Blackness & whiteness
White people seemed almost incidental to the story, like mythological spirits or forces of nature, like the hurricane which ends up being the beginning of the end of Tea Cake. They pass through, they are fickle and unstoppable, thoughtlessly damaging, carelessly abusive… and then they’re gone, and the mere mortals must pick up the pieces and carry on with their lives, regardless of the damage done. The few helpful whites are in effect faceless, appearing and vanishing without much introduction or warning.
The woman who helped Janie’s mother raise her granddaughter, the colonel who donated land to the establishment of the town for black people, the doctor who tried to cure Tea Cake — despite their best efforts they don’t have the ability to really improve the lives of the black people they try to help. It is by personal efforts alone that black people prosper, and it’s all too easy for that to be damaged by white carelessness or indifference.
It is that very carelessness which probably accounts for Tea Cake’s fear of hospitals, which proves to be part of his undoing. I suspect this is also the reason Hurston mentions the trial almost in passing. Many readers (including several mentioned in the introduction and closing article) feel she robs Janie of agency in that scene, demoting the newly self-aware Janie to voiceless, acted-upon, passive object once again.
I believe the opposite is true — it is the whites who have insisted on holding their trial of Janie who have been robbed of voice, and therefore consequently agency as well. I feel the unimportance attributed to the trial clearly demonstrated how little power the white people actually had over the grieving Janie. Her voice was saved for those who truly cared about her, for those who shared her life, her joys, and her pain.
I think this is also why the whole story is told in flashback to a friend. Like any life traveler, Janie has wandered far both emotionally and physically. The longest journey finishes at home, and now she has found her inner Self she is home again: where the heart is, comfortably fed and relaxing with a friend in the cooling dusk of the day. It is a perfect environment for anyone to review their life’s gains and griefs, and to end with grace and dignity.
Song of Songs
That almost poetic lyricism extends through the book, blooming quietly in unexpected places. For example, Janie’s sensuously imaginative awakening to the promise of future love and sexuality is one of the most languidly elegant I’ve read in a long while. It reminded me of the dreamy Biblical Song of Songs:
She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.
It is the search for that breathless promise of beauty and joy which drives much of Janie’s life, in fact. Just as Hurston saw herself as “a midwife participating in the birth of a body of folklore,” of “alternative modes of perceiving reality,” so does Janie participate in the birth of her new vision, her new Self. She can be subverted by the desires and anxieties of others, she can be trapped for years in waiting — but still she seeks, because she must.
That she does finally discover her true love is a quiet and unexpected joy in the book, as black women in 1937 (and unfortunately in many locales even today) certainly had little to no expectation of ever achieving self-sufficiency or respect. That she loses her love but gains enlightenment is a poignant reminder of our common humanity.
Indeed, Hurston gives a sad tribute to those who cannot or will not succeed in their self-imposed life quests when she speaks of Mrs. Turner. The only other woman given voice in the story, it is she who accidentally inspires Janie’s beating at the hands of Tea Cake. Her particular issue is described in painful, lyrical prose:
Anyone who looked more white folksish than herself [Mrs. Turner] was better than she was in her criteria, therefore it was right that they should be cruel to her at times, just as she was cruel to those more negroid than herself in direct ratio to their negroness. Like the pecking-order in a chicken yard. Insensate cruelty to those you can whip, and groveling submission to those you can’t.
Once having set up her idols and built altars to them it was inevitable that she would worship there. It was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity as all good worshippers do from theirs. All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped.
Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.
Mrs. Turner, like all other believers had built an alter to the unattainable — Caucasian characteristics for all. Her god would smite her, would hurl her from pinnacles and lose her in deserts, but she would not forsake his altars. Behind her crude words was a belief that somehow she and others through worship could attain her paradise — a heaven of straighthaired, thin-lipped, high-nose boned white seraphs. The physical impossibilities in no way injured faith. That was the mystery and mysteries are the chores of gods. Beyond her faith was a fanaticism to defend the altars of her god.
I cannot help but think of Wright’s diatribes against Hurston when I read these paragraphs. Is he determinedly trying to chastise his self-created and uncaring god(s) for creating him? Is he surprised they require blood, considering the power he has handed them?
How much healthier, if not happier, is it to realize the thoughtless fickleness of self-created gods, and to turn away from them entirely in order to be who one truly is? This, I think, was Hurston’s goal in the end. Whether she succeeded personally I cannot say, but she has certainly done so posthumously.