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Escaping the Iron Collar

Chapters five through nine of Their Eyes Were Watching God seem to me to be chapters concerned with filling certain expected roles. In chapter five, Tony Taylor stands to make a speech to welcome Starks to town and honor him for taking charge and working to improve the place. Poor Tony flubs the speech, and his audience ridicules him for his efforts. They call him out for failing to follow a sort of formula. He has in effect failed to read his lines correctly. Of course, one must consider where the formula originated. I imagine most formal speeches black folk of the day heard would have been sermons, and the criticism of Taylor’s speech because he fails to include appropriate Biblical references would seem to support my notion. When Africans were brought to America, they had no Bible and no sermon; any religious rites and speech patterns they learned would have been learned from white people or from elders who had learned them from white people. So to insist that Taylor follow the standard formula is to insist that he in a way parrot the speech of white men.

Shortly after Taylor’s abortive speech, the townspeople call for Janie to say a few words. Joe Starks steps up instead and says she has no cause to make speeches; her allotted role is that of wife, and she belongs in the home.

Later, we witness a funeral for the mule that Starks bought from Matt Bonner. Joe forbids Janie to attend, of course, such lowness hardly befitting her role as the mayor’s wife. But he himself gives a stylized, mocking eulogy for the mule. This too must surely be informed by the churching that Joe received courtesy of the white men whose forebears may have owned his forebears. The women in attendance feign religious ecstasy and pretend to faint. It’s a jolly affair, perhaps something of a minstrel show. Hurston follows up with a funeral scene in which vultures play the parts of mourners and parson.

Shortly after the funeral passages, Hurston gives us what she calls “acting-out courtship,” a sort of flirtation among young men and women of the town. The prettiest belle of them all turns out to be Miss Daisy Blunt, whose hair is “negro hair, but it’s got a kind of white flavor.” Daisy pretends to miss the ruckus being made about her presence, and the boys act out a rivalry. Everyone says what feel like lines (some good ones), and there’s laughter from the audience on the porch. There’s something very artificial about all of this, and everyone’s complicit. It’s essentially a play, and though similar courtship rituals of one-upmanship must exist in all cultures (all species of animal, for that matter), some of the particulars of this one — Daisy’s sashay and clothing and hair, for example — are distinctly more European than African.

What I see in these chapters are several instances of the characters using templates of ritual and behavior that they’ve learned from the white people either directly or through ancestors who learned by observing the white people who bought and sold them like dry goods. Having had the roots of their own culture whipped and bled and churched out of them, slaves and their children had little choice over time but to adopt some of the behaviors of their oppressors. The people of this little black town, just a generation or two out of slavery, are essentially figuring out how to live as people rather than as chattel.

Even Joe Starks, for all his apparent knowledge of how to get on in the world, has trouble escaping the templates white owners have ingrained in black people. “Who tells y’all what to do?” he asks upon learning that the town has no mayor yet. And he’s something of a slave driver himself. While digging a ditch, the men of the town “murmured hotly about slavery being over, but every man filled his assignment.” Joe, of course, has figured out how to be the oppressor rather than the oppressed. Still, the template is a familiar one. He’s playing the role of Massa. He paints his house in the manner of white men and even spits his tobacco juice in the manner of a white man he used to work for.

Joe Starks illustrates another important shift, from voiceless underling to voiced master. Hurston writes of voice in a number of ways. She first draws for us a picture of Janie under the pear tree drinking in the “inaudible voice” of nature around her. Janie craves self-revelation and fulfillment. Almost immediately, her grandmother puts a bullet in that craving by linking her with Logan, to whom Janie is essentially a voiceless farm hand and maid. Janie then moves on to be with Joe, who treats her essentially the same as Logan had, although perhaps with more outward dignity. Joe speaks of wanting to be a big voice, and he fulfills that wish. As Janie runs off with him, we get a sense that she may desire a voice of her own: “From now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything. A bee for her bloom. Her old thoughts were going to come in handy now, but new words would have to be made and said to fit them.”

How contrary her experience proves to be when set up next to her expectation and the promise that Joe’s brief courtship seems to offer. She’s hardly better off than she was with Logan, having merely traded cutting seed potatoes for minding the general store. Janie does finally find her voice, though, on Joe’s death bed. Joe’s life might have been a lot happier — and his end much later — if he had for once listened to somebody else, she tells him. “Ah ain’t gointuh hush,” she tells him. And: “Too busy listening tuh yo’ own big voice.” And finally, after he dies: “She thought back and forth about what had happened in the making of a voice out of a man. Then she thought about herself.”

It seems to me that Joe’s quest for a big voice is driven by a desire to command others (which in a way, it occurs to me, sort of makes the master a slave to the will and whim of those he seeks to command), while Janie seeks a more sympathetic type of voice, one in which she can understand and express the self she first began to discover as a girl. Hers is a voice of self-validation and empowerment, where his had been one of enslavement.

The notions of behavior templates and of the quest for voice converge, I think, somewhere outside the story of Janie Starks. Hurston wrote during the Harlem Renaissance, when many black authors were finding a voice. Yet many of them did so by using European diction, essentially copying the templates that white writers had created for them. Hurston, an anthropologist specializing in black folklore, thought that the language and stories of people like those she writes about in Their Eyes Were Watching God was plenty interesting without being dolled up in proper, fancy prose. Linguist John McWhorter puts it better than I can in an essay entitled “Thus Spake Zora“:

But [Richard] Wright and [Alain] Locke were thinkers of their era, viewing Eyes’s opening, which depicts men on a porch trading colorful tall tales, as hee-yucking ‘local color.’ Americans had not yet learned that the indigenous was compatible with sophistication. Wright and Locke’s dismissiveness resulted from a misunderstanding of how distinct Hurston’s project was from theirs. They wanted to show what black people could be: rebels against injustice or equals to white achievement. Hurston thought what black people already were was splendid enough.

McWhorter also provides a telling Hurston quotation: “Spend an eternity standing awe-struck. Roll your eyes in ecstasy and ape his every move, but until we have placed something on his street corner that is our own, we are right back where we were when they filed our iron collar off.”

As Taylor was ridiculed for getting his lines wrong when welcoming Starks to the community, we can gather that Hurston judged her contemporaries to be misfiring when copying the literary templates of the white authors they had read. If some of her black contemporaries thought her guilty of creating jiving characters and stooping to the use of local color (I can’t help but think about how people here in East Tennessee embrace the hillbilly stereotype), she may in turn have thought them guilty of a sort of Uncle Tomming. Better, I can imagine her thinking, to express yourself using that persistent, true voice from within yourself than to insist upon a voice you learned by watching your oppressors.

  1. October 11, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    I need to go back and reread this book after enjoying your comments. Although the church and its rituals came to the blacks from the white masters, they made it into something of their own, with their reverence for Moses (“Let my people go”) and their music. Also I saw Janie’s development as that of a women seeking her own voice in a world which didn’t give women a separate voice — and this is not a racial issue.

  2. October 11, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    Thanks for speaking up! You’re right, of course, that blacks made their own flavor of religion, often incorporating bits of the old religion too, I believe I’ve read. And Moses with his enslaved people surely must have resonated with the slaves. The feminist angle is hard to ignore as well, though it’s not one that I’ve personally found as interesting as the race thread.

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