First Hurston Lecture
I started with the way Their Eyes Were Watching God was attacked when it first came out in 1937 by African American writers Richard Wright and Alain Locke. They had their own idea of what an African American novel out to be: more political, angrier, more confrontational, focused on the race problem. We'll look at such a text next week, when we get to Wright's Native Son. Hurston's novel doesn't meet that set of preconceptions: when Mrs. Turner, for example, mentions the "race problem" (p. 141), Janie simply says that she hasn't thought much about it. But I spent much of the class trying to show how, because they were looking for a particular kind of racial politics, the novel's critics missed the subtle way Hurston explores the influence of oppression, discrimination and exclusion -- the patterns of African American experience in white majority American culture -- on Janie's story. The novel is not (to use the phrase Ralph Ellison, another African American writer, used to condemn Hurston) "politically unconscious."
When the narrative brings its characters into contact with white society, it doesn't flinch from showing Jim Crow segregation in action, as when Tea Cake is conscripted in Palm Beach to bury the dead after the hurricane -- cf. pp. 169-71. But of course, on the whole the narrative excludes whites, focusing on Janie's life in the black community, especially in the "all-black" town of Eatonville and on the muck. Even when whites aren't in the scene, however, they're presence can be felt in the story. "Nanny's way" (p. 114), as Janie sums up the life of the lady on the porch of the big house that her grandmother defined as the "text" of Janie's life, Nanny's way resulted from her own experience as a slave (cf. p. 16). Similarly, Joe's ambitions, and the role of "Mrs. Mayor" that he insists Janie play, was shaped by his experience as a black under Jim Crow in Georgia (cf. p. 28). His big house in Eatonville isn't just "white" on the outside: the house itself, the desk he sits behind, the spittoons he buys all reflect his desire to live a "white" life in imitation of the culture that has treated him as inferior (cf. 47).
Janie herself was attracted to Joe in the first place because of the way he looked "like rich white folks" (p. 34), and in the first half of her story can be seen as accepting the idea of "happiness" or "worth" defined by white culture. She is never satisfied with it, however, and after Joe's death realizes that in a sense she'd been "set in a market-place to sell" (p. 90): i.e. culturally or mentally enslaved by the apparent power and prestige of white culture. Tea Cake, on the other hand, takes her to the "black" muck (p. 129): in the second half, Janie embraces the black folk culture that Nanny and Joe had tried to segregate her from. That move can be called not just political, but radical, though the idea the "black is beautiful" (as King said in the 1960s) wasn't one Wright and Locke could see in the 1930s or in the novel.
When Janie tells Pheoby that Tea Cake "taught me the maiden language again" (p. 175), she could be referring to this recovery of her own black identity. She's also talking about words, which led up to the aesthetic of Hurston's novel, how it artistically identifies with African American language (even in its third person narration) rather than, as Joe does, "talk with books in its jaws" (p. 49). For the most part, before Hurston, African American writers felt (as Chesnutt does with John's voice in "The Goopher'd Grapevine") they needed to display mastery of standard, literate linguistic forms to be taken seriously. By making her novel about black life out of the vernacular language of black life itself, Hurston is doing much the same thing for African American writing as Whitman's style did for American poetry, or Mark Twain's Huck Finn did for American fiction -- empowering writers to make art out of the language of the place and people they were writing about. As both an anthropologist and a novelist, that's one of Hurston's greatest contributions: to record the richness (poetic or emotional, not material or economic) of African American folk culture.