The preservation of the past is one of the most important aspects of remembering and honoring cultural identity. This may include uncovering artifacts, discovering cultural norms, or retelling folk stories. Remembering and honoring the past is one of the important responsibilities of an anthropologist, and more specifically, the responsibility of an ethnographer. Zora Neale Hurston spent her life’s work seeking to preserve and honor the past, specifically through the collection and retelling of folk tales. Even though at times she faced a conflict between her academic and scientific endeavors and her desire to be a storyteller, she was successful in preserving the language of Black Americans and their ancestors through her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston preserves and honors the cultural conflict for black women through her use of Black English vernacular and the symbolism of the porch in her novel.
Through the dialogue of her characters, Hurston tells the cultural history of the female descendants of slaves in the United States. When Janie discovers her sexuality, her grandmother is concerned that she will be just like her mother, a wanderer looking for someone to love. For Nanny, she wants Janie to have a better life and so she reveals to her the place of black women, according to her own understanding. She tells Janie, “‘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 uh de world so fur as Ah can see’” (14). Through this story, Nanny reveals that black women are the backbone of black households because they really do not have a choice, since white men gave the work to black men to do, but black men passed on the burden to black women. Nanny wants to break this cultural norm for Janie by marrying her off to Logan Killicks. Instead of remaining as a beast of burden, Nanny wants Janie to live a life up on the porch, watching the world go by. Nanny furthers this cultural history of black women when she tells Janie, “‘You know, honey, us colored folks is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways’” (16), highlighting the fact that descendants of slaves do not really have a history of their own, separate from whites, which makes it difficult for black women, especially, to find a place for themselves.
Along with highlighting the cultural history of black women in the United States, Hurston uses the porch throughout the novel to highlight the difference between black men and women. For Janie, she did not have any place of her own when she was married to Joe Starks. This is emphasized when she is not able to participate in the porch conversations in front of her husband’s store. The porch is preserved for the men of the community, including her husband. For the men of the town, the porch is a place to complain about the mayor and to express their concerns about the way that Joe treats Janie. One of the men says, “‘Ah often wonder how dat lil wife uh hisn makes out wid him, ‘cause he’s uh man dat changes everything, but nothin’ don’t change him’” (49). This conversation occurs separate from the women in the town, including Janie, but demonstrates the fact that the men could talk openly about the women, but that women were not part of the discussion. When Janie finally does participate in the men’s conversation, she winds up embarrassing her husband in front of the men . When speaking about Mrs. Tony, who the men believe embarasses her husband by seeking food from Joe’s store, the men talk about how Tony could correct his wife through beating her. For once, Janie breaks into the men’s conversation by publicly stating, “‘Sometimes God gits familiar wid us womenfolks too and talks His inside business. He told me how surprised He was ‘bout y’all turning out so smart after Him makin’ yuh different; and how surprised y’all is goin’ tuh be if you ever find out you don’t know half as much ‘bout us as you think you do’” (75). This highlights the conflict that Janie, and other black women, faced because she wanted to be up on the porch when she was married to Logan Killicks, not weighed down with labor, but that she wanted to be part of the porch community while she was married to Joe Starks.
Zora Neale Hurston uses the language of women and men through her novel to highlight the cultural struggles that black women faced in the aftermath of Emancipation and Reconstruction. Nanny’s wisdom, although limiting for Janie, highlights the desire that some women had to be treated not as beasts of burdens but as beautiful things to be cherished and admired from up on the porch. The conversations on the porch demonstrated for Janie a separation between men and women that was not remedied until after Joe Starks was gone. It is not until Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake that she is able to be a part of the narrative of the lives of Black Americans that Hurston is seeking to preserve in her novel. As her patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason advised her, “‘In all that you do, Zora, remember that it is vital to your people that you should not rob your books, which must stand as a lasting monument’” (Frydman 110). Through the use of Black English vernacular and the separation of men and women on the porch in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston does not just preserve the cultural integrity of black Americans, but, more importantly, she shows the struggle for black women seeking to be up on the porch, sharing life with community and loved ones.
Frydman, Jason. “Zora Neale Hurston, Biographical Criticism, and African Diasporic Vernacular Culture.” MELUS, Vol. 34, No. 4, Translation and Alternative Forms of Literacy (Winter 2009), pp. 99-118. Electronically accessed at www.jstor.org/stable/20618102, Mar. 20 2018.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Harper Perennial, 2013.
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