Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939)

January 25th, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

For hundreds of years, the Biblical story of Moses has resonated with the African-American community.  An abandoned son, born of a downtrodden and despised people, raised among the ruling class, before he is called by God to save his people and to lead them out of the land of slavery to the promised land flowing with milk and honey – there are so many parallels to American slavery that tellings and retellings of the Exodus tale quickly became a staple of African-American sermons.  In some quarters, particularly those who practice syncretic religious practices such as voodoo (also called vodun and hoodoo), Moses has been elevated to a status similar to that reserved for Jesus and the Virgin Mary.  For some, Moses knew the mind of God and he utilized ten words taught by God to launch the plagues that infested Egypt, not to mention the ability to part the Red Sea and to make water flow from a desert rock.

Zora Neale Hurston, building upon the information she recorded in her 1935 non-fiction book, Mules and Men, utilizes these alternate views of the biblical Moses in Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939).  Those who are familiar with the biblical story will know the main events (Moses raised among the Egyptians, his flight to Midian, his return, the plagues, the Exodus, the Ten Commandments, the Golden Calf, and the forty years of wandering in the desert), yet Hurston recasts each of these events to fit in with how certain African-American communities, particularly those in the New Orleans area, interpreted Moses and the Exodus.  Take for instance the scene at the Burning Bush:

The voice came again.

“Moses, I want you to go down into Egypt.”

“Into Egypt? How come, Lord? Egypt is no place for me to go.”

“I said Egypt, Moses. I heard my people, the Hebrews, when they cried, when they kept on groaning to me to help. I want you to go down and tell that Pharaoh I say to let my people go.”

“He won’t pay me no attention, Lord. I know he won’t.”

“Go ahead, like I told you, Moses. I am tired of hearing the groaning in my ear. I mean to overcome Pharaoh this time. Go on down there and I”ll go with you.” …

The Voice was hushed. The bush no longer burned. In fact, it looked just like it had yesterday and the day before and the day before that. The mountain was just as usual with the wind yelling “Whoo-youuu” against its rocky knots.

This passage alters slightly but in a key way the biblical version, which goes:

But the Lord said, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers, so I know well what they are suffering.  Therefore I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the country of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.  So indeed the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have truly noted that the Egyptians are oppressing them.  Come, now!  I will send you to Pharoah to lead my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.

The tone is more plain-spoken, less grandiose.  God is not commanding Moses as much as he is saying, “Hey, pal.  I need you to do this for me.  I’ll help, but you’ll be the face of my divine intervention.”  There is also a pleading element to this piece that is not present in the biblical version.  Hurston’s Moses is not as much of an abject servant here as he is a junior partner in a story of liberation.  This passage is representative of the novel as a whole, as Moses is seen to be more the leader and God the patron that supplies (and occasionally chastises) his client with divine aid.  Take for instance the plague of flies:

Next day at the palace Moses told Pharaoh, “The Lord told me to tell you He said, ‘Let my people go.'”

Pharaoh said, “We here in Egypt have known gods for thousands of years.  I can’t see why I should pay this new voice you talk about any mind at all.  Who is He anyhow?”

“Why should I lose time talking to deaf ears?” Moses retorted.  “The question before the house is will you let the Israelites go?”

“No.”

“Well, it’s mighty bad news for you, because if you don’t, you’re going to be plagued with flies.”

With no more talk than that Moses lifted his rod with his right hand and flies seemed to pour out of the sleeves of his garments.  The hum from their wings filled the room.  The number of them darkened the rooms and Pharaoh and priests fought to flee the place.  But it was no better outside.  The city of the Pharaohs was smothered with flies.  Moses changed his rod to his left hand and walked on out of the palace.  All around him and Aaron was a space free from flies.  So they went on back to Goshen and the people heard about it and hoped.

Earlier, Moses had been shown to have an ability to master matter, especially animate beings such as insects and frogs, long before God spoke to him on Mount Sinai.  Here, Moses isn’t as much acting as a conduit for God as he is using his own innate powers to perform “hoodoo” in a similar fashion (albeit on a much vaster scale) to how vodun was practiced in New Orleans or Haiti (both places Hurston had conducted anthropological fieldwork a few years prior to writing Moses, Man of the Mountain).  Moses as a hoodoo-practicing vodun priest can jar readers whose expectations arise from their familiarity with the biblical account.  Yet despite these occasional dissonances between reader expectation and narrative account, Hurston’s Moses (and the other characters, especially Aaron, Miriam, and Joshua) feel vibrant in places.

Yet despite Hurston’s attempt to faithfully reproduce the syncretic religious view of Moses, Moses, Man of the Mountain feels a bit flat and underdeveloped.  Although she tries to replicate southern African-American views, there are times where Moses seems to lack that vitality and fire in his belly that is often presented in other African-American literature and religious sermons.  There also seems to be a bit of hedging between presenting a full vodun-influenced account of Moses and keeping some of the more traditional Judeo-Christian interpretations of him.   Hurston’s Moses straddles the line between a trickster magician and a powerful leader and at times his character feels diminished by her use of idiomatic expression to convey this interpretation of Moses and the Exodus.  Despite this, however, Moses, Man of the Mountain is at times fascinating to read because of the sense that what is being read is a metaphor for a very complex set of religious and social beliefs that are alien to those of a different social group and generation.  There is the sense that much lies under the surface, waiting to be discovered if only the reader can understand the embedded narrative code.  That is what makes Moses, Man of the Mountain, despite its narrative and character flaws, a worthwhile read for those who want to see in novel form how religious beliefs and practices in certain African-American communities differed from surrounding communities.

 

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

January 18th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.  For some they come in with the tide.  For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time.  That is the life of men.

Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget.  The dream is the truth.  Then they act and do things accordingly.

So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead.  Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet.  She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment.

 

Zora Neale Hurston’s second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is widely considered to be her masterpiece.  Building upon her folkloric approach to storytelling found in Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) and her field work/memoir of life in her adopted hometown of Eatonville, Florida,  Mules and Men (1935), Their Eyes Were Watching God is a powerful commentary on the belief systems of Southern African-Americans in the early 20th century, as well as a pointed commentary on the endemic sexism during this time period.  Their Eyes Were Watching God generated a lot of controversy upon its release, as activists such as Richard Wright felt that the work was not radical enough in its condemnation of racism, while others felt that Hurston’s treatment of sexism weakened the novel.  Due in large part to these protests, Their Eyes Were Watching God soon slid into a quiet obscurity, until Alice Walker began advocating for Americans of all ethnic backgrounds to rediscover one of the finest American social commentators of the early 20th century.

Their Eyes Were Watching God follows the life of Janie Crawford from a callow teen to a wiser, world-experienced woman who has battled through adversity and has overcome the pervasive sexist attitudes of her native society.  Hurston begins the novel with the passage quoted above.  Notice how eloquently she differentiates between male and female perspectives:  Men with their hopes and dreams, continually dashed; women having to make their way through a minefield of memory and regret in order to realize what dreams they may.  She explores these contrasting approaches to life through Janie’s encounters with men, such as this little scene from early in the novel:

“What she doin’ coming back here in dem overhalls?  Can’t she find no dress to put on? – Where’s dat blue satin dress she left here in? – Where all dat money her husband took and died and left her? – What dat ole forty year ole ‘oman doin’ wid her hair swingin’ down her back lak some young gal? – Where she left dat young lad of a boy she went off here wid? – Thought she was going to marry? – Where he left her? – What he done wid all her money? – Betcha he off wid some gal so young she ain’t so young she ain’t even got no hairs – why she don’t stay in her class? –”

When she got to where they were she turned her face on the bander log and spoke.  They scrambled a noisy “good evenin'” and left their mouths setting open and their ears full of hope.  Her speech was pleasant enough, but she kept walking straight on to her gate.  The porch couldn’t talk for looking.

The men noticed her firm buttocks like she had grape fruits in her hip pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume; then her pugnacious breasts trying to bore holes in her shirt.  They, the men, were saving with the mind what they lost with the eye.  The women took the faded shirt and muddy overalls and laid them away for remembrance.  It was a weapon against her strength and if it turned out of no significance, still it was a hope that she might fall to their level some day.

Hurston utilizes flashbacks to tell Janie’s story.  When the story opens, we see Janie after her transformation into an assured woman.  We experience through speech and description the Eatonville townfolk alternating between staring goggle-eyed at her and resenting her for flaunting traditional social customs by having her hair long and loose while wearing overalls.  Hurston’s use of dialect is spot-on, as the reader can almost envision these townfolk sitting around a general store, gossiping and staring incredulously at Janie.  When she describes Janie, we sense not how Janie views herself, but how the men and women of Eatonville view her presence:  the “firm buttocks” and “her pugnacious breasts” serve to accentuate the objectification of Janie’s body by the men and the sensual challenge (in their minds, at least) of seeing a more direct hint of her body.  For the women, Janie poses another problem:  she is challenging their own roles by not accepting a subservient one to the men.  Instead of the male fascination and dreaming about her body, these women are honing their minds to remember how they might best cut her down to size and to reduce her outlandish presence in their community.

This is one of several indelible moments that Hurston expertly crafts here.  But how did Janie get to that point?  Early on, as she reflects on her life, we come to meet the domineering husbands that she had, who before their deaths expected her to be their servant and to cater to their needs.  We experience through her retelling of her life being raised by her grandmother the difficulties that she endured as she sought a love of equals, while discovering that the man her grandmother had chosen for her, Logan,  was more concerned about his control of his domains, including “his woman,” than he was about placating Janie:

“If Ah kin haul de wood heah and chop it fuh yuh, look lak you oughta be able tuh tote it inside.  Mah fust wife never bothered me ’bout choppin’ no wood nohow.  She’d grab dat ax and sling chips lak uh man.  You done been spoilt rotten.”

As Janie grows estranged from Logan and flees to her second paramour/husband, Joe the Eatonville town mayor, not much changes but how Janie is objectified.  Instead of being Logan’s manure hauler and log splitter, she is now Joe’s chattel, placed there on earth to do his bidding in his own time.  Through interior monologue and a few dialogue-laden scenes, we seen Joe’s attempts to crush Janie into submission.  It is one of the harshest and most vivid misogynistic scenes in that period of American literature and even three-quarters of a century later, it is a powerful commentary on the casual and purposeful cruelties that many women, African American and white alike, experienced during this time period.  But despite all of Joe’s attempts to subjugate her, Janie manages to resist and as he aged and became infirm, the much younger Janie begins to fight back against his imperious commands more often.  Hurston uses biblical analogy to underscore this point when she writes:

Then Joe Starks realized all the meanings and his vanity bled like a flood.  Janie had robbed him of his illusion of irresistible maleness that all men cherish, which was terrible.  The thing that Saul’s daughter had done to David.  But Janie had done worse, she had cast down his empty armor before men and they had laughed, would keep on laughing.  When he paraded his possessions hereafter, they would not consider the two together.  They’d look with envy at the things and pity the man that owned them.  When he sat in judgment it would be the same.  Good-for-nothing’s like Dave and Lum and Jim wouldn’t change place with him.  For what can excuse a man in the eyes of other men for lack of strength?  Raggedy-behind squirts of sixteen and seventeen would be giving him their merciless pity out of their eyes while their mouths said something humble.  There was nothing to do in life anymore.  Ambition was useless.  And the cruel deceit of Janie!  Making that show of humbleness and scorning him all the time!  Laughing at him, and now putting the town up to do the same.  Joe Starks didn’t know the words for all this, but he knew the feeling.  So he struck Janie with all his might and drove her from the store.

Later, after Joe has died and Janie marries her final husband, “Tea Cakes” the traveling bluesman, we see a more complex portrayal of sexism.  This time, it’s not the callous expectation of a woman to be a hired hand or the active suppression of her independence, but through their conversations and ultimately their later actions, Janie and her third husband come to blows, with Janie firing a fatal shot as she was being attacked and bitten by “Tea Cakes.”  This scene, which has echoes to the opening scenes of her earlier novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, in how a husband brutally attacks his wife, is the climatic scene of the novel.  Here we see the final metamorphosis of Janie’s evolution from a teen who did what her “nanny” told her to do through her sullen and then direct resistance of her husbands to the awful need to defend herself from attack.  Although self-defense and battered woman syndrome were not accepted in most cases those days, Hurston bravely paints a heroic picture of a woman who has fought against others trying to define her and who ultimately prevails.  We see also the triumph of an argument presented earlier in the novel about nature versus nurture, as Janie’s actions demonstrate clearly to the reader the falsity of those claims that women were by nature inferior to men and thus deserved to be subservient to them.  As the story comes full circle and Janie returns to Eatonville, which she had left after Joe’s death, we see that she has learned what to remember and how to forget and that her dreams are under her control.  It is also in these final scenes that the novel’s title, Their Eyes Were Watching God, becomes lucid for readers.  Sometimes, the dead are witnesses for the life and through their mute testimony, all eyes come to see the mystery of God in our lives.  Their Eyes Were Watching God lingers in memory, male and female alike, because the revelations and examinations of our beliefs are not restricted to one locale or ethnic group, but instead they act as witnesses to what we aim to become and what we are.  It truly is a towering masterpiece in American literature, one whose appreciation will continue hopefully for generations to come.

 

Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934)

January 11th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

Zora Neale Hurston was one of the most remarkable writers of the 20th century.  She met and mingled with various writers of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, yet her fictions, mostly set in the Deep South of Alabama and Florida, do not fit well with the themes and locales frequently associated with the Harlem Renaissance.  She was one of the earliest female cultural anthropologists, doing extensive work with the Boazes in the 1920s and 1930s, yet until recently her field anthropological work was mostly unknown to latter generations.  She did some of the heavy lifting for Alan Lomax when he made his famous field recordings for the Library of America of African American singers in the South, yet her name is rarely attached to this paramount collection of traditional folk songs.  Today, Hurston is primarily known for her second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), yet when she died in poverty in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked, segregated grave in Ft. Pierce, Florida.  Yet despite all this, Hurston’s work contains a vibrancy and verisimilitude that eloquently and powerfully captures the voices of a people whose vivid tales of love, life, betrayal, loss, fortitude, and redemption were so often ignored or dismissed by the surrounding white population.

Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) is at its heart a contemporary Biblical tale centered around an early 20th century African-American minister, John, his wife Lucy, and their struggles to maintain their family and faith as John battles his temptations to sleep with other women.  Stories of temptation, particularly those in which the protagonist succumbs to desire and lust, are very powerful and evocative, in large part because they speak to our own trials and tribulations.  What makes us give in to temptation, if anything can “make us?”  Are we active participants in our own dissolution, passive instruments of destruction, or something more nuanced that occupies a position that is neither fully active or passive?  Hurston, through John, explores these elements in a way that fuses early 20th century African American religious and folk beliefs.

John’s upbringing lies at the crux of this conundrum regarding human agency in the light of temptation.  He is the product of a white landowner sleeping with a black tenant at a time in which such offspring were often viewed with suspicion by both racial groups.  Very early on in the story, Hurston establishes not just this distrust, but also the beliefs that spring from it:

“Shet dat door, John!” Ned bellowed, “you ain’t got the sense you wuz borned wid.”

Amy looked where her big son was looking.  “Who dat comin’ heah, John?” she asked.

“Some white folks passin’ by, mama.  Ahm jes’ lookin’ tuh see whar dey gwine.”

“Come out dat do’way and shet it tight, fool!  Stand dere gazin’ dem white folks right in de face!”  Ned gritted at him.  “Yo’ brazen ways wid dese white folks is gwinter git you lynched one uh dese days.”

“Aw ’tain’t,” Amy differed impatiently, “who can’t look at ole Beasley?  He ain’t no quality nohow.”

“Shet dat door, John!” screamed Ned.

“Ah wuzn’t de last one inside,” John said, sullenly.

“Don’t you gimme no word for word,” Ned screamed at him. “You jes’ do lak Ah say do and keep yo’ mouf shet or Ah’ll take uh trace chain tuh yuh.  Yo’ mammy mought think youse uh lump un gold ’cause you got uh li’l’ white folks color in yo’ face, but Ah’ll stomp yo’ guts out and dat quick!  Shet dat door!” (p. 4)

 

Ned, the paramour of John’s mother, Amy, frequently treats John with disdain due to his bastard birth, biracial heritage, and the benefits of education that he receives due to his situation.  Yet behind this disdain, in scenes such as this, there lurk hints of a fear similar to that expressed in this passage.  Hurston has a keen ear for dialect and belief, and throughout Jonah’s Gourd Vine she explores the dynamics of post-liberation African American society and the effects that segregation, the divergent beliefs of the educated and illiterate, and the conflict between the dominant Protestant strands of Christianity and the vestiges of traditional West African beliefs have on African Americans.  These conflicts become even more apparent when John marries Lucy and they move to an all-black town in central Florida (based on Eatonville, Florida, where Hurston’s family moved when she was young), where John becomes a minister who finds himself torn between the call of the Spirit and the temptations of the flesh.  Spiritus fortis, corpus debile.  It is here where Hurston’s novel firmly roots its allusions to the biblical tale of Jonah and the gourd vine.

Unlike most stories where the temptation is either overcome or the character is destroyed by it, Hurston explores a middle path in which a mostly good person tries (and often fails) to do what is right, what is spiritual and just, despite (or even in some cases because of) his flaws.  We see John try to refuse the calling of the Lord (in his attempts to move away from the ministry), we see him brought back time and time again (first by Lucy, and then later by others), and we see him struggle to understand the mercies of God despite the sins that he has committed and the weaknesses (the philandering, the attempts to cozy up to certain parishioners) to which he has succumbed repeatedly.  Hurston slowly reveals these elements through dialogue between the various characters.  The cadences of the characters’ speech serves to reinforce the internal conflicts that lie at the heart of Jonah’s Gourd Vine, such as the one on class/race consciousness expressed by  a minister and some parishioners:

“And Ah say unto you, de Negro has got plenty tuh feel proud over.  Ez fur back ez man kin go in his-to-ree, de black man wuz always in de lead.  When Caesar stood on de Roman forum, uccordin’ tuh de best authority, uh black man stood beside him.  Y’all say ‘Amen.’  Don’t let uh man preach hisself tuh death and y’all set dere lak un bump on uh log and won’t he’p ‘im out.  Say ‘Amen’!!

“And fiftly, Je-sus, Christ, wuz uh colored man hisself and Ah kin prove it!  When he lived it wuz hot lak summer time, all de time, wid de sun beamin’ down and scorchin’ hot – how could he be uh white man in all dat hot sun?  Say ‘Amen’!  Say it lak you mean it, and if yuh do mean it, tell me so!  Don’t set dere and say nothin’!”

***

At the close of the service, many came forward and shook Cozy’s hand and Harris glowed with triumph.  He was dry and thirsty for praise in connection with his find so he tackled Sisters Watson and Boger on the way home.

“How y’all lak de sermon tuhnight?”

“Sermon?” Sister Boger made an indecent sound with her lips, “dat wan’t no sermon.  Dat wuz uh lecture.”

“Dat’s all whut it wuz,” Sister Watson agreed and switched on off.

Harris knew that he must find some other weapon to move the man who had taken his best side-girl from him. (p. 133-134)

This exchange is rooted in the attempts of the Deacon, Harris, to remove John from his role as minister.  The planned replacement preaches a Gospel that today would be called Afro-centric:  a black Christ, with Africans being much more influential in history than whites would have them believe.  It is a tempting doctrine for the downtrodden and although this element is ancillary to the main conflict of John and his temptations, it is a strong secondary thematic thread that runs through Jonah’s Gourd Vine.  Hurston certainly aimed at replicating the issues that interested Southern rural blacks and although at first glance this might not seem to be vital to the primary story, ultimately her attention to setting and local speech serves to supplement John’s morality tale, making it broader and more meaningful when placed in context of the times and locale.

There are few weaknesses in the novel’s structure.  At times, Hurston appears to be too self-conscious of how her characters’ speech might not be understood well by those who did not live in the region, as she occasionally interrupted the narrative flow of the dialogue to have a character think or explain fully in more formal speech the colloquialisms that make this tale a fascinating read.  Strong as Lucy is in the first half of the novel, her death feels a bit too contrived, especially when considered in light of John’s latter wives and paramours.  Although she appears to be the metaphorical gourd vine that withers over the head of John’s Jonah-like character, the importance of this seems stinted based on developments later in the novel.  Yet these weaknesses, not surprising in a first novel, hint at the prodigious talent Hurston had as a writer and as a recorder of folklore, as Jonah’s Gourd Vine provides a narrative template for Hurston’s most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, one of the masterpieces of 20th century American literature.

 

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