after 1960), writers and nonwriters alike, who would even consider throwing Zora away. Many of us can remember vividly our first encounter with her work, particularly Their Eyes Were Watching God. Because of the efforts of Ms. Walker and others, who valiantly reclaimed Zora for themselves and for all of us, we read Zora either in high school or in college classes, where her work is enthusi- astically taught by men and women—most of whom were much older than we were when they first read her—and still had the exuberance of a recent discovery, much as in the early days of a love affair, or a re- union with a friend long thought dead.
I first read Their Eyes Were Watching God in an elective black his- tory class at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn, New York. The class was taught by a young teacher who conducted it during his lunch hour. There was not much reading for young adults about Zora and her work, so we struggled with the plot and the language with a lot of coaching from our teacher. Most of us were new immigrants to the United States and read Janie, Pheoby, and Tea Cake’s dialogue out loud with our heavy Creole accents, and managed to come away with only a glimmer of the brilliance of what we had read.
At times, feeling as if my lack of English had robbed me of precious narrative information, I would raise questions that went beyond the scope of the novel, and my teacher would become very excited, ap- plauding the fact that I was stretching my imagination way beyond the words in front of me, which is what all good readers are supposed to do. “Where was Tea Cake’s family?” I would ask. “And what did Janie’s friend Pheoby do while Janie was gone?”
I would later explore more purposefully deliberate questions about the book in a freshman English class at Barnard College, where Zora had also been a student in the 1920s. Hers were among the books in a
glass case in the Barnard library that also highlighted other famous alumnae authors, including the poet, playwright, and novelist Ntozake Shange. Each time I walked by that glass case, I felt my dream of be- coming an author growing more and more attainable, partly because Zora and Ntozake were black women, like me.
“Zora has lived in my country,” I happily told one of my class- mates, “and now I am living in hers.” I liked to think that Zora was drawn to Haiti partly because of the many similarities between Haitian and Southern African-American culture. Zora was from an all-black town, run and governed by black people, and I was from a black re- public, where Frederick Douglass had resided and where Katherine Dunham had studied and danced. In Tell My Horse, Zora finds an equivalent for the cunning Brer Rabbit of the Uncle Remus stories in Haiti’s sly Ti Malis of popular lore. And in the rural belief that our dead will one day return to Ginen, Africa, she uncovered echoes of the strong convictions of many of those who were forced on board slave ships for points of no return.
There were so many things that I found familiar in Their Eyes Were Watching God: the dead-on orality in both the narration and dialogue; the communal gatherings on open porches at dusk; the in- timate storytelling (krik? krak!); the communal tall-tale sessions, both about real people who have erred (zen) and fictional folks who have hilariously blundered (blag). Her description of the elaborate burial of Janie’s pet mule reminded me of an incident that she detailed in Tell My Horse, in which Haitian president Antoine Simon ordered an elab- orate Catholic funeral at the national cathedral for his pet goat Simalo, something many Haitians would laugh about for years.
In class at Barnard, we gladly raised structural questions about Their Eyes Were Watching God. Was it a love story or an adventure story? We decided it could be both, as many other complex novels are.
Besides, don’t adventures often include romance? And aren’t all excit- ing romances adventures?
We brought up issues that concerned us as young feminists and womanists. Was Janie Crawford a good female role model or was she solely defined by the men in her life? Many of us argued that Janie did not have to be a role model at all. She simply had to be a fully realized and complex character, which she was. She certainly manifested a will of her own in spite of the efforts of her grandmother and her two first husbands to dominate her, leaving her first husband when life with him grew unbearable, and taking off with Tea Cake against public opinion after the second husband died.
Why did Janie allow Tea Cake to beat her? Some of us thought that Hurston tried to envision characters who are neither too holy nor too evil. Her men and women are extremely nuanced, reflecting human strengths as well as frailties. If Tea Cake were too cruel, then Janie would not love him at all. If he were too uniformly pious, then rather than being her equal, as he was at work in the fields, he would be wor- shipped by her, and “all gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reasons…half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.” In the end, Janie receives from Tea Cake the equivalent of all three—wine, flowers, and blood—and she becomes like a treasured relative whose love affair we could never wholeheartedly condone, but the source of which we could certainly understand. Tea Cake gives his life for Janie, and this, if nothing else, serves as some atonement for many of his sins.
In spite of Janie’s choices concerning Tea Cake, or perhaps because of them, she experiences more freedom than most women (certainly most poor women) of her time. And as much as she loves Tea Cake, she ultimately chooses to live and not to die with him, and her final act is not to follow him to the grave, but to bury him and return alone to a
community that will not embrace and welcome her without first being given an explanation as to where she has been and what she has been through.
III For many decades and, hopefully, centuries to come, Their Eyes Were Watching God will probably be at the center of Zora Neale Hurston’s legacy as a novelist. Perhaps because it was written in such a short and, reportedly, emotionally charged period, this is a novel with an overpowering sense of exigency and urgency in its layered plot, swift pace, intricate narration, and in the raw anguish evoked by the con- flicting paths laid out for Janie Crawford as she attempts to survive her grandmother’s restricted vision of a black woman’s life and realize her own self-conceived liberation. Like all individual thinkers, Janie Crawford pays the price of exclusion for nonconformity, much like Hurston herself, who was accused of stereotyping the people she loved when she perhaps simply listened to them much more closely than others, and sought to reclaim and reclassify their voices.
The novel not only offers a penetrating view of Janie’s evolving thinking process, but we are also given plenty of insight into the mind- sets of those who would wish to condemn her. Janie, however, is never overly critical of her neighbors’ faultfinding reactions to her. She either ignores them entirely or pities them for never having left the safety of their town and never having lived and loved as deeply as she has.
Having survived all she has, Janie now has a deeper understanding of her own actions as well as a greater comprehension of human beha- vior in general.
“It’s uh known fact, Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there,” she explains to her friend. “Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves…They got tuh go tuh God and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”
Along with the classic conflict between an individual’s wishes and a community’s censure, there are many contemporary motifs in this novel, events that could have been easily plucked out of early-twenty- first-century headlines: loveless marriages; verbal and physical abuse; mercy killing, or a killing in self-defense, depending on how you inter- pret it; forbidden love; a public and passionate affair between a young- er man and an older woman from different stations in life. Many of the minor characters in the novel are vibrantly multicultural, from African Americans to Native Americans to the Caribbeans who live and work in the Everglades. (To this day, migrant labor and hurricanes remain very concrete elements of life in Florida.)
The influence of Zora’s work, particularly Their Eyes Were Watch- ing God, will continue to be felt for years in the works of many genera- tions of writers. For example, Janie Crawford shares a literary kinship with Celie of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, whose eyes not only watch God, but whose words and letters, whose voice, speak directly to God.
Part of the reason Janie’s grandmother Nanny pushes her into a loveless marriage to Logan Killicks, her first husband, is that Nanny was born in slavery and had little choice over her own destiny. Nanny has craved small comforts, like sitting idly on a porch, and wants her granddaughter to have them, along with money and status, no matter what the emotional cost. What Nanny may not have considered is that Janie would have her own ideas of freedom. However, Nanny is also pained by a deferred dream of her own.
Nanny confesses to young Janie, “Ah wanted to preach a great ser- mon about colored women sittin’ on high, but they wasn’t no pulpit for me.”
In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Beloved’s grandmother Baby Suggs preaches the sermon Nanny never got to preach. Baby Suggs “became an unchurched preacher, one who visited pulpits.” However, her most- used pulpit was one that Baby Suggs created for herself, outdoors, in a clearing: “After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently…. Finally she called the women to her. ‘Cry,’ she told them. ‘For the living and for the dead. Just cry.’ And without covering their eyes the women let loose.”
What a difference it might have made to young Janie to have heard her grandmother preach that sermon, to have heard her Nanny say, as Baby Suggs did, “More than your life-holding womb and your life-giv- ing private parts…love your heart. For this is the prize.”
IV In the circular narration of Their Eyes Were Watching God, at the end of the book, a whole new life lies ahead, uncharted for a still relatively young Janie Crawford. She has told her story and has satisfied “that oldest human longing—self-revelation.” And now she must go on.
We know that Janie will never forget Tea Cake. Not only did she love him very deeply, but her life and travels with him have opened up her world and her heart in irreversible ways. However, we get hints that Janie will continue to live on her own uncompromising terms, for even as she has lost her beloved, she has also discovered many deeper layers of herself.
“Now, dat’s how everything wuz, Pheoby, jus’ lak Ah told yuh,” she says to her friend as she prepares to wrap up her story. “So Ah’m back home agin and Ah’m satisfied tuh be heah. Ah done been to de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons.”
Janie’s life, by comparison, might seem more turbulent than most. However, both her past and her future can best be characterized by the way she describes her love for Tea Cake at the end of the book. Not like a “grindstone” that is the same everywhere and has the same effect on everything it touches, but like the sea, the sea of distant ships with every man’s wish on board, the powerful moving sea that “takes its shape from de shore it meets,” and is “different with every shore.”
In 1987, the fiftieth anniversary of the first publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the University of Illinois Press inserted a banner in the lower right-hand corner of the cover of their anniversary reprint edition: “1987/50th Anniversary—STILL A BESTSELLER!” The back cover, using a quote from the Saturday Review by Doris Grumbach, proclaimed Their Eyes, “the finest black novel of its time” and “one of the finest of all time.” Zora Neale Hurston would have been shocked and pleased, I believe, at this stunning reversal in the reception of her second novel, which for nearly thirty years after its first publication was out of print, largely unknown and unread, and dismissed by the male literary establishment in subtle and not so subtle ways. One white reviewer in 1937 praised the novel in the Saturday Review as a “rich and racy love story, if somewhat awkward,” but had difficulty be- lieving that such a town as Eatonville, “inhabited and governed en- tirely by Negroes,” could be real.
Black male critics were much harsher in their assessments of the novel. From the beginning of her career, Hurston was severely criti- cized for not writing fiction in the protest tradition. Sterling Brown said in 1936 of her earlier book Mules and Men that it was not bitter enough, that it did not depict the harsher side of black life in the South, that Hurston made black southern life appear easygoing and carefree. Alain Locke, dean of black scholars and critics during the
Harlem Renaissance, wrote in his yearly review of the literature for Opportunity magazine that Hurston’s Their Eyes was simply out of step with the more serious trends of the times. When, he asks, will Hurston stop creating “these pseudo-primitives whom the reading public still loves to laugh with, weep over, and envy,” and “come to grips with the motive fiction and social document fiction?” The most damaging critique of all came from the most well-known and influen- tial black writer of the day, Richard Wright. Writing for the leftist magazine New Masses, Wright excoriated Their Eyes as a novel that did for literature what the minstrel shows did for theater, that is, make white folks laugh. The novel, he said, “carries no theme, no message, no thought,” but exploited those “quaint” aspects of Negro life that satisfied the tastes of a white audience. By the end of the forties, a dec- ade dominated by Wright and by the stormy fiction of social realism, the quieter voice of a woman searching for self-realization could not, or would not, be heard.
Like most of my friends and colleagues who were teaching in the newly formed Black Studies departments in the late sixties, I can still recall quite vividly my own discovery of Their Eyes. Somewhere around 1968, in one of the many thriving black bookstores in the country—this one, Vaughn’s Book Store, was in Detroit—I came across the slender little paperback (bought for 75¢) with a stylized portrait of Janie Crawford and Jody Starks on the cover—she pumping water at the well, her long hair cascading down her back, her head turned just slightly in his direction with a look of longing and expectancy; he, standing at a distance in his fancy silk shirt and purple suspenders, his coat over one arm, his head cocked to one side, with the look that speaks to Janie of far horizons.
What I loved immediately about this novel besides its high poetry and its female hero was its investment in black folk traditions. Here, finally, was a woman on a quest for her own identity and, unlike so
many other questing figures in black literature, her journey would take her, not away from, but deeper and deeper into blackness, the descent into the Everglades with its rich black soil, wild cane, and communal life representing immersion into black traditions. But for most black women readers discovering Their Eyes for the first time, what was most compelling was the figure of Janie Crawford—powerful, articulate, self-reliant, and radically different from any woman charac- ter they had ever before encountered in literature. Andrea Rushing, then an instructor in the Afro-American Studies Department at Har- vard, remembers reading Their Eyes in a women’s study group with Nellie McKay, Barbara Smith, and Gail Pemberton. “I loved the lan- guage of this book,” Rushing says, “but mostly I loved it because it was about a woman who wasn’t pathetic, wasn’t a tragic mulatto, who de- fied everything that was expected of her, who went off with a man without bothering to divorce the one she left and wasn’t broken, crushed, and run down.”
The reaction of women all across the country who found them- selves so powerfully represented in a literary text was often direct and personal. Janie and Tea Cake were talked about as though they were people the readers knew intimately. Sherley Anne Williams remem- bers going down to a conference in Los Angeles in 1969 where the main speaker, Toni Cade Bambara, asked the women in the audience, “Are the sisters here ready for Tea Cake?” And Williams, remembering that even Tea Cake had his flaws, responded, “Are the Tea Cakes of the world ready for us?” Williams taught Their Eyes for the first time at Cal State Fresno, in a migrant farming area where the students, like the characters in Their Eyes, were used to making their living from the land. “For the first time,” Williams says, “they saw themselves in these characters and they saw their lives portrayed with joy.” Rushing’s comment on the female as hero and Williams’s story about the joyful portrayal of a culture together epitomize what critics would later see as
the novel’s unique contribution to black literature: it affirms black cul- tural traditions while revising them to empower black women.
By 1971, Their Eyes was an underground phenomenon, surfacing here and there, wherever there was a growing interest in African- American studies—and a black woman literature teacher. Alice Walker was teaching the novel at Wellesley in the 1971–72 school year when she discovered that Hurston was only a footnote in the scholarship. Reading in an essay by a white folklorist that Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave, Walker decided that such a fate was an insult to Hur- ston and began her search for the grave to put a marker on it. In a per- sonal essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” written for Ms. magazine, Walker describes going to Florida and searching through waist-high weeds to find what she thought was Hurston’s grave and laying on it a marker inscribed “Zora Neale Hurston/’A Genius of the South’/Novelist/Folklorist/Anthropologist/1901–1960.” With that in- scription and that essay, Walker ushered in a new era in the scholar- ship on Their Eyes Were Watching God.
By 1975, Their Eyes, again out of print, was in such demand that a petition was circulated at the December 1975 convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA) to get the novel back into print. In that same year at a conference on minority literature held at Yale and directed by Michael Cooke, the few copies of Their Eyes that were available were circulated for two hours at a time to conference parti- cipants, many of whom were reading the novel for the first time. In March of 1977, when the MLA Commission on Minority Groups and the Study of Language and Literature published its first list of out of print books most in demand at a national level, the program coordin- ator, Dexter Fisher, wrote: “Their Eyes Were Watching God is unan- imously at the top of the list.”
Between 1977 and 1979 the Zora Neale Hurston renaissance was in full bloom. Robert Hemenway’s biography, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, published in 1977, was a runaway bestseller at the December 1977 MLA convention. The new University of Illinois Press edition of Their Eyes, published a year after the Hemenway bio- graphy in March of 1978, made the novel available on a steady and de- pendable basis for the next ten years. I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impress- ive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, edited by Alice Walker, was pub- lished by the Feminist Press in 1979. Probably more than anything else, these three literary events made it possible for serious Hurston scholarship to emerge.
But the event that for me truly marked the beginning of the third wave of critical attention to Their Eyes took place in December 1979 at the MLA convention in San Francisco in a session aptly titled “Tradi- tions and Their Transformations in Afro-American Letters,” chaired by Robert Stepto of Yale with John Callahan of Lewis and Clark Col- lege and myself (then at the University of Detroit) as the two panelists. Despite the fact that the session was scheduled on Sunday morning, the last session of the entire convention, the room was packed and the audience unusually attentive. In his comments at the end of the ses- sion, Stepto raised the issue that has become one of the most highly controversial and hotly contested aspects of the novel: whether or not Janie is able to achieve her voice in Their Eyes. What concerned Stepto was the courtroom scene in which Janie is called on not only to preserve her own life and liberty but also to make the jury, as well as all of us who hear her tale, understand the meaning of her life with Tea Cake. Stepto found Janie curiously silent in this scene, with Hurston telling the story in omniscient third person so that we do not hear Janie speak—at least not in her own first-person voice. Stepto was quite convinced (and convincing) that the frame story in which Janie speaks to Pheoby creates only the illusion that Janie has found her
voice, that Hurston’s insistence on telling Janie’s story in the third person undercuts her power as speaker. While the rest of us in the room struggled to find our voices, Alice Walker rose and claimed hers, insisting passionately that women did not have to speak when men thought they should, that they would choose when and where they wish to speak because while many women had found their own voices, they also knew when it was better not to use it. What was most re- markable about the energetic and at times heated discussion that fol- lowed Stepto’s and Walker’s remarks was the assumption of everyone in that room that Their Eyes was a shared text, that a novel that just ten years earlier was unknown and unavailable had entered into critic- al acceptance as perhaps the most widely known and the most priv- ileged text in the African-American literary canon.
That MLA session was important for another reason. Walker’s de- fense of Janie’s choice (actually Hurston’s choice) to be silent in the crucial places in the novel turned out to be the earliest feminist read- ing of voice in Their Eyes, a reading that was later supported by many other Hurston scholars. In a recent essay on Their Eyes, and the ques- tion of voice, Michael Awkward argues that Janie’s voice at the end of the novel is a communal one, that when she tells Pheoby to tell her story (“You can tell’em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ’cause mah tongue is in mah fiend’s mout”) she is choosing a collective rather than an individual voice, demonstrating her closeness to the collective spirit of the African-American oral tradition. Thad Davis agrees with this reading of voice, adding that while Janie is the teller of the tale, Pheoby is the bearer of the tale. Davis says that Janie’s experimental life may not allow her to effect changes beyond what she causes in Pheoby’s life; but Pheoby, standing within the tra- ditional role of women, is the one most suited to take the message back to the community.
Although, like Stepto, I too am uncomfortable with the absence of Janie’s voice in the courtroom scene, I think that silence reflects Hur- ston’s discomfort with the model of the male hero who asserts himself through his powerful voice. When Hurston chose a female hero for the story she faced an interesting dilemma: the female presence was in- herently a critique of the male-dominated folk culture and therefore could not be its heroic representative. When Janie says at the end of her story that “talkin’ don’t amount to much” if it’s divorced from ex- perience, she is testifying to the limitations of voice and critiquing the culture that celebrates orality to the exclusion of inner growth. Her fi- nal speech to Pheoby at the end of Their Eyes actually casts doubt on the relevance of oral speech and supports Alice Walker’s claim that women’s silence can be intentional and useful:
’Course, talkin’ don’t amount tuh uh hill uh beans when yuh can’t do nothin’ else…Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo papa and yo mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.
The language of the men in Their Eyes is almost always divorced from any kind of interiority, and the men are rarely shown in the pro- cess of growth. Their talking is either a game or a method of exerting power. Janie’s life is about the experience of relationships, and while Jody and Tea Cake and all the other talking men are essentially static characters, Janie and Pheoby pay closer attention to their own inner life—to experience—because it is the site for growth.
If there is anything the outpouring of scholarship on Their Eyes teaches us, it is that this is a rich and complicated text and that each generation of readers will bring something new to our understanding of it. If we were protective of this text and unwilling to subject it to
literary analysis during the first years of its rebirth, that was because it was a beloved text for those of us who discovered in it something of our own experiences, our own language, our own history. In 1989, I find myself asking new questions about Their Eyes—questions about Hurston’s ambivalence toward her female protagonist, about its un- critical depiction of violence toward women, about the ways in which Janie’s voice is dominated by men even in passages that are about her own inner growth. In Their Eyes, Hurston has not given us an unam- biguously heroic female character. She puts Janie on the track of autonomy, self-realization, and independence, but she also places Janie in the position of romantic heroine as the object of Tea Cake’s quest, at times so subordinate to the magnificent presence of Tea Cake that even her interior life reveals more about him than about her. What Their Eyes shows us is a woman writer struggling with the prob- lem of the questing hero as woman and the difficulties in 1937 of giv- ing a woman character such power and such daring.
Because Their Eyes has been in print continuously since 1978, it has become available each year to thousands of new readers. It is taught in colleges all over the country, and its availability and popular- ity have generated two decades of the highest level of scholarship. But I want to remember the history that nurtured this text into rebirth, es- pecially the collective spirit of the sixties and seventies that galvanized us into political action to retrieve the lost works of black women writers. There is lovely symmetry between text and context in the case of Their Eyes: as Their Eyes affirms and celebrates black culture it re- flects that same affirmation of black culture that rekindled interest in the text; Janie telling her story to listening woman friend, Pheoby, suggests to me all those women readers who discovered their own tale in Janie’s story and passed it on from one to another; and certainly, as the novel represents a woman redefining and revising a male-domin- ated canon, these readers have, like Janie, made their voices heard in
the world of letters, revising the canon while asserting their proper place in it.
MARY HELEN WASHINGTON
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, nev- er 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. Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment.
The people all saw her come because it was sundown. The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sit- ting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.
Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy they had stored up from other times. So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song.
“What she doin’ coming back here in dem overhalls? Can’t she find no dress to put on?—Where’s dat blue satin dress she left here in?—Where all dat money her husband took and died and left her?—What dat ole forty year ole ’oman doin’ wid her hair swingin’ down her back lak some young gal?—Where she left dat young lad of a boy she went off here wid?—Thought she was going to marry?—Where he left her?—What he done wid all her money?—Betcha he off wid some gal so young she ain’t even got no hairs—why she don’t stay in her class?—”
When she got to where they were she turned her face on the bander log and spoke. They scrambled a noisy “good evenin’ ” and left their mouths setting open and their ears full of hope. Her speech was pleasant enough, but she kept walking straight on to her gate. The porch couldn’t talk for looking.
The men noticed her firm buttocks like she had grapefruits in her hip pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and un- raveling in the wind like a plume; then her pugnacious breasts trying to bore holes in her shirt. They, the men, were saving with the mind what they lost with the eye. The women took the faded shirt and muddy overalls and laid them away for remembrance. It was a weapon against her strength and if it turned out of no significance, still it was a hope that she might fall to their level some day.
But nobody moved, nobody spoke, nobody even thought to swal- low spit until after her gate slammed behind her.
Pearl Stone opened her mouth and laughed real hard because she didn’t know what else to do. She fell all over Mrs. Sumpkins while she laughed. Mrs. Sumpkins snorted violently and sucked her teeth.
“Humph! Y’all let her worry yuh. You ain’t like me. Ah ain’t got her to study ’bout. If she ain’t got manners enough to stop and let folks know how she been makin’ out, let her g’wan!”
“She ain’t even worth talkin’ after,” Lulu Moss drawled through her nose. “She sits high, but she looks low. Dat’s what Ah say ’bout dese ole women runnin’ after young boys.”
Pheoby Watson hitched her rocking chair forward before she spoke. “Well, nobody don’t know if it’s anything to tell or not. Me, Ah’m her best friend, and Ah don’t know.”
“Maybe us don’t know into things lak you do, but we all know how she went ’way from here and us sho seen her come back. ’Tain’t no use in your tryin’ to cloak no ole woman lak Janie Starks, Pheoby, friend or no friend.”
“At dat she ain’t so ole as some of y’all dat’s talking.”
“She’s way past forty to my knowledge, Pheoby.”
“No more’n forty at de outside.”
“She’s ’way too old for a boy like Tea Cake.”
“Tea Cake ain’t been no boy for some time. He’s round thirty his ownself.”
“Don’t keer what it was, she could stop and say a few words with us. She act like we done done something to her,” Pearl Stone com- plained. “She de one been doin’ wrong.”
“You mean, you mad ’cause she didn’t stop and tell us all her busi- ness. Anyhow, what you ever know her to do so bad as y’all make out?
The worst thing Ah ever knowed her to do was taking a few years offa her age and dat ain’t never harmed nobody. Y’all makes me tired. De way you talkin’ you’d think de folks in dis town didn’t do nothin’ in de bed ’cept praise de Lawd. You have to ’scuse me, ’cause Ah’m bound to go take her some supper.” Pheoby stood up sharply.
“Don’t mind us,” Lulu smiled, “just go right ahead, us can mind yo’ house for you till you git back. Mah supper is done. You bettah go see how she feel. You kin let de rest of us know.”
“Lawd,” Pearl agreed, “Ah done scorched-up dat lil meat and bread too long to talk about. Ah kin stay ’way from home long as Ah please. Mah husband ain’t fussy.”
“Oh, er, Pheoby, if youse ready to go, Ah could walk over dere wid you,” Mrs. Sumpkins volunteered. “It’s sort of duskin’ down dark. De booger man might ketch yuh.”
“Naw, Ah thank yuh. Nothin’ couldn’t ketch me dese few steps Ah’m goin’. Anyhow mah husband tell me say no first class booger would have me. If she got anything to tell yuh, you’ll hear it.”
Pheoby hurried on off with a covered bowl in her hands. She left the porch pelting her back with unasked questions. They hoped the answers were cruel and strange. When she arrived at the place, Pheoby Watson didn’t go in by the front gate and down the palm walk to the front door. She walked around the fence corner and went in the intim- ate gate with her heaping plate of mulatto rice. Janie must be round that side.
She found her sitting on the steps of the back porch with the lamps all filled and the chimneys cleaned.
“Hello, Janie, how you comin’?”
“Aw, pretty good, Ah’m tryin’ to soak some uh de tiredness and de dirt outa mah feet.” She laughed a little.
“Ah see you is. Gal, you sho looks good. You looks like youse yo’ own daughter.” They both laughed. “Even wid dem overhalls on, you shows yo’ womanhood.”
“G’wan! G’wan! You must think Ah brought yuh somethin’. When Ah ain’t brought home a thing but mahself.”
“Dat’s a gracious plenty. Yo’ friends wouldn’t want nothin’ better.”
“Ah takes dat flattery offa you, Pheoby, ’cause Ah know it’s from de heart.” Janie extended her hand. “Good Lawd, Pheoby! ain’t you never goin’ tuh gimme dat lil rations you brought me? Ah ain’t had a thing on mah stomach today exceptin’ mah hand.” They both laughed easily. “Give it here and have a seat.”
“Ah knowed you’d be hongry. No time to be huntin’ stove wood after dark. Mah mulatto rice ain’t so good dis time. Not enough bacon grease, but Ah reckon it’ll kill hongry.”
“Ah’ll tell you in a minute,” Janie said, lifting the cover. “Gal, it’s too good! you switches a mean fanny round in a kitchen.”
“Aw, dat ain’t much to eat, Janie. But Ah’m liable to have something sho nuff good tomorrow, ’cause you done come.”
Janie ate heartily and said nothing. The varicolored cloud dust that the sun had stirred up in the sky was settling by slow degrees.
“Here, Pheoby, take yo’ ole plate. Ah ain’t got a bit of use for a empty dish. Dat grub sho come in handy.”
Pheoby laughed at her friend’s rough joke. “Youse just as crazy as you ever was.”
“Hand me dat wash-rag on dat chair by you, honey. Lemme scrub mah feet.” She took the cloth and rubbed vigorously. Laughter came to her from the big road.
“Well, Ah see Mouth-Almighty is still sittin’ in de same place. And Ah reckon they got me up in they mouth now.”
“Yes indeed. You know if you pass some people and don’t speak tuh suit ’em dey got tuh go way back in yo’ life and see whut you ever done. They know mo’ ’bout yuh than you do yo’ self. An envious heart makes a treacherous ear. They done ‘heard’ ’bout you just what they hope done happened.”
“If God don’t think no mo’ ’bout ’em then Ah do, they’s a lost ball in de high grass.”
“Ah hears what they say ’cause they just will collect round mah porch ’cause it’s on de big road. Mah husband git so sick of ’em some- time he makes ’em all git for home.”
“Sam is right too. They just wearin’ out yo’ sittin’ chairs.”
“Yeah, Sam say most of ’em goes to church so they’ll be sure to rise in Judgment. Dat’s de day dat every secret is s’posed to be made known. They wants to be there and hear it all.”
“Sam is too crazy! You can’t stop laughin’ when youse round him.”
“Uuh hunh. He says he aims to be there hisself so he can find out who stole his corn-cob pipe.”
“Pheoby, dat Sam of your’n just won’t quit! Crazy thing!”
“Most of dese zigaboos is so het up over yo’ business till they liable to hurry theyself to Judgment to find out about you if they don’t soon know. You better make haste and tell ’em ’bout you and Tea Cake git- tin’ married, and if he taken all yo’ money and went off wid some young gal, and where at he is now and where at is all yo’ clothes dat you got to come back here in overhalls.”
“Ah don’t mean to bother wid tellin’ ’em nothin’, Pheoby. ’Tain’t worth de trouble. You can tell ’em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ’cause mah tongue is in mah friend’s mouf.”
“If you so desire Ah’ll tell ’em what you tell me to tell ’em.”
“To start off wid, people like dem wastes up too much time puttin’ they mouf on things they don’t know nothin’ about. Now they got to look into me loving Tea Cake and see whether it was done right or not! They don’t know if life is a mess of corn-meal dumplings, and if love is a bed-quilt!”
“So long as they get a name to gnaw on they don’t care whose it is, and what about, ’specially if they can make it sound like evil.”
“If they wants to see and know, why they don’t come kiss and be kissed? Ah could then sit down and tell ’em things. Ah been a delegate to de big ’ssociation of life. Yessuh! De Grand Lodge, de big convention of livin’ is just where Ah been dis year and a half y’all ain’t seen me.”
They sat there in the fresh young darkness close together. Pheoby eager to feel and do through Janie, but hating to show her zest for fear it might be thought mere curiosity. Janie full of that oldest human longing—self-revelation. Pheoby held her tongue for a long time, but she couldn’t help moving her feet. So Janie spoke.
“They don’t need to worry about me and my overhalls long as Ah still got nine hundred dollars in de bank. Tea Cake got me into wearing ’em—following behind him. Tea Cake ain’t wasted up no money of mine, and he ain’t left me for no young gal, neither. He give me every consolation in de world. He’d tell ’em so too, if he was here. If he wasn’t gone.”
Pheoby dilated all over with eagerness, “Tea Cake gone?”
“Yeah, Pheoby, Tea Cake is gone. And dat’s de only reason you see me back here—cause Ah ain’t got nothing to make me happy no more where Ah was at. Down in the Everglades there, down on the muck.”
“It’s hard for me to understand what you mean, de way you tell it. And then again Ah’m hard of understandin’ at times.”
“Naw, ’tain’t nothin’ lak you might think. So ’tain’t no use in me telling you somethin’ unless Ah give you de understandin’ to go ’long wid it. Unless you see de fur, a mink skin ain’t no different from a coon hide. Looka heah, Pheoby, is Sam waitin’ on you for his supper?”
“It’s all ready and waitin’. If he ain’t got sense enough to eat it, dat’s his hard luck.”
“Well then, we can set right where we is and talk. Ah got the house all opened up to let dis breeze get a little catchin’.
“Pheoby, we been kissin’-friends for twenty years, so Ah depend on you for a good thought. And Ah’m talking to you from dat standpoint.”
Time makes everything old so the kissing, young darkness became a monstropolous old thing while Janie talked.
Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.
“Ah know exactly what Ah got to tell yuh, but it’s hard to know where to start at.
“Ah ain’t never seen mah papa. And Ah didn’t know ’im if Ah did. Mah mama neither. She was gone from round dere long before Ah wuz big enough tuh know. Mah grandma raised me. Mah grandma and de white folks she worked wid. She had a house out in de back-yard and dat’s where Ah wuz born. They was quality white folks up dere in West Florida. Named Washburn. She had four gran’chillun on de place and all of us played together and dat’s how come Ah never called mah Grandma nothin’ but Nanny, ’cause dat’s what everybody on de place called her. Nanny used to ketch us in our devilment and lick every youngun on de place and Mis’ Washburn did de same. Ah reckon dey never hit us ah lick amiss ’cause dem three boys and us two girls wuz pretty aggravatin’, Ah speck.
“Ah was wid dem white chillun so much till Ah didn’t know Ah wuzn’t white till Ah was round six years old. Wouldn’t have found it out then, but a man come long takin’ pictures and without askin’ any- body, Shelby, dat was de oldest boy, he told him to take us. Round a week later de man brought de picture for Mis’ Washburn to see and pay him which she did, then give us all a good lickin’.
“So when we looked at de picture and everybody got pointed out there wasn’t nobody left except a real dark little girl with long hair standing by Eleanor. Dat’s where Ah wuz s’posed to be, but Ah couldn’t recognize dat dark chile as me. So Ah ast, ‘where is me? Ah don’t see me.’
“Everybody laughed, even Mr. Washburn. Miss Nellie, de Mama of de chillun who come back home after her husband dead, she pointed to de dark one and said, ‘Dat’s you, Alphabet, don’t you know yo’ ownself?’
“Dey all useter call me Alphabet ’cause so many people had done named me different names. Ah looked at de picture a long time and seen it was mah dress and mah hair so Ah said:
“ ‘Aw, aw! Ah’m colored!’
“Den dey all laughed real hard. But before Ah seen de picture Ah thought Ah wuz just like de rest.
“Us lived dere havin’ fun till de chillun at school got to teasin’ me ’bout livin’ in de white folks’ back-yard. Dere wuz uh knotty head gal name Mayrella dat useter git mad every time she look at me. Mis’ Washburn useter dress me up in all de clothes her gran’chillun didn’t need no mo’ which still wuz better’n whut de rest uh de colored chillun had. And then she useter put hair ribbon on mah head fuh me tuh wear. Dat useter rile Mayrella uh lot. So she would pick at me all de time and put some others up tuh do de same. They’d push me ’way from de ring plays and make out they couldn’t play wid nobody dat lived on premises. Den they’d tell me not to be takin’ on over mah looks ’cause they mama told ’em ’bout de hound dawgs huntin’ mah papa all night long. ’Bout Mr. Washburn and de sheriff puttin’ de bloodhounds on de trail tuh ketch mah papa for whut he done tuh
mah mama. Dey didn’t tell about how he wuz seen tryin’ tuh git in touch wid mah mama later on so he could marry her. Naw, dey didn’t talk dat part of it atall. Dey made it sound real bad so as tuh crumple mah feathers. None of ’em didn’t even remember whut his name wuz, but dey all knowed de bloodhound part by heart. Nanny didn’t love tuh see me wid mah head hung down, so she figgered it would be mo’ better fuh me if us had uh house. She got de land and everything and then Mis’ Washburn helped out uh whole heap wid things.”
Pheoby’s hungry listening helped Janie to tell her story. So she went on thinking back to her young years and explaining them to her friend in soft, easy phrases while all around the house, the night time put on flesh and blackness.
She thought awhile and decided that her conscious life had com- menced at Nanny’s gate. On a late afternoon Nanny had called her to come inside the house because she had spied Janie letting Johnny Taylor kiss her over the gatepost.
It was a spring afternoon in West Florida. Janie had spent most of the day under a blossoming pear tree in the back-yard. She had been spending every minute that she could steal from her chores under that tree for the last three days. That was to say, ever since the first tiny bloom had opened. It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery. From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously. How? Why? It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What? How? Why? This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears. The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It fol- lowed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep. It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness.
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.
After a while she got up from where she was and went over the little garden field entire. She was seeking confirmation of the voice and vision, and everywhere she found and acknowledged answers. A personal answer for all other creations except herself. She felt an an- swer seeking her, but where? When? How? She found herself at the kitchen door and stumbled inside. In the air of the room were flies tumbling and singing, marrying and giving in marriage. When she reached the narrow hallway she was reminded that her grandmother was home with a sick headache. She was lying across the bed asleep so Janie tipped on out of the front door. 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.
Through pollinated air she saw a glorious being coming up the road. In her former blindness she had known him as shiftless Johnny Taylor, tall and lean. That was before the golden dust of pollen had be- glamored his rags and her eyes.
In the last stages of Nanny’s sleep, she dreamed of voices. Voices far-off but persistent, and gradually coming nearer. Janie’s voice. Janie talking in whispery snatches with a male voice she couldn’t quite place. That brought her wide awake. She bolted upright and peered out of the window and saw Johnny Taylor lacerating her Janie with a kiss.
The old woman’s voice was so lacking in command and reproof, so full of crumbling dissolution,—that Janie half believed that Nanny had not seen her. So she extended herself outside of her dream and went inside of the house. That was the end of her childhood.
Nanny’s head and face looked like the standing roots of some old tree that had been torn away by storm. Foundation of ancient power that no longer mattered. The cooling palma christi leaves that Janie had bound about her grandma’s head with a white rag had wilted down and become part and parcel of the woman. Her eyes didn’t bore and pierce. They diffused and melted Janie, the room and the world into one comprehension.
“Janie, youse uh ’oman, now, so—”
“Naw, Nanny, naw Ah ain’t no real ’oman yet.”
The thought was too new and heavy for Janie. She fought it away.
Nanny closed her eyes and nodded a slow, weary affirmation many times before she gave it voice.
“Yeah, Janie, youse got yo’ womanhood on yuh. So Ah mout ez well tell yuh whut Ah been savin’ up for uh spell. Ah wants to see you mar- ried right away.”
“Me, married? Naw, Nanny, no ma’am! Whut Ah know ’bout uh husband?”
“Whut Ah seen just now is plenty for me, honey, Ah don’t want no trashy nigger, no breath-and-britches, lak Johnny Taylor usin’ yo’ body to wipe his foots on.”
Nanny’s words made Janie’s kiss across the gatepost seem like a manure pile after a rain.
“Look at me, Janie. Don’t set dere wid yo’ head hung down. Look at yo’ ole grandma!” Her voice began snagging on the prongs of her feel- ings. “Ah don’t want to be talkin’ to you lak dis. Fact is Ah done been on mah knees to mah Maker many’s de time askin’ please—for Him not to make de burden too heavy for me to bear.”
“Nanny, Ah just—Ah didn’t mean nothin’ bad.”
“Dat’s what makes me skeered. You don’t mean no harm. You don’t even know where harm is at. Ah’m ole now. Ah can’t be always guidin’ yo’ feet from harm and danger. Ah wants to see you married right away.”
“Who Ah’m goin’ tuh marry off-hand lak dat? Ah don’t know nobody.”
“De Lawd will provide. He know Ah done bore de burden in de heat uh de day. Somebody done spoke to me ’bout you long time ago. Ah ain’t said nothin’ ’cause dat wasn’t de way Ah placed you. Ah wanted yuh to school out and pick from a higher bush and a sweeter berry. But dat ain’t yo’ idea, Ah see.”
“Nanny, who—who dat been askin’ you for me?”
“Brother Logan Killicks. He’s a good man, too.”
“Naw, Nanny, no ma’am! Is dat whut he been hangin’ round here for? He look like some ole skullhead in de grave yard.”
The older woman sat bolt upright and put her feet to the floor, and thrust back the leaves from her face.
“So you don’t want to marry off decent like, do yuh? You just wants to hug and kiss and feel around with first one man and then another, huh? You wants to make me suck de same sorrow yo’ mama did, eh? Mah ole head ain’t gray enough. Mah back ain’t bowed enough to suit yuh!”
The vision of Logan Killicks was desecrating the pear tree, but Janie didn’t know how to tell Nanny that. She merely hunched over and pouted at the floor.
“You answer me when Ah speak. Don’t you set dere poutin’ wid me after all Ah done went through for you!”
She slapped the girl’s face violently, and forced her head back so that their eyes met in struggle. With her hand uplifted for the second blow she saw the huge tear that welled up from Janie’s heart and stood in each eye. She saw the terrible agony and the lips tightened down to hold back the cry and desisted. Instead she brushed back the heavy hair from Janie’s face and stood there suffering and loving and weep- ing internally for both of them.
“Come to yo’ Grandma, honey. Set in her lap lak yo’ use tuh. Yo’ Nanny wouldn’t harm a hair uh yo’ head. She don’t want nobody else to do it neither if she kin help it. Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place 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. Lawd, Lawd, Lawd!”
For a long time she sat rocking with the girl held tightly to her sunken breast. Janie’s long legs dangled over one arm of the chair and the long braids of her hair swung low on the other side. Nanny half sung, half sobbed a running chant-prayer over the head of the weeping girl.
“Lawd have mercy! It was a long time on de way but Ah reckon it had to come. Oh Jesus! Do, Jesus! Ah done de best Ah could.”
Finally, they both grew calm.
“Janie, how long you been ’lowin’ Johnny Taylor to kiss you?”
“Only dis one time, Nanny. Ah don’t love him at all. Whut made me do it is—oh, Ah don’t know.”
“Thank yuh, Massa Jesus.”
“Ah ain’t gointuh do it no mo’, Nanny. Please don’t make me marry Mr. Killicks.”
“ ’Tain’t Logan Killicks Ah wants you to have, baby, it’s protection. Ah ain’t gittin’ ole, honey. Ah’m done ole. One mornin’ soon, now, de
angel wid de sword is gointuh stop by here. De day and de hour is hid from me, but it won’t be long. Ah ast de Lawd when you was uh infant in mah arms to let me stay here till you got grown. He done spared me to see de day. Mah daily prayer now is tuh let dese golden moments rolls on a few days longer till Ah see you safe in life.”
“Lemme wait, Nanny, please, jus’ a lil bit mo’.”
“Don’t think Ah don’t feel wid you, Janie, ’cause Ah do. Ah couldn’t love yuh no more if Ah had uh felt yo’ birth pains mahself. Fact uh de matter, Ah loves yuh a whole heap more’n Ah do yo’ mama, de one Ah did birth. But you got to take in consideration you ain’t no everyday chile like most of ’em. You ain’t got no papa, you might jus’ as well say no mama, for de good she do yuh. You ain’t got nobody but me. And mah head is ole and tilted towards de grave. Neither can you stand alone by yo’self. De thought uh you bein’ kicked around from pillar tuh post is uh hurtin’ thing. Every tear you drop squeezes a cup uh blood outa mah heart. Ah got tuh try and do for you befo’ mah head is cold.”
A sobbing sigh burst out of Janie. The old woman answered her with little soothing pats of the hand.
“You know, honey, us colored folks is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways. You in particular. Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfill my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do. Dat’s one of de hold-backs of slavery. But nothing can’t stop you from wishin’. You can’t beat nobody down so low till you can rob ’em of they will. Ah didn’t want to be used for a work-ox and a brood-sow and Ah didn’t want mah daughter used dat way neither. It sho wasn’t mah will for things to happen lak they did. Ah even hated de way you was born. But, all de same Ah said thank God, Ah got another chance. Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin’ on high, but they wasn’t
no pulpit for me. Freedom found me wid a baby daughter in mah arms, so Ah said Ah’d take a broom and a cook-pot and throw up a highway through de wilderness for her. She would expound what Ah felt. But somehow she got lost offa de highway and next thing Ah knowed here you was in de world. So whilst Ah was tendin’ you of nights Ah said Ah’d save de text for you. Ah been waitin’ a long time, Janie, but nothin’ Ah been through ain’t too much if you just take a stand on high ground lak Ah dreamed.”
Old Nanny sat there rocking Janie like an infant and thinking back and back. Mind-pictures brought feelings, and feelings dragged out dramas from the hollows of her heart.
“Dat mornin’ on de big plantation close to Savannah, a rider come in a gallop tellin’ ’bout Sherman takin’ Atlanta. Marse Robert’s son had done been kilt at Chickamauga. So he grabbed his gun and straddled his best horse and went off wid de rest of de gray-headed men and young boys to drive de Yankees back into Tennessee.
“They was all cheerin’ and cryin’ and shoutin’ for de men dat was ridin’ off. Ah couldn’t see nothin’ cause yo’ mama wasn’t but a week old, and Ah was flat uh mah back. But pretty soon he let on he forgot somethin’ and run into mah cabin and made me let down mah hair for de last time. He sorta wropped his hand in it, pulled mah big toe, lak he always done, and was gone after de rest lak lightnin’. Ah heard ’em give one last whoop for him. Then de big house and de quarters got sober and silent.
“It was de cool of de evenin’ when Mistis come walkin’ in mah door. She throwed de door wide open and stood dere lookin’ at me outa her eyes and her face. Look lak she been livin’ through uh hun- dred years in January without one day of spring. She come stood over me in de bed.
“ ‘Nanny, Ah come to see that baby uh yourn.’
“Ah tried not to feel de breeze off her face, but it got so cold in dere dat Ah was freezin’ to death under the kivvers. So Ah couldn’t move right away lak Ah aimed to. But Ah knowed Ah had to make haste and do it.
“ ‘You better git dat kivver offa dat youngun and dat quick!’ she clashed at me. ‘Look lak you don’t know who is Mistis on dis planta- tion, Madam. But Ah aims to show you.’
“By dat time I had done managed tuh unkivver mah baby enough for her to see de head and face.
“ ‘Nigger, whut’s yo’ baby doin’ wid gray eyes and yaller hair?’ She begin tuh slap mah jaws ever which a’way. Ah never felt the fust ones ’cause Ah wuz too busy gittin’ de kivver back over mah chile. But dem last lick burnt me lak fire. Ah had too many feelin’s tuh tell which one tuh follow so Ah didn’t cry and Ah didn’t do nothin’ else. But then she kept on astin me how come mah baby look white. She asted me dat maybe twenty-five or thirty times, lak she got tuh sayin’ dat and couldn’t help herself. So Ah told her, ‘Ah don’t know nothin’ but what Ah’m told tuh do, ’cause Ah ain’t nothin’ but uh nigger and uh slave.’
“Instead of pacifyin’ her lak Ah thought, look lak she got madder. But Ah reckon she was tired and wore out ’cause she didn’t hit me no more. She went to de foot of de bed and wiped her hands on her handksher. ‘Ah wouldn’t dirty mah hands on yuh. But first thing in de mornin’ de overseer will take you to de whippin’ post and tie you down on yo’ knees and cut de hide offa yo’ yaller back. One hundred lashes wid a raw-hide on yo’ bare back. Ah’ll have you whipped till de blood run down to yo’ heels! Ah mean to count de licks mahself. And if it