Race, Gender and the Vernacular in the Works of African American and Mexican American Women Authors

Thesis (M.A.), 2009

109 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. African American Women Writers
II.1. The Harlem Renaissance - A Quest for African American Identity
II.1.1. The Predecessors - Literary Production and Women Writers of the 19th Century
II.1.3. Women Writers of the Renaissance
II.2.1. Zora Neale Hurston - Biographical Note
II.3.1. Contemporary and Posthumous Reception ofTheir Eyes Were Watching God
II.3.2. Janie Crawford: Emerging Heroine ofTheir Eyes Were Watching God.
II.3.3. Dynamics of the Metaphor in Their Eyes Were Watching God
II.3.3.1. Storytelling, Communal Discourse and Verbal Empowerment in Their Eyes Were Watching God
II.3.4. Race and Gender in Their Eyes Were Watching God
II.3.5. An Alternative Reading: Voodoo in Their Eyes Were Watching God

III. Mexican American Women Writers
III.1. Mexican Americans in US Society: the Beginnings of Chicano/a Literature.
III.2. Chicana Feminism and Feminist Discourse
III.3.1. Biographical Note and Literary Work
III.4. The House on Mango Street
III.4.1. Narrative Structure and Perspective
III.4.2. Style and Language in The House on Mango Street
III.4.3. The House as Leitmotif.
III.4.4. Gender Constructions: Opera and Fairytales as Subtexts
III.5. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories
III.5.1 Narrative Structure
III.5.2. Finding Voice: Code-switching and the Language Issue
III.5.3. The Mericans - Marginality and Borderland Themes
III.5.4. Subversion through Subtext: Womanhood and (Soap) Opera

IV. Conclusion

V. Bibliography

I. Introduction

The presidential campaign of 2008 marked a symbolic turning point in the history of the United States of America. With the choice to nominate a Caucasian woman along with an African American man as presidential candidates, the Democratic Party broke with a long-standing political convention, a feat hardly imaginable only fifteen years ago. The fact that both candidates could not be placed in the traditional category of possible American presidents, namely white and male, initially astonished many Americans. It was considered doubtful whether voters could be convinced to elect a candidate that would constitute a novelty in either way - the first black, or the first female (white) President of the United States.

This nomination can thus be called a milestone considering equal possibilities for racial minorities and women. It seems to indicate that a gradually changing view on race and gender has found its way into politics and public affairs. While the choice of candidates already caused a surprise in the media worldwide, the fact that Barack Obama was actually elected President can be regarded a true watershed in America's development. In view of the country's history of slavery and institutionalized racism, the election of the first African American president of the US marks the beginning of a new political era. Obama's inauguration speech mirrors this significant and unique progress of the nation:

men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and [...] a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath. (“Transcript of Barack Obama's Inaugural Address” (The New York Times Online. Jan 20th 2009).

Indeed, the political recognition of African Americans can be seen as the result of a very long political and social struggle. Without the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, such an event would have been inconceivable. The Civil Rights Movement, however, does not only represent the political struggle of African Americans, but also the strong cultural movement of the African American community. Young authors were looking for new ways of expressing their changing consciousness as African Americans. The movement of the 1960s mirrored the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s which saw the beginnings of a critical discourse on the African American identity. The writers of the 1920s, just like the 1960s artists, saw themselves as a new generation, intent on finding new ways of literary expression. Thus they laid the groundwork for many ideas that were revived by the generation of the 1960s.

Among the authors of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Neale Hurston's voice was one of the most innovative and controversial ones, even though the artistic merit of her works did not receive its due recognition among her contemporaries. Today, her works have become classics of American literature and have thoroughly influenced the work of later African American writers, like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.

One of the most significant aspects of Zora Neale Hurston's work is the fact that she did not solely focus on the issue of racial discrimination and the racial conflict, but moreover, she explicitly explored the gendered identity of African American women. She was also one of the first African American authors who “believed the power of Black English Vernacular fully capable of functioning as a literary language” (Boesenberg, p.23). Indeed, Zora Neale Hurston was a pioneer in establishing an African American female voice.

The establishment of a female voice has also been an essential concern of women writers of other ethnic minorities. The Chicano Movement of the 1960s was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement. Mexican Americans protested against their exclusion from wealth, education and their lacking political representation. The political movement was paralleled by the formation of a new distinctly Chicano literature. Mexican American women writers, however, felt excluded from the specifically male­dominated literary movement; like African American women writers, Mexican American women authors were dealing with the double barrier of sexism and racism. Thus Chicana writers soon started to focus on finding their own literary voice. Their works show the Mexican American female perspective. In order to express female subjectivity, most Chicana writers now and then reject traditional forms of narrative, thus echoing the concept of Ecriture Feminine, as formulated by Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray.

One of the most prolific Mexican American women writers is Sandra Cisneros. Having long struggled for an authentic Mexican American voice, Cisneros has developed a distinctive Chicana style in her prose and poetry. Her Mexican American heritage is mirrored in her use of code-switching, as well as in a metalinguistic discourse which can be frequently found in her work. Central to her fiction is the marginalization of Mexican Americans, especially Mexican American women. Cisneros displays the gendered power structures within Mexican American and white American society, challenging traditional gender roles and transcending gender boundaries.

In this paper, it shall be examined how African American and Mexican American women writers have both developed highly innovative narrative strategies in order to establish their literary voice in which to express their experiences of being women belonging to an ethnic minority. Rather than attempting a direct comparison between the works of African and Mexican American women writers, I shall focus on the methods writers of both ethnicities have used in order to establish two separate literary traditions of female expression. My observations shall be based on texts by Zora Neale Hurston and Sandra Cisneros. Despite the fact that the works were written decades apart and thus also mirror major differences in the social and cultural development of the US, I will show that it is possible to draw significant parallels between them. Besides, the different contemporary reception of their work can be considered an indication of how much the American literary canon has changed in the last decades of the 20th century.

Gender and race are important aspects in the works of both African American and Mexican American writers. Women writers of these two ethnicities have used different narrative devices to depict the themes of marginalization and discrimination, as well as issues of racial, sexual and artistic empowerment of women. The transgression of traditional gender roles and the questioning of gender boundaries and categories are a vital part of their works.

The quest for a collective identity is another frequent theme in the works of African American and Mexican American women writers. However, as is to be shown in this paper, the treatment of this topic can be considered one of the most crucial difference markers between African American and Mexican American women authors.

In the following, a detailed analysis of Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and Sandra Cisneros' prose collections The House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories will serve to illustrate this argumentation.

II. African American Women Writers

II.1. The Harlem Renaissance - A Quest for African American Identity

II.1.1. The Predecessors - Literary Production and Women Writers of the 19th Century

For gaining deeper insights into the Harlem Renaissance and for a better understanding of Zora Neale Hurston's work, it is essential to cast some light on African American society before World War I and the Great Migration. The abolition of slavery in 1865 did not result in a status of equality for African-Americans; the struggle for full acceptance as American citizens had only just begun. As it had been a crime for slaves to read and write, literacy was one of the most important goals to be achieved for the ex­slaves. Education was also one of the prime issues for Booker T. Washington, the most important black leader of the late 19th century, “who believed that black social and economic improvement would come gradually and naturally through accommodation and compromise rather than self-assertion, and only if the blacks were educated” (Birch, p.144). The progress of literacy and general education among African Americans made literature one the main political instruments to establish a new image of the African American:

What was at stake for the earliest black authors was nothing less than the implicit testimony to their humanity, a common humanity they sought to demonstrate through the very writing of an ex-slave's life.[...] To redress their image as a negation of all that was white and Western, black authors published as if their collective fate depended on how their texts would be received (Gates, Zora Neale Hurston and the Speakerly Text, p. 60).

In the light of missing literary models of their own, African American writers frequently copied Eurocentric models of American literature.

Most of the literature was written in the Romanticist tradition, saturated with Victorian ideals, and consisted of appeals to white America to consider them equal or at least better than the common blacks. Their black experience was considered a plague from which they wished to escape (Hudlin, p.7).

Even though African American authors of those times were strongly influenced by European Victorian tradition, some of them achieved a convincing image of African American society in their works. Above all, the late 19th century was a most productive time for black women writers. They received little attention, both in their own time and in the following decades, until the generation of black women writers and scholars of the 1970s rediscovered them posthumously.

The following quote from Katherine Tillman's essay Afro-American Women And Their Work from 1895 shows that the African-American literary community was not united, as women writers were subjected to sexism by black critics and writers. “Quite recently an Afro-American editor assumed a look of great importance, and dipping his goose quill into the printer's ink, threw out the following challenge: 'What have the women of the race done for its elevation anyway?” (Tillman, p. 277). Writers like Frances Harper, Harriet Wilson, Harriet Jacobs, Pauline Hopkins and Julia Cooper were neglected simply because of their sex. Their works offer insights into power struggles of the South from the female perspective, which rarely features in the texts of male authors of the time.“Raped, bred, beaten, and abused in ways often as particular to their gender as determined by their race, black women, as activists and writers, have of necessity been concerned with the political status of women” (DuCille, p. 34).

When it came to political activism, however, many women intellectuals and writers made the advancement of the race the more pressing subject than the woman question.

For them [it] has historically been a double-sided dilemma, which [...] even in moments of crisis that seemed to make sex, as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is widely reported to have remarked, a “lesser question”, momentarily tabled “if only the men of the race could obtain what they wanted” (DuCille, p. 34).

Frances Harper and Pauline Hopkins were among the first writers to create a new black heroine, their works displaying a new female subjectivity. In loia Leroy by Harper and Contending Forces by Hopkins, the racist myth of the licentious black woman is replaced with a 'pure' heroine who fights for control over her body and her fate. Both protagonists are women of mixed origin who reject the possibility ofjoining the world of white people and dedicate their life and also their marriage to the uplifting of their race. Both authors deal very bluntly with the topic of violence against black women in their works; their characters, however, actively manage to fight the barriers of racism and sexism. Harper and Hopkins sharply criticize the society of the rural American South of their time, a society in which black women were an easy sexual prey, despite the abolition of slavery. White men had little to fear, even if their abuse of black women was discovered and reported. Black women, even more than black men, were close to complete powerlessness - the law and the social status of African Americans offered no protection for black women.

Even though the number of African American authors before World War I was steadily increasing, it was not until the Harlem Renaissance that African American art and literature saw an emancipation from Eurocentric literary models. The Harlem Renaissance was the first movement that concentrated on establishing a new African American literary identity.

II.1.2. The New Negro: Aesthetics and Propaganda

During the Great Migration, numerous African Americans moved to the urban centers of the northern states. It was Harlem, NY that became the birthplace of the “New Negro”: “Harlem represented a spirit of advancement, a source motivated by the political impulse to improve the social position of all blacks, founded on a dream of possibilities rather than a cohesive creed” (Birch, p. 116). This new “dream of possibilities” drew artists, musicians and writers from other parts of the US to Harlem, and one of their focal aims was the search for a new black identity. Among the writers that came to Harlem in the 1920s were Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Fauset, Nella Larson, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Arna Bontemps and many others. These artists were facing a situation that was different to that of other emigrant groups in New York. In contrast to the African Americans, other ethnic minorities had brought with them their own cultural identity. The African Americans had yet to “find an identity previously denied to them. Harlem offered them a place to do this” (Birch, p.115).

Harlem as a cultural center was not only in the focus of African Americans, but also of the white middle class and white American writers, most notably Carl Van Hechten and Waldo Frank. Both declared their fascination for Harlem and wrote about the scene and the characters of the time. The overall fascination for the African American was triggered by the growing interest in “primitivism” of the Western world, which lead to an increasing popularity of African-American and Native American culture. It was en vogue for many white Americans of means to become patrons of some African-American authors who lived in Harlem. However, this new “primitivism fad” rather expressed a desire for the exotic, more than genuine interest in African American culture.

A popular misinterpretation of Freudian theory contributed to the promotion of primitivism in Europe and North America. In his Civilization and Discontents, Freud had contended that civilization was based on the renunciation of “powerful instinctual urgencies” [...] No wonder then that popularized Freudianism became the “the rationalization of sex primitivism, and gave the cult of the primitive [...] an extraordinary foothold on this continent (Singh, p.24).

Presenting the African-American as a carefree child of nature, untainted by civilization, with a happy-go-lucky outlook on the world, was seen as refreshing and endearing. “Blacks represented the uninhibited man that they idealized. He was the noble savage, the carefree child of nature” (Hudlin, p.9).

Numerous black authors, however, refused to conform to this stereotype and its limitations. Despite the simplifying tendencies of primitivism and its racist connotations, this new fashion was also beneficial to the new generation of artists and authors. Some white patrons supported them financially and also gave them access to publishers which before had been more difficult. However, the white patronage could also become problematic for African-American authors, as was the case with Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Both were supported by the same patron for a certain duration, as will be discussed in more detail in one of the following chapters of this paper. White patronage was often connected with certain expectations which the authors could often not combine with their own artistic perspective.

The reduction of the African American to the “primitive” was strongly opposed by the “New Negro” Movement. This central concept of a new African American identity, based on the writings by Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. DuBois treated art as inseparably connected with a political statement. Alain Locke depicts the central ideas about this new identity concept in the periodical The New Negro, which was published in 1925. His text can be seen as the first manifesto of the Harlem Renaissance; his aspirations for what he considered the “New Negro” constituted a turning point in African American aesthetics. Locke saw the “New Negro” as the first generation of African Americans who developed a genuine subjectivity and self-confidence.

When the racial leaders of twenty years ago spoke of developing race pride and stimulating race consciousness, and of the desirability of race solidarity, they could not in any accurate degree have anticipated the abrupt feeling that has surged up and now pervades the awakened centers (Locke, p.114). Locke saw the future of the “New Negro” in the urban centers of the US, promoted by the works of writers and artists from Harlem. Through art and literature, he was convinced, a new African American identity could be created, which would require a break with the southern rural tradition.

The Negro too, for his part, has idols of the tribe to smash. [...] The intelligent Negro of to-day is resolved not to make discrimination an extenuation for his shortcomings in performance [...], he is holding himself at par, neither inflated by sentimental allowances nor depreciated by current social discounts.[...] He must know himself and be known for precisely what he [emphasis added] is, and for that reason he welcomes the new scientific rather than the old sentimental interest (Locke, p.114).

This paragraph illustrates how much pressure was applied to writers and artists to express not simply their personal perception of a new African American identity, but rather to meet the expectations of the intellectual leaders. James Weldon Johnson likewise expressed his desire that the new authors would work actively to promote a positive image of African Americans.

But these young writers must not be mere dilettantes; they have serious work to do. They can bring to bear a tremendous force for breaking down and wearing away the stereotyped ideas about the Negro, and for creating a higher and more enlightened [emphasis added] opinion about the race (Johnson, Foreword “Challenge”. Bloom, op. cit. p.117).

Johnson's and Locke's primary aim was uniting politics and art in order to gain a new representation of the African American. In their opinion, the main function of literature was to transport political messages. They tended to neglect the work of authors who did not conform to this ideal of the “New Negro”, as a review of God Sends Sunday, a novel by Arna Bontemps, shows: “The characters are low, loose in morals, frivolous in principles, and in many instances even criminal ... Bontemps, undoubtedly, has portrayed some ambitions of Negro life - but in my opinion Negro literature has not benefited [emphasis added] hereby” (Birch, p.118). These guidelines of the “New Negro” ideology spelled considerable limitations which the authors, artists and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance had to contend with. The artists' chief challenge was finding a way of expressing an authentic African American voice, and most authors saw that they had to leave behind political intentions to a certain degree.

One way of creating an authentic black literary discourse was the inclusion of vernacular speech in their works. Until then, the majority of authors and critics, as well as African American readers, had considered the use of dialect a problematic issue. The black idiom represented their slavery past, something they wanted to overcome; it was a stigmatized speech. James Weldon Johnson for example saw black dialect as a limitation, due to its connotations to Vaudeville and other racist representations of African Americans in the works of white authors:

It may be surprising to many to see how little of the poetry being written by Negro poets today is being written in Negro dialect. The newer Negro poets show a tendency to discard dialect; [...] This tendency will, no doubt, be regretted by the majority of white readers; and indeed, it would be a distinct loss if the American Negro poets threw away this quaint and musical folk speech as a medium of expression. And yet, after all, these poets are working through a problem not realized by the reader, and, perhaps, by many of these poets themselves not realized consciously. They are trying to break away from, not Negro dialect itself, but the limitations on Negro dialects imposed by the fixing effects of long convention.(Johnson, Preface. “The Book of American Negro Poetry” (The New Negro, p.440).

Among the first authors of the Harlem Renaissance to use vernacular as a new form of expression were Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer. They “believed that the authenticity of their own voices depended upon their deliberate use of the hitherto 'non-literary' language [...] as well as the standard English then associated with the literary”(Birch, p.119). While Langston Hughes established the vernacular in poetry, Zora Neale Hurston developed a hybrid form of southern vernacular and Standard English, which she used in her prose. Her first short stories from the early 1920s already show her very distinctive use of vernacular as a new art form, which can be considered one of the most prominent features of her work. Critics today mostly agree that it is this specific writing technique by Zora Neale Hurston that makes her one of the most innovative writers of African American literature.

II.1.3. Women Writers of the Renaissance

Even though the Harlem Renaissance was a fruitful period for African American women writers, most of the writers commonly associated with the movement were male, such as Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. DuBois. Some of these authors seemed to regarded the African American question solely from a male perspective. Especially Alain Locke, whose voice was of primary importance, apparently had little regard for women's participation in the Harlem Renaissance.[1] The focus of these authors was set on the development of a new African American identity, considering race, but rather excluding the question of gender. When W.E.B DuBois wrote about the image of the veil that divides the black American from other racial groups, he used distinctively male terms.

The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second sight in this American world - a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others [...] One ever feels his twoness - an American, a Negro; two souls [...] The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife - this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self (DuBois, p. 214-215).

As Barbara Johnson remarks, “what is striking about [this] quotation is that [it]... assumes without question that the black subject is male” (Johnson, p. 52). The general opinion prevailed that the work of women writers was no more than an interesting sideline of the Harlem Renaissance. Many women writers were accused of having a viewpoint that was considered too sentimental, apolitical and lacking in sufficient focus on the question of race.

Those [critics of the Renaissance who] accord [literary works by women] some value nevertheless agree that most women poets remained within the genteel school of'raceless' literature', having largely confined themselves to the realm of private experience” (Honey, p. 224).

This view of women authors shows that Hurston and others were facing a double barrier in the literary world of the Harlem Renaissance - racism and sexism. This attitude towards black women writers is strongly reflected in comments and reviews by male critics, both black and white.

Facing this challenge, Nella Larson, Jessie Fauset and Zora Neale Hurston were among the authors who most successfully achieved their own - and quite diverse - representations of female subjectivity in their work. The quest for the black woman's identity, already initiated by authors of the 19th century, is taken up and developed by all of them. Harper and Hopkins already depicted women characters who actively strove for self-determination and a certain amount of independence, but did not overtly question traditional gender roles (DuCille, p. 45). The new women characters portrayed by Hurston and Fauset, on the other side, openly discuss the traditional treatment of gender, as well as conventions of marriage. In contrast to the earlier depiction of African American heroines, where racial uplift was the primary aim in the pursuit of independence, as well as the motivation for marriage, (DuCille, pp. 45-47) these new female protagonists display a stronger proclivity for the quest of individual happiness. It is this particular shift to individuality that marks the greatest difference to Harper's and Hopkins' characters. A novel providing a good example for this new tendency is Jessie Fauset's novel There Is Confusion. It illuminates the author's concern for introducing “possibilities for women that lie outside the traditional home and hearth” (Ranveer, p. 61). Fauset challenges romanticizing images of marriage and offers insights into the urban black middle class.

With the creation of her heroine Janie Crawford, Zora Neale Hurston moves further along the path of the black woman's quest for self-fulfillment, hereby even surpassing Fauset and her contemporaries. Janie Crawford, the main protagonist of Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a woman not ashamed of her blackness and is shown to be seeking autonomy and self-fulfillment, both spiritually and sexually. A more detailed description of Janie Crawford's character will follow in the general analysis of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

This new focus on gender rather than race was one of the main issues critics held against Hurston and was often referred to as a weakness in her work. She was accused of describing the world of African-Americans as full of happy-go-lucky, carefree “darkies”, without any inclusion of the racial discrimination African Americans were subjected to on a daily basis. Critics failed to see that the focus of her work, especially of Their Eyes Were Watching God, had shifted to sexual politics, rather than racial politics. Furthermore, her interest in black folklore did not tally with the predominant intellectual concepts ofher time.

In many respects, Zora Neale Hurston can be seen as much a member of the Harlem Renaissance as an outsider. With her use of the vernacular as well as the representation of folklore of the south, she did not conform to the “New Negro” ideology of Locke and others. At the same time, her writing was essential to establishing of a new black literary discourse, which was, after all, one of the main goals of the Harlem Renaissance.

With her easy laughter and her Southern drawl, her belief in doing cullud dancing authentically, Zora seemed - among these genteel “New Negroes” of the Harlem Renaissance - black. No wonder her presence was always a shock. [...] Not everyone agreed such audacious black delight was permissible, or, indeed, quite the proper image for the race” (Walker, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, p. 89).

Her special position within the Harlem Renaissance is also strongly linked to her own biography, and for this reason, the following chapter will provide a short overview of her life.

II.2. Zora Neale Hurston: Author and Anthropologist

II.2.1. Zora Neale Hurston - Biographical Note

Zora Neale Hurston was very secretive about her personal life; even her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road does not mention a birth date. Research undertaken by Hurston scholars has unearthed that she was born in Alabama in 1891, not in Eatonville, Florida, as she always claimed.

The Bible's 'Family Record' page documents the family's genealogical background as well as Zora's birth date (January 15, 1891) and birthplace (the tiny hamlet of Notasulga, Alabama, a farming community situated in the shadow of the famous Tuskeegee Institute)” (Bordelon, p. 3).

This neglect of her Alabama roots suggests that Eatonville, the first incorporated black town, represented more to Zora Neale Hurston than just the place of her upbringing. It can be argued that she saw Eatonville as her spiritual home, as well as her creative source. The special status of this community and its significance for Hurston could also explain why it is the setting of most of her fiction. Aspects of Eatonville life and particular town characters reappear frequently in her work. The special role of Eatonville as the setting of Their Eyes Were Watching God will be part of the novel's analysis in the following chapter.

The description of Hurston's childhood is the most convincingly genuine part of Dust Tracks On A Road, a book which tells more about the restrictions Hurston suffered as a writer than about her life and work. Zora Neale Hurston came from a middle-class southern family. Her father was a Methodist preacher in the growing all-black town of

Eatonville. By all accounts, Hurston was popular and lead a growing congregation. Her mother was an educated woman who encouraged Zora to use her creative potential. They seemed to have shared a close relationship. “Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to 'jump at de sun.' [...] She conceded that I was impudent and given to talking back, but she didn't want to 'squinch my spirit'” (Hurston, Dust Tracks On A Road, p. 23). Her happy childhood in Eatonville came to an end when Zora's mother died. Although she claims in her autobiography that she was nine years old at her mother's death, she actually was thirteen. Soon after her mother's death, her father remarried. Hurston left home, unable to live with her stepmother, and moved to Memphis where her elder Brother Bob Hurston was living. Soon after, however, Zora left her brother's house to travel with a Gilbert & Sullivan troop. After her travels she went to High School in Baltimore, followed by studies at Howard University in Washington. Howard, “as everyone knows, [] is the capstone of Negro education in the world.[...] It is to the Negro what Harvard is to the whites” (Hurston, Dust Tracks On A Road, p.156).

Hurston describes her Howard time as happy and it is one of the few instances in her entire autobiography that she mentions her literary career. After joining the literary society of the college, she published two stories in the Opportunity Magazine, Drenched in Light and Spunk. Incidentally, the literary society was presided over by Alain Locke. After having published these two stories, Hurston claims that she was “beginning to feel the urge to write, I wanted to be in New York” (Hurston, Dust Tracks on A Road, p. 168).

Hurston combined her wish to move to New York with a scholarship at Barnard College where she studied anthropology under Franz Boas. Boas, one of the founders of cultural anthropology, “imbued Hurston with his ideas of cultural relativism, a theory that lifted anthropology from the racial constraints of nineteenth-century evolution theory and placed equal value on all cultures”(Bordelon, p.10). Boas' theories and support re-enforced Zora Neale Hurston's interest in African American folklore, which had been an integral part of her own childhood and largely figures in her literary work. Franz Boas recognized Hurston's potential as a researcher, not least because she was black and held a great advantage over white researchers in the process of collecting folklore. At the beginning, Hurston found the fieldwork under Franz Boas quite trying, as she describes in Dust Tracks on a Road:

I knew where the material was all right. But, I went about asking, in careful Bamadese, “Pardon me, but do you know any folk-tales or folk-songs?” The men and women who had whole treasuries of material just seeping through their pores looked at me and shook their heads. [...] I stood before Papa Franz and cried salty tears. He gave me a good going over, but later I found that he was not as disappointed as he let me think. He knew that I was green and feeling my oats, and that only bitter disappointment was going to purge me. It did (Hurston, Dust Tracks on A Road, p. 175).

Franz Boas proved to be right, as Hurston conducted successful fieldwork in the late 1920s and the 1930s, partly as a writer for the Federal Writer's Project.

In 1939, Hurston married Albert Price III, a fellow FWP worker twenty-five years her junior. The following decade of her life spelled a decline of her literary and anthropological work, combined with health problems and personal losses. She was in hospital with a serious colon infection which became chronic, was divorced from her young husband and was impeded in her plans to write a novel about the black middle class (Washington, A Woman Half in Shadow, p. 20). In the 1950s, she occasionally worked as ajournalist, as a part-time teacher, librarian and as a maid. In 1959, she suffered a stroke and died penniless in a county welfare home in 1960. Even though Zora Neale Hurston led a reclusive life in the 1950s, her funeral was attended by about a hundred guests (Washington, A Woman Half in Shadow, p. 20).

Hurston's experience of growing up without racial discrimination doubtlessly separated her from most black authors of her generation. This offers an explanation for the lack of focus on racial conflict in her work, which most critics and readers found difficult to understand. She was accused of ignoring the reality of racial discrimination. However, a close reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God and other works like Jonah's Gourd Vine shows that Hurston also dealt with these topics, even if she did not do so exclusively. She refused to regard the racial conflict between black and whites as the one defining experience of African Americans. Hurston saw “black lives as psychologically integral - not mutilated half-lives, stunted by the effects of racism and poverty. She could simply not depict blacks as defeated, humiliated, or victimized, because she did not experience black people or herself that way” (Washington, A Woman Half in Shadow, p. 17). Hurston's essay from 1928 How It Feels to Be Colored Me illustrates her view on this topic:

But I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are hurt about it (Hurston, How It Feels to Be Colored Me, p. 216).

II.2.2. Zora Neale Huston - Anthropological Work and Literary Career

Hurston had already published some short fiction and received a prize for her play Color Struck before she finished her studies of anthropology. She had published John Redding Goes to Sea in 1921, Drenched in Light and Spunk, as already mentioned, in the Opportunity Magazine in 1924 and 1925, followed by Magnolia Flower (1925), Muttsy (1926), Possum or Pig? (1926), The Eatonville Anthology (1926) and Sweat (1926).

After her graduation from Barnard in 1927, Hurston went to the south to gather material for her first folklore collection. She was financially supported by Mrs. Osborne, a rich white patron who not only sponsored Hurston, but also Langston Hughes. “Godmother”, as she insisted that her protégés call her, financed Hurston's research for five years until the Great Depression. Mrs. Osborne was a patron of the arts who had very precise ideas of how black literature should be, and she treated her protégés as her “exclusive property” (Washington, A Woman Half in Shadow, p.12). She exercised rigid control mechanisms over them, not only financially, but she also tried to gain influence on their work. This made Langston Hughes and others break with “Godmother”, but Zora Neale Hurston put up with the extremely controlling Mrs. Osgood. For her, it seemed to be the only possibility to finish her folklore collection Mules and Men. The 1930s proved to be her most productive decade as an author and anthropologist. Hurston published her first novel Jonah's Gourd Vine in 1934, her folklore collection Mules and Men in the following year, along with several pieces of short fiction. In 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God appeared, which is today considered to be her masterpiece.

Even though her work was valued by some critics and contemporary writers, the majority of reviews were devastating. Only a small number of copies were sold in her lifetime. This added to Zora Neale Hurston's grim financial situation, which was the reason for her to firstjoin the Federal Theater Project in Harlem, and later the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) in Florida, both projects being part of Roosevelt's New Deal.

Her FWP research brought her to orange plantations and turpentine works in Southern Florida, and Hurston conducted a lot of interviews with workers, collecting folklore, dances and songs. Even though she wrote an entire collection of essays for The Florida Negro, none of it was used in the final manuscript version, which was to be published nearly sixty years later, in 1993 (Bordelon, p. 32). It was Hurston's view on race which made Stetson Kennedy and Robert Cornwall, the editors, delete her writings from the final manuscript. “Hurston's ideology rankled Cornwall and Kennedy, who championed the race position of Richard Wright and others” (Bordelon, p. 35). The 1940s saw a decline of Zora Neale Hurston's creativity, as neither her autobiography nor her last novel can be regarded as works of the same literary quality as her previous novels and stories.

II.3. Their Eyes Were Watching God

II.3.1. Contemporary and Posthumous Reception of TheirEyes Were Watching God

As Alice Walker wrote in her essay On Refusing to Be Humbled, we would be “better off if we think of Zora Neale Hurston as an artist, period - rather than as the artist/politician most black writers have been required to be” (Walker, On Refusing to Be Humbled, p. 3). However, this seemed impossible in Hurston's time, as was examined earlier, and it was also one of the crucial points of criticism regarding Their Eyes Were Watching God. Sterling Brown and Richard Wright, two of the leading and most influential writers and critics of the 1930s and 1940s, wrote caustic reviews of Their Eyes Were Watching God. As these reviews can be considered as representative for the overall critical approach to the novel, they shall be examined in the following.

Brown granted the book at least some worth, claiming it to be “chock-full of earthly and touching poetry.” He also praised Hurston for her characters, who “though inclined to violence and not strictly conventional [...] are not naive primitives” (Brown, p. 20). On the other hand, he accused Hurston of ignoring the reality of poverty in the lives of most African Americans and her will to turn away from urban life and the Jim Crow system:

[Brown] questioned Hurston's characters' lack of racial bitterness and their seemingly carefree and easy manner. He believed Eatonville a poor representation of black life, pointing out its exceptional character: “Living in an all-colored town, these people escape the worst pressures of class and caste. There is little harshness; there is enough money and work to go around” (Bordelon, p. 31).

Richard Wright's review of Their Eyes Were Watching God in New Masses was even harsher, as he granted Hurston no artistic merit whatsoever. He even claimed that Hurston had written the novel for the sole amusement of a white readership.

He [Wright] asserted that 'the sensory sweep of the novel carries no theme, no message' and accused Hurston of 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 (Bordelon, p. 32).

In his own literary work, Richard Wright thematized the racial conflict in America to a much larger extent than Zora Neale Hurston. “Wright's black characters, in contrast to Hurston's, are victimized, hunted people who, in Hurston's view, created the impression that black lives were nothing more than the sum total of their oppression” (Washington, A Woman Half in Shadow, p. 17).

Another angle of criticism that Wright used was the book's “lacking of message” and “sensory sweep”; in other words, he saw Their Eyes Were Watching God as a woman's story - which in Wright's understanding made it nothing more than trivial - and despised the novel for it. His review is downright sexist, if not misogynous. In his opinion, Janie Crawford is “a frustrated widow of forty” (Wright, p.17) who runs off with a younger man. He also wittingly fails to understand the metaphor of the blossoming pear tree, ridiculing it by taking it literally: “The romantic Janie in the highly-charged language of Miss Hurston, longed to be a pear tree in blossom” (Wright, p. 17). He even heightens this insult in condescendingly admitting that “Miss Hurston can write; but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phyllis Wheatly” (Wright, p.17). Hereby, Wright is unmistakably expressing his view that black literature only belongs to the domain of men. His choice of Phyllis Wheatly, America's first black writer, as the starting point of a type of literature which “has since dogged Negro expression” enhances his opinion that black women's literature was characteristically of low quality.

Hurston's reaction to these remarks was swift. Her review of Uncle Tom's Children by Wright can be seen as a prompt answer to his scathing comments on Their

Eyes Were Watching God. Shejudges his novel as a “grim tonedeaf book about hatreds, full of killings and violence, enough to satisfy all male black readers” (Hurston, Stories of a Conflict: A Review of Uncle Tom's Children by Richard Wright, p.32). The marked use of “male” black readers supports the reading of her text as a reaction to Wright's sexism. The swift retribution through her review shows that she was prepared to defend not only her political and artistic views, but also her view as a woman writer.

As a consequence to the mostly negative contemporary reception of her work, Their Eyes Were Watching God was forgotten for decades. It was, however, rediscovered in the 1970s by black feminist writers, most prominently among them Alice Walker. They saw the novel as a ground-breaking work, and praised it as one of the first examples of an authentic black (female) literary voice. The rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston and Their Eyes Were Watching God can be best described in the words of Alice Walker.

It speaks to me like no novel, past or present, has ever done; [...] the language of the characters, that “comical nigger 'dialect'” that has been laughed at, denied, ignored, or “improved” so that white folks and educated black folks can understand it, is simply beautiful (Walker, On Refusing to Be Humbled, p. 2).

The way from forgotten to canonical writer, however, was a long one. “Hurston is the first writer that [this] generation of black and feminist critics has brought into the canon. [...] She is now a cardinal figure in the Afro-American canon, the feminist canon, and the canon of American fiction”(Gates, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-AmericanLiterary Criticism, p. 180).

Her novel Their Eyes were Watching God, which had been out of print for decades, was reprinted in 1979 with a most startling success: 300.000 copies were sold. When the book was originally published, it only sold a fraction of that. Today, the novel is considered an American classic and was even adapted into a film in 2005, starring Halle Berry as Janie Crawford.

This posthumous commercial success, however, was an unexpected side-effect of Hurston's rediscovery and far removed from the original motivation of Alice Walker and others who reassessed the novel. The rediscovery of lost works by African American women authors became an essential part of black feminist criticism and African American studies.

The necessity for non-hostile and perceptive analysis of works written by persons outside the 'mainstream' of white/male cultural rule has been proven by the Black cultural resurgence of the 1960s and '70s and by the even more recent growth of feminist literary scholarship.^..] It took the surfacing of the second wave of the North American feminist movement to expose the fact that these [early] works contain a stunningly accurate record of patriarchal values and practice upon the lives of women and more significantly that literature by women provides essential insights into female experience (Smith, p.77).

Alice Walker's view of Zora Neale Hurston can be seen as representative for her generation of writers and critics: “I became aware of my need of Zora Neale Hurston some time before I knew her work existed” (Walker: In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, p. 83) As a young writer, Alice Walker realized the difficulty in finding a black literary voice without any knowledge of a literary heritage of black women writers. “The absence of models, in literature, as in life, [...] is an occupational hazard for the artist, simply because models in art, in behavior, in growth of spirit and intellect - even if rejected - enrich and enlarge one's view of existence” (Walker, In Search of OurMothers'Gardens, p.4).

In order to discover a literary discourse that was dominated neither by a male, nor a white perspective, Alice Walker started searching for early works of black women authors. She was one of the first writers to search for an African American literary matrilineage. “I had not heard one word about black women writers, one of my first tasks was simply to determine whether they existed. After this I could breathe easier, with more assurance about the profession I myself had chosen” (Walker, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, p. 9). Walker only discovered Hurston when she wanted to find out more about African American folklore for a short story she was planning to write, The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff Especially hoodoo and Voodoo as a strategy of portraying female agency fascinated Walker and thus she started researching the topic, with initially disappointing results.

I began reading all I could find about “The Negro and his Folkways and Superstitions.” There were Botkin and Puckett and others, all white, most racist. How was I to believe anything they wrote, since at least one of them, Puckett, was capable of wondering, in his book, if “The Negro” had a large enough brain? Well, I thought, where are the black collectors of folklore? Where is the black anthropologist? Where is the black person to travel the roads of the South and collect the information I need: how to cure heart trouble, treat dropsy, hex somebody to death, lock bowels, causejoints to swell, eyes to fall out and so on. Where was this black person? And that is when I first saw, in a footnote to the white voices of authority, the name ZoraNeale Hurston (Walker, p.11).

Walker's description of discovering Zora Neale Hurston symbolizes the marginalization of black women authors in the US. Zora Neale Hurston's oeuvre was considerable - several plays, nineteen pieces of short fiction, four novels and two books of folklore, not including her essays and works of anthropological research for the FWP - and yet the only trace Walker was able to find was a footnote to the works of white anthropologists of “authority”.

Walker's discovery and research on Zora Neale Hurston was essential in triggering a wave of re-discovery of lost women authors of the 19th and early 20th century. Writers and critics alike suddenly developed a strong interest in those black authors who displayed various forms of female consciousness in their work. Zora Neale Hurston is seen as one of the most influential black women writers because she combines narrative and stylistic innovations that have since been seen as a form of pioneering black female expression; her dialect-informed narrative voice and her mastery of metaphoric speech strongly influenced later black women writers.

Feminist critics and writers responded to Hurston's politics of gender, as well as the force and authenticity of vernacular speech. Critic Cheryl A. Wall even deems Zora Neale Hurston the first authentic black woman writer. Hurston was not the first woman to publish a novel, but she was the first to to create a language and imagery that reflected the language and imagery of black women's lives. [...] Hers became the first authentic black female voice in African American literature” (Wall, Changing Her Own Words, p.76).

II.3.2. Janie Crawford: Emerging Heroine of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie Crawford, a black woman born in rural Florida in the late 19th century. Janie's story shows a black woman's personal struggle for identity and individual happiness. Janie is brought up by her grandmother Nanny, an ex-slave who raises her granddaughter in absence of Janie's parents. Being left in the dark about her parentage as a child, she is only informed about her origin as a teenager. Her mother, Leafy, had been raped by the local schoolteacher and, unable to cope with the situation, she disappeared shortly after Janie's birth. Janie grows up without her parents and mostly in the company of white children. From her early childhood onwards, Janie's experience and self-understanding is that of an outsider and a rootless individual. She is not even aware of being black until she is seven years old. Rather than provoking a personal crisis, this discovery leads to Janie's realization that she had been shielded from life by her grandmother to a great degree.

In her adolescence, Janie becomes increasingly curious about her own identity and roots. She sets out on a journey in the pursuit of her own identity, along with a desire for individual happiness and love. Janie can thus be considered a romantic heroine. However, the image of the romantic heroine is also transcended due to Janie's realization that happiness can only be achieved actively. Rather than merely waiting for a man to change her life, Janie questions traditional gender roles and emancipates herself in the course of the novel. “Janie is the first black female quester in her own right, a female protagonist whose maturation involves intimate relationships with men, but is not restricted to them” (Boesenberg, p. 27). She develops from a naive and passive observer to a self-determined woman who actively strives for love and happiness. Janie not only finds true love in this quest, but also discovers the power of her own voice and the ability of self-expression.

Her personal development is mirrored on numerous levels. One of these levels is constituted by her relationship to other people, among them her three husbands, another is represented through the change of settings in the novel. Finally, the most significant development ofher personality can be observed in the representation of narrative voice.

Janie's three marriages represent her process of maturing on the surface level of the novel. Janie's first marriage was arranged by Nanny, who perceives Janie's awakening sexuality as a danger to be contained quickly. Nanny's main concern is security for her granddaughter. In her view, this can only be provided by the protection of “good” white people or the institution of marriage. She forces Janie to marry an older farmer, Logan Killicks and his sixty acres of land. Janie immediately rejects Nanny's plan, intuitively understanding that this concept of marriage is not what she wants for herself. However, she succumbs to Nanny's pressure and marries Killicks. She soon realizes that she can never develop any feelings for her spouse, and tells him so. In order to gain control over his very young wife, Killicks “tries to destroy her spirit by threatening to make her help with the backbreaking labor of the farm” (Williams, p. 294). Killicks has traditional ideas about marriage; he does not see Janie as an equal partner, but more as an inferior. When Janie refuses to do farm work, she argues that he and she both have their respective work spheres. Killicks' answer to her emancipated view of sharing work displays his wish to dominate her completely: “You ain't got no particular place. It's where Ah need yuh. Get a move on yuh, and dat quick” (Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, p. 52). Seeing her romantic ideal of a loving partnership destroyed by Killicks' behavior, Janie realizes that marriage does not spell love. “She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie's first dream was dead, so she became a woman” (Their Eyes, p. 44).

Janie leaves Killicks for Joe Starks, which marks another important step towards her growing self-realization. Understanding she can never be happy with Killicks, she prefers to take her chances with Joe Starks who is on his way to Eatonville, the first incorporated all-black town of the US, which at this time is just in the making. Even though Janie suspects that Joe does not embody her dreams about love, he nevertheless represents an escape from Killicks. Soon, however, Janie's suspicions become true, and it turns out that Joe, just like Killicks, has very definite notions about a woman's place. For him, a young beautiful woman like Janie is a possession, just like his his store and his white house in Eatonville. He expects her to fulfill the role of Mrs. Mayor Starks, representing his political power in town. Joe is clearly the dominant partner of this relationship, determining Janie's place and outer appearance. He makes her work in his store, but forces her to wear a headscarf while working there. “He ordered Janie to tie up her hair in the store. That was all. She was there in the store for him to look at, not those others” (Their Eyes, p. 87). In the course of their marriage, their relationship becomes increasingly unbearable for Janie as Joe dominates every aspect of her life and ridicules her in front of the customers. She tries to fight back, finally losing control after a particularly nasty instance of humiliation, thereby exposing him in front of his friends by giving away that he is impotent. “You big-bellies round here and put on a lot of brag, but t'ain't nothin' to it but yo' big voice. [...] Talkin' 'bout me lookin' old! When you pull down yo' britches, you look lak de change uh life” (Their Eyes, p. 123). Even though Janie manages to emancipate herself from Joe to a certain degree, it is not until Joe dies that she is freed from his oppression. His death does not spell grief for Janie, but freedom; although she “irons and starches” her face, just like her clothes, to look the part of a grieving widow. Not long after the funeral she admits to her friend Phoeby: “Ahjus' love dis freedom” (TheirEyes, p.143).

The time of Janie's widowhood can be seen as the next phase of her personal development towards maturity and self-determination. For the first time in her life, she has the freedom to do what she pleases and lead the life she wants. She rejects several marriage proposals as she does not consider the traditional concept of marriage representing security and protection for a woman as worthwhile. Her rejection can be read as the novel's harshest and most overt critique of traditional gender roles and marriage. Despite the pressure of the community to get remarried, Janie decides to lead an independent life. She realizes that she does not need a male partner to take care of her.

Janie's new-found self-confidence is the basic prerequisite for the equal and happy partnership she then is able to share with Tea Cake, her third husband. The manner of their first encounter is fundamentally different from the way Janie met Joe. Tea Cake enters the store, which is now hers, and they start a game of checkers. For the first time since her childhood, Janie is not required to play a role; she canjust indulge in the game with Tea Cake who merely wants her to enjoy herself. In contrast to her previous marriages, the relationship to Tea Cake is based solely on mutual attraction and affection. The happiness of their marriage is not based on traditional gender roles - the man as the dominant, protecting part, the woman as the yielding, passive part - but rather on the individual feelings they share.

Janie's personal quest for identity is also paralleled in the changing settings of the novel. The move from the confinement of Nanny's small cabin to Logan Killicks' farm is followed by her relocation to Eatonville. Eatonville mirrors Janie's middle class existence, which is an improvement in comparison to her previous surrounding, but it is not the life she desires. Even though she is respected as the Mayor's wife, she remains an outsider, due to Joe's intimidating character: “The wife of the Mayor was not just another woman as she had supposed. She slept with authority and so she was part of it in the town mind. She couldn't get so close but to most of them in spirit” ( Their Eyes, p. 74).

Janie leaves Eatonville with her new husband, hereby escaping from a middle class existence she never desired herself and in which she never felt truly at home. Working as a field hand on the “muck” in the Everglades, Janie seems truly happy for the first time in her adult life, far from civilization and the social conventions she had found stifling. The untamed nature of the Everglades represents freedom to Janie and Tea Cake. This rejection of the security of middle class values is one of the strongest bonds between her and her young husband.


[1] Hull, Gloria Akasha. “Color, Sex, and Poetry in the Harlem Renaissance.” The Harlem Renaissance, p.71. Hull states that Locke was a misogynist who actively favoured the works of men, both in the academic and the literary field.

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Race, Gender and the Vernacular in the Works of African American and Mexican American Women Authors
University of Freiburg  (Englisches Seminar II)
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Minority literature, African American literature, Chicana literature, Vernacular and Code-Switching, Identity and Gender
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Carmen Fuchs (Author), 2009, Race, Gender and the Vernacular in the Works of African American and Mexican American Women Authors, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/174347


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