“‘The woman as she was made’: Narrative Representation of Black Females in Zora Neale Hurston’s Fiction”

Zora Neale Hurston is celebrated as one of the most important writers of both the Harlem Renaissance and the Modernist movement. Perhaps the most important female black writer of the early twentieth century, she perfected the depiction of the southern black middle-class, the proletarians on whose backs the elites of the Harlem Renaissance would gain success. Ever critical of her part in this, she described the duty of literature to “hold up the mirror to nature” (Jones 68). This meant, for Hurston, “to render a more accurate and sophisticated depiction of African-American life and culture” (ibid. 69). A master of using dialect in her fiction as well, her writing therefore problematizes normative notions of ‘sophistication,’ particularly due to its primary focus on the depiction uneducated black females. As Sharon L. Jones notes in Rereading the Harlem Renaissance: Race, Class, and Gender in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West, “Hurston has been misread as a writer who failed to address the social, political, and economic issues of her time…Hurston criticizes injustice in a subtler way through her handling of the domestic arena” (ibid. 88). This essay, adjacent to Jones’ work on protest in Hurston’s work, discusses the representation of the black female experience in Hurston’s short and long fiction with emphasis placed on the representation of the working black woman and her struggles both within a fixed social economy and a fluid social economy.

According to Jones, Hurston’s stories “Spunk” and “Sweat” “reveal Hurston’s deft incorporation of folklore, dialect, and power relations within heterosexual relationships” and contain characters that “anticipate protagonists in her novels” (Jones 81). In “Spunk,” the titular character is an intimidating man with larger-than-life personality that allows the protagonist Lena “who desires adventure and excitement as a relief from her humdrum existence” when they develop a relationship with one another. However, this comes at a cost: her husband’s life. If “the moral of the story is that consequences arise for one’s actions, at least for the male characters…[while] Lena lives on, possibly to perpetuate the cycle of men sacrificing their lives for her,” as Jones’ says it is, then the function of the black female character is as object in a “cycle of men” (ibid. 82-83). The story’s emphasis on the “abuse and misuse of power” results in the same consequence: Spunk and Lena’s husband dead, leaving her free to find more meaningful love (ibid. 82). The moral here may be something else still: men must be sacrificed for female autonomy. What remains true is the depiction of Lena as an ordinary woman within the domestic sphere. She must rely on a man for survival, which even the townspeople note after Spunk’s death. Yet, might this depiction jeopardize any true autonomy? While this may remain implicit, with “Spunk” Hurston is questioning whether a black woman can truly realize autonomy. This is to say that while Lena never explicitly desires autonomy from men or even necessarily separation from her husband, as proven by her guilt when he is killed by Spunk, Lena functions to shed light on the question of black female autonomy itself in that she is an article of speculation for the townspeople, quite literally a piece in a fated narrative. The need of the townspeople to consume her story or to speculate on its trajectory questions Lena’s own autonomy in choosing her destiny on her own.

Hurston’s 1926 story “Sweat” on the other hand takes up a more explicit representation of the working class black woman. Delia, the story’s protagonist, is a washwoman and principal breadwinner for her family. Jones, in quoting Angela Davis, notes that “African American women performed the majority of domestic work in their own homes as well as the homes of white bourgeois women” (Jones 83). Delia’s work and “sweat remains unappreciated by the ones she labors for–her husband and the whites in her community” (ibid. 83-84). She endures abuse at the hands of her employers and most at the hands of her husband. This depiction of Delia is a fixed one: triple oppression. The classism, racism, and sexism Delia endures is a part of the expansion of the black female representation that Hurston desires, the so-called “more accurate and sophisticated” portrayal (ibid. 69).

Hurston’s most celebrated work, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, depicts a more fluid social economy through which a black female may operate. The protagonist Janie goes through three marriages, the first because her Nanny wants to ensure a better economic stance than she had as a former slave, the second because of the Spunk-like swagger and illusory freedom offered by Jody, and the third because of true love. The socio-economic fluidity of each of these is captured by Jones’ essay when she says “Hurston represents the contrast between the folk and bourgeois aesthetics through Janie’s account” (ibid. 90). Logan Killicks, Janie’s first husband, offers a better economic position than older generations in her family, namely that of Nanny, who is a former slave. Jody, in becoming the mayor, allows Janie to become the bourgeois of the town, untouchable by the ordinary townspeople. With her third marriage to Tea Cake, she returns to folk status. The novel is understood from the beginning, as a framed story, as the story of progression “from object to subject” for Janie (McGowan 86). This liberation can only be realized because of this social mobility. The project of black female autonomy that exists in questions for “Sweat” and “Spunk” has come into its realization. For her recapitulation of the story, Jane is telling the story of “the woman as she was made” by herself. The novel begins with Janie’s entrance into the town she left after Jody’s death wearing folk garments, different from those worn during her time as the bourgeois wife of the mayor. The townspeople use this to speak about her descent in social standing. However, at this moment when the townspeople are defaming the woman they once were required to look up to, she tells her best friend Phoeby Watson the story of her life, a story she tells herself and therefore owns. This performance of storytelling is read by Carla Kaplan as a revelation of her sexuality, the novel ending with an orgasm and peace (Kaplan 99). Nonetheless, the depiction of her social mobility allows this to take place.

In the domesticity of black female characters of Hurston’s writing, she questions the autonomous ability of these women. She questions whether lack of ownership over one’s own narrative can deflate one’s own autonomy or socio-political mobility. Further, in portraying holistically the sexuality, dialect, and maturation of different black female characters, Hurston accomplishes a more sophisticated representation of African American life and culture.

Works Cited

  • Jones, Sharon L. “‘How It Feels to Be Colored Me’: Social Protest in the Fiction of Zora Neale Hurston.” Rereading the Harlem Renaissance: Race, Class, and Gender in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002, pp. 67-116.
  • Kaplan, Carla. “‘That Oldest Human Longing’ The Erotics of Talk in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The Erotics of Talk: Women’s Writing and Feminist Paradigms, Oxford UP, 1996, pp. 99-122.
  • McGowan, Todd. “Liberation and Domination: Their Eyes Were Watching God and the evolution of capitalism.” The Feminine ‘No!’ : Psychoanalysis and the New Canon. State University of New York Press, 2001, pp. 85-100.

Perception and Performance Inherently Bonded To Action

For this post, I am reading Hassan Blasim’s story “The Reality and the Record” from his collection The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, which was translated by Jonathan Wright and published with Penguin Books. “The Reality and the Record” was first published by Comma Press in 2008 in Madinah: City Stories from the Middle East, edited by Joumana Haddad.

“We called him the Professor; my other colleagues hated him and called him mad.”

p 156, “The Reality and the Record”

“I don’t know exactly what details of my story matter to you for me to get the right of asylum”

p 161, “The Reality and the Record”

 

For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how laws are called “acts” — as in the Affordable Care Act or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Questions surrounding the way that laws are inherently actions, they operate not only philosophically or legally or in some abstract realm, but in the most fundamental, semantic way, they are actions. And while I recognize that, unlike Remy and Laura, I’m not versed in law or legal language, I think this is still something that we, as connoisseurs of words, can discuss.

Now obviously each story has action — in fact, what is a story without it? (A tract? a theory?) The very form of narrative requires it. In other ways, the very form of our lives is narrative, and thus requires action. So I don’t want this to be too immersed in the notion of how “action” happens in the story (and out of the story) — of course it does. I want to instead focus on the ways perception and performance are inherently bonded to action.

Take the first quote above, “We called him the Professor; my other colleagues hated him and called him mad” (156). Perception begets action. The Professor is known as the professor — but then he is also mad because they hate him. He is both called professor and called mad. This is to say, again, that action derives from perception. This, too, gets us to a “so what?” question. So perception begets action. What does that do for us that we know it? Or Of course it does. Duh.

But take the second quote above, “I don’t know exactly what details of my story matter to you for me to get the right of asylum” (161). This complicates the notion of asylum because it is the very act of story-telling that gains one access to a “right.” It is the details of the narrator’s story that will allow him/her to receive “the right of asylum.” I want to pause here, too, on the word “right.” To (very) loosely quote Rachel Maddow (political correspondent/academic/badass), “[the point of having rights is that you don’t have to qualify them with any sort of voting or action. That’s why they’re rights!]” And yet, within this story we see the complications of seeking asylum — itself only realized if one does something to prove they deserve it (which by the way, does not make it a right — it makes it a privilege, a reward and as we all either know and/or must accept, those who have money or access to the higher tiers, or the people who run the higher tiers) of the hierarchical structure get their privileges first and foremost).

Access to one’s “right” to seeking asylum is itself tied to action. It is the performance of one’s story — in other words “what matters…is the horror” (167).

As we have also briefly discussed the work of Hannah Arendt, I think it relevant to mention that Arendt’s point that human rights do not exist in a vat — that guaranteeing human rights is dependent on the existence of a state that guarantees and protects those rights — is imperative to our understanding of this text and of the refugee crisis itself. Gaining access to an asylum from authoritarian governments that commit countless (with the aid of other governments — like the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China) human rights violations itself involves the admission of one’s own state’s inability or disinterest in preserving one’s human rights and seeking the preservation of those rights by another state. Thus, we have again come up to the inextricable link between action and law, between what is perceived to be true and what becomes so, between what can be done and what is done.

Western Narcissistic Highground and Narratology

Here, I am talking about the Frantz Fanon chapter entitled “Concerning Violence” from his book The Wretched of the Earth and the Abu-Lughod piece is her essay from American Anthropologist 2002 entitled “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.”

For much of the beginning of the essay, Fanon talks about this notion of compartmentalizing of colonialism. Obviously, as everyone else has mentioned (and as anyone who has actually read the piece will mention), he is outlining the impact of the colonist on the colonized–in every facet and chiefly in violence. I confess I haven’t finished the entire reading (and hopefully judging by its length we will spend more time discussing this on Thursday having by that time also watched the film), but I see this heading in the direction of validating violent decolonization and violent revolution/rebellion (like that of Saint-Domingue and Cuba and much of Latin America and Africa) for the colonized.

Another interesting tangent he goes on in the beginning that I see coming back is the Marxist idea of the uneducated or non-intellectual colonized (who I think Marx called like limproletariat or something like that) who bring the ultra-despair that compartmentalized defeat in battle (p 50) or the deafening isolation of the compartmentalizing bureaucracy in setting up a nationalized-decolonized state (p 50), mostly because his whole thesis seems to be this idea that decolonization is not liberation, just substitution (something I find extremely relevant given Fidel Castro’s statement about Pres. Obama visiting Cuba and wishing for better future relations).

Nonetheless, as my title outlines, I am mostly concerned and interested in the argument Fanon is making that the colonist (and by proxy the West) takes a narcissistic highground of (A) geographical, (B) economic, (C) ethical, (D) linguistic, (E) biological, and (F) historical narratives. He (the colonist), in compartmentalizing the structure of everything surrounding the life of the colonized, has forced a dominance over it all not only in a physical, tactile way but in the way of narrative. Thus, it is not only a physical domination by the colonist that anticipates the last becoming first, but the colonist’s control over a narrative of a Manichean forever-battle that breeds nationalist fascism following and as a direct result of the process of decolonization.

 

Fanon says–

A—p 39-40 “The look that the native turns on the settler’s town is a look of lust, a look of envy; it expresses his dreams of possession–all in manner of possession: to sit at the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possible. The colonized man is an envious man. And this the settler knows very well…This world divided into compartments, this world cut in two is inhabited by two different species.”

Here we have this idea of a geographical dominance over the colonized. This is a very physical, tactile dominance, of course, but I am more interested in the interaction between the way this ties to an overlying idea of claim — the narrative of claim. He talks in the essay too about the dignity of owning one’s own land–in the philosophical tradition a very Western ideal (Anglo even, via Locke). So my question here is who has access to the narrative of geographical claim? Who has access to the language, to the rhetoric of claiming land–you see this is different from who has right to land, something much less able to be substantiated.

B—p 40 “In the colonies the economic substructure is also superstructure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.”

This one is also about access to narrative. Economics, especially in a Marxist and therefore anti-capitalist essay, may seem to be a centerpiece of a tactile argument about colonialism, but I am still yet more concerned with who has access to a narrative of economics. If the very domination of the colonized by the colonists is in imposing these compartmentalized sectors, including economic pressure and exploitation and more significantly for me the Western economic narrative, then the argument is made for the colonists before the question gets asked. What I simply mean is that the very economics we are to call into question (in the tactile evaluation of economics) are already in the very language of the West, part of the Western economic narrative, not the economic narrative of the native. Thus, a cause-as-consequence narrative dominance for the colonist.

C—p 41 “Native society is not simply described as a society lacking in values. It is not enough for the colonist to affirm that those values have disappeared from, or still better never existed in, the colonial world. The naive is declared insensible to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values.”

For the native, the ethical narrative to which he will never be allowed access is that of the colonists. This point I think Fanon goes into deeper quite nicely. It reminds me of the AbuLughod essay when she pointed out the fact that there are already narratives and practices and people and ideas on the ground prior to the colonist’s imposition. The self-gratifying nature of the colonist is also in denying the mere existence of an already in-place ethical system (which Fanon brings up in the African institution of a society that endorses self-shaming). Again, the denial of access to the ethical narrative for the native.

D—p 42 “At times this Manicheism goes to its logical conclusion and dehumanizes the native, or to speak plainly, it turns him into an animal…When the settler seeks to describe the native fully in exact terms he constantly refers to the bestiary.”

This is perhaps the most straightforward of the denial of narrative just because it is linguistic. The very language used to describe (even in poetry and fiction–think “fiery tropical eyes” and the eroticism/over-sexualization of the native female by the colonists) native is only decided by the colonists. The access or control in narrative itself is compartmentalized and dominated by the colonist.

E—p 43 “The native knows all this, and laughs to himself every time he spots an allusion to the animal world in the other’s words. For he knows that he is not an animal; and it is precisely at the moment he realizes his humanity that he begins to sharpen the weapons with which he will secure its victory.”

This quote interests me the most–there is something here about the fact that a biological narrative of dominance is from the point of view in the essay of the native: here we see the rhetorical function flipped from colonist-centered to native-centered. I don’t know what to make of this or whether it matters, but I’m certain it does. Perhaps something about the notion of imposing dominance through violence becomes a biologically-distinct reaction of violence.

F—p 51 “The settler makes history and is conscious of making it. And because he constantly refers to the history of his mother country, he clearly indicates that he himself is the extension of that mother country. Thus the history which he writes is not the history of the country which he plunders but the history of his own nation in regard to all that she skims off, all that she violates and starves.”

This one is the the one that really set it off for me, the one that made me go back through what I had read and find where we have the narrative dominance. As the saying goes, the victors write history. Colonists are the victors every time and, as Fanon’s argument perfects, de-colonists still do not write the history. There is a narrative dominance in history that the colonist will always have if even just because of chronology–but moreover, I think what is much more thesis-driven is access to a historical narrative. This quotation sums it up perfectly–as the domination of the capitalist-colonist continues its raid, the access to historical narrative is simultaneously compartmentalized and unified into one common narrative that the victor and only the victor dictates.

 

So, yea I know this post is long but I’m most concerned with this idea of access to narrative and the western narcissistic high-ground (narcissistic because of its paradoxical setup: cause as consequence and consequence as cause) and high-ground itself a paradox, leaving out any low-ground because the low-ground was destroyed and dominated. I didn’t really get into the narratology part of my argument, but basically I think it’s just really awesome when form and content mesh well and precisely what Fanon is arguing has destroyed the colonized–Manichean compartmentalizing is exactly how his essay is set up: it’s compartmentalized (as any essay is) that follows from the visceral, more tactile-favored compartmentalizing to the philosophical and cultural compartmentalizing that ultimately itself leads us to the climax of his own thesis at which point he decolonizes his own argument. I don’t have the wordcount to explain, so disregard it if that made no sense.