What Zora Did: Mother of Black Feminism
The 20th century brought great change to the world in general but to the United States in particular. World War I and II both shaped and re-shaped social, economic, and political boundaries for the whole world. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 was a catalyst for the Great Depression, which in turn touched the lives of almost every single American and affected their socio-economic standing. The Harlem Renaissance provided African Americans for the first time with a platform for their literary and artistic talents. While Zora Neale Hurston lived through both World War I and II, the Stock Market Crash, the Great Depression, and the Harlem Renaissance she did not live to see radical change in feminist thought, nor did she even know the term by that name. Hurston knew that her thoughts on gender and gender equality were radically different from the thoughts of mainstream Americans and African Americans at the time, but refused to conform in order to please the wider population. Subsequently, Hurston was shunned and her popularity and writing suffered because of this. THESIS: Hurston = ahead of her time and Mother of Black Feminism (Is the word “Feminism” appropriate considering the time period?) This is proven through comparison of Their Eyes Were Watching God to the Black Feminist thoughts of Patricia Collins, Kimberle Crenshaw, and bell hooks.
Hurston’s radical creative writing ideas were fostered in the hyper-tense climate of the Harlem Renaissance. Determined to create a new identity as free people with the same ideals of liberty, life, and equality as any other American, people with creative talent flocked to the Harlem Renaissance, most of them African Americans, and gave all they had. The returns were only sometimes fruitful, but:
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Most importantly, the Harlem Renaissance instilled in African Americans across the country a new spirit of self-determination and pride, a new social consciousness, and a new commitment to political activism, all of which would provide a foundation for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s (National Museum of African American History and Culture).
The Harlem Renaissance, which would have long-reaching historical effects, became a successful platform for many African American writers and political activists to launch their career. However, while Hurston fit into the Modernist Harlem Renaissance Literary Movement, she was not a Modernist writer (Antal, 52). She was entirely her own kind. Hurston refused to write on the subject of slavery to appease an African American community and asserted through her writing her refusal to cater black stereotypes to a white American audience at the same time. Hurston demonstrated through her writing the unique, individual view she had on issues such as slavery and racial stereotypes. Hurston made it clear that for her, slavery was in the past (Hurston, “How It Feels to be Colored Me”) and blatantly fought against racial stereotypes in her writing of not only Their Eyes Were Watching God, but in other articles as well. The Harlem Renaissance gave Hurston the opportunity to write for herself versus the broader African American Community.
Black Feminism as a school of thought was non-existent during the Harlem Renaissance. The lack of joyful reception on the hands of black male writers and the lack of female black writers who would take the risk of being ostracized for their writing was small. Due to this, Hurston is the origin of Black Feminism, being the first to write about Black Feminism in the public sphere with her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Even though The Harlem Renaissance was the ultimate expression of freedom and the Black Experience up until that point, and while radical change on the part of males was widely accepted, black females were largely stereotyped in society. Huston’s writing interrupted the food chain in a way that was not acceptable and sought for reform that was not pushed by white females or African American males. White females would not help black females in their fight for equality against racial stereotypes because white females supported the stereotype of the submissive, house servant: Mammy, versus the powerful, white female head of the household. African American males would not allow their females to become the head of the household because they believed it was not their place (Collins, 143). Simply, the support of a patriarchal system in both white and black society did not allow any room for the growth of Black Feminism.
Outside of fiction, Hurston was not an advocate for Black Feminism and supported segregation. She sided with the whites when it came to politics, and believed what she herself wanted to believe when it came to Feminism, only because she hated the stereotypes it was given (Pierpont, The New Yorker). There is a good reason for this, however. Wealthy, white patrons funded Hurston’s livelihood, both as an anthropologist and a writer. She was restricted on what she could spread to the public and what she could publish under her name without her patron’s permission. While Hurston called Charlotte Mason, her white patron, “God-mother,” Hurston’s writing indicates their relationship was strained, and Hurston cut off the agreement when she felt she was in a chokehold (Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 257). Hurston sensed the restrictions society placed on her keenly, and her work as an anthropologist led her away from society’s restrictions, and to places like Haiti, frequently. Their Eyes Were Watching God was a spontaneous affair in the late 1930s in which Hurston vented about the feminist restrictions people wanted to place on her and in her writing over a seven-week intense writing period in Haiti. Hurston wrote in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, that was she under internal pressure to get the words down into writing, and that “It was dammed up inside of me…I wish that I could write it again” (274). While certain events in the book correspond to an event in Hurston’s life, for example, her last love affair is one of the things she said she actually did vent about in her book, (Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 301) Janie, the protagonist of the book is clearly not Hurston. While Janie finds love and the expression of life in her eventual third husband, Hurston divorced her three husbands because she felt they restricted her freedom.
Hurston’s feminist fiction made her a target of criticism from whites and blacks alike. Her popularity had spiked after the publication of a few short stories including “Seraph on the Suwanee,” for example, but Their Eyes Were Watching God almost ended Hurston’s writing career with a big bang. While some writers celebrated Hurston for her choice words and forward thinking others such as Alain Locke and Richard Wright, wrote hateful reviews against it. Locke even called Hurston a socialist. Wright published a review of Their Eyes Were Watching God in the American-Marxist magazine “New Masses”:
Miss Hurston can write, but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley. . . Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the “white folks” laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears . . . The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy.
Wright believed that Hurston was playing into the hands of wealthy, white Americans who would fund her next anthropological project. By doing this, he accused Hurston of ignoring the real-life issues facing blacks of the day, such as the aftershocks of slavery, in an effort to create a perfect world where slavery never existed. Hurston was never able to publish another novel of such standard in part because her reputation suffered at the hands of Wright’s review. As a result, she died in obscurity in an unmarked grave. Only decades later, when Alice Walker re-discovered Hurston and her writing, was Hurston’s work looked out in a new lens, Black Feminism. This view of black feminist literature was becoming more and more popular from the 1990s onward, and people such as Patricia Hill Collins, Kimberle Crenshaw, and bell hooks embraced Hurston unconditionally for what she believed and communicated through Their Eyes Were Watching God concerning Black Feminism.
While Hurston’s memory was kept alive in African American feminist circles and private spheres, her legacy was not preserved beyond that, and many African American feminists did not act to continue her public legacy until Alice Walker arrived on the scene. Alice Walker recognized that Hurston’s book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, had futuristic feminist ideas embedded in almost every line of text and that Hurston had been preaching long before she had a congregation in terms of Black Feminism. For example, Their Eyes Were Watching God opens with the almost biblical reference that men’s dreams are ships at sea that may or may not ever reach their destination. Women, however, “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” (Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1-2). In a roundabout way, Hurston is saying that women’s dreams are more attainable than men’s because women’s dreams are their reality and much more realistic. A comment such as this in the 1930s would have set white and black males on edge because it is redefining the relationships between a male and a female. In reality, Hurston was only beginning to expand her own, unique Black Feminist Thought through re-defining stereotypes.
In Patricia Hill Collin’s work, Black Feminist Thought, Collins dedicates an entire chapter to defining African American stereotypes. Collins makes the argument that three main stereotypes, Mammie, the Matriarch, and Jezebel, have long been the sexist way of dealing with African American female oppression and are just a way of justification for white people about dealing with them. With stereotypes come stereotyped images in which the power transfers from a single word to an image, and that image of racism or sexism, such as the image of a “Mammie” is harder to obliterate from society. The different intersections of oppression meet at various different crossroads, such as the idea of thinking in binaries and their counterparts, however, “Whites and Blacks, males and females, thought and feeling are not complementary counterparts – they are fundamentally different entities related only through their definition as opposites” (Collins, 77). This is an example of objectification crossing with intersectionality. As objects, bell hooks points out, our actions are the actions of someone else. Objectifying women proves the point that stereotypes exist on not only a sexist status but also a racial one. Simply, because objectification imposes stereotypical relationships that are unstable because of the objectification itself, this leads back to the crossroads of intersectional oppression.
The expansion of this concept proves that because of stereotypes such as Mammy, the black female received no help from the white female. This reason could be due to the Mammy stereotype of the caregiver, and subordinate house servant. This is also just an example of intersectionality and objectification that is central to racial oppression. During the 1960s, when African Americans were as a whole experiencing political and economic mobility, the image of the Black Matriarch took hold. Many saw it as an outcome of racial oppression, others as the cause. “While The Mammy (figure) typifies the Black Mother in White homes, the matriarch (figure) symbolizes the mother figure in Black homes: Just as the Mammy represents the “good” Black mother, the matriarch symbolizes the “bad” black mother” (Collins, 83). It is interesting to note that not only white people as a whole, but also African American males opposed the supposedly strong stereotype of the Black Matriarch, and insisted that more control on the women’s part over the family contributed to not only social problems during the Black civil rights movement, but also children’s failure at school.
While African American women embraced the Matriarch stereotype as an ideal of strength, others shunned it because of its strength and control, just as others shunned Hurston’s writings because of the strong stereotypical black female character. Influence of gender and lack of feminist thought on the matriarchal stereotype beginning in the 1960s leads to as Patricia Collins puts it, “A powerful symbol for both Black and White females of what can go wrong if Patriarchal white power is challenged” (98). As a result, many whites and blacks, even some black females, shunned this image, not only when Hurston created a character so complex some of its facets could be explained by black matriarchs but also when black women started exemplifying these characteristics after World War II. While these stereotypes have little or no effect on the political climate, the capitalist economic climate at times suffered because, as people put it, of the image of a working, single mother: in other words, a Matriarch. Collins also puts much effort into defining the stereotype of Jezebel, who is passionate, but an aggressive woman, but Hurston’s character of Janie does not fit these criteria.
Patricia Collin’s work is proof that Hurston was forward-thinking concerning feminism and intersectionality because Hurston’s work contains much of the same thinking behind what Collins said. For example, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, the relationships assert that Janie is a strong, independent woman and a complex yet rounded character by showing how she continues to move on through her three failed marriages. As Hurston put it, “Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom were in its branches” (Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 8). By moving on, Hurston is defying stereotypical relationships. Beyond the Harlem Renaissance, in which Hurston centered her writings, post-world War I and II held little to no changes regarding the stereotypical objectification of black females. Janie’s physical features are sexualized in an effort to stick a stereotype to her: “The men noticed her firm buttocks like she had grapefruit in her pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling like a plume,” (Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 2).
This is also another example of how society’s objectification can influence the value of Janie the person. While Hurston encountered racial discrimination on a daily basis in her life (Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”) her characters deal more with stereotypes within their African American community and not beyond. Janie’s beauty stereotypes her because of the restrictions on beauty during the early 1900s. Janie’s Grandmother, Nanny, born a slave and now a freedwoman, wanted Janie to marry well and had the best intentions for her; she wanted for Janie what she couldn’t have, a nice big house, and a nice white husband. Janie didn’t want those controlling images, she wanted the freedom to embrace who she was and she wanted a husband who would also embrace who she was. Janie’s third marriage turns out to be the most fulfilling of all in regards to affection, and respect. Janie is able to express herself, unlike her previous marriages. In one quote, she speaks her mind strong and clear: “Look heah, Tea Cake, if you ever go off from me and have a good time lak dat and then come back heah tellin’ me how nice Ah it, Ah specks tuh kill yuh dead. Yuh hear me?” (Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 124). Tea Cake listens to Janie without question. Unlike other female African American writers of her time, Hurston’s writing differed as Janie accepted her social status in society, and rejoiced in the positive side of life. Heroines like Janie do not emerge again in female black literature until the 1990s, more than 70 years later, when society is beginning to accept for the first time the independent new black woman.
Being black and female means coming under the jurisdiction of intersectionality, and standing in the setting of where many forms of discrimination overlap. In a Ted Talk labeled, “The Urgency of Intersectionality,” Kimberle Crenshaw reiterates the many times Black females have been discriminated against duly for their race and sex. Hurston fought this battle, way before she knew the official term for it, and Janie does too, but in her own way. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, White males, followed by white females, are at the top of the food chain. After this comes Black males, and then Black females are at the bottom. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston compares them to mules, carrying the weight of the world and the grievances of the world on their backs: “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 ud de world so fur as Ah can see” (Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God,14). This quote is still relevant in 2019, where African American women suffer a high rate of brutality at the hands of law enforcement. Even though Hurston had been writing for many years, little reform occurred because of her writing. Now, aided by the voices of Patricia Collins and Kimberle Crenshaw, more reform is taking place to embrace intersectional individuals.
Bell hook’s writing of Feminist Theory From Margin to Center identifies closely with Hurston’s message of the role of women in marriage. In her chapter, “Black Men, Comrades in Struggle,” hooks argue that while black men are not oppressed they support sexism and sexual oppression whether in the literal sense or by ignoring it. Because of society’s patriarchal ruling structure and its belief as a whole that those men are superior to women, men of any class feel that they can automatically possess women because they don’t have anything else to possess in society. Janie knew this feeling all too well. Her first husband, Logan Killicks, at first seemed a loving husband but then started to control all aspects of Janie’s life. Even though Janie did not want to marry Logan in the first place, she complies obediently to his commands until she is influenced by Joe Starks, who would become her second husband. Janie’s breaking point with Logan reaches its climax when Logan asserts possession over Janie as if she were an object, “You ain’t got no particular place.
It’s wherever Ah need yuh,” (Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 31). Janie does not want possession in a marriage, and when she cannot bare Logan any longer, runs away with her soon-to-be second husband, Joe Starks. But after a while, Joe turns out to be the same as Logan, and only treats Janie as an object he can order around. Her third husband, Teacake, is no better in that respect, and uses abuse to get his possession across: “Before the week was over, he had whipped Janie. Not because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside of him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession…He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss,” (Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 147). Janie does not leave Tea Cake, however, when this happens, but insists on staying with him to the end, when Tea Cake dies of rabies. When Tea Cake tries to kill Janie by biting her, crazed out of his mind, she hesitates to kill him but does the deed in self-defense of being abused to the point of death. Tea Cake’s abuse of Janie in the novel escalates until the very end. Like Hurston, bell hooks writes that black women are “Socialized to accept sexist ideology and many black women feel that black male abuse of women is a reflection of frustrated masculinity… (and that) abuse is understandable, even justified” (bell hooks, “Comrades in Struggle,” 72). Janie is a perfect example of this justification because she accepts it as part of being a black woman. In this way, Hurston applies racial stereotypes to Janie in order to increase awareness of them in a 1930s society.
When Alice Walker re-discovered Hurston in the early 1990s, Feminism was running rampant. After it went silent in the 60s, women like Walker and Collins were pushing for the Black Feminist Movement. Walker saw gold in Hurston’s writing, while others saw coal. People, especially African American males and whites, were not ready to accept Hurston’s writing during the Harlem Renaissance and post-war years. Years of African American servitude and submission had been engrained into the minds of many people. But after the Civil Rights Movement, writers such as Walker, Collins, and hooks were writing with the same style and feminist ideas Hurston had years before. Hurston unlike any of her counterparts embraced her thinking of Feminism and Intersectionality at the same time. Hurston took the risk and ran with it, and in doing so, she ostracized herself from her literary colleagues and the literary world during her lifetime. Her work speaks of the power of Feminism and Intersectionality and reading works by Feminists and Intersectionalists in the 20-21st century proves this point. Hurston is the mother of Black Feminism, and our world it better because of it.