Posted on February 21, 2020
Commissioned by Ponder journal
Hurston, a prolific folklorist and novelist who documented the African American culture of the rural South, died penniless in 1960. Her writings were tossed into a fire outside her house after her death, left to burn until a passing friend salvaged them from the flames. 15 years later, the renowned novelist Alice Walker would stoke a different kind of fire when her essay ‘Looking for Zora’ led to widespread recognition of Hurston’s talents.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s most famous novel, is as politically relevant today as it was in the 1930s. The novel’s controversial use of language brings the voices of those who are often silenced into centre-stage. The novel follows the tales of its protagonist, Janie Crawford, as she relays her life to her friend, Phoeby. Janie leads Phoeby through stories of her domineering husbands, the claustrophobic micro-politics of porch-side gossip, the Okeechobee hurricane and eventually, to her final love and partner, Tea Cake. The story is part set in Eatonville, an all African American town in Southern Florida where Hurston herself grew up.
The book caused a literary backlash after its publication for its extensive use of African-American dialect. Across a 1930s America still plagued with the racist ideology that had legitimised slavery just decades earlier, “serious” literature was equated with standardised English (the language of the media, universities, the “educated”). The judgements given to certain styles of speech and writing were often steeped in racist and classist hierarchies as white supremacist ideology had influenced the mainstream to see African-American dialect as proof of a lack of education and “non-seriousness”.
Despite pressures from the literary world to do so, Hurston refused to translate the African-American dialect of the novel’s characters into standardised English. Such a move would have culturally misrepresented the groups within the novel. Beyond this ideological choice, Hurston artfully plays around with the voice of the book’s narrator*. While the novel’s narrator begins by using standardised English, as the story progresses and Janie rids herself of her misogynistic husbands, the narrator progressively picks up Janie’s dialect. By the end of the novel, Janie’s voice seeps into the narrator’s: ‘‘Janie fooled around outside awhile to try and it wasn’t so”. Janie’s increasing control over the book’s narrative is symbolised by her emboldening refusals to speak at the behest of others. As Janie sat in court at the novel’s close: “She didn’t plead to anybody”.
Janie’s growing empowerment is mirrored by Hurston’s as a novelist – both women refused to mould their speech or writing to the racist and patriarchal hierarchies of early 20th century America; predictably, the novel yielded little success after its publication in 1937.
As a doctoral student in Anthropology, Hurston’s work forms a guide for how I aim to write. Anthropology, which Hurston trained in, is about understanding how groups and individuals comprehend the world from their given perspectives. Within anthropology, language is seen as a crucial way through which individual or group identity is formed – it’s integral to how people organise and comprehend their reality. Unlike many anthropologists at the time, Hurston refused to speak over those she researched and wrote about, allowing her to thrust the voices of communities into a domain which often relied on representations of such groups by others, which were misinformed at best and unequivocally racist at worst.
Taking Hurston’s example beyond 1930s America and anthropology, how would present-day European xenophobia be different if people listened to migrants’ voices more than their representation by right-wing papers like the Daily Mail?
*the term used by the literary critics Barbara Johnson and Henry Louis Gates
*the narrator of many of Hurston’s novels is often a non-personal voice which narrates the main events of the novel, distinguished from speaking characters (who are identified by speech marks).