Under the Pear Tree: Some Thoughts on Zora Neale Hurston and Womanism

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in the late 1930’s.  The first time I read Their Eyes…, I appreciated how her protagonists (especially Janie) did not fit neatly into the 3-4 prototypes of Black womanhood in arts and literature.

  1. The Matriarch
  2. The Tragic Mulatta
  3. The Jezebel
  4. The Sapphire

The Matriarch is usually dark, unattractive, asexual and relegated entirely to the caretaking of employers and family.  The Tragic Mulatta stands at a racial crossroads bequeathed to her by her parentage.  She stand at the edge with white privilege in sight, but out of reach.  The Jezebel is instinctual, amoral and sensual.  She dares to use the same body that would have been viewed as property for the exchange of goods and services.  While she may not see herself as a commodity, she willfully embraces this state.  This is not to say, however; that she is not a complex character.  The Sapphire comes much later in literary history.  She is a combination of the Matriarch and the Jezebel in a more modern and urbanized setting.  The Sapphire can be seen in most representations of Black women in film.

The novel begins with the citizens of Eatonville sitting in judgment as Janie enters town after a year and a half in the muck.  She left in blue satin and came back in overalls.  She is presumed to be a fallen woman, a woman who sought her “lost” youth with a much younger man (Tea Cake).  The author takes us back 25 years to a young girl-woman beneath a pear tree.  While she ponders the nature of love and marriage, the sweet nectar of spring surrounds her and the bees kiss and dance their exquisite little dances about her.  Janie Mae Crawford is now the prelapsarian figure- innocent before the fall.

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 pnting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her.  She saw the dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrance and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from the root to the tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.  So this was marriage! (Hurston, 24)

Then in the dream-haze, she kisses Johnny Taylor, looking for her “singing bees.”  At this moment, Nanny’s sleep abruptly ends and so does Janie’s childhood.  She is promptly married off to Brother Logan Killicks, a man who owned 60 acres of land and a modest house.  He was a practical match to a 16-years-old Janie, in his 40’s.

The section I remember best out of the entire book is on page 29:

“Honey, de white man is de ruler of everyting as fur as Ah been able tuh find out.  Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see.  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 the mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” (Hurston, 29)

The Black woman as the mule of the world- this resonated with me 5 years ago, and it still does today.  I first began to think seriously about feminism and womanism and how they related to me.  As a Black woman, I feel little connection to feminism, as it is still very Euro/US-centric, and the assumed universals of whiteness interfere with true unity among the global “community of women.”  Then the nexus of oppression has to be taken into account.  A woman in the Congo has a heightened chance of being raped, but a woman in New York city may complain about street harassment.  A woman in Afghanistan may see the hijab as an expression of piety that is NOT a form of patriarchal control, but a French-European woman may see this and say “she’s oppressed!  We must ban the head scarf!”

Woman as mule… in 2010, nearly 40 years after the “revolutionary” 1970’s, women are still paid $0.73 for every dollar a man makes.  Women are still expected to be the mother, wife, home-maker and even breadwinner.  The promises of feminism ring hollow in the homes of the ordinary.  Egalitarianism has made the burdens of most women heavier.  Women still do the majority of the household chores and child-rearing in European and North American countries.  Women may be more likely to get advanced degrees in the liberal arts and social sciences, but the most prominent scholars are still by and large male.  Women still work mostly in service industries where the pay scale is typically lower than most white-collar jobs.

Zora Neale Hurston provides us 2 protagonists with contrasting experiences.  Janie marries for practical reasons initially, but she leaves Brother Killicks for Jody- a man with ambition and a voice.  This voice begins with the dulcet tunes of love and ultimately subdues and belittles her.  After he becomes the self-proclaimed mayor of Eatonville, Jody places Janie on a pedestal, essentially narrowing the scope of who she could be and how she could conduct herself among the townspeople.  She finally speaks up and this is the demise of Jody’s unquestioned respect.  After Jody’s deterioration and death, she leaves with Tea Cake, a younger man.  They work and live in “the muck” in Florida, harvesting crops on a seasonal basis, despite the ample funds available in Janie’s bank account.

Her grandmother, Nanny has known a life of poverty and hard work.  She wishes to act in the best interests of Janie, ensuring that she marries a man who can provide for her and give her the security that she’d never find outside of marriage.  I thought it was interesting that Janie utterly resents Nanny- even hates her later in the book.

More later!


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