Third Hurston Lecture
But I won't.
Having talked on Monday about why I think Richard Wright was wrong when he dismissed Their Eyes Were Watching God as having "no thought," I talked today about how I think that in some ways Wright was right to question the way ZNH's novel re-presents "blackness," depicts African American characters & culture. ZNH's book is a novel about returning -- but it makes a lot of difference where you locate the "beginning" Janie returns to. (See my elaborateCHART.) As a story that begins under the pear tree & ends on the "muck," the story is the kind of American lit I value most: literature about finding or creating a "new world." The life that Janie & Tea Cake live on the muck has great re-visionary power: its less materialistic, more democratic, "blacker" (rather than Joe or Mrs. Turner's over-valuation of "whiteness"), more natural, etc. But that's only one paradigm for the story.
The other paradigm begins and ends in the "white house" that Janie returns to on p. 1. Looked at this way, the "muck" is a place you have to go to, but you don't have to stay there. Janie's life with Tea Cake can be seen as "excursionary," a kind of vacation among exotic primitives, a sensual cure for the sterility of "white" life -- like the white middleclass pilgrims in the 1920s and 30s who went to Harlem's Cotton Club on Saturday nights (for the drums & dancing & sexuality) but then went back to their white houses. Seen this way, ZNH's use of the black characters on the muck is, in fact, not unlike Faulkner's use of the black spirituality of Dilsey on Easter -- "blackness" is defined as the antidote to the illness white civilization suffers from (except that in ZNH's unironic case, the cure is still available).
I said it makes a large difference whether you think ZNH is writing mainly for black readers or white ones. We looked at how, at beginning & end (porch-sitters in Eatonville and black "people" at back of courtroom where Janie is tried), Janie herself is dissociated from black culture, & her self defined against it. And we talked about the way reader shares her perspective on Tea Cake and the life on the muck -- it's "new and strange," "wild," foreign and exciting. What bothered Wright and Locke about it is that all the dice & razors & music & dancing & lovin' & laughing of the "folk" on the muck looks a lot like the "happy darkies" of the plantation myth. There is at least one passage when the novel acknowledges how hard, economically and humanly, migrant workers lives are (pp. 131-32) -- but the novel stays with Janie's perspective, and she always has her big house and bank account to retreat to, as she does at the end.
This was a tough thing to talk about, because I really like the novel & don't like feeling or having to raise political/racial reservations about it. But I think we finally have to examine our own pleasure in the story, and think about the way it might glamorize the realities of the kind of migrant life Janie is "saved" by on the muck. That depiction flatters the white status quo in more than one way, and may perpetuate a mythology of "black simplicity and happiness" that originally, in the minstrel show, arose to justify slavery, denying African Americans the kind of place, prestige and power that Joe Starks claims as his right to work for. The ultimate point, for me, is that you should read, and I have to teach, both Their Eyes Were Watching God (with its vibrant testimony to the richness of African American culture) and Native Son (with its unforgettable dramatization of the effects of poverty & segregation & hopelessness). That's where we'll go next week...