This section contains 3,362 words
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Critical Essay by Alma S. Freeman
SOURCE: "Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker: A Spiritual Kinship," in Sage, Vol. II, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 37-40.
In the following essay, Freeman compares the journeys of the main characters of several of Walker's works, including Meridian, to the protagonist of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Zora Neale Hurston, born in Florida near the turn of the twentieth century, was, for thirty years, the most prolific Black woman writer in the United States. Alice Walker, born in Georgia some forty years later, is one of the most prolific Black women writers in America today. Not only do both women stand as exemplary representatives of the achievement of the American Black woman as writer, but their fiction reveals a strong spiritual kinship. Though separated by place and by time, these two Black women writers, inevitably it seems, were drawn together, and Zora Hurston became an important influence in Alice Walker's life.
Zora Neale Hurston died in 1960. Alice Walker was not to encounter Zora Hurston and her work until the late 1960's. At this time, Alice was working with the Civil Rights Movement and collecting folklore stories in Mississippi. She was also "writing a story that required accurate material on voodoo practices among rural southern Blacks of the thirties," and she was finding the available resources, written primarily by "white, racist anthropologists and folklorists of the period," disappointing and insulting. Then she discovered Mules and Men, Zora Hurston's book recounting her folklore expeditions in the South and relating the stories she had found there. Direct influences from Mules and Men can be seen in Alice Walker's short story "The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuss," a story obviously based on an incident that happened to Alice's mother in the thirties during the Depression. Like Alice's mother, Hannah in the story receives a box of clothes from a relative who lives in the North. She wears one of the dresses from the box into town to get food which is being distributed by the Red Cross. When Hannah presents her voucher, she is shamed and humiliated by a young white woman who refuses to give her food because she is so finely dressed. Unlike Alice's mother, who got the food she needed from a neighbor, Hannah endures extreme suffering as a result of the incident. Her husband deserts her, one by one her children starve to death, and she gradually becomes a broken woman, mutilated both in spirit and body. Finally, when she is awaiting death, Hannah, driven by years of pain and remorse, visits the local rootworker to seek revenge on "the little moppet." Into this story-line, Alice Walker weaves material on voodoo practices from Zora Hurston's book of folklore. For instance, the central character of the story, an apprentice in the rootworking trade, quotes a "curse prayer" used and taught by rootworkers, and she indicates that she "recited it straight from Zora Neale Hurston's book, Mules and Men," while engaging in a voodoo ritual with Hannah Kemhuss. Moreover, Alice Walker dedicates the story "In grateful memory of Zora Neale Hurston."
In Mules and Men, Alice Walker not only found the authentic folklore material that she needed for her own writing, but she also perceived a spiritual sister to whom she became intensely devoted. The following statements recorded in the Foreword of Robert Hemenway's biography of Zora Neale Hurston reflect the essence of Alice's commitment to Zora Hurston and her work:
Condemned to a deserted island for life, with an allotment of ten books to see me through, I would choose, unhesitatingly, two of Zora's: Mules and Men, because I would need to be able to pass on to younger generations the life of American blacks as legend and myth, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, because I would want to enjoy myself while identifying with the black heroine, Janie Crawford, as she acted out many roles in a variety of settings, and functioned (with spectacular results!) in romantic and sensual love. There is no other book more important to me than this one.
By 1979, Alice Walker had read Their Eyes Were Watching God about eleven times, and she declared, "It speaks to me as no other novel, past or present, has ever done … There is enough self-love in that one book—love of community, culture, traditions—to restore a world. Or create a new one. Alice Walker was so inspired by Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God that she wrote the following poem entitled "Janie Crawford" which appears in her book of poems Good Night Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning:
I love the way Janie Crawford
left her husbands the one who wanted
to change her into a mule
and the other who tried to interest her
in becoming a queen
a woman unless she submits is neither a mule
nor a queen
though like a mule she may suffer
and like a queen pace
Zora Neale Hurston exerted such a strong influence in Alice Walker's life that Alice set out to bring back into public attention the work, for many years out of print, of the woman whom she had grown to admire, respect, and revere—a sister artist who "followed her own road, believed in her gods, pursued her own dreams, and refused to separate herself from the 'common' people." Feeling a strong spiritual kinship with her sister writer, Alice Walker, posing as a niece, traveled to Fort Pierce, Florida, found the segregated cemetery there, and placed a tombstone, proclaiming "a genius of the South," to honor Zora Hurston's unmarked grave. Another of Alice Walker's lasting tributes to Zora Neale Hurston is embodied in I Love Myself When I Am Laughing …: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader which Alice edited and dedicated to "Zora Neale Hurston … wherever she is now in the universe with the good wishes and love of all those who have glimpsed her heart through her work." Alice Walker is one who has truly glimpsed the heart of Zora Neale Hurston. From her first short story collection In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women to her latest novel The Color Purple, Ms. Walker, in her own fiction, is keeping alive, extending, and expanding the vital literary tradition that Zora Neale Hurston established in Their Eyes Were Watching God—a tradition which embodies a strong dedication to unveiling the soul of the Black woman.
A comparison of three of Alice Walker's Black women characters with Zora Neale Hurston's Janie Crawford underscores the bond of kinship that exists between Zora's and Alice's exploration of the experiences of the Black woman in the United States. Such a comparison also reveals the author's powerful and poignant portrayal of what it feels like, inside, to be a Black woman struggling to become an autonomous, well-integrated "self" in a society in which her options are severely limited. These four women begin their lives imprisoned by roles and by images and notions of womanhood that conflict directly with their history and with their own vigorous concept of themselves as Black women. Initially, for instance, they find themselves locked in loveless, unfulfilling marriages from which they appear to have no escape and which stifle their dreams, their creativity, and their desire for growth and freedom. Such a situation engenders in these characters a tension that forces them to make personal choices concerning their development as whole human beings. Fighting against both racial and sexual oppression, they choose either a life of continued subservience, anguish, and pain, or they opt to become growing, emergent women who seek to take control of their own lives.
In Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, the sixteen-year-old Janie Crawford, against her own adamant protests, is forced, by her relentless grandmother, to marry Logan Killicks, a hard-working man who is much older than Janie but who owns property and has a degree of status in the community. The grandmother's motivation is clear. She wants to protect Janie from being sexually exploited, as she and Janie's mother have been, by men both Black and white. She also wants to see the dreams she had for herself and for her own daughter realized. Janie's grandmother has internalized the values of white society, which define "what a woman oughta be and do." Denied the opportunity to fulfill the woman's traditional role, she wants this for Janie—the security, protection, respectability, and the material possess ions that a good provider like Logan Killicks can give. Dependent on whites all of her life for mere survival, the grandmother wishes to break this dependency for Janie. But she simply transfers it to the man she forces Janie to marry and sets in motion another cycle of dependency for Janie. Janie soon becomes convinced that Logan cannot give her the sweetness, beauty, and adventure she desires in marriage. And she leaves him for Jody Starks, a fast-talking, ambitious man who promises her love and excitement. Jody carries Janie to a newly founded all-Black community in Florida where he becomes a "big voice" and where he places her on a "pedestal," and, like Logan, treats her as property. Janie finds fulfillment only when Jody dies and she leaves the town with Tea Cake, a younger man and a free spirit, who loves and respects her for the person that she is.
Roselily, the central character of the first story in Alice Walker's collection In Love and Trouble, faces a kind of entrapment similar to Janie's. Young, Black, and poor, living in the rural South, the mother of four children, all by a different man, Roselily marries a Muslim man in order to escape a brutal life of labor in a sewing plant. She stands during her marriage ceremony weighed down with images of quicksand, ropes, chains, and handcuffs. As Janie sees her blossoming, fruit-bearing pear tree—her symbol of life, fertility, and freedom—"desecrated" by her grandmother, so Roselily thinks of flowers choked to death; she feels like a rat cornered. Even the veil she wears reminds her of a kind of servitude that she longs to be free of. It is the same kind to which Janie Crawford is subjected. All Logan wants Janie to be is his maid, his cook, and a laborer on his farm; all Jody wants her to be is "Mrs. Mayor Starks" whose "place is in de home" and the humble clerk in his store. The religion of the man whom Roselily is marrying requires, like Jody demands of Janie, that she wear her hair covered, that she separate herself from the men, and that she take her place in the home. But this is Roselily's only chance to be respectable, to achieve status and prestige, and to provide a better life for her children. Despite her misgivings, her feelings of entrapment, she marries the man, and she will go to live in Chicago, have more children regardless of her wishes, and endure.
Alice Walker's Myrna in "Really, Doesn't Crime Pay?" another story from In Love and Trouble, also endures, despite her aspirations to be a writer. Like Janie during her marriage to Jody, Myrna is placed on a pedestal by her hardworking husband, Ruel. And she aspires to be the perfect wife and lady—keeping house, cooking meals, painting her face, polishing her fingernails, visiting the shopping center daily buying hats she would not dream of wearing, dresses already headed for the Goodwill, and shoes that will mold and mildew in her closet. Then she meets Mordecai Rich who praises her for her intelligence and creativity. Mordecai is an aspiring writer, "a vagabond, scribbling down impressions of the South, from no solid place, going to none." As Jody Starks and Tea Cake do for Janie, Mordecai promises Myrna love and excitement. She gives herself to him completely. Not only do they engage in passionate love-making, but Myrna shares with Mordecai her interest in writing and the volumes of stories that she has drafted but has kept hidden from Ruel. Unlike Janie, however, Myrna does not leave with Mordecai, instead, one day, he suddenly disappears. And later, Myrna reads one of her stories in a magazine, "filled out and switched about," authored by Mordecai Rich. Thereafter, she suffers a nervous breakdown, attempts to kill Ruel with a chain saw, and spends some time in a mental institution.
Unlike Roselily, Myrna does, in her own way, fight against her entrapment. Myrna's most important act of rebellion, her only sense of freedom, rests in taking the Pill. Ruel desperately wants a child, and he struggles very hard to make Myrna conceive. She consents to his every wish. She even visits the doctor at Ruel's request to see about "speeding up the conception of the child." But she never tells Ruel that she "religiously" takes the Pill, and this engenders in her a feeling of triumph over him, a sense of independent choice. At the end of the story, Myrna exults in her deceptively won freedom:
It is the only spot of humor in my entire day, when I am gulping that little yellow tablet and washing it down with soda pop or tea…. When he is quite, quite tired of me I will tell him how long I've relied on the security of the Pill.
Meridian Hill, the central character of Alice Walker's novel Meridian, begins her life, like Janie, Roselily, and Myrna, as a woman with few choices. Meridian, however, bears a special relationship to Janie Crawford because, unlike Roselily and Myrna, Janie and Meridian become women who make options for themselves, who finally choose a life of their own. In Janie's story and in Meridian's story, we see Black women developing a consciousness, an awareness, which allows them to arrive at a deepened sense of self and to grow stronger by speaking from and for that self. They thus are able to take control of their own destiny. Both Janie and Meridian then are involved in a quest for identity. Each woman struggles to affirm the "self" which she knows exists beneath the false images imposed upon her because she is Black and female. Janie's search is deeply personal, her vision intensely romantic. She seeks and finally finds a sense of fulfillment through fusion with another "self." Meridian, however, possesses a deeply social and moral vision. Her story emanates from a broader social and political context than does Janie's. As Mary Helen Washington notes, Meridian "evolves from a woman trapped by racial and sexual oppression to revolutionary figure, effecting action and strategy to bring freedom to herself and other poor disenfranchised Blacks in the South."
Against her wishes, the teenaged Meridian, like the sixteen-year-old Janie, is forced into an unfulfilling marriage. Meridian becomes pregnant; she reluctantly marries Eddie, the father of her child, and makes an effort at being a "proper" wife and mother. Finding this role confining and intolerable, she harbors thoughts of killing her child; then she contemplates suicide rather than harm her own baby. Finally, her marriage ends, and she gives her child away believing she is saving both lives. From this point, Meridian moves through college and the Civil Rights Movement into a revolutionary group where she discovers that she cannot kill for the Revolution. Her spirit broken, she begins a sort of physical degeneration. She loses her hair, dons a cap and dungarees, lives alone in small rooms in small southern towns trying to find her own health while she helps the Black people in these towns find power. She is followed by Truman Held, a man whom she sincerely loves but whom she must finally reject in an effort to get a hold of her own life.
Like Janie Crawford, Meridian Hill leaves the men in her life to search for fulfillment as a human being. While Janie abandons Logan and the memory of Jody, journeys to the horizon with Tea Cake, and finds a satisfying love, Meridian leaves Eddie and Truman, turns inward, and travels back through many generations to free herself. She identifies with her mother's great-grandmother, a slave but also an artist who became famous and bought her freedom by painting lasting decorations on barns. She remembers her father's grandmother, the mystical and high-spirited Feather Mae, and she, like Feather Mae, experiences an ecstatic communion with the past atop the Sacred Serpent, an Indian burial mound. At college Meridian learns about the slave woman and storyteller Louvinie and the Sojourner. She also expresses deep sensitivity for her own mother who, through suffering and sacrifice, fulfilled her dreams of becoming a school teacher. Such an anchor in her ancestral past gives Meridian a sense of strength and continuity, a knowledge of herself as a creative human being, which helps to fortify and to free her from a need for dependence on another person in her quest for identity.
Through the total range of her experiences, Meridian creates a new self—an androgynous self; she is transformed, as symbolized by the wasting illness from which she recovers and returns "to the world cleansed of sickness." Meridian's androgynous quality, expressed in physically androgynous features, is communicated through a passage near the end of the novel when she visits a prison and the inmates ask, "Who was that person? That man / woman person with a shaved part in close-cut hair? A man's blunt face and thighs a woman's breast?" Here, Meridian appears as a symbol of one who has creatively united the masculine and feminine opposites and achieved a state of unconscious wholeness. As she leaves Truman for the last time, he recognizes the change in her:
What he felt was that something in her was exactly the same as she had always been and as he had, finally, succeeded in knowing her. That was the part he might now sense but could not see. He would never see "his" Meridian again. The new part had grown out of the old, though, and that was reassuring. This part of her, new, sure and ready, even eager, for the world, he knew he must meet again and recognize for its true value at some future time.
Janie Crawford does not reach the androgynous state that Meridian achieves. Janie longs for it, as symbolized by her mystical experience of the pear tree, an androgynous symbol with roots sinking into the feminine earth and branches stretching forth to the masculine sky. For Janie, the tree represents a loving harmony between the masculine and feminine forces of nature, a union which she desires to attain. Throughout her story, she seeks this unity, this wholeness. But she relies first on Logan and Jody and then on Tea Cake rather than searching within herself to realize it. Finally, she kills Tea Cake in self-defense and thereby frees herself. Through this symbolic act, Janie breaks the cycle of dependency set in motion by her grandmother. Janie ends her story alone, settling down in her own private room, at peace with herself, wrapped in loving memories of Tea Cake. But her experience of happiness is still tied to him. Significantly neither Zora nor Alice endorses isolation as a way of life, but each of their protagonists finds it necessary to be alone in order to achieve insight and growth. At the end of the novel, Janie, alone in her room, is prepared to embark upon the inward voyage that Meridian undertakes. We might even say that Meridian Hill finishes the struggle that Janie Crawford begins, for the end of Their Eyes Were Watching God marks the beginning of another story, a story which Alice Walker takes up and completes in Meridian. Thus, Alice Walker further reveals her strong dedication to accomplishing the task to which Zora Neale Hurston, her sister writer, had earlier devoted her creative energy.
"A people must define itself" writes Ralph Ellison in Shadow and Act. It is thus the duty of the American Black woman to dispel the myths and burst the stereotypes surrounding her character, personality, and experience. Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker are two of the several Black women writers who have sought to fulfill this task. In their literary works, we hear the Black woman speak. She speaks in a loud voice—with power and with fervor, but always with compassion and grace—as she defines, affirms, and preserves in literature the essential humanity of her own group.
This section contains 3,362 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)