On June 29, 1997 professors of literature at Ohio University, Marilyn Atlas and Edgar Whan, came to Studio B in the Ohio University Telecommunications Center to record a discussion about the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. They were joined by guest scholar Annette Oxindine of Wright State University. Here are the transcripts of the conversation.
Marilyn Atlas - Hi, thank you. Today were going to be talking about Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. And its a wonderful novel, rediscovered in 1975 by many people when the University of Illinois reprinted it. It was originally published in 1937 and Zora Neale Hurston is really a fascinating woman in many ways.
And this is a novel about trying to find community. It begins when shes a pretty young woman and kind of centers on her first marriage, goes through other relationships and even one that ends in murder and kind of attempts to explore how a woman whos African American in the 1930s figures out how to be real. How to cut through certain kinds of myths that dont work.
And part of what she learns is that it doesnt really work to simply accept the old myth. That even people like ones grandmother can tell a story that doesnt function for you. That love doesnt necessarily grow after marriage. Theres a difference between a legal relationship and a respectful one.
Id like to kind of start us out with the passage that begins on page ten, very early in the book which shows us Janie pretty separate from the myths of her world, not dealing with the issues of class, not dealing with issues of race or gender or rural or urban lives, but trying to be a young woman in the springtime, trying to see what it feels like to be alive in west Florida.
"It was a spring afternoon in West Florida. Janie had spent most of the day under a blossoming pear tree in the back-yard. She had been spending every minute that she could steal from her chores under that tree for the last three days. That was to say, ever since the first tiny bloom had opened. It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery. From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously. How? Why? It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What?
"How? Why? This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears. The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep. It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness.
"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 the 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."
And I think this really represents her first of a certain kind of sexuality and a community with nature, very separate from whats going to happen in the text very soon afterwards.
What Id like to do is kind of start a discussion a little bit on community and nature and how it functions in this novel.
Edgar Whan - Well, Let me, this is Edgar Whan talking, Im a little ill at ease on these sets, but Ill do the best I can. Im kind of old and cranky and somehow threatened by all of the cyber-jargon, but Ive discovered reading your comments from this format that it liberates us from the strictures of the classroom.
Those who participate in the discussion whether they need to or want to, want to join others in a serious discussion. No one is trying to impress the man in the third row or catch the eye of the woman by the window. No one is worried about a grade or concerned about what the teacher wants. Constraints of time and place vanish. No dress code, no worry about appearances. I am, in short, set at ease with the intelligence and civility of those who have talked with us on this Web site.
Today we continue again a reconsideration of community. This time through Zora Neale Hurstons novel, published in 1937. The year I, in all my white maleness graduated from high school in Pontiac, Michigan.
But the power of this writing has opened me to a new experience of a Negro woman, as the language of the day named her. Her glory to me is that she insisted that the respect for a persons integrity is the basis of community and Im sure that our discussion and your comments will refine this statement for me.
Annette Oxindine - I want to return to Marilyns comment about nature and community. Its interesting that you noted our friends in cyberspace dont have to worry about how theyre dressed and thats one of the things when Janie...
Edgar Whan - And they cant see us reading notes!
Annette Oxindine - Yes! And when Janie returns from the muck, she returns in her overalls. And one of the things shes done is that shes gotten away from Logan Killicks apron which he tied on her and part, he desecrated her, Hurston even uses the language, he desecrated her pear tree that you were just evoking.
And when she is with Tea Cake, that relationship, though it is problematic in some of its sexual politics, it does connect her to nature. He wants her to work out there with the muck where Joe Starks kept her segregated on the porch in her blue dress.
She returns in her overalls and one of the things that she does, she had given away everything in the house that she and Tea Cake shared together except a package of garden seed that Tea Cake had bought to plant. Tea Cake was always planting things.
And I think that is very significant. She finally learns to do that through him, but shes planting them at the end without him.
Marilyn Atlas - I think thats really a wonderful comment.
Edgar Whan - There are really three different kinds of community she faces in these three marriages, arent there?
Marilyn Atlas - Right, I think the real difference, in the last one which is the most akin to nature, its still problematic.
Edgar Whan - What do you mean "problematic?"
Marilyn Atlas - Shes not na´ve about nature, even with Tea Cake, he beats her, he has such racial oppression himself, he feels so bad about being black. I mean thats one of his attractions to Janie, she looks so much more traditionally white that most of the other African American women.
Yet, hes still, with all the problems, theres still something in that relationship that people want and love. And that Janie herself wants and loves and respects, even after she shoots him. She really goes back to idealizing that relationship, so very much, because he offered her at least part of that pear tree, more of that pear tree than anyone else did and thats as close to community perhaps as one can get.
Annette Oxindine - And I think that Hurston does something very interesting when she connects Tea Cakes own disavowal of who he is with his rejection of what nature is telling him to do because the reason that Tea Cake is in the situation where he gets bitten by the dog and gets rabies, I mean he is trying to save Janie, but initially he and the others could have been saved, had he listened to those who know the land.
And Hurston makes it very clear that Tea Cake has internalized some of his own oppression and that he has internalized the way that whites see him even though he has a wonderful community outside of the whites, he still does not trust the Indians because on of his friends says to him, "You know the Indians are going east, man. Its dangerous." And Tea Cake says, "Indians dont know much of nothing, to tell the truth, Else, theyd own this country still. The white folks aint gone nowhere, they ought to know if its dangerous." And its because he doesnt listen to the natives.
Edgar Whan - They did get in their dancing, though, didnt they?
Annette Oxindine - Yes, they did.
Edgar Whan - Somebody asked the Indians, "Why do you expect a very cold winter?" "Because the white mans stack of wood is bigger this year."
Annette Oxindine - And they all learned to read each others cultures, I mean thats very necessary. But Hurston spent so much of the time celebrating the culture that does exist outside of the larger impressions, but she does a wonderful job in this novel of letting that come through without having that be the theme and thats one of the things we talked about earlier with Richard Wright. He didnt really appreciate Zora Neale Hurstons brand of politics because she did celebrate the African American community instead of just solely looking at the oppression, but it is there and its very much embodied in Tea Cake.
Marilyn Atlas - Its not perfect, I mean when she comes back to town, the women on the porch are, theyve been toungeless all day because theyre working for people who really dont allow them any kind of honest voice. But when they find their voice, its a voice thats not very friendly, its a voice of jealousy.
Edgar Whan - She left them and then came back to them.
Marilyn Atlas - Well, they dont quite understand. They both want to break rules and theyre afraid of breaking rules. I think thats what Tea Cake represents. I mean in some ways he is so wonderful, in some ways he is so honest. And in other ways hes ridiculous. And I think that in the Indian section that you quoted is wonderful.
How can a man who has lost everything in America because of his race say that if the Indians were smarter theyd still have the land. What does that say about him? It certainly causes terrible ironic problems because had he only listened to those people who had lost the land, he would have not died and they could have continued, at least potentially, working on their rather problematic relationship.
Annette Oxindine - The wonderful thing that he does is he does teach Janie how to hunt. He takes her seriously. He plays checkers with her. And he teaches her how to hunt though, had he not done that, she would not have been able to shoot him to protect herself.
Edgar Whan - And she shot better than he did
Marilyn Atlas - And what was her best community? Does she come home because its her best community? Those women on the porch, she doesnt tell the story directly to them. But she tell her friend, Phoeby, "you can tell it." Is that the best shes got? And how good is that? Is that enough?
Edgar Whan - We dont know, she could have stayed there. Maybe she could just rest and take out again. But I think, without Tea Cake, she cant think of community right now. He was her community in many ways. He touched her. I thought of her sense of humor too. Her grandmother says, "Set me down easy, Im a cracked dish." Remember that?
Annette Oxindine - A broken plate, yes.
Edgar Whan - And she says, "Are you going to tell anybody now? A chicken drink water, but he dont pee pee." Theres enough of that light-heartedness in there to keep it up.
Most of the black stuff I read in the old days and black students changed my life and taught me many things. We read Soul on Ice and Watch Out Whitey, Black Powers Gonna Get Your Mama. In many ways, this is far more powerful. You can have an existence without being against somebody. You dont have to define yourself as being anti-white. You can define yourself because youre a person. Thats what she does. Thats what I admire.
Marilyn Atlas - Its more domestic. Its subtly political. Though it does deal with a major mayor of a black community. Its political in that way, but it doesnt honor him.
Annette Oxindine - No, because he emulates the white hierarchical tradition and Zora Neale Hurston worried about the effects of segregation because she wanted to celebrate black culture and Robert Hemenway has a quote in which he talks about the nature of her political agenda, "she does not engage in a sophisticated program of political propaganda, but what she does is to turn inward to create the blues, the folk tale, the spiritual, the hyperbolic life, the ironic joke.
She sought to show the poetic ceremonies that adorned life under an oppressive system. Just the human being, the common run who love magnificence, beauty, poetry, color, so much that there can never be too much of it. Zora Hurston was claiming her right to an autonomous imagination, both as a woman and a member of the black American community. And I think, in part, that community is reached through language.
You know, the women on the porch are jealous, but she does, you know, Phoeby listens in a hungry way and at the end of telling her story, Phoeby gets the gumption to say, "Im going to make my husband take me fishing." She says, "I growed ten feet higher just from listening to you."
Edgar Whan - That was nice.
Marilyn Atlas - This is very much about writing down ones history, however it is. And maybe one of Zora Neale Hurstons points is that to form a community, first you have to be an individual. First, youve got to find some segment of yourself, in nature, thats honest and workable.
Heres a little quote from "How It Feels to Be Colored Me" one of her very wonderful essays where she talks about how it feels to be African American.
"I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorry damned 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 has somehow given them a low down dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. No, I do not weep at the world, I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife."
And theres the image again of eating. She does a lot with mouths and with kissing and speaking and eating and orally are all kind of connected with each other which is really pretty and neat.
Edgar Whan - How much do you get out of the fact that shes a very attractive woman with the straight hair and the Caucasian features?
Marilyn Atlas - Absolutely, absolutely, I mean part of her power is that she is able to form that bridge between African American culture and American culture. Those were not the days like we have now where youre multicultural, where you are black and white. If you were a little black, you were a part of the black community and racism is internalized.
Maybe she didnt hate herself as much as some African Americans hated themselves, this is absolutely true. She loved herself dearly, but I think that she benefited from racism in the sense that she was a light African American woman, and this was attractive both to people in her own race that had kind of internalized some of that stuff.
Edgar Whan - She says one place "Im the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on his mothers side was not an Indian chief."
Marilyn Atlas - Yes, thats from the same essay that I quoted from. Its a wonderful essay.
Annette Oxindine - But I think she also shows the danger in Janies situation of how much it costs her to be associated with the light-skinned people and that Mrs. Turner is the one who tears apart, in many ways, her marriage and one of the things that Mrs. Turner says is she wants black people, she comes out pretty much and says it to people, to be more like whites, to class off so much that one disassociates from the folklore and the culture.
And when Janie says, "How come you so against black?" Mrs. Turner says, "They makes me tired, always laughing, they laugh too loud and they sing old songs and theyre cutting the monkey for the white folks."
Well, one of the things that Hurston celebrated is that culture, "de dozens," telling stories and the folklore. She didnt see that as cutting the monkey for the white folks, but something very rich. So, I think Janie very much pays the price for that, too, even though it opens some doors for her.
Marilyn Atlas - I think that trial at the end is so interesting and I think Zora Neale Hurston is extremely conscious of the fact that black men will not identify with Janie because they care about black men and that her best allies in that kind of horror story, in that kind of trial are, ironically, white women.
So, thats the other side of Mrs. Turner. They dont want women to be beaten, they dont women to be hurt because thats where theyre vulnerable. Its very powerfully done.
Edgar Whan - If you were a librarian where would you put this book? In the African American studies or feminine studies?
Marilyn Atlas - American studies. Also, its very much about class. Its about capitalism. Its about marriage. I think it has been taught and will continue to be taught in all sorts of different ways.
One of the images I wanted to ask you both about is the image at the end and this is a serious question. "She pulled in her horizon like a great fishnet, pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder, so much of life and its meshes. She called in her soul to come and see." Is this a death image?
Annette Oxindine - No, I think its a rebirth image.
Edgar Whan - She talked about her grandmother in the horizons, didnt she?
Annette Oxindine - Yes, her grandmother wrapped the horizon so tight around her throat. Its a very powerful passage that shes going to kill her with it because her dreams were small and theres one passage where
Marilyn Atlas - Was she taking that image back and making it alive again?
Annette Oxindine - Yes, I think she was because one of the townspeople says to her when she gets back, "You looks like youse yo own daughter." And theres a way, I think in which she rebirths herself that she has to come to terms with her mother and her grandmother, but she also gives voice to that which they could not give voice to, because her grandmother did want to preach from a pulpit.
I think that maybe that Janie feels a lot of animosity toward her grandmother that the narrator doesnt necessarily see. But I do think its a rebirth more than shes birthing herself as her own daughter.
Marilyn Atlas - Its interesting she never forgives her grandmother, but she still starts her story with her grandmother. So, its like you have to tell the story of your grandmother and you have to tell the story of your mother before you can tell your own story whether you like them or not which is kind of fun as a family tradition in community.
You dont necessarily have to like where you come from, but you are where you come from. And that image at the end very much is taking back her grandmother, in a certain way, translating it into something more workable. It works for me.
Annette Oxindine - And giving her grandmother a language that her grandmother did not have access to. Theres this beautiful passage, its on page 23 of the novel, right before her grandmother dies, shes praying and shes in this state where shes trying to conjure up images and feelings, but she cant quite get them.
"Shes stayed on her knees so long she forgot she was there herself." for so long she forgot she was there herself. There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought. Nanny entered this infinity of conscious pain again on her old knees."
She does understand that Janie wants love, deep, deep down, she encourages her to go off and have safety, but part of her does understand.
Edgar Whan - She knows what she faces in that world, too.
Marilyn Atlas - We dont hate the grandmother the way Janie hates her grandmother. Theres no question about it, we empathize. And Zora Neale Hurston lets us do that. Just like she idealizes the relationship with Tea Cake and yet we look at it from another point of view, I think she does the opposite with the grandmother, where she damns it and we still say (she) was a good grandmother.
Edgar Whan - She said "Tea Cake, he done taught me the maiden language all over." What does that mean?
Marilyn Atlas - I think the maiden language is the language of a woman with her own body. The language of purity.
Edgar Whan - I thought maybe it was black language. The maiden language was black.
Marilyn Atlas - Thats interesting.
Edgar Whan - Thats what I thought. She wanted to say, "I acknowledge it" and she does in the novel, the beauty of the black dialect that "he done taught me" and be proud of it. "Maiden" doesnt seem to be the kind of a word shed use for a sex word. Its kind of a whitey, sophisticated word, maiden. Do you think its a sex word.
Marilyn Atlas - Its girlish, its pure. But youre right, its certainly not particularly African American.
Edgar Whan - Thats another thing, its wonderful the way she works the third person and slides into first person. Really masterful I think, the way she says something in her own language which is her natural language, too. She was cultivated, very smart.
Marilyn Atlas - A lot of contemporary critics deal a great deal with the fact that Janie does not really tell her own story and that this is very significant.
Edgar Whan - I think she says, youve all read it, why tell it again? Weve heard it all. Is this what shes saying? Youve all read this thing, why should I go through it again?
Marilyn Atlas - Well, she could do it in some other way than the narrator taking over, but at the very beginning when Janie is telling the story, Phoeby says, "I dont understand your words" and then the narrator takes over and helps us understand Janies words. But I think we could probably understand Janies words, if Janie could speak them. Theres something in there, by the end when we have that last image of pulling in the stars, the rebirth image. But even then, Janies not speaking yet.
Edgar Whan - People want one of those dramatic statements like at the end of a lot of black stories where the guy summarizes it all and makes an indictment, a great speech. But that wasnt what she was into, I dont think. "Native Son" does that, a whole chapter of it. Like a lawyer summing up the ailments.
Annette Oxindine - I think shes celebrating. This book, from the early criticism, has been labeled very, very affirming. Lilly Howard does that in her book and June Jordan talks about its power and, of course, Alice Walker, found it so powerful, she said it was the most important book to her because of that affirmation and I think the maiden language can certainly be looked at as reclaiming the language of her girlhood, that incipient moment when she comes to life, associated with sitting with the pear tree, but its also the language that Joe tried to keep her away from.
Shes a born orator, somebody tells him. No, he says, my wife doesnt speak. He doesnt want her to go off with the mule dragging and participate in what he calls the common language whereas Tea Cake takes her on the muck. He allows her both to speak within her community and to speak as an individual woman. And I think thats something that you brought up.
Marilyn Atlas - But we dont get to hear her speaking directly and I wonder sometimes if Zora Neale Hurston is telling us, through the way she wrote this
Edgar Whan - She certainly did when she had on that ****, she gave them the word, didnt she?
Marilyn Atlas - Right, there are times when she speaks directly, but much of it, even her trial
Edgar Whan - Now on the porch she spoke up and started doing the dozens and she gave a little speech and he whapped her afterwards.
Annette Oxindine - Right, but at the trial its the white men who speak for her and even when Mrs. Turner is basically saying "Tea Cake is too black for you, why dont you do better?" She stammers, she doesnt really come back and have much to say, but I think that at the end of the novel when Phoeby is telling her "I growed ten feet tall just listening to you," Janie does say "You got to go there to know there." Those are Janies words.
And so she validates that individual experience, too, and maybe part of what Janie wants to say is not yet sayable, like that unconscious place that her grandmother was visiting because there is a tradition there, but she has not been encouraged to be a part of that for a long time. But that is one of the criticisms of the novel, why doesnt Janie say it?
Marilyn Atlas - The narrator is such a wonderful voice, I think you feel like youre hearing Janie when youre not.
Edgar Whan - You really sometimes have to remind yourself.
Marilyn Atlas - Right, that this is the narrator. And were listening. Were so much in the role of Phoeby. Were listening and were growing ten feet tall, too. I think people love this novel because it gives permission to try, it gives permission to make mistakes, it gives permission to rebel from authority in all sorts of different forms to go back to something very whole, very pure.
Edgar Whan - Its really a white mans whole bailiwick, that trial. And what could she say? They wanted somebody to give her a speech, so they could win a pep talk and go up there and get in a fight and she doesnt want to do it.
Annette Oxindine - She knows the truth inside and she realizes that her voice will not be heard in that courtroom and to give her that speech and to have it somehow change things, I think would have made it a dishonest novel because a black woman could not speak in that venue. And the white women were on her side, but they were only on her side because they didnt value the life of black men.
I dont know that Hurston is saying they were joining her so much in sisterhood, because what kind of sisterhood is it if they dont value the love that she had. One of the reasons theyre on her side is they cant imagine that she could have loved Tea Cake anyway. So, theres no place to speak from there.
So, maybe the narrator is getting inside in an inner place. Theres been a lot of criticism that talks about how womens language is stillness, fluid space inside, and maybe thats part of what shes evoking with Janie.
Marilyn Atlas - I think, too, that even though there is obviously around speaking in this novel. Still, the center of the story is that women, particularly, need whether they want to or not, they need to hear each others stories. And though they have to live it themselves, that if you get the right information, not grandmas information, but the information of someone whos attempted to be organic, like Janie. It will help you get there yourself. That you cant really do it alone.
Edgar Whan - Do you think women talk more than men do? Men sit around and talk about fly rods and women, I think, really talk. Everywhere.
Marilyn Atlas - In this novel, Im not sure how it works, she talks to Tea Cake. We dont hear her, but she seems to talk a good deal to Tea Cake.
Edgar Whan - Shes talking to Phoeby through this whole thing, the whole book.
Marilyn Atlas - Right, the whole book is talking to Phoeby.
Edgar Whan - Explain to these people why I went and came back and I want you to tell them what happened. I dont want to tell them. I think its true everywhere that women talk much more than men do. Were pretty rigid and stupid about things like that.
Marilyn Atlas - We dont see men really talking to each other. The way they use language does not form community.
Edgar Whan - I know since Ive been working hospice centers, men come in, but dont talk back and forth. Children are the best because they know what its like to be abused and helpless. Women do fine, its there world to talk, openly and naturally. Men dont seem to do it.
Annette Oxindine - But Joe is described over and over again as being a big voice.
Marilyn Atlas - But hes not an honest voice.
Annette Oxindine - No, hes not an honest voice at all.
Marilyn Atlas - This big, Texas! Sorry Texans! Its one of the saddest sections and she does it very overtly, you cant help but feel the pain of how miserable and for no real reason, other than Joe Starks doesnt know how to get what he himself wants. Hes the phoniest of all possible mayors.
Edgar Whan - She was his trophy. He put her up there and she said, "were not supposed to sit." Today, people say "why arent you running?" Wed all love to take a big piece of fat and sit down and eat it. Were such a culture, we have to be taught to do this. They were getting plenty of exercise.
I like this place where he invited her down to the glades and "she looked down on him asleep and felt his self crushing love, so her soul climbed out of its hiding place."
Marilyn Atlas - I dont think its any accident that her mother, Leafy, first, her name is "Leafy," i.e. she has the potential of nature. She was raped by a school teacher. That somehow the world of academia, the way we pass on knowledge is not good and it doesnt work for African American people.
Annette Oxindine - And even her name, Alphabet, which has that association that she doesnt have an identity.
Edgar Whan - Sometimes in class Id write "therapist" on the board and put a dash after "e" it says "the-rapist" you get a lot of moans around the class when you do that.
Annette Oxindine - The other thing, theres a lot, not just the pear tree itself, but a lot of reference again to nature and things having roots because Granny tells her that "us black folk dont have roots." But yet her daughters name is Leafy and she hides her in a tree. And Tea Cakes name is Verigible Woods, thats his given name.
Edgar Whan - Those names are interesting. I keep thinking of our names. People laugh at those, but Theodore means "gift of God." And in the 17th century, the guy named "Praise God Bare Bones" which is "Hallelujah Bare Bones" and "Fly Fornication Jones." But, we laugh at those, but we try to see the humor when its translated. You can find the same thing here, "Running Bear" and Edgar means "protector of the just." Linda means "serpent."
Its kind of funny when we see language growing that way. My daughter came home and talked about this boy named Jack. I said which Jack do you mean? She said his lives in Cleveland. So, we pick up "Jack from Cleveland." Isnt it exciting to talk about language?
Marilyn Atlas - It is and the language here is very beautiful, its very poetic, youre really moved through the novel very quickly when you read it.
Edgar Whan - You have to get used to it at first.
Annette Oxindine - But even students who have been reluctant that I have taught, students who come into a novel class and say, "Cant we read Tom Clancy?" Its amazing, male students as well, once they get ten or fifteen pages into the book, it takes over.
Edgar Whan - Somehow I think youre making fun of them. I guess its hard, politically correct, theyre making fun of the way they talk. But she was doing it. Back in 1937, there were books called Amos and Andy. They were comic books and they talked this way. And I had that flash when I saw this. This is not the way people talk.
Annette Oxindine - I think that this is one of the criticisms that was leveled against Hurston is that perhaps she was playing into stereotypes and what she was trying to do is to show the beauty of language and not play into the stereotypes.
Marilyn Atlas - But to take back the culture. I think that when we were talking about that net image. She likes to play it for more than one direction. I think she wants to let us hear it for the first time, the beauty, the richness, the meaning. I was really surprised at the level of Richard Wrights anger, an inability to perceive what I thought was a novel that really dealt with everything that he wanted dealt with.
Annette Oxindine - There was a controversy of her play that they wrote together. They had a falling out and I think that as a woman writer she was up against a lot. (note: Hurston and Langston Hughes had a falling out over the authorship of the play, Mule Bones, on which they had worked together in 1930)
Edgar Whan - And people were very violent about it. I remember kids used to get angry about "Im Dreaming of a White Christmas." Black kids teased me about that. Everything was seen in terms, as it should have been, in terms, as they began to see what happened to them, of violence. And I suppose they resented her, the woman, during all of this. We cant take them very seriously and shes a "hanky head" thats what I meant. They used to call Martin Luther King "de Lawd." Theyd make fun of him, too
Marilyn Atlas - What do you do with Janies money at the end? If its about community and shes kind of got one and doesnt have one. Shes also quite moneyed compared to her community members. Does it make it harder?
Edgar Whan - In terms of how much, I guess, how much you can stand. I can stand a little more without corruption. Moneys only bad when you think you have earned it. When you get it free, you can live with it all right. When you think youve earned it, then youre really dangerous.
Marilyn Atlas - What do you think Zora Neale Hurston thinks about it? In terms of money, does she find it separating individuals?
Edgar Whan - She certainly never had much, did she? Her life was one battle after another.
Marilyn Atlas - Janie, she had the house. Oh, Zora Neale Hurston had a comfortable white patron.
Annette Oxindine - But she died in poverty. She worked as a manicurist and a maid and she had a lot of professional jobs.
Marilyn Atlas - Even though she was a graduate from quite a classy college. Which one was it, Barnard?
Annette Oxindine - Yes, she went to Barnard for a while and then she also went to Howard University and I think she worked with Franz Boas, maybe at Columbia.
But, I think that one of the reasons that everybodys so concerned about Janies money is because they think that Tea Cake only wants her to take it away. Thats part of that concern, too. Theres the story about Annie Tyler, who went away with a young man and was devastated and was broke. I think that Janie having money when she gets back to them is... they wanted her to be broken, they wanted her to be knocked down a notch, so they could love her a little bit more, I think.
Edgar Whan - One place she said, "She hated her grandmother and had hidden it all these years under a cloak of piety. She had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people. It was important to all the world that she find them and they find her. But she had been whipped like a cur dog and run off the back road after things."
Thats her attitude, Ive chased things, I want to find people, I want them to find me. Every time I turn around, somebody sent me some things.
Annette Oxindine - My favorite image of the things is that she wants flowers, she wants nature, and Joe doesnt say pretty things to her and later shes not *** with him anymore, but one of the things he does buy her is a ladys size spit pot with sprigs of flowers painted around the pot.
Edgar Whan - Thats wonderful, her own spittoon.
Annette Oxindine - But I dont really think of her as being moneyed at the end because she gives away her possessions, but youre right, shes still does.
Marilyn Atlas - Compared to her community.
Edgar Whan - About three hundred dollars, a lot of money then.
Marilyn Atlas - But she has fifteen hundred in the bank, too. Is that the amount?
Annette Oxindine - I think so. Tea Cake gambled some of that away.
Marilyn Atlas - But she doesnt take it all with her. So, shes only willing to be robbed so far, in case shes wrong. And she has the house.
Edgar Whan - She sold the store, but she had the house still.
Annette Oxindine - And she chopped down the tree which I thought was very interesting. She had Tea Cake chop down the tree which was a sign of possession. She chopped down the tree that was Joe Starks. Thats one of the things I love about this novel is that its so complicated with what Hurston is doing with the imagery.
And the same thing with Janie, shes willing to go out on a limb, but she does tuck away a little bit aside. I think that Hurston does that at so many different turns.
Marilyn Atlas - You get the same thing in Huckleberry Finn. He could care less about money, but hes hiding his. He could care less about money, but if its on the ground, hes going to have to pick it up and put it in his pocket and not say a word. So, theres a lot of ambivalence.
Annette Oxindine - You need money to have a voice. And Hurston certainly realizes that.
Edgar Whan - She certainly did.
Marilyn Atlas - Alice Walker put on her gravestone, "A genius of the South, novelist, folklorist, anthropologist" and I think that in this novel she really is a genius of the South. She creates a black community for us that I think for most readers during our time and even during her own time.
In America, there werent so many communities where, for better or worse, where people were run by their own people. An African American community like Eatonville was something that really separated some blacks because of that internal ruling from people who lived in communities that were so strictly run by white people.
But here, I think she really puts together that love of language, the need to tell stories, real stories with what shes collected as a folklorist and an anthropologist.
Edgar Whan - Those are fun to read, too and you can see a lot of those mixed in here. What about the title? It seems like an unlikely title for this book.
Marilyn Atlas - I think it has to do with the ending, it has to do with the terrible, terrible tornado and it has to do with, ultimately, when were in crisis and were running. Our eyes are looking to whats going to happen up there.
Edgar Whan - She could have said something else, too.
Annette Oxindine - I think we have to look at what Tea Cake was looking at. Tea Cakes looking for signs, theyre trying to basically decide on their salvation. What moment do we need to get out of here to save ourselves? And hes looking at all the wrong places. Hes looking at the Indians, hes waiting to see when the white men leave.
Marilyn Atlas - The people with knowledge.
Edgar Whan - Its not that big to make it a title, is what Im saying. Usually a title tells you what to look for in a story. I dont get that in here, do you?
Marilyn Atlas - Its a spiritual story.
Edgar Whan - I got the Biblical reference which is wrong, but well
Marilyn Atlas - Its a really good question, its "their eyes" not even "our eyes."
Annette Oxindine - A very communal title.
Marilyn Atlas - Its a visual image, its about eyes, about seeing when so much of this is about mouths and talking. But were using more than one sense here. No matter what else were doing, I think that sense that were not enough and that were small people in a world where there are things like hurricanes and tornadoes that can ruin lives.
Edgar Whan - Still, that explains it, but it doesnt explain it.
Marilyn Atlas - I think there is a religious element in this. First of all, I think probably her community was very religious.
Edgar Whan - Her father was a minister.
Marilyn Atlas - And her grandmother wanted to write sermons. So, theres that whole religious element thats very much on the underside of this now.
Annette Oxindine - And Tea Cake is the son of the evening sun. He can also be red, although I dont buy it as a Christ image. But I think so much of what oppresses Joe Starks oppresses Logan Killicks and certainly Tea Cake and hence, causes Janies oppression is that these men are looking to the white culture to help define who they are and who they should be.
Joe Starks, she goes through great lengths to talk about how he wants to light up the city like God and how he lives in this big white house. And she even says, theyre like living in servants quarters. I think thats why hes so empty because hes looking to other systems that inherently are going to produce self-hatred.
If youre looking toward the white man to get your direction, to get your sense of self, you are going to end up feeling self-hatred. Youre not going to be able to build a real community because Joe Starks, even though he is mayor, doesnt celebrate folklore, doesnt celebrate African-American culture.
He sees those people as being trashy. He doesnt want Janie to associate with them. And so "their eyes were watching God" and it says, too "six eyes were questioning God." It doesnt necessarily say that God answers.
Marilyn Atlas - Right, in most literature He or She, does not.
Edgar Whan - There are some notable exceptions, the stone tablets and all that.
Annette Oxindine - Janie also questions God at the end of the story when Tea Cake is dying and she asks him for help. She says, "It wasnt exactly pleading, it was asking questions. The sky stayed hard looking and quiet so she went inside the house. God would do less than He had in His heart."
And I think thats theologically a very interesting idea that the suffering and pain in the universe does not reflect who God is. "God would do less than He had in His heart." His heart is so much bigger than the total of human injustice. It would suggest the tornado was not an act of God.
Edgar Whan - Thats true we all say its a large front coming out of Nevada.
Marilyn Atlas - Are we getting our hurricanes and tornadoes mixed up?
Annette Oxindine - We probably are. Were landlocked, its a hurricane, but we havent seen one in a long time.
Marilyn Atlas - She give us the same words, but she gives them to us with a difference. Shes very modern. And she is really coming from a world where people are experimenting with language and repetition and all that good stuff because first it say questioning God. Then they were watching God which is a real different kind of image. Not why are you doing this, but what is it that youre doing and what can we learn from this experience, if anything.
And I think the reader, again, does learn. We learn to listen to the Indians to avoid all of this. We learn that part of its chance, but part of its a certain kind of wisdom. We probably learn that a community will forgive you and is very wonderful, but you have to be careful because it can also hurt you. And it does.
She gets everything she needs and everything she doesnt need from the same source. Kind of an Adrienne Rich image. Its the same place. She cant be alone. She cant make it alone. And yet the people shes with hurt her. Some she forgives; some she does not. And how they hurt her and why they hurt her, its to very different extents.
Annette Oxindine - Its because theyre vulnerable in ways. I think at the end its wonderful. Janies sort of forgives them and Phoebys hard on them. And she says to Phoeby, "Dont be too hard on them." And Phoebys like, "Im going to tell everybody your righteous story." She (Janie) says "dont feel too mean wid de rest of em, because they parched up from not knowin things. Dem meatskins is got tuh rattel tuh make out theys alive. Let em colsolate theyselves wid talk." Then she says, "talkin dont amount to (much)." Thats when she says, "youve got tuh go there tuh know there Two things everybodys got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin fuh theyselves."
And I think that that stresses the individuality in the other image that is very important at the end when she talks about love being like the sea. She says that its different for everyone because it touches the shore, it takes its shape from the shore it meets and its different for every shore.
And I think she allows for that individual experience to be honored within the community and forgives people for not understanding, but ultimately, I think the book celebrates her quest and suggests maybe she can come back home again if she doesnt expect too much from the people.
Edgar Whan - Respect is the key word. I know that Dick Gregory would say, we spent an evening here with him once, he said, "Love means go around to the back door and get a pair of shoes." He also said, "One of our children just died and people called me up." The first thing he said was "its okay, I had her insured for a million dollars." And the second thing he said was, "I couldnt love him because I didnt respect him, I didnt know him." You cant love them if you dont know them and dont respect them. And thats a very key thing with black people who have been put down and get no respect and I think its the same way with women, too.
So any community has to have respect. Love is, of course, the best, but what do we mean by this? A mushy kind of love?
Marilyn Atlas - Why Tea Cake? Why the name Tea Cake?
Edgar Whan - Hes so sweet.
Marilyn Atlas - Hes so sweet and also the food image? The hungry, the mouth imagery, maybe.
Annette Oxindine - Yes, if we go back to being pollinated, he suggests sweetness.
Edgar Whan - What about Motor Boat? I like him.
Annette Oxindine - Or Sop the Bottom, the guy who always sops the bottom of the bowl.
Edgar Whan - Who Flung? If we had ever known where our names came from
Marilyn Atlas - I think when we read this we want to go back, we want to know more about Zora Neale Hurston. We want to search for her like Alice Walker did because, my God, where she came from and where she went and what she was able to create is truly astounding. Its a miracle. And its wonderful.
Edgar Whan - And she wrote this quickly, didnt she? In just a couple of weeks?
Annette Oxindine - Seven weeks on this. She said that she was writing out of the tenderness, out of a love affair that she had had. Theres not a whole lot known about that.
Marilyn Atlas - I never believe women writers or even men, when they say how long they wrote it because I think theres something like kids studying. "I only studied for two minutes, I only studied for fifteen seconds, I didnt even open the book." And I think youve got that, "for me, it just came, straight from God."
Edgar Whan - On the Road, he said "I just typed, I never took my fingers off the typewriter" and it reads like that, too.
Marilyn Atlas - Right.
Annette Oxindine - I mean she was writing it every day of her life is another way to look at it.
Marilyn Atlas - And she did mythologize her life, absolutely.
Annette Oxindine - And her age.
Marilyn Atlas - And her age, right.
Annette Oxindine - We think she was born in 1901, but estimates range pretty widely.
Edgar Whan - Of course she had been writing it her whole life. I remember 1937, we didnt even know blacks existed and for her to come out with this was really strange.
Marilyn Atlas - It was the middle of the Harlem Renaissance. There was so much art being created during that time.
Edgar Whan - Yes, but it didnt leak out to Pontiac, Michigan, Ill tell you that.
Marilyn Atlas - It didnt leak out quite as much. Some writers did like Jean Toomers Cane went out among the high modernists and was considered a wonderful, gigantic, brilliant high modernist success. But, Zora Neale Hurstons book got some attention, but so much of it was negative attention.
People just didnt know what to do with it. It wasnt exactly a romance.
Annette Oxindine - And they didnt know what to do with her.
Edgar Whan - How would she let us think they talked like that? That was just funny. Amos and Andy was on every night. They would say "Buzz me Miss Blue" and it was a big gag. Youre all prepared for all of this stuff, well, a minstrel show and you had to get over that. Nowadays, they dont use that kind of language. Just a hint of it, just a flake of it.
Marilyn Atlas - You know I think that minstrel show image is a really important image, too. Because part of it is youve got to tell it, but to some extent, youve got to tell its slant, the Emily Dickinson image, so people can read it, so people can hear it. And she very much writes this to communicate and I think, at least my sense of her audience, is that it includes African Americans who need their own history as well as white people who need the history of their country and the universe. Its all local and this is her locality.
But, if you read her autobiography I think she mythologized herself. Dust Tracks on a Road, its wonderful and you get a certain Zora Neale Hurston. But the scholars who are writing about her say, if you want the real Zora Neale Hurston, of course there are so many
Edgar Whan - The Gnostics know who she is.
Marilyn Atlas - No, its not just that, but theres so many papers at Yale at the Beinecke Library that give you all the chapters she left out. She presented a certain Zora Neale Hurston and it was part of that minstrel show image.
Annette Oxindine - And she understood that she was speaking to different audiences and that might explain why the different narrative voice goes on. But one of my favorite things she ever said about understanding dual discourse is that when a police officer stopped her for going through a red light, she said "white people stop at red lights." Its like she got it, she understood.
Marilyn Atlas - I wonder if she got the ticket? Its such a wonderful line. If it was a nice literate police officer, he would have let her go.
Edgar Whan - I wonder if it would have gone if it were her voice all the without the narrator.
Marilyn Atlas - My students ask that question. They think not. I think yes. First of all, there had been many people who wrote in dialect before her both white and black who were interested in southern dialect and African dialect.
I think that was a political gesture. I think Janie absolutely couldnt honestly tell her own story. I think she couldnt have Janie tell it because she didnt have the words.
Edgar Whan - If there was nothing in there but dialect, would you have read it?
Annette Oxindine - Yes, because its beautiful.
Marilyn Atlas - I love her dialect. Whenever she speaks, its like, "Oh Janie, yes!"
Edgar Whan - But you got your way into it, and youve got this other thing gradually. If you saw the whole first thing, it would be difficult. I dont know. It would be just as good, but I think it would take a while to understand it.
Annette Oxindine - I think she wants us to see the artistry. She said "whatever the Negro does of his own volition, he embellishes his religious services for the greater part excellent prose poetry. Both prayers and sermons are tooled and polished until they are true works of art. The prayer of the white man is considered humorous in its bleakness. The beauty of the Old Testament does not exceed that of a Negro prayer." And in many ways the books is that kind of a prayer, I think.
Marilyn Atlas - And were back again to "their eyes were watching God."
Edgar Whan - She said "trying to be like the white man is just lynching ourselves."
Marilyn Atlas - And since we dont have too much time and one of our missions is, to use a religious term, is to talk about community. What can we say to summarize? What is Zora Neale Hurston saying? What is Janie saying about the need of other people?
Edgar Whan - In any community, no matter what you do, I have to be respected. I dont want your love, I dont want your vote, I want respect. And I think no community cannot have it. I dont think any marriage can exist without respect. I think marriage is a community. She gives you three different kinds there and they dont work.
But if you love somebody, you can do it in a very funny way. With love you can smother people and I think many people do.
Marilyn Atlas - But even Phoeby, her best friend whos going to listen to this whole story and grow ten feet. At the beginning of the story, first, she sits with the other women who are rejecting her. First, she plays her cards right. First, she makes sure that these women who are rejecting Janie are not also rejecting her.
Edgar Whan - Its a nice framed story. Its like Ulysses coming home.
Marilyn Atlas - Does this friendship ever work absolutely? Is that one of the things shes saying? That we need each other
Annette Oxindine - I think she wants us to see the larger connectedness. One of the things that breaks down relationships between individuals are the different hierarchies within the community. And I think that the fact that she triumphs in overalls and shes oppressed in a blue satin dress. And when shes sitting on the porch, when she connects with the land and she sees herself as part of the community, those women are threatened by her because of the fact that they are kept separate because power is meted out in such an unfair way. And thats why they have to be careful. Theyre not free to completely love and associate with her.
Edgar Whan - Whatever else, shes a free person and theyre always dangerous. If the university produced ten free people a year, theyd close it down.
Marilyn Atlas - Oh, how sad.
Annette Oxindine - Im more optimistic, Ill say twenty-five. Im younger.
Edgar Whan - Would you save this city for twenty-five? No? Twenty? And they went down the line and there was nobody left. Maybe with our population increase you could say fifteen.
Marilyn Atlas - Is she free at the end?
Annette Oxindine - Well, then wed have to get into the whole discussion of what freedom is. I do think she is free to articulate who she is herself a little bit more. I think she does come back as her own daughter.
Edgar Whan - Shes killed the money myth. Shes killed all the myths. Shes been through them and found all of them for what they were worth.
Marilyn Atlas - She does end single and childless. Which is Im not sure is such a positive statement if you have to be your own daughter thats a pretty self-contained system. Theres a wonderful side of it in terms of individual identity, but theres the other side of it that shes not managed with all her beauty and all her wisdom.
Annette Oxindine - Maybe Hurston is suggesting that a woman to give birth does not have to give birth to a biological child, but shes giving birth to other women, shes giving birth to a story.
And I think one of the reasons that those other people cant hear, theres a wonderful line in here. At the very beginning, Hurston says an envious heart makes a treacherous ear and theyre envious because freedom is very, very scary.
Janie understands that and it would be nice I guess if there were a little Janie and go on and tell her story from an early age.
Marilyn Atlas - But maybe thats not necessary, maybe thats part of it, were all interconnected, we are all related, that the biological stuff is just maybe not so absolutely essential. Its nice, but its not necessary.
Annette Oxindine - But she sees, the way that Janie sees nature in the very beginning is interesting because she talks about seeds falling and she said "I hope you fall on soft ground because she had heard seeds say that to each other as they passed. She reads into seeds and into nature, a community. Shes personifying it, of course. But she reads in nature a kind of gentleness.
Edgar Whan - I love what she says about Jody, "He walked around as if he had a throne in his pants." Like a king.
Marilyn Atlas - Not such a comfortable image. Shes better with Tea Cake whos got a guitar, who represents art and music, not flowers painted on a spittoon, but a little bit more of the real thing.
Annette Oxindine - And he does sell the guitar to marry her, I think, to get the money to marry her.
Edgar Whan - You get down in that muck and youre really going to be with nature or against nature, Ill tell you that.
Marilyn Atlas - A little de Maupassant, in terms of the comb and the long hair.
But, yes, I suppose one can be as cynical as one wants about that relationship, but it helped her toward her own voice even if it wasnt perfect.
Edgar Whan - Go to page eighty-two and read that over again, that beautiful diatribe against him. She really spills out. I said it wasnt like Camille dying gradually, but she really lays him out.
Marilyn Atlas - And shes been taken to task for that, Zora Neale Hurston, in terms of "how cruel." It only takes her twenty-one years to speak, but that she dared to speak even then. Lots of room for different perspectives.
Edgar Whan - He was just on the verge of Jordan, it seems a little late for her to do that.
Marilyn Atlas - Well, if she couldnt do it earlier, its better late than never, I suspect. But people have responded in terms of the harshness of that.
Edgar Whan - Remember, he tried to class her, "class" as a verb, he tried to class you, make you sit on that porch, be different from the rest.
Marilyn Atlas - He isolated her. He took her away from the community. He took her voice and he took her away from the community and she was simply an object and it took her a long, long time to move away from that. And to feel the anger because when youre silenced, I think that its really hard to realize that maybe you shouldnt be. If everyones telling you the same thing, that its okay, maybe it is. And I think theres a lot of oppression in this text.
Annette Oxindine - Yes, Phoeby even says to her "you classed off" and she says "No, Jody classed me off."
Marilyn Atlas - Right, not my choice.
Edgar Whan - Yes, that was a nice passage. To sit still is to class. If youre not out there picking up rutabagas.
Marilyn Atlas - And she becomes her own listener, too. Its almost like as we read the story and we read the narrator, shes hearing her own story. And she becomes part of her community.
Annette Oxindine - Yes, that might be another way to read the net around her shoulders, too.
Edgar Whan - And if shes telling the story, do you have to believe it? But thats another step, if you want to get into that. Is she telling a true story or is she telling a story?
Marilyn Atlas - Is she making it up?
Edgar Whan - You have a very real option to disagree with that narrator when you get old and cynical.
Annette Oxindine - I mean, is any story true?
Marilyn Atlas - Right.
Edgar Whan - Thats true.
Marilyn Atlas - But its a nice story and its a better myth than what her grandmother gave her. So, theres an improvement, in terms of the generations.
Edgar Whan - "She was mine there was just no truth to tell." Thats another one. Thats enigmatic.
Marilyn Atlas - With Zora Neale Hurston, there are lots of truths to tell and she tells them all. I love the book.
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