"Love me like I like to be": the sexual politics of Hurston's 'Their Eyes Were Watching God,' the classic blues and the Black Women's Club movement.
Their Eyes engages in early twentieth-century black feminist politics. To develop a context for the sexual politics of earlier writers, critics and historians have turned to the discourses of the black women's club movement, which had its origins in the antilynching campaign, and the classic blues, sung and written in large part by African American women. Pauline Hopkins and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, in particular, have been read as engaged in the political debates of the black women's club movement, as have Hurston's "urban" contemporaries Nella Larsen, Angelina Weld Grimke, and, obliquely, Jessie Fauset (Tate; Carby, Reconstructing; McDowell," 'Nameless' "142).(2) Unaccountably, Hurston has been left out of this investigation, even though Their Eyes clearly took shape within a broad continuum of African American women's writing on sexuality early in this century.(3)
Hurston's biography supports such historical contextualization of her work. She worked for Mary McLeod Bethune just before Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935 and traveled in the same circles as Alice Dunbar Nelson, an officer in the Federation of Colored Women's Clubs (Hemenway 19; Hull 90, 166). In addition, the discourse of the anti-lynching campaign must have been particularly visible to a student at Howard just before and during the push for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in 1922.(4) Hurston was also an authority on African American folk music, assisting Alan Lomax in his collecting and recording for the Music Division of the Library of Congress in 1935 (Hemenway 211). Although Hazel Carby has read Hurston as opposed to urban or commercialized versions of the blues ("Politics" 75), her relationship to them was complex. Hurston was a friend of Ethel Waters, for example, and attempted to sell her a song on at least one occasion (Hemenway 207, 284).
On a trip with Langston Hughes, she stayed with Bessie Smith (106) and was quite familiar with Harlem cabarets as well as the Southern tent-show and vaudeville tradition which showcased classic blues singers (26-27). In fact, she once joined a traveling theatrical troupe as a wardrobe girl (17).(5)
It is my contention that Hurston has been left out of this debate primarily because her text disrupts neat dichotomies between respectability and desire, middle- and working-class discourses, and club and blues women. Their Eyes alludes to the politics of rape and lynching, as I discuss in detail below, by first charging Janie with sexual misconduct and then by exonerating her, primarily in the trial scene. However, Their Eyes does not reject charges of African American women's libidinousness at the expense of sexual expression, as literary critics have argued of other texts from this period. Critics like Carby and Deborah McDowell have generally read African American women's literature during the Harlem Renaissance as replicating the middle-class conservatism of club discourse and as opposing or suppressing the liberatory sexual discourse of the blues.(6) Hurston's text doesn't fit this critical bifurcation.
Historians, too, claim that club and blues discourses existed to some extent in opposition to one another. They argue that club women attempted to regulate desire (Carby, "Policing" 741) and refute racist ideologies that represented African American women as libidinous (Giddings 85-89). The classic blues, on the other hand, are often read as centrally concerned with expressing desire, with establishing African American women as sexual subjects.(7) However, drawing the opposition between the middle and working class and repressive or expressive sexual discourses too sharply risks oversimplification, as Ann duCille aptly warns in her discussion of the blues:
Such evaluations often erase the contexts and complexities of a wide range of African American historical experiences and replace them with a single, monolithic, if valorized, construction: "authentic" blacks are southern, rural, and sexually uninhibited. Middle class, when applied to black artists and their subjects, becomes pejorative, a sign of having mortgaged one's black aesthetic to the alien conventions of the dominant culture. (71)
Privileging the working class not only dismisses middle-class African American experience, it also masks the complexity within each group. The politics of both the largely middle-class club movement and the largely working-class classic blues were striated. Each discourse struggled with class issues and with legitimating black female sexuality in a racist context which positioned African American women as libidinous. Before arguing for Hurston's political embeddedness, I will create the context for her literary interventions by detailing the various sexual ideologies of club and classic blues discourses, which at times overlap and at times contradict one another. Then, I will argue that Hurston's Their Eyes, like historical discourses, refuses simple dichotomies between respectability and desire, and works with both blues and club discourse to legitimate sexual subjectivity.
With its origins in the antilynching campaign, the club movement produced a variety of strategies for refuting racist sexual ideology.(8) Club women refuted charges of primitivism at times by emphasizing socioeconomic status and middle-class respectability. Statements like Mary McLeod Bethune's in 1933 publicized African American women's accomplishments in order to dispel widely circulated sexual stereotypes:
As the years have gone on the Negro woman has touched the most vital fields in the civilization of today. . . . she is successful as a poet and a novelist; she is shrewd in business and capable in politics; she recognizes the importance of uplifting her people through social, civic and religious activities . . . . (qtd. in Lerner, Black 583)
Ironically, the emphasis on middle-class respectability and material achievement tended to displace sexual "immorality" onto the working class. Among club women the desire to protect or uplift working-class women often went hand in hand with the belief that working-class women were actually or potentially licentious. It is worth noting, however, that these club women worked to refute primitivist ideology by arguing that sexual immorality was not a racial characteristic. In her statement against racial prejudice in 1925, social worker Elsie Johnson McDougald displaced sexual "immorality" onto the working class, arguing that" 'the women of the working class will react emotionally and sexually, similarly to the working-class women of other races,' "and that" 'sex irregularities are not a matter of race, but of socio-economic conditions'" (qtd in Lerner, Black 170). Thus, McDougald represented morality as socially rather than biologically constructed.
As Evelyn Higginbotham has argued, women like Mary Church Terrell both acknowledged class bias and reproduced it in their discourse.(9) Arguing "that the more intelligent and influential among us do not exert themselves as much as they should to uplift those beneath them," Terrell clearly marks class differences even as she condemns middle-class apathy (qtd. in Higginbotham 206). She positions working-class women as inferior and "immoral" even as she argues for identification and activism:
Even though we wish to shun them, and hold ourselves entirely aloof from them, we cannot escape the consequences of their acts. So, that, if the call of duty were disregarded altogether, policy and self-preservation would demand that we go down among the lowly, the illiterate, and even the vicious to whom we are bound by the ties of race and sex, and put forth every possible effort to uplift and reclaim them. (qtd. in Higginbotham 207)
Exemplifying a similar class bias, Charlotte Hawkins Brown stressed the differences between herself and the working class by distancing herself from her slave past and by emphasizing her educational and cultural achievements (Giddings 178). In representing herself as successful, she, "like other reform-minded people of her generation, . . . attributed the negative racial and sexual stereotypes to immorality among the 'lower' classes, rather than white bias and abuse" (Hunter 3:706). Furthermore, Carby has argued in the context of urban migration early in the century that middle-class African American women actively policed working-class women's sexuality. Middle-class women, Carby argues, held "fears of a rampant and uncontrolled female sexuality; fears of miscegenation; and fears of the assertion of an independent black female desire" ("Policing" 741, 746). As I will demonstrate in more detail later, Hurston raises questions of respectability and class bias in the figure of Nanny. Although Nanny's focus on middle-class respectability and her regulation of Janie's sexuality seem to reinforce polarities between middle-class sexual repression and working-class expressivity, Hurston works to dismantle the dichotomy, in part, by positioning Nanny as a former slave and a member of the working class.
The middle-class status of women involved in the black women's club movement did not always translate into conservative sexual politics. Club women like Nannie Burroughs were well aware of bourgeois elitism and confronted it directly in their writing.(10) Burroughs foregrounded the respectability of working-class women in her instructions to recruiters for the Women's Convention:
Go out of your way to get an ordinary, common-sense, spirit-filled everyday woman. There are thousands of them to be had, and you can do more work in one month with this type of a woman than you can do in one year with the "would-be" Social Leader, who is entering these organizations devoted to uplift, for no other reason than to show her finery and to let her less fortunate sisters see how brilliantly she shines. (qtd in Higginbotham 208)
Burroughs's relationship to the large constituency of working-class women in the Baptist church created a different discourse on respectability, one that validated the labor of the working poor and represented working-class women as "moral" agents (205).(11)
Like club discourse, the classic blues took on issues of class and sexuality, but by no means constituted a uniform ideology. They were sung by working- and middle-class women and composed by women and men.(12) The contingencies of performance often made blues thematics difficult to interpret. Working-class blues women might easily be singing male-authored lyrics to middle-class African American or white audiences, for example. At other times the classic blues might be performed and recorded by African American women who, to varying degrees, composed their own lyrics and incorporated traditional melodies, themes, and techniques into their blues.(13) Even women-authored blues ranged from the more traditional blues of Ma Rainey, who came from the South, continued to tour in tent shows, and performed for the working class, to the more "commercial" urban songs of singers like Edith Wilson and Lucille Hegamin, who sang to mixed audiences in cabarets and whose diction and delivery were designed to appeal to a middle-class crowd (Harrison 1112, 220). Thematically, the majority of classic blues are concerned with gender and sexuality, but include songs affirming lesbianism, lyrics celebrating heterosexual women's subjectivity in monogamous or multiple partnerships, and blues about men's infidelity or physical abuse of women and women's passive or active responses (Harrison 13-14; Oliver 186).
The lyrics of the classic blues clearly demonstrate an awareness of the ways in which class issues structured sexual politics during this period. Sara Martin's "Mean Tight Mama" reinforces the opposition between the middle and working class, representing the working class as sexually more expressive:
Now my hair is nappy and I don't wear no clothes of silk, (2x) But the cow that's black and ugly, has often got the sweetest milk. Now when a man starts jivin' I'm tighter than a pair of shoes, (2x) I'm a mean tight mama, with my mean tight mama blues. (qtd in Oliver 179)
Similarly, Ma Rainey's song "Down in the Basement" equates the basement with sexuality at the same time that she opposes basement music or the blues to the parlor music or "grand opera" of the middle class (Lieb 146). These songs privileged working- over middle-class experience, but at the same time they reinforced the opposition which positioned working-class women as overly sexual. As duCille has argued, the lyrics of sexual desire both situated African American women as sexual subjects and as oversexed in an historical moment when primitivism was selling well (73-74).
Hurston initially uses Tea Cake to privilege working-class desire over middle-class respectability. Tea Cake is opposed to Nanny explicitly in Their Eyes, and while Nanny invokes club discourse, as I will argue further on, Tea Cake's sexuality draws on blues discourse for much of its potency. It might seem that Hurston's positioning of Tea Cake as the embodiment of unregulated working-class desire and Nanny as the representative of middle-class norms of respectability reinforces elitist and racist versions of African American sexuality. But I will argue below that, like blues discourses, which offer this opposition and also deconstruct it, Their Eyes collapses the dichotomy between Nanny and Tea Cake, respectability and desire, in order to position Janie as sexual but not libidinous.
There is no consensus among blues critics about the extent to which the classic blues, as a commercial genre, pandered to sexual stereotypes. On one hand, William Barlow argues that advertisements used sexual stereotypes to sell race records and "the classic blues sometimes became a burlesque of African-American sexuality" (142). In a discussion of Bessie Smith and Sara Martin, Paul Oliver agrees that "the increased proportion of suggestive and pornographic material in their late sessions does lend support to the view that the record companies, confronted with the Depression, attempted to revive flagging sales with records of this character" (180). On the other hand, Oliver suggests that traditional folk blues were more sexually explicit than the classic blues and that the effective double entendre in classic blues songs arose in response to commercial bowdlerization (214-15).
Moreover, as Sandra Lieb argues in her discussion of the erotic lyrics of Ma Rainey's songs, Rainey "represented a new kind of female symbol in black popular entertainment, different from minstrel stereotypes of suffering mammies, tragic mulattoes, 'sepia lovelies,' and hot-blooded sexpots: she was a mama, an authority generative, nurturant, yet sexual" (170). In effect Lieb suggests that Ma Rainey broke down the opposition between respectability or "morality" and sexual expressivity in her performances. Rainey was both "good" and sexual, "maternal and erotic" (170).
Bessie Smith's "Young Woman's Blues," plays with the opposition between respectability and sexual assertion in similar ways. She rejects the middle-class or "high yella" representation of herself as immoral, "a bum," while asserting her sexual subjectivity:
Woke up this morning when chickens were crowing for day. Felt on the right side of my pillow, my man had gone away. On his pillow he left a note, reading I'm sorry you got my goat. No time to marry, no time to settle down.
I'm a young woman and ain't done running around. I'm a young woman and ain't done running around.
Some people call me a hobo, some call me a bum, Nobody know my name, nobody knows what I've done. I'm as good as any woman in your town, I ain't no high yella, I'm tequila brown. I ain't gonna marry, ain't gonna settle down. I'm gonna drink good moonshine and run these browns down. See that long lonesome road, cause you know it's got a end. And I'm a good woman and I can get plenty men. (Smith)
Smith's use of "good woman" can be read as an ironic sexual innuendo. However, it can also be read as confusing categories of respectability and desire. As a woman deserted by her man (rather than the other way around), she asserts both her status as a "good woman" and her sexual potency (which is challenged by her man's absence). In a complex rhetorical move, "Young Woman's Blues," claims both respectability and sexual subjectivity for working-class women.
Like some forms of club discourse, the classic blues also worked to regulate sexuality. While these blues often position a woman as able to speak her mind or as physically strong and assertive, they convey a sexual ideology coextensive with that of the club movement insofar as they position women as the "moral" center of the home and valorize heterosexual monogamy. In the club movement, "protection" of working-class women often relied on positioning them as victims not only of sexual abuse but also of their own sexuality, which, unregulated, could drive them to ruin, according to Carby. This attitude toward sexuality has its corollary in the "mistreating" man trope of the classic blues. The "mistreating" man may take a woman's money, beat her, prove sexually unsatisfactory, but most often he deserts her, probably for another woman. Many of the desertion blues position the woman as the site of monogamous heterosexuality - she signifies on her promiscuous man, threatens him with violence, or pleads with him to come home.(14) Placed in opposition to promiscuous men but unable to reject them, many desertion blues women do appear to be - as middle-class women would claim - victims of their own desire.
Bessie Smith's "In the House Blues" represents a sexual ideology that rejects promiscuity at the same time the narrator is represented as a victim of her own desire. Smith sings,
Sitting in the house with everything on my mind (2x) Looking at the clock and can't even tell the time.
Walking to my window and looking outa my door (2x) Wishin that my man would come home once more.
Can't eat, can't sleep, so weak I can't walk my floor (2x) Feel like calling "murder" let the police squad get me once more.
As a monogamous woman waiting for her man to come home, the narrator critiques her man's promiscuity and polices his desire. At the same time, it is her own desire for her man that weakens and maddens her. To some extent the narrator occupies simultaneously a "moral," regulatory, and "immoral," sexually expressive space in the song.
However, Smith's song could also be interpreted as condemning desire in general, since both the male's philandering and the woman's own desire victimize her.(15) This latter reading is even more clearly represented in Ma Rainey's "Moonshine Blues":
I can't stand up, I can't sit down, The man I love has done left town;
I feel like screamin', I feel like cryin', Lord, I've been mistreated, folks, and don't mind dyin';
I'm goin' home, I'm going to settle down, I'm goin' stop my running around. (qtd. in Lieb 92)
A victim of both her man and her own desire, the narrator (like club women) suggests that unregulated desire is ruinous. She attempts to curb her man by leaving and naming his abuse, but she also decides to halt her own "running around."
Of course many blues reject "mistreating" men without denying female desire. Ida Cox's "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues," for example, clearly rejects the regulatory function of women left at home:
I yeeh hear these women raving bout their monkey men, About their fighting husbands and their no good friends. These poor women sit around all day and moan, Wondering why their wandering papas don't come home, Wild women don't worry, wild women don't have the blues!
Now when you got a man, don't ever be on the square Because if you do, he'll have a woman everywhere. I never was known, to treat no one man right I keep em working hard, both day and night. Because wild women don't worry, wild women don't have the blues!
Cox's lyric not only critiques "mistreating men," it critiques the whole notion of policing desire. The narrator, instead, argues for multiple partnerships. This clear affirmation of desire, however, is problematic in that it could be used to reinforce stereotypes about African American women's libidinousness. Far from uniform in their treatment of sexual legitimacy, then, the classic blues reinforce, invert, and deconstruct the opposition between middle- and working-class sexualities, respectability and desire. Hurston's use of club writings and classic blues lyrics demonstrates that neither historical discourse represented sexuality unproblematically and both proved useful in representing African American women as sexual subjects.
Their Eyes concerns itself with the question of African American women's sexual legitimacy. Hurston's novel is framed by scenes that represent Janie as oversexed - in the initial porch scene and at the trial. Nanny also represents Janie as libidinous and, like some club women, uses middle-class respectability as a strategy of containment. If read as a defense from such charges (as the trial scene makes plain), Janie's story takes on an explicitly political valence.
Initially, the discourses of the porch sitters and Nanny are coextensive with the regulatory discourses of both the club movement and the classic blues. The novel opens with working-class African Americans on the porch, in the schoolyard, and in the person of Nanny all representing Janie as too sexual. In a controversial move, the text establishes women's sexual "morality" as an issue within the African American community, reproducing a version of white racist ideology. As we will see, however, it also inverts class biases - the "moral" working class stand in judgment of Janie. The porch sitters represent Janie as sexual, question whether she ever married, suggest that her age is inappropriate to her lover's, and conjecture that she has lost all of her money to Tea Cake. They position Janie as the victim of a "mistreating man" and of her own desire. Both Pheoby and Janie recognize that Janie's sexual reputation is the focus of the community's attention. Pheoby chides," 'De way you talkin' you'd think de folks in dis town didn't do nothin' in de bed 'cept praise de Lawd'" (Hurston 13). Janie sighs, "'. . . They got to look into me loving Tea Cake and see whether it was done right or not!'" (17).
Like many club women, Nanny focuses specifically on issues of respectability. Positioned as Janie's moral guardian, she justifies her rejection of Janie's working-class sexual experimentation as a form of "protection." She represents Janie's sexuality as highly vulnerable because she reads men as abusive and "immoral." Nanny sees Johnny Taylor's kiss as "lacerating her Janie," and she sees herself as "'guidin' yo' feet from harm and danger' "so that" 'de menfolks white or black . . . [won't be] makin' a spit cup outa you' "(26, 27, 37). In addition, she frames her discussion with the story of her own and Leafy's rapes.
Nanny's position as moral guardian is revisionist to the extent that she is a working-class woman whom various club women would have read as immoral, and she was raped under the abuses of slavery, which under white racist ideology would have positioned her as a "loose" woman. In addition, the emphasis on male abuses would seem to reject stereotypes of African American women's seduction by suggesting an historical rather than a biological basis for sexual "immorality." However, Nanny practices a version of African American club women's class bias, reproducing stereotypes by reading working-class sexuality in general as dangerous. When Janie rejects the idea of a "respectable" middle-class marriage to Logan Killicks, Nanny represents her as lascivious, "indecent," and a victim of her own desire, like Leafy:
"So you don't want to marry off decent like, do yuh? You just wants to hug and kiss and feel around with first one man and then another, huh? You wants to make me suck de same sorrow yo' mama did, eh? Mah ole head ain't gray enough. Mah back ain't bowed enough to suit yuh!" (28)
Because Nanny sees socioeconomic positioning as contributing to women's vulnerability, she advocates middle-class marriage and "respectability" as protection from sexual abuse. Nanny, like Elsie Johnson McDougald, introduces a sociological refutation of primitivism which sees sexual "immorality" as a racial trait. However, she also represents working-class desire as illegitimate. For Nanny, like some club women, middle-class status is a necessary precursor to the expression of African American women's subjectivity. Nanny's position as a slave and the birth of Leafy keep her in the working class with a" 'broom and a cook-pot'" and" 'no pulpit'" to" 'preach a great sermon about colored women sittin' on high'" (32). At first Nanny sees education as a means of transcending sexual abuse and hard manual labor, but, in fact, schooling does not offer protection, as Leafy's rape so poignantly proves and as Janie's kiss portends. Leafy's education ends in her "'drinkin' likker and stayin' out nights' "(37). Consequently, Nanny associates African American women's agency with middle-class marriage and its attendant "respectability" and status. Janie describes Nanny's position:
"She was borned in slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn't sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin' on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat's whut she wanted for me - don't keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn't have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool tuh do nothin'. De object wuz tuh git dere." (172)
Their Eyes positions Nanny as taking issue with white racist ideology by attributing sexual "immorality" to economic conditions rather than to racial traits. Meanwhile, the text also positions Nanny as advocating a version of middle-class African American women's class bias - "sexual irregularities" are not essential to working-class women, but socioeconomic conditions make women more vulnerable to sexual abuse and thus less likely to" 'take uh stand on high ground.' "Nanny pushes Janie into the middle class because she believes that Janie is otherwise doomed by her class position to become a "loose" woman. Ironically, even though Nanny is represented as working class and unfallen, she articulates a view that makes a middle-class position necessary to an unfallen state.
Hurston ultimately uses Nanny to dismantle middle-class notions of respectability. The figure of Nanny challenges middle-class authority over sexual norms in her final repudiation of middle-class status as necessary to sexual subjectivity. Nanny eventually regrets Janie's marriage to Logan Killicks, recognizing the denial of Janie's sexual subjectivity as similar to her own experiences. She identifies with Janie by telling her," 'Tain't no use in you cryin', Janie. Grandma done been long uh few roads herself,' "by feeling "an infinity of conscious pain" for her part in advocating Janie's liaison with Killicks, and through her death (43). Her identification with Janie implies a critique of her former position that as a member of the working class Janie was destined to be "immoral."
Expanding this critique, Their Eyes disputes the class bias implicit in Nanny's argument by showing how focusing on victimization and respectability result in stifling African American women's agency and sexual subjectivity. Janie claims that "she had been set in the market-place to sell" in her marriage to Logan, implying that her "respectable" marriage smacked of prostitution or slavery (138). Again with Jody, Janie has money and respectability, but Jody's objectification of her and his demand for her submission stifles any desire she might feel for him. Even after Jody's death, when Janie lets down her hair and recognizes in herself "a handsome woman," her class position continues to repress sexual expression (135). Her suitors "felt that it was not fitting to mention desire to the widow of Joseph Starks. You spoke of honor and respect" (143).
While Janie's middle-class marriages stifle desire, her working-class marriage embodies it. This dichotomy would suggest that Their Eyes reinforces the opposition between working-class sexual expressivity and middle-class repression, and merely reverses their hierarchical relationship. Reading the novel as a rejection of middle-class respectability in favor of working-class desire is reminiscent of blues texts like "Mighty Tight Woman." These texts specify class differences in order to privilege working-class sexuality, but they risk reinforcing racist sexual ideology that sees the working class as too sexual, even as they reject elitism. Reinforcing sexual stereotypes is a real possibility for Janie, who deserts Logan, rids herself of Jody in her dozens exchange, and names and rejects both Logan's and Jody's inadequate sexual performances.
However, even though Hurston's text violates middle-class notions of respectability, it does not revel in sexual expressivity. Hurston refuses to privilege working- or middle-class sexuality; rather, she confounds this opposition. Their Eyes strategically combines expressive and regulatory discourses of sexuality, policing desire not to suppress it but to legitimate it. Hurston's text does not conflate women's sexuality with a "morality" defined by monogamy, for example; however, it does represent Janie as heterosexual, and it endorses serial monogamy rather than multiple partnerships. The sexual politics of Ma Rainey's lesbian "Prove It on Me Blues" or the enticing homosexuality of the narrator's male rival in Rainey's "Sissy Blues" were clearly articulated in the classic blues and were celebrated in the artistic circles Hurston traveled within in Harlem (Hull 8-9; Oliver 206). These sexual politics are, however, absent in Their Eyes. Furthermore, the novel aligns itself only tentatively with blues like Ida Cox's "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues" and Bessie Smith's "Young Woman's Blues," songs which advocate multiple partnerships in response to "mistreating" men. Like these blues women and Leafy, Janie has multiple partnerships: She leaves Logan, marries Jody, and sleeps with Tea Cake after Jody's death, but she marries and "settle[s] down" with each. The novel advocates women leaving "their fighting husbands and their no good friends," but it stops short of suggesting, as "Wild Women" does, "When you got a man, don't ever be on the square."
Furthermore, Hurston's text rarely represents Janie's desire explicitly. Instead of boasting about Janie's sexual abilities, Their Eyes focuses on her rejection of Logan and Jody as sexually inadequate. There is a subtle and strategic regulation of desire in the text's decision to make Janie's desire implicit. This strategic choice can best be seen when Hurston's text is read opposite classic blues which resist the sexual regulation of desire. Celebrating the sexual desires and abilities of women, this classic blues tradition may express dissatisfaction with a "mistreating man," but it combines a critique of physical abuse or sexual inadequacy with a woman's assertion of her own sexual potency. The narrator in Ida Cox's "One Hour Mama," for example, combines a critique of men's sexual ability with a celebration of her own:
I've always heard that haste makes waste, So I believe in takin' my time. The highest mountain can't be raced It's something you must slowly climb.
I want a slow and easy man; He needn't ever take the lead, Cause I work on that long time plan And I ain't alookin' for no speed.
I'm a one hour mama, so no one minute papa Ain't the kind of man for me. Set your alarm clock papa, one hour that's proper, Then love me like I like to be.
I don't want no lame excuses, Bout my lovin' being so good, That you couldn't wait no longer Now I hope I'm understood.
I'm a one hour mama so no one minute papa Ain't the kind of man for me.
Like Janie, Ida Cox's narrator in "One Hour Mama" criticizes men for unsatisfactory sexual performances and demands that they "love me like I like to be." However, the narrator in "One Hour Mama" boasts about her own sexual prowess as "the highest mountain" and about a woman who "Takes an hour 'fore I get started, / Maybe three 'fore I'm through." This kind of boasting by a female narrator, though common in classic blues by women - "Coffee Grinding Blues" by Lucille Bogan, "Mighty Tight Woman" by Sippie Wallace, "Sports Model Mama" by Victoria Spivey, for example - is almost nonexistent in Their Eyes. Couched in the naivete of a young woman asking sexual advice from her grandmother, Janie's description of her own desire - "'Ah wants to want him sometimes. Ah don't want him to do all the wantin' (41)'" - is subdued next to the narrator's expression of desire in "One Hour Mama," and there is no description of Janie's own sexual prowess. Instead, Janie's criticism of Logan and Jody's sexual inadequacy has the directness and the enthusiasm of the classic blues, as Janie's description of Logan proves:
"Some folks never was meant to be loved and he's one of 'em. . . . Ah hates de way his head is so long one way and so flat on de sides and dat pone uh fat back uh his neck. . . . His belly is too big too, now, and his toe-nails look lak mule foots." (42)
Most often, Hurston's text emphasizes Janie's dissatisfaction with or admiration for, in the case of Tea Cake, male sexuality. In her well-known dozens exchange with Jody, Janie does describe herself as sexual in addition to criticizing Jody:
"Naw, Ah ain't no young gal no mo' but den Ah ain't no old woman neither. Ah reckon Ah looks mah age too. But Ah'm uh woman every inch of me, and Ah know it. Dat's uh whole lot more'n you kin say. You big-bellies round here and put out a lot of brag, but 'tain't nothin' to it but yo' big voice. Humph! Talkin"bout me lookin' old! When you pull down yo' briches, you look lak de change uh life." (122-23)
This is the only statement Janie makes about her own sexual ability, and the passage works rhetorically to emphasize Jody's inadequacy over Janie's sexual ability. As an expression of desire, it is a far cry from assertions of sexual ability in the classic blues. The narrator in Ida Cox's "Hard Times Blues," for instance, claims to be "a big fat mama got the meat shakin' on my bones / And every time I shake some skinny gal loses her home." Similarly, Lucille Bogan's narrator in "Coffee Grinding Blues" revels in her sexual subjectivity:
Ain't nobody, ain't nobody, ain't nobody in town Can grind their coffee like mine
I drink so much coffee I grinds it in my sleep (2x) An when it gets like that you know it can't be beat.
It's so doggone good that it made me bite my tongue (2x) Gone keep it for my daddy ain't gone give nobody none.
That Their Eyes subdues Janie's sexual expression in a milder form than the classic blues can be seen as further evidence of the text's desire to "legitimize" or represent sexual subjectivity as acceptable for women without reinforcing negative stereotypes. At the same time, Janie's rejection of Logan and Jody as sexually inadequate suggests her sexual subjectivity without positioning her as a seductress.
Hurston's text could be read as subordinating blues sexuality to concerns over sexual stereotypes, suggesting a relationship characterized by regulation or prescription. Although there is some regulation here, Hurston's text strategically invokes rather than represses sexual content. The sexual metaphors in Their Eyes are milder than those in the classic blues, but their rhetorical effectiveness depends on the extent to which they recall a strong sexual blues or folk tradition. Mules in the classic blues, for instance, were metaphors for sexual potency, "driving a mule," and for cuckoldry, "another mule's in your stall," or "kicking" in your stall (Taft 2:1693). Their Eyes signifies on blues mules mildly but effectively when Logan's decision to put two mules in his stall satisfactorily issues in Janie's coupling with Jody.(16) Furthermore, Tea Cake is, in blues terms, Janie's "easy rider," a phrase used frequently in the blues to connote a good lover by equating sexual motion to the swinging motion of someone riding a mule (Lieb 99; Oliver 214-215). The text makes subdued but effective use of this trope in Janie's sexual fantasy, which represents the world as a "stallion rolling in a blue pasture of ether," and in its representation of Tea Cake as the realization of this fantasy, "bucking around the room in the upper air" or "prancing around her" when a breeze blows through her open bedroom window (Hurston 44, 163, 286). In addition, the romantic image of Janie's sexual awakening, lying under a pear tree watching bees pollinate flowers, is passive, as Mary Helen Washington points out, yet also suggests a strongly sexual blues image (240).(17) Women's sexuality was associated with fruit trees in the classic blues, as variations such as "If you don't like my peaches / Don't shake my tree" make plain (Taft 1:617). The effect of Hurston's quiet appropriation of blues metaphors is to dismantle the opposition between respectability and desire. The sexual connotations of the blues escape or move beyond middle-class mores without reinforcing racist sexual stereotypes. Janie is represented as both sexual and respectable at once.
Similarly, in her marriage to Tea Cake, Janie's middle-class status works not against but in concert with representations of desire. Hurston uses Janie's marriage to Tea Cake not simply to represent desire but also to legitimate it. Tea Cake is Janie's easy rider, and as such he poses a threat to middle-class morality. When Janie decides to marry Tea Cake, Pheoby tells her of Annie Tyler, a middle-class woman prostituted by working-class men who sleep with her in order to rob her of her money. The story of Annie Tyler signifies on desertion blues. Tyler is both the victim of her man, deserted and robbed of her money, and a victim of her own "illegitimate" desire as an older woman sleeping with a younger man. Inserted into the working class as a middle-class woman, Janie is not represented as the victim of her own or Tea Cake's desire. She is not prostituted by Tea Cake, and their liaison is read as sexual but not immoral. In this scene Hurston deconstructs the opposition between legitimate middle- and illegitimate working-class sexuality just as she folds club and blues discourse in on top of one another. In the story of Annie Tyler, Hurston rejects the policing or prescribing functions of both club and blues ideology.
The stakes are just as high in the trial scene where Janie's sexual subjectivity is the crime and desire is the object of interrogation. Janie's trial repeats the early porch scene, positioning her as a "loose" woman. This time, however, middle-class whites as well as working-class African Americans are trying to take the measure of Janie's "morality." The white jury tries "to listen and pass on what happened between Janie and Tea Cake Woods . . . as to whether things were done right or not" (Hurston 274). The African American community claims that Tea Cake took good care of Janie and she betrayed him:
He worked like a dog for her and nearly killed himself saving her in the storm, then soon as he got a little fever from the water, she had took up with another man. Sent for him to come there from way off. Hanging was too good. (276)
The cultural resonance of "hanging" as it applies to Janie's sexual reputation in the trial scene could not have been lost on Hurston and demonstrates her familiarity with historical discourses. In her decision to situate an oblique reference to lynching within the African American community, Hurston collapses and rejects the sexual policing of both the white middle class and the black working class. Janie ultimately establishes her innocence in both communities, refuting racist sexual ideology: "She had to go way back to let them know how she and Tea Cake had been with one another" to dispel their "lying thoughts" (278).
Class tensions around issues of sexuality were expressed and were sometimes successfully negotiated in both blues and club discourses by confuting middle- and working-class "morality," respectability, and desire. Hurston's text, participating in and reconstructing this dialogue, also worked to deconstruct or collapse class-based sexual hierarchies, to represent desire while rejecting both bourgeois elitism and racist sexual ideology. Criticism which has situated African American women's texts of this period historically has served an important function. However, too often it has reinforced oppositions between middle-class (and literary) sexual repression and working-class sexual expressivity. While Hurston's text can be read as policing sexuality to some extent, the text is far more invested in disrupting the neatness of middle- and working-class sexual polarities and achieving a space outside racist sexual ideology where sexual subjectivity can be represented and experienced.
Sexual subjectivity in Their Eyes emerges from a history of racialized rape, lynching, and ideologies which represented African American women as oversexed, and it is also constructed by the class politics of racial uplift. These historical tensions are not simply "reflected" in women's fiction. Narrative acts upon, negotiates with, complicates, and can partially resolve historical entanglements. It is as agent, as an active force within a larger community of discourses, that fiction becomes political. Careful attention to the ideological asymmetries and alignments of historical discourses creates space for literary intervention. The sexual gains of literary, blues, or club movement politics may be partial and somewhat contradictory. However, together, they represent African American women's imaginative and active role in establishing their own models of sexual subjectivity.
1. For summaries of these two critical trends, see duCille 80-81 and Awkward 2-5. Carby suggests that Hurston's current critical popularity, like her popularity in the twenties, depends on a fascination with the primitive and exotic ("Politics" 73). She reads Hurston's representation of rural African American folk culture as "utopian," "essential," and removed from history and politics.
2. duCille argues for situating Hurston in relation to earlier writers and her contemporaries. In particular, she suggests similarities between Hurston's Seraph on the Suwanee and Alice Dunbar-Nelson's "A Modern Undine" (83).
3. Sexuality in Hurston's work is often subsumed under discussions of gender politics which focus on Janie's autonomy - whether or not Janie submits to physical abuse or achieves a voice, for example (see Bethel 180, 185; Hemenway 232-43; Hite 442-45,448; and Pryse, 14-15). In addition, none of the critics who look specifically at sexuality in Hurston's work has situated his or her analysis historically (see Awkward, "'Inaudible' "81-82; duCille 116-23; Washington 240; and Willis 49-51).
4. While Hurston may not have been directly involved in the anti-lynching campaign, she was a student at Howard between 1919-1924 (Hemenway 18). In addition, the club movement had its origins in the anti-lynching campaign, and the campaign certainly influenced club politics (Giddings 83).
5. That Hurston was influenced by the folk traditions that form much of classic blues ideology has been noted, though not in any sustained way, by blues and literary critics (see Baker 14; Ellison 198; Long 135; and Wall 75, 92; see also my comments on duCille above).
6. For a summary of this literary debate, see duCille 70. While Deborah McDowell generally opposes literary representations of sexuality to representations of desire in the classic blues (" 'Nameless'" 142), she does acknowledge briefly that Fauset appropriated classic blues innuendo in the title of Plum Bun ("Introduction" xx).
7. For critics who contrast literary representations of sexuality with the expressivity of the classic blues, see Carby, "It Jus Be's" 250; Hull 24-25; and McDowell 142. In her analysis of Their Eyes, duCille discusses Hurston's "bourgeois blues," a phrase coined to confound the critical opposition between middle- and working-class discourses (84, 118). However, duCille tends to use this phrase ahistorically, ignoring Hurston's actual use of blues tropes, for example. Perhaps because of this, she, like others, reads Hurston's text as primarily concerned with challenging male authority rather than as representing a female sexual subject.
For blues critics who also reify the classic blues to some extent, see Harrison, Reitz, and Russell. They represent classic blues singers and narrators as independent and as sexual subjects for political reasons - to counteract racist sexual stereotypes, to correct an emphasis in blues criticism on desertion themes, and to provide, in Harrison's words, an historical "model" of African American women as "sexually independent, self-sufficient, creative, assertive, and trend setting" (10).
8. In her pioneering work on lynching, Ida B. Wells exposed the systemic nature of white abuse and racist sexual ideology in the South. Wells was also an active force in the club movement, running for president of the National Association of Colored Women as late as 1924 (Duster xxvii). Wells insisted that the image of African American women as libidinous worked to support a racist legacy of slavery in which white men considered it their prerogative to rape African American women (Giddings 31).
9. Paula Giddings and Gerda Lerner, while appreciating middle-class African American women's significant contributions, both acknowledge strong class biases in the club movement (Giddings 95; Lerner, "Early" 857).
10. Burroughs was a leader of the Woman's Convention, an auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention; was the founder and head of the National Training School for Women and Girls (Higginbotham 8, 84); and was also a member of the National Association of Colored Women (Jones 31).
11 Higginbotham qualifies her argument by stating that even a working-class version of respectability defined itself in opposition to "negative black Others," those that it represented as unhygienic, for example (203-04). Amy Jacques Garvey, working out of the urban, working-class Universal Negro Improvement Association instead of the middle-class club movement, was also able to avoid class bias at the same time that she advocated African American women's leadership roles. She critiqued middle-class materialism as decadent, rejected upward mobility, and saw idealizing femininity as a form of male domination (Matthews 869, 872).
12. At this time no substantial study of the effects of class or gender on the lyrics of the classic blues has been undertaken, even though liner notes show that many classic blues song writers were men, and classic blues singers who wrote or chose their own songs for performance came from and sang to both the working and middle class. Most classic blues singers' origins were in the working class, but a few - Trixie Smith and Edith Wilson, for example - were born into middle-class families (Barlow 138). Lieb and Harrison document the diversity of blues women's styles and audiences, but they don't take this diversity into account in specific readings of lyrics (Harrison 11, 12, 183, 208, 220; Lieb xiv, 22, 51). A study of this kind could demystify the classic blues and read classic blues ideology as diverse and contradictory.
13. For a list of blues written and sung by classic blues women, see Harrison 249-250; Lieb 193197; and Reitz 57.
14. Additional examples include Ma Rainey's "Weepin' Woman Blues," "Little Low Mama Blues," and "Daddy Goodbye Blues" (Lieb 84-85)
15. Carby argues that "In the House Blues" doesn't position the narrator as a victim. The song constitutes "a parody of the supposed weakness of women" because the strength of Smith's voice contradicts the helplessness she expresses ("It Jus Be's" 254). However, the narrator's rage does not necessarily exist in opposition to her victimhood. It results from both her man's desertion and her own desire, which is uncontrollable.
16. Signifies is used here as it is defined by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "as a metaphor for formal revision, or intertextuality within the Afro-American literary tradition" (xxi). In my study, I examine the "revision or intertextuality" between literature and African American women's political and cultural discourses.
17. It is also worth noting that, although Janie is represented metaphorically as a passive flower waiting for a bee, in both the early pear tree scene and the final scene of the book Janie achieves sexual satisfaction, if not orgasm, on her own, through fantasy. This to some extent suggests an alternative to heterosexuality, as does the novel's refusal to introduce the possibility of Janie's becoming pregnant.
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Carol Batker is Assistant Professor of English at Florida State University. She is currently producing a cross-cultural book-length study of U.S. women's literature and political journalism in the early twentieth century.
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|Title Annotation:||book by African-American woman author Zora Neal Hurston|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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