"Papa Legba, ouvrier barriere por moi passer": Esu in Their Eyes & Zora Neale Hurston's Diasporic Modernism.
She thought awhile and decided that her conscious life had commenced at Nanny's gate. (Their Eyes 182)
Real gods require blood. (Their Eyes 293)
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel of transitions. At one crucial moment, as Joe Starks funeral ends, Hurston marks the transition and images the "Little Lord of the Crossroads ... leaving Orange County as he had come--with the outstretched hand of power" (246). To those who read Their Eyes as an American novel, this sentence voices an ironic tribute to the pomp and failure of Joe Starks' modern identity. This sentence, however, might make readers attuned to West African cultural traditions edgy, even suspicious. Tell these readers that Hurston wrote much of Their Eyes in the Haitian night, her mind full of images from her ongoing research into Voodoo cosmology and ritual, and the sentence begins to change. In Tell My Horse, Hurston published her research from the Caribbean. There, she records praise-names for the West African (Yoruba) messenger/trickster deity in Haiti. One of the names she records is "Baron Carrefour, Lord of the Crossroads. The way to all things is in his hands" (Tell 128). With this, we realize two things: The "Little Lord of the Crossroads" in Their Eyes is Esu-Elegba, and Esu's "outstretched hand of power" signifies much more than Joe Starks' modern American vision could fathom. A series of revelations follow as the novel sheds its skin, and its structure opens anew. In various guises, Esu appears at each of the novel's crossroads, and Their Eyes becomes a key text in an alternate modernist tradition, Diasporic Modernism.
During her research in Haiti, Zora Neale Hurston found that the crossroads of the black diasporic world were in the hands of a multi-faceted figure: Esu-Elegba. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, she uses Esu as the modernist force of disruption and renewal, the frustrating key to the de- and inter-personal crossroads of redemption in the novel. Hurston's insight into the connection between the psychological and cultural terrains of black American modernity and diasporic mythology and ritual--unremarked for over sixty years--is the fundamental link to this alternate approach to modernism. It does not constitute a "counter-modernism," since Hurston's fully developed approach is what I would call "post-oppositional." The foundations of her diasporic alternatives are too expansive, their options are too fluid, to sustain the rigid identities requisite for opposition. Absorption is closer to Hurston's relationship to prevailing modernist insights than opposition. Hurston's approach expands the ways we understand diasporic encounters with modernity. For Hurston, Esu-Elegba invokes black cultural confrontations with the dissonance at the modernist crossroads. In his poem "Confluence," Yusef Komunyakaa echoes Hurston's insight and reckons with a Diasporic Modernist meeting place, the crossroads of "Bloodline and clockwork. / The X drawn where we stand" (14).
Most forms of modernism seek to disrupt conventional perceptions, particularly those regarding the relationship between exterior ("objective") and interior ("subjective") realms of experience. Employing knowledge of West African cultural traditions gained from her ethnographic work in Haiti, Zora Neale Hurston, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, approaches this relationship in a manner that sounds the keynote of a specifically diasporic form of modernism. The key to understanding Hurston's vision lies in her use of the image of the "crossroads" and particularly of the diasporic trickster/messenger usually known as Esu-Elegba. Where most modernisms invoke some sort of crossroads between external and internal realms, recognizing the presence of Esu-Elegba in Their Eyes helps to establish Hurston's truly central importance in an expansive modernist tradition that includes, but is not limited to, Euro-American writers such as Eliot, Pound, and H. D. Rather than claiming Hurston as a high modernist, this essay shows how Hurston herself claimed the insights of high modernism and meshed them with her own dynamic flux of creative, ethnographic, and personal experience. The result is most clearly expressed in the vibrant and violent complexity of Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Hurston's use of the crossroads image can be usefully understood in relation to the symbolic geography of black modernity theorized by Robert Stepto and Judylyn Ryan. In From Behind the Veil, Stepto establishes fundamental narrative patterns of black American life. In any era, these patterns involve movement between a relatively enslaved "symbolic South" and a relatively free "symbolic North." Stepto calls the journey to the symbolic North "ascent." While the symbolic South is a place "of maximum oppression," it is also a place where important personal, familial, and communal bonds are established. While the "symbolic North" is a place of "relative freedom," these freedoms are primarily individual and often come at a cost of estrangement (geographical, cultural, and psychological) from the bonds of the symbolic South. Lonely and alienated ascent figures often attempt to reestablish bonds with a larger community in the symbolic South, a journey Stepto calls "immersion" (167). The circular narrative, then, ends with a figure who is conscious of modern individuality, reconnected with community, and still living in relation to the unmitigated pressures of the symbolic South. In her dissertation "Water from an Ancient Well: The Recuperation of Double Consciousness," Judylyn Ryan expands Stepto's North-South paradigm of ascent and immersion at both ends. Ryan proposes narratives of dispersion and recuperation that connect the pre--and post-ascent symbolic South with "African" cultural processes. Ryan's narrative of "dispersion" invokes African cultural origins, partially remembered and located in what she designates the "symbolic East." Dispersion accounts for the psychological and cultural effects of the historical movement to a "symbolic West," a foreign location of terror and bondage. Ryan's narrative of "recuperation" charts a return, imagined or literal, to a "symbolic East." In recuperation, figures attempt to expand the communal forms of the symbolic South in relation to newly imagined African cultural codes and patterns.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston employs the figure of Esu-Elegba to provide a diasporic perspective on modernist crossroads in relation to the symbolic locations of the black modern. Esu-Elegba is the messenger/trickster of the Yoruba diaspora. A figure of constant disruption, Esu's role is to challenge peoples' ability to connect with one another and communicate with the world. In Yoruba tradition, the spirits, orisa, are an integral part of the natural and social world. Meaningful connections involve effective relationships with one or more orisa. These connections require and produce sacred energy, ase. One of Esu's principal roles as messenger is to take the sacrifices and prayers of humans to the intended orisa. In this respect, Esu is in charge of ase needed to support nearly every endeavor. Tales of Esu's impish qualities, then, are themselves parables of an unpredictable world.
Hurston's treatment of Esu proceeds through a sequence of stages that parallel Janie's movement among various regions of the symbolic geography. The first three stages reveal the pitfalls of attempting to live within a conventionally "modern" world structured around Stepto's North-South polarity. Only when Janie reaches "the muck" does the full-fledged structure of a Diasporic Modernism begin to emerge in the interactions between the characters and their place in the newly dawned symbolic East of the novel. Even then, however, Hurston is careful not to romanticize the symbolic East into a wholesome place of security. Instead, she demonstrates the problems which continue to make black experiences of modernity perilous.
At the start of the novel, when Janie occupies a place in the pre-ascent symbolic South, Esu's role is negligible. He represents the gates holding Janie back from the threshold separating her from experiencing her own "modern" individuality. Once she ascends to the symbolic North of Eatonville via her marriage to Joe Starks, Esu reveals the flaws in Joe Starks' modern design. Through Esu, the division between Janie and Joe Starks is exposed; through him, all attempts at reconciliation are frustrated. Esu's disruptions force Janie to investigate the depth and psychological complexity of her individuality in standard modernist terms.
Emerging from her modernist isolation, Janie connects with Tea Cake. She begins to experience the nature of Diasporic Modernist experience when she arrives on the muck. The Caribbean workers and their rituals give meaning to the symbolic East which resonates with West African diasporic energies. Yet even at a moment filled with immense promise, Esu intervenes in ways that caution against rejecting (as opposed to building on) modernist insights into the necessity of self-knowledge. Similar to Robert Hayden's vision in his epic poem of modernist redemption "Words in the Mourning Time," Hurston's symbolic East "demands obedience to all / the rigorous laws of risk, / does not pamper / will not spare" (96). Esu brings Tea Cake's failure to understand himself to the surface in ways that point to problems in adapting diasporic culture to positions structured by Stepto's South-North polarity. Hurston focuses specifically on the tendency toward male-centeredness in the black American characters' willful estrangement from both the natural world and the nascent diasporic community. Her black men fatally identify with the "bossman's" ownership of land, money, and women.
Specifically, Esu instigates hostility between the community and those elements of nature--wind and water--associated with female orisa. Hurston's own education into diasporic culture focused on just these elements. In Mules and Men, Hurston tells how hoodoo practitioners in New Orleans introduced her to the diversity and intensity of diasporic energies. In one section, she is initiated into an intimate relationship to a specific energy with close affinities with the orisa Oya, the Yoruba energy of female force and retribution. In the final stages of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the energy of Oya--the wind, Hurston's own patron--thwarts Tea Cake's final attempts to explore and express himself. In the end, Esu succeeds in frustrating the recuperation of diasporic promise as surely as he had Joe Starks' modern ascent.
Only Janie survives the Diasporic Modernist implications of the storms in the novel. She attains the skill required to survive the crossroads of her internal and social experience. Janie's interactions with Esu-Elegba at the crossroads in the symbolic locations of the black modern allow Hurston to mesh standard modernist themes of individual excavation and descent with West African, communal approaches to the flux of objective and subjective reality. As a result, Hurston fully realizes her vision of Diasporic Modernist descent and emergence.
Notes Toward a Diasporic Modernism
In The Matrix of Modernism, Sanford Schwartz notes that many European and white American modernists explored how individual acts of perception can alter commonly agreed upon, "realistic" understandings of the meeting place between interior and exterior realities. Artists sought to escape habitual (personal) lines of sight, most often held in place by abstract social norms. In "Tradition and the Individual Talent," T. S. Eliot describes a method which enables new artistic visions by becoming "depersonalized." For Eliot, modernist poetics are produced by an artist working as "a medium and not a personality" (42). Demonstrating the paradoxical modernist pursuit of deeper familiarity through greater objectivity, in poems like "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Eliot's poetics withdraw from social interaction to image "visions and revisions," the flux of internal/external realities in (usually visual) objects. Eliot calls these images of flux objective correlatives.
As critics such as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Adrienne Gosselin, Arnold Rampersad, and Craig Werner have noted, one major strain of black modernist writing, known as Afro-Modernism, follows this model closely albeit under drastically different social and political pressures. Afro-Modernist personae in works like Richard Wright's "The Man Who Lived Underground," Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and Robert Hayden's poem "The Diver" achieve their unique modernist angles of vision by adopting secluded techniques similar to Eliot's. Most Afro-Modernists share (a racialized, amplified version of) their white counterparts' view of social interaction as dangerous to the artist/hero. For instance, both Wright's and Ellison's Afro-Modernist figures escape the pressures of social experience by withdrawing into the sewer. From this vantage they engage a realm of de-personalized experience which offers new vantages on their former social and cultural lives. In part "VIII" of "Words in the Mourning Time," Robert Hayden's roll call of heroic personae includes "invisible man" and "the / man who/lives underground (97). In part "IX," he affirms the Afro-Modernist commitment to "go on struggling to be human / though monsters of abstraction / police and threaten us" (98). Afro-Modernism relies on the unique and necessary disruptive, de-personalized processes of perception and meditation. In their respective writings, Wright, Ellison, and Hayden acknowledge a wide range of modernist influences, including Dostoevski, Hemingway, Anderson, Eliot, Rukeyser, and Auden. At times, Afro-Modernists attempt to put these depersonalized depth-perceptions to expansive democratic, and redemptive communal, purposes.
The work of black artists such as Toomer, Hughes, Tolson, Hurston, Brooks, and a host of Black Power era writers such as Larry Neal and Stephen Henderson show affinities with Diasporic Modernism. The connection is an understanding that, from many black cultural perspectives, de-personalized, solitary, contemplative processes can become their own kind of abstraction. Often, the immediate is social and cultural, a shared reality. In Diasporic Modernism, personae also get beyond habitual (personal) modes and establish new media of perception. Often grounded in images of sound (aural correlatives) as well as visual perception, rather than the withdrawals of Eliotic "depersonalization," Diasporic Modernism depicts disruptive modernist modes constituted by social and cultural interaction. I call this approach inter-personalization. In the transcendental origins of Diasporic Modernist culture, Walden Pond has a barbeque pit and a dance floor.
Much of Ellison's and Baldwin's work shows transitions between Afro and Diasporic Modernist approaches to crossroads of disruption and renewal. In "Sonny's Blues," James Baldwin bears witness to how an artist's de-personalized flux between interior and exterior perceptions can render the immediate social world distant, abstract, unreal. Of his own creative seclusion, blues/jazz pianist Sonny confesses, "'Sometimes, you know, and it was actually when I was most out of the world, I felt that I was in it, that I was with it, really, and I could play or I didn't really have to play, it just came out of me, it was there. And I don't know how I played, thinking about it now, but I know I did awful things, those times, sometimes, to people. Or it wasn't that I did anything to them--it was that they weren't real'" (134). As Baldwin realized, for Afro-Modernists figures like Sonny, who emulates Charlie Parker's be-bop persona, to be "with it" is to be aloof from the social world. Baldwin's meditation on the dangers of "abstract" seclusion is most fully and fearfully rendered in his portrait of Rufus Scott's fatally de-personalized withdrawal that opens Another Country. Unlike Rufus, later in "Sonny's Blues," Sonny turns his depersonalized flux to redemptive purposes and achieves a mode of creation which echoes aspects of Hurston's diasporic insight into how to replace secluded reflection with communal presence. Assuming the "cup of trembling" (an image of collective suffering from Isaiah 51:17) in his final piano solo, Sonny echoes his mother's advice: "You may not be able to stop nothing from happening. But you got to let him know you's there" (141, 119). As Baldwin's work makes clear, Diasporic Modernism involves shifting and caring forms of accompaniment. The underground man must come up into the crowd and be present.
In contrast to Afro-Modernists, Diasporic Modernists like Hurston disrupt abstractions with the immediate reality of experience in inter-personalized, communal (as well as de-personalized, individual) terms. This distinction results from both the combination of the politics of race in American modernity and the kinds of subjectivities supported by the West African cultural underpinnings of black diasporic culture. In his 1996 essay "Crossroads," Yusef Komunyakaa marks the intersection of modernist poetics and diasporic culture:
The crossroads is a real place between imaginary places--points of departure and arrival. It is also a place where negotiations and deals are made with higher powers. In the West African and Haitian traditions of Legba, it is a sanctified place of reflection (mirrors are used in symbolic travel). The crossroads is a junction.... There is an accrued bravery here. It is this cultural dualism, this ability to be two places at once, to be a shape changer, that strengthens the creative quest.... [At the crossroads, there's] a jagged persistence that documents and duplicates the awkward reality of our contemporary lives and imaginations. (6)
The crossroads, then, is a location of constantly shifting connections. It's a place of emergence at which de-peronalized (internal) and inter-personalized (social) deals are made. At the crossroads, internal and social identities are disrupted, broken, re-imagined, and possibly renewed. Diasporic Modernist artists know that the universe doesn't offer stable locations for people to "be" themselves. But, resisting secluded meditations on nothingness, they situate modern subjectivity in shared spaces patterned to support improvised, inter-personal methods of becoming. Hurston documents many such non-resolving patterns of presence in her essay "The Characteristics of Negro Expression."
The realities of modern life are fluidly shared in Diasporic Modernism. This shared presence is ambiguous; it holds new possibilities and dangers. In her 1989 song "Come In," contemporary jazz singer Dianne Reeves meditates on the risks and potentials of shared presence. Calls can elicit responses from which are woven shared existential terrains. These are sites of communion and conflict. Calls can also fall on deaf or hostile ears. Reeves sings: "If you think they're ready to hear you / you may tell one or two what you know." Reeves' warning describes the dilemmas that inspired and assaulted Zora Neale Hurston's creative life. Long before Bakhtin's work was translated into English, Hurston was perfectly aware of what he called the dialogic condition. In Mules and Men, she warns that "mouths don't empty themselves until the ears are sympathetic and knowing" (185). In her work, Hurston confronted the political, cultural, and epistemological implications of this crucial sentence. Therefore, Diasporic Modernism views inter-personal dynamics (tested by Esu-Elegba) in epistemological and ontological, as well as social and psychological, terms. The work of Abimbola, Abiodun, Barber, Drewal, Yai, Pavlic, Thompson, and Kubitschek shows that diasporic epistemologies are reciprocal (truths are derived and maintained through interactive processes) and diasporic ontologies are plural (all "identities" lead back to hybrid origins, a diaspora of shifting relations). In such a fragmented and fluid cosmology, a trickster/mediator like Esu-Elegba is important to every level of cultural and psychological life. Although she wrote before Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Robert Hayden, we are only now beginning to hear Hurston's call, the keynote call of Diasporic Modernism.
Reorienting the nature of Eliot's modernist meeting between "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Hurston's crossroads is something closer to the individual and traditional talent. Her technique in Their Eyes combines the excavation of culture and consciousness with an improvised relationship to a vibrant, transnational tradition which she encountered during her research in Florida, New Orleans, and Haiti. Whereas Eliot's de-personalized approach to "mythic method" sought a stable foundation free from modern "futility and anarchy," Hurston's own inter-personalized mythic method draws directly on the twin forces of disruption and renewal signified by Esu-Elegba in diasporic mythology (177). In "The Problem of Invisibility: Voodoo and Zora Neale Hurston," Wendy Dutton notes that "Hurston, in fact, worked on her voodoo material side by side with her fiction, often doing both kinds of writing in the same day.... Often she worked on [Their Eyes] late at night after a long day of collecting Voodoo material for Tell My Horse" (146). In Haiti, Hurston discovered the ubiquitous presence of Esu-Elegba. In Tell My Horse, Hurston writes that "Legba Attibon is the god of the gate. He rules the gate of the hounfort, the entrance to the cemetery, and he is also Baron Carrefour, Lord of the crossroads. The way to all things is in his hands" (128). In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston uses Esu-Elegba's presence as "gate-keeper," by turns challenging and providing passage through the "gates" of intra- and inter-personal connections. The innovative mixture of de-personalized and inter-personalized processes accompanies Janie's journey through the symbolic locations of black modernity and her excavation into Diasporic Modernist descent and emergence.
According to Yoruba practice, human beings make sacrifices and approach Esu-Elegba with humility and caution. Esu-Elegba waits at every transition, crossroad, and margin to challenge the crossing. A figure of contrast and disruption, he is most articulate in our silences, most calm in the heart of our anger, honest in our deceit. For an immediate example, consider contemporary Southwestern Nigeria (the section of Nigeria most highly populated by Yoruba people), where driving is an act of constant contrast and disruption. The curious oscillations of red and green in the stoplights fail to draw the attention of most drivers, but one rarely finds an intersection that lacks an altar to Esu. Conceptually, Esu-Elegba is always implying, then suggesting, now imploring the shifting strangeness on the hither side of our most stable and familiar understandings. In Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, the multi-leveled system Volosinov/ Bakhtin characterized as the dialogic condition aptly frames Esu-Elegba's linguistic and cultural importance:
Word is a two-sided act. It is precisely the product of the reciprocal relationship between speaker and listener.... I give myself verbal shape from another's point of view, ultimately from the point of view of the community to which I belong.... A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another. If one end of the bridge depends on me, then the other depends on my addressee. A word is territory shaped by both addresser and addressee. (86)
Esu-Elegba waits on the bridge. His presence invokes the shifting sands underneath relationships across any suggested or perceived schism. An ever-present challenge to the foundations of identity logic, he prevents systematized, ideological understandings that rely on fixed identities and rigid representations. A ubiquitous figure of multiplicity and non-resolution, Esu-Elegba's energy is endemic to the vibrant and violent dialogic patterns of Hurston's Diasporic Modernism in Their Eyes.
Esu-Elegba's primary job is to preserve the necessity for, and challenge the viability of, intra- and inter-personal connection. As the keeper of the vibrant energy of possibility, ase, Esu-Elegba has been described by Henry Drewal as "the agent of effective action, who also reminds one of the unpredictable nature of human experience. Esu's constant and often unsettling activity reminds humans of the need for guidance in lives of engaged action. Esu, who bears sacrifices of humans to the orisa and other spirits, is the guardian of the ritual process. A verse from Ifa warns that if Esu is not acknowledged, 'life is the bailing of waters with a sieve'" (15). Resisting the common Christian and Islamic characterization of Esu as the devil, E. M. McClelland's Cult of Ifa Among the Yoruba situates Esu-Elegba in Yoruba cosmology:
We may see in the myths of Esu a parable.... Mankind, without the prompting of evil, would cease to strive and society would stagnate; the Yoruba say that, without the intervention of Esu, the gods would starve and vanish [from lack of sacrifice] without storm, the land would not have seasons of growth, harvest or hunting. These analogies are all in accord with a more general axiom--that all extremes generate their opposites and that, further, through avoiding the suppression of conflict and by containing it instead in a state of balance, society makes it valuable and constructive. (15)
Because of Esu-Elegba's intermediary role in this cosmology, the symbols associated with him tend to be metaphors for connection and transaction. Esu-Elegba operates at the crossroads, the market place, the equinox. His walk and the dances which summon his presence are characterized by a pronounced limp which invokes his stride, with each foot in a different dimension. In Black Gods: Orisa Studies in the New World, Gary Edwards explains that Esu-Elegba complicates the meetings of the genders and is often pictured with extended breasts and an erect penis, testimony to his "insatiable appetite and boundless possibility" (11). In The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s reading of Their Eyes locates Esu-Elegba's realm at the margin between black English and Standard English. Gates's reading represents a crucial moment in Hurston scholarship. But he misses Esu's role in the novel. In fact, Hurston's free-indirect narration explicitly employs Esu-Elegba and his diasporic "gates" as modernist metaphors for interior and exterior fracture and transition. As such, Esu-Elegba situates himself at the center of things, at the crossroads of words and worlds.
In Tell My Horse Hurston notes the ubiquity of references and sacrifices to Esu-Elegba in Haiti. She explains that Esu-Elegba, or "Papa Legba, opener of gates, (opportunities) is always the first to receive sacrifice in any ritual invocation of the loa" (119). For this reason, she adds, unlike other loa, "Papa Legba has no special day. All of the days are his, since he must go before all of the ceremonies" (129). Hurston even uses Esu-Elegba to satirize anthropological terminology and underscore the accuracy of the Haitian rituals. Describing the ritual invocation of Esu-Elegba, she explains ironically "that while the people say and sing 'legba,' the scholars tell me that the African word is Lecbah or Letbah. Perhaps the people are in error. All I know is they sing 'Papa Legba, ouvrier barriere por moi passer' (Esu Elegba, open the gate, let me pass)" (148). Hurston recorded several variants of Esu-Elegba's invocation during her fieldwork in Haiti, including "Afrique-Guinin Atibon Legba, ouvrir barriere pour nous" ('Esu, open the gate for us') and "Ce Letbah, qui ap vini, ce papa Legba laissez barriere l'our" ('Esu, come here and leave the gate open') (152-53). Importantly, her transcriptions include the notion of Esu-Elegba keeping the gate in different dimensions of experience. The invocation "ouvrier barriere por moi passer" ('for me') signifies Esu-Elegba's role in interior and personal passages. The chant "ouvrir barriere pour nous" ('for us') indicates his relevance to communal matters. In fact, Hurston often positions Esu-Elegba as a figure of disruption on the multi-valenced bridge between the two.
Esu and the Gates of Hurston's Symbolic South
As Stepto notes, the pre-ascent symbolic South is a place of stasis and immobility for the questing figure, "the narrative's most oppressive social structure" (167). For post-ascent figures, however, it can become a place of newly meaningful energy summoned in vibrant inter-personal exchanges. Their Eyes Were Watching God refers to both dimensions of this symbolic location. The novel opens with Janie's return to the scorn and envy of "Mouth Almighty," the women of Eatonville (178). The interpersonal narrative itself depends upon Pheoby's ability to hear Janie's story with sympathetic and knowing ears. Appropriately to the Diasporic Modernist setting of the framing narrative, Pheoby enters the ritual ground through a gate. Appropriately, she bears sacrifice in the common form of food: "Pheoby Watson didn't go in by the front gate and down the palm walk to the front door. She walked around the fence corner and went in the intimate gate with her heaping plate of mulatto rice" (177). By now, a fully experienced Janie, with "lamps filled and the chimneys cleaned" no less, understands the complexities of Esu-Elegba's dialogic gates. She warns that an "envious heart makes a treacherous ear" and confesses that the success of the telling depends on Pheoby "for a good thought" (179-80). In a shifting play of identity, the narrative converts each reader into a Pheoby. In the words of rapper Rakim Allah, Their Eyes is written "to the listeners, to those that have an ear for this," which I suppose makes Esu his "state of the art, engineer for the mix."
In the framed narrative, Hurston's description of Janie's conscious awakening invokes Esu-Elegba's gatekeeper imagery in relation to the mix of personal and cosmological stasis of the symbolic South: "Nanny's gate ... [which she] leaned over to gaze up the road. Looking, waiting, breathing short with impatience. Waiting for the world to be made" (182, 184). The relationship of Nanny's gate to Janie's interior life becomes clearer when she senses a division, a creation, a mysterious message embedded in her body. By means of her immediate sensory experience, Janie approaches the first crossroads in her consciousness. She hears the inaudible, remembers the not-forgotten, and encounters sensations of experiences she has yet to have. She approaches the crossroads in her interior as "the inaudible voice of it all came to her" (183). Hurston's narration of Janie's experience at the interior gates echoes the call to Esu-Elegba from Tell My Horse, "ouvrier barriere por moi passer":
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. (183)
Merging (exterior) "outside observation" with ("deep in the flesh") internal realities, Hurston's imagery calls Janie to cross back and forth, and leaves room for Esu-Elegba's transitional role in her coming to consciousness. Still, in her pre-ascent experience, "gates" are restrictive challenges to her mobility. Confined to her grandmother's vision of the traditional experience of black women and the boring "abstraction" of marriage, Janie "began to stand around the gate and expect things. What things? She didn't know exactly. Her breath was gusty and short. She knew things that nobody had ever told her.... The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off" (194). When Janie embarks on her ascent, "out of the front gate," Hurston invokes her modernist mantra of improvisation in relation to Esu-Elegba's challenges to come: "New words would have to be made and said" (200).
Ascent & Esu in the Symbolic North
Unlike Stepto's idea of ascent, Janie's ascent doesn't take place in relation to a white mainstream world, but her marriage to Joe Starks and eventual place in Eatonville mirror the individuation and estrangement from communal interaction at the core of his concept. For Stepto, the symbolic North involves the dawn of a figure's modern individuality in relation to the "least oppressive environment--at best, one of solitude; at worst one of alienation" (167). In "Chapter 5," Hurston shows at great length how Joe Starks' vision of progress transforms Eatonville into a black version of a modern system. Starks becomes an earthly "I god," and Eatonville becomes a black-owned plantation. He buys and resells the land at a profit, establishes himself as Mayor, and even brings the "light" down from "Sears, Roebuck, and Company" to deal with the problem of "'de dark and de roots'" (209). Commemorating the replacement of the metaphysical with the modern symbol of light, Starks quotes from the famous gospel tune "This Little Light of Mine" when he instructs Eatonville to "'let the light penetrate inside of yuh, and let it shine, let it shine, let it shine'" (210). Hurston doesn't quote the third verse of the song, which gives the point of the passage away plainly. Starks' speech twists the meaning of the song. Now a song about replacing the traditional/ metaphysical with the modern/economic, the third verse says, "This little light of mine, my god gave it to me." Starks turns the eyes of Eatonville from the dark roots that give life to an electric light out of the Sears and Roebuck catalog. In this section of the novel, Hurston uses explicit references to Esu-Elegba's power to thwart relationships based on "abstract," modern formulae. By instigating the decisive break in Janie's marriage to Starks, Esu-Elegba's logic compels Janie's de-personalized, psychological descent in the symbolic North. In this standard modernist withdrawal from social presence, Janie excavates the uncharted and ambivalent interiors of her individuality. Like the Afro-Modernist figures of Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, and Hayden, Janie emerges into the paradoxical reality that the irreplaceable gains and the irretrievable costs of withdrawal are inextricably bound together.
Esu's "gates" in the pre-ascent symbolic South work passively. They symbolize internal and external transitions that Janie negotiated before embarking on her ascent. In Hurston's symbolic North, Esu-Elegba's active instigation exposes the relationship between interior depth and inter-personal connections when he forces Janie to confront her failing relationship with Jody Sarks. The newly active role requires more specific insight into Esu-Elegba's significance in diasporic interpersonal processes. In the following passages, Hurston draws directly on the West African mythology in framing the conflict.
Easily the most famous parable of Esu-Elegba's disruptive force in relationships is the story of Esu and his multi-colored hat. The parable is recorded in Ayodele Ogundipe's dissertation entitled "Esu-Elegbara, the Yoruba God of Chance and Uncertainty." The parable also informs the title of Donald Constantino's study of Esu-Elegba's proliferation through the West African diaspora: "Who is That Fellow in the Many-Colored Cap?: Transformations of Eshu in Old and New World Mythologies." The version of the parable in Ogundipe's work warrants quotation in full:
Everyone knows the story of the two friends who were thwarted in their friendship by Esu. They took vows of eternal friendship to one another, but neither took Esu into consideration. Esu took note of their actions and decided to do something about them. When the time was ripe, Esu decided to put their friendship to his own little test. He made a cloth cap. The right side was black, the left side was white. The two friends were out in the fields, tilling their land. One was hoeing on the right side, the other was clearing the bushes to the left. Esu came by on a horse, riding between the two men. The one on the right was on the black side of his hat. The friend on the left noticed the sheer whiteness of Esu's cap. The two friends took a break for lunch under the cool shade of the trees. Said one friend, "Did you see that man with the white colored cap who greeted us as we were working? He was very pleasant, wasn't he?" "Yes, he was charming, but it was a man in a black cap that I recall, not a white one." "It was a white cap. The man was riding a magnificently caparisoned horse." "Then it must be the same man. I tell you, his cap was dark--black." "You must be fatigued or blinded by the hot rays of the sun to take a white cap for a black one." "I tell you it was a black cap and I am not mistaken, I remember him distinctly." ... The two friends fell to fighting. The neighbors came running but the fight was so intense that the neighbors could not stop it. In the midst of this uproar, Esu returned, looking very calm and pretending not to know what was going on. "What is the cause of all the hullabaloo?" he demanded sternly. "Two close friends are fighting," was the answer. "They seem intent on killing each other and neither would stop or tell us the reason for the fight. Please do something before they destroy each other." Esu promptly stopped the fight. "Why do you two lifelong friends make a public spectacle of yourselves in this manner?" "A man rode through the farm, greeting us as he went by," said the first friend. "He was wearing a black cap but my friend tells me it was a white cap and that I must have been tired or blind or both." The second friend insisted that the man had been wearing a white cap. One of them must be mistaken, but it was not he. "Both of you are right," said Esu. "How can that be?" "I am the man who paid the visit over which you now quarrel and here is the cap that caused the dissension." Esu put his hand in his pocket and brought out the two-colored cap saying, "As you can see, one side is white and the other is black. You each saw one side and, therefore, are right about what you saw. Are you not the two friends who made vows of friendship? When you vowed to be friends always, to be faithful and true to each other, did you reckon with Esu? Do you know that he who does not put Esu first in all his doings has himself to blame if things misfire?" And so it is said, "Esu, do not undo me, Do not falsify the words of my mouth, Do not misguide the movement of my feet. You who translates yesterday's words Into novel utterances, Do not undo me, I bear you sacrifices." (135)
Their Eyes charts the process through which Hurston realized that the diasporic question is always, "Did you reckon with Esu?" But what does reckoning with Esu imply? Why does a dispute over a perception result in violence? To reckon with Esu-Elegba is constantly to recreate language. Static phrasings and cliches aren't enough. To reckon with Esu, one must improvise and push past pleasantries. In The Trickster in West Africa, Robert Pelton discusses how Esu's presence requires constant attempts "to speak ... new word[s] and to disclose a deeper grammar ... to restore ... a conversation that speaks more accurately and meaningfully of life" (161). These insights point toward the redemptive role of disruption-as-renewal in a vibrant communal space. Building on Ellison's insight in A Change Is Gonna Come: Race, Music, and the Soul of America, Craig Werner discusses such an orientation toward experience in terms of a "jazz impulse" in black culture (132). Building on the implicitly diasporic logic of his gospel-driven modernism in "Sonny's Blues," James Baldwin's description of artists'--in this case jazz musicians'--role in such a constantly Improvised language of perception recreates the most famous modernist commandment: Make it new. Emphasizing the communal/redemptive importance of modernist disruption, Baldwin writes: "He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard" (77). The violent conflict over the color of a stranger's cap is a symptom of failed reckonings. In a world of unreckoned interiors, the color of a stranger's hat can get you killed.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Esu-Elegba creates trouble and instigates division inside and between emblematic modern American individuals. As he establishes his version of American modernity (sans racism) in the black South, Joe Starks relies on his rationalized design for power. Starks' ascent is empty. In this respect, Starks' modern comes to resemble another version of the male, ego-driven Southern modem; in fact, there is a stunning resemblance between "Sutpen's hundred" from Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and Joe Starks' Eatonville. Both make themselves "gods" with mechanistic approaches to progress. The novels of Faulkner and Hurston both have an inter-active narrative structure, a veiled importance of Haiti, and several key images, similarities which allow a glimpse at how Hurston's use of diasporic mythology advances themes in modernist conversations. Quentin Compson's father describes Sutpen's naive vision of progress with the following metaphor: "'Wait, wait' now because it was that innocence again, that innocence which believed that the ingredients of morality were like the ingredients of a pie or cake and once you had measured them and balanced them and mixed them and put them into the oven it was all finished and nothing but pie or cake could come out" (211-12). Playing the changes of identities like a divination priest in Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner creates layers of embedded narration that rival the most complicated jazz dynamics and produce an almost holographic playground for Esu-Elegba's dynamics. Bringing inter-personal processes to their limits and beyond, Quentin tells Shreve about his father's telling him about Quentin's grandfather's telling Quentin's father about Sutpen's telling the grandfather, until readers can hardly hang on to whose telling is whose. This is, of course, exactly the diasporic epistemological and ontological point about inherent pluralities. Bringing the Sutpen/Starks connection into bold relief, Faulkner gives us someone's version of somebody's version of Sutpen's thoughts: "'You see, I had a design in my mind. ... I had a design. To accomplish it I should require money, a house, a plantation, slaves, a family--incidentally of course, a wife'" (212). While the period of Their Eyes prevents Starks from attaining actual slaves, Hurston establishes Starks as the symbolic plantation owner par excellence, complete with white "big house," annual celebrations, and the power to make people like Henry Pitts leave town "after [Starks] caught [him] with a wagon load of his ribbon cane" (212).
Hurston's first explicit invocation of Esu-Elegba echoes Quentin's father's culinary metaphor for Sutpen's design while subtly echoing his mysterious Haitian experiences. Underscoring modernism's insight into a post-Newtonian world in which "things" are more than the sum of their parts, she invokes Esu's ability to complicate identities and relationships as Janie prepares a meal for Joe Starks. First, Hurston describes a gap in the relationship as Joe attempts to force Janie's submission to his authority. Given Joe's unrelenting attempts, Janie begins to withdraw. She "pressed her teeth together and learned to hush" (232). In a passage that nearly repeats Faulkner's text verbatim, Hurston inserts an explicit reference to Esu-Elegba into the space created by this hush. Incidentally, the significance of dinner in the gendered roles of marriage adds to the pressure of Hurston's Esu-Elegba parable. Invoking Esu-Elegba's legendarily impish qualities by describing him as a "fiend," Hurston writes:
It happened over one of those dinners that chasten all women sometimes. They plan and they fix and they do, and then some kitchen-dwelling fiend slips a scrochy, soggy, tasteless mess into their pots and pans. Janie was a good cook, and Joe had looked forward to his dinner as a refuge from other things. So when the bread didn't rise, and the fish wasn't quite done at the bone, and the rice was scorched, he slapped Janie until she had a ringing sound in her ears and told her about her brains before he stalked on back to the store. (232)
Like the parable of the multi-colored cap, Hurston echoes Faulkner's image of American, mechanistic naivete and inserts Esu-Elegba into an "unreckoned" abstract relationship based on a husband's "design," an incidental wife, and the "spirit of the marriage" (232). She also shows how the violent pressure relates to Joe's un-reckoned interior: Joe "looked forward to the meal as a refuge from other things." Just as he donned his many-colored hat and rode his horse through the field, Esu-Elegba enters as instigator. The resulting failure of the couple to reckon with Esu-Elegba's provocation destroys the bridge. It is never re-established. Joe recedes into his futile attempt to seal himself off from the empty abstractions of his ascent. Janie decides to "bow to the outside of things" and ceases to look for a connection (233). Esu-Elegba's playground ensues.
While Joe flees the rift in the marriage and seeks refuge in meaningless connections which support his empty public image, Janie pursues an Afro-Modernist (de-personalized) excavation of interior crossroads. Janie's confrontation with "her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered" in Esu-Elegba's parable space reveals her own un-reckoned interior. From her (cliched modernist) position of bourgeois privilege turned prison, in the first moments of her excavation, she realizes that Jody is merely "something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over" (233). She also uncovers a strikingly modern ambivalence for her family and origins: "Digging around inside of herself like that she found that she had no interest in that seldom-seen mother at all. She hated her grandmother and had hidden it from herself all these years under a cloak of pity" (247). Putting the Afro-Modernist withdrawal to the test, Janie begins to uncover "thoughts she had never expressed to him, and numerous emotions she had never let Jody know about.... She had an inside and an outside and suddenly she knew how not to mix them" (233). As with all withdrawals, no matter how necessary or revelatory, the costs accrue. Janie's de-personalized excavation invites Esu-Elegba's instigation along the line between the inside and outside which don't mix.
In Hurston's Diasporic Modernism, however, even solitary excavations can link de-personalized revelations to inter-personal awareness. Janie's descent links her with the sub-structure of Hurston's mythic method and free-indirect--profoundly inter-personal--narration. She explores her interior in relation to timeless rhythms of natural phenomena "like shade patterns in the woods--come and gone with the sun" (236). Janie's vanguard self directly recalls T. S. Eliot's modernist poetics of depersonalization. In his 1917 essay "Eeldrop and Appleplex," Eliot writes that the "artist is part of him a drifter, at the mercy of impressions, and another part of him allows this to happen for the sake of making use of the unhappy creature" (19). Mirroring this technique, Janie "watched the shadow of herself going about tending the store and prostrating itself before Jody." She observes herself in terms similar to Eliot's "unhappy creature," from an altered state that "was like a drug," and through a medium of detached observational objectivity that "reconciled her to things.... She got so she received all things with the stolidness of the earth which soaks up urine and perfume with the same indifference" (236). As Eliot's recently published notebooks in Inventions of the March Hare show plainly, there are psychological residues to this "indifference." Robert Frost named the residue for a similarly indifferent American "shore" in his modernist classic "Once By the Pacific": "Someone had better be prepared for rage" (250). Far from solipsism, however, Janie's descent connects her to the inter-personal levels of the text and allows new appraisals of Joe Starks behind the "I god" identity logic supported by his modern design.
Janie's insight into Starks' identity echoes diasporic mythology. From her position of de-personalized withdrawal, Janie catches a revelatory glimpse of Starks which uncovers his weakness and foreshadows his downfall. Hurston writes that for "the first time she saw a man's head naked of its skull.... She saw that he was hurting inside" (237). In "Iwapele: The Concept of Good Character in Ifa Literary Corpus," Wande Abimbola notes one of "the important philosophical concepts" of Yoruba cosmology is ori. Literally, ori means 'head,' but as Abimbola notes, ori relates to the "inner or spiritual head" (390). Sometimes this conceptual head is referred to as ori-inu, 'inner-head.' In "Ifa Art Objects: An Interpretation Based on Oral Traditions," Roland Abiodun discusses the concept of ori as a person's destiny. Abiodun reveals that ori constitutes "the divinity of the Head, is the embodiment of a man's past, present, and future and is the essence of his personality" (422). Although there is no record of Hurston's awareness of these concepts, Janie's insight into the destinies of the men who surround her bears an uncanny resemblance to them. Furthermore, in Yoruba tradition, Ajaala is the known as the potter who makes heads, ori. Before birth, each Yoruba person visits Ajaala's storehouse of heads and makes an ambiguous choice of destiny from the supply. The catch is that Ajaala is trifling. A chronic debtor and gambler, he spends most of his time hiding from creditors on the roof of his house. Understandably, this fugitive status detracts from his performance as a potter. Consequently, many ori are damaged. Obviously, a mythological parable about human imperfection, the individual's choice from damaged communal goods is a foundation of traditional Yoruba conceptions of good character, such as the axiom Suuru ni baba iwa ('Patience is the father of character'). With a humorous streak that grows richer with the diasporic resonance, Janie shows her lack of "traditional" character and patience, which compels her ascent into modern, individual identity. As with her insight into Starks' ori, complaining to Nanny about her "traditional" place in Killicks' design, Janie criticizes Killicks in terms which mirror exactly the images and intent of the parable of Ajaala. Listing the reasons she wishes to leave Killicks and her traditional role subordinated (in Nanny's eyes, protected) by his destiny, Janie says: "'Cause Ah hates de way his head is so long one way and so flat on de sides.'" Invoking the traditional diasporic wisdom, Nanny answers, "'He never made his own head. You talk so silly.'" To which Janie responds, "'Ah don't keer who made it, Ah don't like the job'" (193).
After a time the rage appears. Hurston shows the chaos and figurative violence which often accompany emergence from de-personalized withdrawal. Jody's role in Esu-Elegba's parable drama eventually forces Janie's attempt to reconnect. Despite the humor and Eden-esque surface and tone of much of the novel, which drew the ire of generations of left-leaning readers, Hurston is nobody's romantic. She consistently witnesses the deeply ambiguous potential of inter-personal connection. Full of newly excavated ambivalence and provoked by Jody's incessant attempts to belittle her, Janie finally ridicules him in front of Sam Watson and Lige Moss. Putting her inter-personal awareness to hostile--in terms of Haitian voodoo energy, Gerouge or Petro--purposes, she retaliates in a way that shocks others. To Janie's Petro imagism, Sam responds, "'Great God from Zion!'" and while Joe looks to the men to deflect the power of Janie's attack, none can refute the accuracy of Janie's comment. "'You heard her, you ain't blind,'" Walter says. The immediate impact of her remark reveals Hurston's multileveled critique of abstract modern identity and the curse of bearing the burden of Ajaala's flawed traditional destiny, alone. Split off from the others, his image shattered, Starks fears that the townspeople will "look with envy at the things and pity the man who owned them." The narration then gravitates toward the un-masked persona of Joe Starks, trapped between his shallow public world and tragically limited personal awareness thwarted by Esu-Elegba's parable. Joe realizes that there "was nothing to do in life anymore. Ambition was useless. And the cruel deceit of Janie! Making all that show of humbleness and scorning him all the time! Laughing at him, and now putting the town up to do the same." As with Nanny before him and Tea Cake after, the narration signs Joe's death note by confronting him with an experience which he cannot articulate, a crossroads he can not imagine: "Joe Starks didn't know the words for all this, but he knew the feeling" (239).
Hurston's depiction of the consequences of Janie's Afro-Modernist excavation anticipates the difficulties of emergence experienced by the characters of Ellison, Wright, Baldwin, and Hayden. She emphasizes the exponential magnification of distance between de-personalized and inter-personalized connections. When she emerges, she attempts to talk "to a man who was ten immensities away" (243). The scene of Janie's futile emergence recounts common Esu-Elegba imagery of inverted intent and masked hostility. As Hurston notes, the relationship gave the appearance of calm, but "the stillness was the sleep of swords," in which Esu-Elegba's force is most devastating (240). Like the figures' opposing perceptions of color in the many-colored hat parable, when Janie and Joe talk, each hears the opposite of what the other intended to say. Trapped in Esu-Elegba's parable of inversion, the conversation bears witness to a fully thwarted "reckoning," a dialogic nightmare. First Joe asserts that Janie "'ain't got the right feeling for nobody,'" to which Janie responds, "'But, Jody, Ah meant to be awful nice.'" Jody: "'No sympathy.'" Janie: "'Naw, Jody, it wasn't because Ah didn't have no sympathy. Ah had uh lavish uh dat. Ah just didn't never git no chance tuh use none of it. You wouldn't let me.'" Joe: "'Ah wouldn't let you show no feelin'! When, Janie, dat's all Ah ever wanted or desired. Now you come blamin' me!'" Janie: "'Ah ain't here to blame nobody ...'" (243-44). After Joe's death, Esu-Elegba apparently leaves Eatonville in triumph. Hurston's description of Starks' funeral recalls one of the Haitian praise-names for Esu she recorded in Tell My Horse: "Baron Carrefour, Lord of the Crossroads" (128). Recasting the praise-name in Their Eyes, she twins Esu-Elegba's exit with an ironic reference to Joe Starks' demise: The "Little Emperor of the cross-roads was leaving Orange County as he had come--with the outstretched hand of power" (246). In Their Eyes, the danger created by Esu's disruptive presence is clear. Through Hurston's eyes, we can glimpse its redemptive potential.
Esu-Elegba, Inter-Personalization, and Immersion
Hurston understood the potential of Esu-Elegba's challenges in relation to Janie's (and undoubtedly her own) post-ascent "immersion" narratives. In Stepto's concept of immersion, estranged ascent figures "return" to re-establish connections to the interpersonal cultural languages and rituals of the symbolic South. For Stepto, during immersion, the figure "forsake[s] highly individualized" identity in the "narrative's least oppressive social structure" for "the new found balms of group identity" which can partially "ameliorate ... the conditions imposed by solitude" (167). Hurston's presentation of Janie's immersion takes place in relation to Tea Cake and draws on patterns and details of her ethnographic work. In "Part II" of Mules and Men, while working with "Kitty Brown, a well known hoodoo doctor in New Orleans," Hurston participates in an aggressive (Petro) ritual to avenge and redeem the marital suffering of a woman she calls Rachel Roe. Hurston hypothesizes the communal good that might follow the vengeful ritual enactment: "If he were dead she could smile again, yes--could go back to her work and save some money, yes. Perhaps she might even meet a man who could restore her faith in menfolk" (240). The connection between Rachel Roe and the newly widowed Janie Starks is obvious. The final portion of Their Eyes Were Watching God shows the full depth and range of Hurston's Diasporic Modernist vision in relation to such an emergence. Tea Cake appears in the novel to help Janie "reckon" her way out of her withdrawal amid the ruins of Starks' design beset by the riddles of Esu-Elegba's parable. His willingness to break abstract social customs, brilliance as a performer, and skillful and loving insight into Janie's state of mind accompany Janie out of her sequestered place as the late mayor's incidental wife and into a renewed and vibrant encounter with social and personal experience. While Tea Cake is a perfect complement to Janie's reckoning with Esu-Elegba, the advantage isn't reciprocal. In the end, like Nanny and Joe Starks before him, Tea Cake cannot improvise de- or inter-personal connections which enable him to excavate and articulate his experience. Compelled by, among other things, his unexamined masculine need to protect Janie, he dies in a horrific parable of inverted intention. Gripped in madness, he's shot by his beloved wife (whom he taught to shoot) while attempting to kill her out of the warped impulse to control and protect "the only living thing he saw" (325).
Initially leaving no silences in which Esu-Elegba's insinuations could take hold, Tea Cake's confrontation with Janie's real and imagined fears and attitudes is forthright. Upon their first meeting, Tea Cake buys Janie a Coke and asks her why she stays in the store when everybody is at a baseball game in Winter Park. Janie replies that she doesn't have to stay in the store but she's "'worried 'bout [Tea Cake] uh little.'" In his reply, Tea Cake gauges Janie's sensibility, probing whether or not she holds his lack of social standing against him: "'How come? 'Fraid Ah ain't gointuh pay fuh dese drinks?'" (253). After Tea Cake's first overt advances toward Janie, she suggests that his flattery is part of a routine and that he "'done told plenty women all about it.'" Not backing off, Tea Cake replies, "'Ah'm de Apostle Paul tuh the Gentiles. Ah tells 'em and then agin Ah shows 'em.'" But when Janie attempts to mask her disappointment at Tea Cake's reply by telling him how sleepy she is, Tea Cake confronts the deception: "'Naw, you ain't sleepy, Mis Janie. You jug want me to tuh go. You rigger Ah'm uh rounder and a pimp and you done wasted too much time talkin' wid me'" (259). Tea Cake's ability to confront Janie's doubt leaves Esu-Elegba scant opportunity to instigate at the silent crossroads of class and abstract social custom.
Even with Esu's antics in mind, Hurston shows how inter-personal presence can open the gates to social and personal awareness. With insight similar to Janie's perception of Starks' and Killicks' "heads" and unconscious destinies, Tea Cake repeatedly perceives aspects of Janie's consciousness of which she is unaware. However, unlike Janie's hostile (Petro) invocation of her awareness in her Rachel Roe-like ritual slaying of Starks' image, Tea Cake employs his insight with a healing tact. As Hurston notices in Mules and Men and notes explicitly in Tell My Horse, these healing (Rada) energies are used in re-establishing and maintaining heathy personal and communal relationships. Nonetheless, after their first night together, Esu-Elegba, "the fiend," returns to disrupt the connection which allows Janie, even in Tea Cake's absence, to "feel him and almost see him." Drawing on a West African sense of coolness (noted by Thompson and Abiodun and by Hurston in Mules and Men) as a state of receptive connection (in Yoruba, itutu), even in the mounting heat of the Florida sun, Janie experiences Esu-Elegba's arrival as an interruption of "the cool of the afternoon" (262). Hurston's description of Esu-Elegba again emphasizes his ability to instigate division:
In the cool of the afternoon the fiend from hell specially sent to lovers arrived at Janie's ear. Doubt. All the fears that circumstance could provide and the heart feel, attacked her on every side. This was a new sensation for her, but no less excruciating. If only Tea Cake would make her certain! He did not return that night or the next and so she plunged into the abyss and descended to the ninth darkness where light has never been (262).
When Tea Cake returns to take Janie to the "Sunday school picnic" he deals with Esu-Elegba's instigations and brings Janie back out of the depth of the "ninth darkness" (262). Janie speaks through Esu-Elegba's parable. She lies about her attitude: "'If there's somebody else you'd ruther take, it's all right wid me.'" Tea Cake confronts Esu-Elegba's work head on, "'Naw it ain't all right wid you. If it was you wouldn't be sayin' dat. Have de nerve tuh say whut you mean'" (263). Score: Tea Cake 1, Esu-Elegba 0.
In relation to Tea Cake, Janie negotiates the crossroads, crosses all the divisions "that circumstances could provide and the heart feel," and connects with a fuller range of her experience (262). Drawing her out of her depersonalized self and into the interpersonal medium, Tea Cake doesn't allow Janie to withdraw, sit off in the distance, and watch through de-personal visions and revisions like she did with Starks. Janie learns from Tea Cake's perception of her head naked of its skull, parts of her consciousness masked from her awareness. In response to Tea Cake's presence, Janie's interior depth and inter-personal awareness resist Esu-Elegba's multileveled instigations. Tea Cake's forthright attitude and ability to allay Janie's suspicions enable them systematically to dismantle confines of the symbolic North and South, the empty modern roles of Eatonville and the rigid traditional attitudes of Nanny and Logan Killicks. There are fewer fiends in the ovens on the muck. In fact, there are fewer ovens. Janie works alongside Tea Cake by day and Tea Cake "would help her get supper afterwards." For the first time, Janie feels fully involved in a community. With a "crowd of people around her and a dice game on her floor!" Janie "could listen and laugh and even talk some herself if she wanted to" (284).
In relation to these connections, new (Eastern) horizons of a recuperation narrative emerge. While Tea Cake helps thwart Esu-Elegba's instigations in Janie's head, he fails to internalize the lessons. For her part, Janie is unable fully to reciprocate Tea Cake's accompaniment. In the context of Hurston's Diasporic Modernist vision, Tea Cake's demise underscores how inter-personal connections are a key transition between disruption and renewal. In the recuperation section of the novel that follows, Hurston embeds the symbolic geography of black modernity in a diasporic metaphysical world. In so doing, she undoes the rationalizations of the symbolic North and South, reveals a newly free and volatile world of possibility, and reminds readers why the novel isn't titled Their Eyes Were Watching a Dice Game.
The Symbolic East, the Diasporic Muck, and Tea Cake's Metaphysical Blues
As noted above, Judylyn Ryan expands Stepto's North-South paradigm of ascent and immersion at both ends, proposing a narrative of "dispersion" which accounts for the psychological and cultural effects of a movement to a "symbolic West," a foreign location of terror and bondage, and a narrative of "recuperation" which charts a movement toward an imagined or literal "symbolic East" of reconnection with African culture. For the novel as a whole and in relation to Janie's quest, Hurston's "the muck" is a symbolic East.
In her symbolic East, Hurston imagines new cultural and psychological patterns which reconnect the interpersonal dynamics of the symbolic South (symbolized in Janie and Tea Cake's connection) to a more expansive diasporic community. Such a bond might repair the rift between the natural/metaphysical world created by the black modern symbolic North (imaged in Joe Starks' design). Evidently, this is what Hurston had in mind, but her characters had other ideas. While Janie seems to be ready for the psychological realities of recuperation, Tea Cake and others can't make the transition from the logic of the symbolic South to the symbolic East. Apparently lacking the individual depth Janie develops during her ascent and de-personalized descent, Tea Cake's contradictions surface on the muck in ways he can't handle. While black literature has made much of the existential, modernist implications of the blues, Tea Cake doesn't see it that way. Despite his brilliance as a performer in the symbolic South, Hurston shows how he is undone by the realities of love and life in the newly dawned symbolic East. While the connection between Tea Cake and Janie initially resonates with cultural victory (what Alice Walker has called "racial health") in immersion, Tea Cake's downfall betrays the pattern of recuperation and signals the destruction of the nascent diasporic community. In the end, Esu singles Tea Cake out for a more horrific twist of ori than even Joe Starks experienced.
Tea Cake plays the guitar, but he has no blues. In his famous essay "Richard Wright's Blues," Ralph Ellison emphasizes the psychological reckonings implicit in the blues tradition of "fingering the jagged grain" of experience (79). Expanding Ellison's literary blues impulse in many poems and several essays, Yusef Komunyakaa emphasizes the psychological overlays between modernist poetics and blues performance. In his essay Langston Hughes + Poetry = The Blues," Komunyakaa characterizes "the bedrock of the blues [as] (vertical music)" (32). In a 1998 interview, he makes explicit the connection between blues and reckonings at the modernist crossroads:
This involves our search into our own psyches that is an attempt to align the external with the internal. I do see the blues as confrontation. So, truth is always taking a step back--and it keeps us moving ahead--and there comes a point where what we really discover is, in essence, our own selves.... And I do see the blues as confrontation. I'm not talking about in a strict political sense, but confrontation with one's mortality, confrontation with the essence of just being human. Pain, celebration--all those things mixed together--not creating a flotsam but creating a kind of relation if possible. (120-21)
Despite his genius in the social world, Tea Cake is unable to excavate his internalization of abstractions, such as the problematic cultural significance of Janie's appearance, her social class, and the nearly metaphysical prestige of money derived from the white-owned economy. His unacknowledged, deep-seated attachment to these abstractions comes as grimly ironic in light of his gift as a blues singer. However popular Tea Cake's performances may be on the muck, and however useful they have been to Janie's emergence, (in ways alarmingly similar to Starks) he can't imagine his own crossroads. Having no voice for that level of experience is a lethal affliction in Hurston's Diasporic Modernism.
Echoing Hurston's findings in Tell My Horse, Henry Drewal notes that, as divine messenger, Esu-Elegba also challenges connections between humans and the orisa. Tea Cake's fall and the brutal Judgment Day destruction of the muck signal the inability of Hurston's imagined diasporic community to reckon with Esu-Elegba's multileveled challenges in relation to the inter-personal and metaphysical dilemmas of recuperation narratives. In his failure to deal with Esu's personal gates, Tea Cake falls prey to his internalization of stock motifs of mainstream American modern life. Succumbing to the rift between modern man and nature, he leads the black Americans on the muck into a rift with the natural and emerging diasporic cultural and metaphysical worlds around them. Interestingly, the forces of nature which destroy the muck, the wind and water, are the elements of feminine deities in the Yoruba pantheon of orisa. All in all, despite Tea Cake's momentary success dealing with Esu's instigations in Eatonville, the final section of the novel shows the danger and even chaos that threaten Hurston's imagined diasporic world.
Hurston envisioned the muck as a location free from the constraints inherent in black-mirrored versions of American modernity. Echoing Faulkner's depiction of the demise of Sutpen's hundred in Absalom Absalom!, Starks' rise and fall voices Hurston's critique of modernity's emphasis on economic centers. In Starks' Eatonville, he reasons, "'... everything is got tuh have uh center and uh heart tuh it, and uh town ain't no different from nowhere else'" (206). Starks identifies the black ascent position in the American modern, aptly, as "'no different from nowhere else.'" He concludes that it "'would be natural fuh the store tuh be the meeting' place fuh de town'" (206). In relation to its moorings in the modern, Starks' store is, literally, the middle of nowhere. If Eatonville is "nowhere else," Hurston envisioned the muck as somewhere East: a symbolic place of repatriation and renewed presence, a proto-diasporic community in which, "during the summer when she heard the subtle but compelling rhythms of the Bahaman drummers, she'd walk over and watch the dances." Citizens of the proto-diaspora now, Hurston images Janie and Tea Cake's sympathy with and interest in the diasporic cultural flow. Having stayed on after the money was made "in season," Janie's motivation isn't economic. She "did not laugh the 'Saws' to scorn as she had heard the people doing in the season. She got to like it a lot and she and Tea Cake were on hand every night till the others teased them about it" (288). In Hurston's off-season diasporic world, the terrain is organized in cultural and metaphysical, instead of rationalized economic, terms. More naturally than Starks' store, Tea Cake's house becomes "the unauthorized center of the 'job.' The way he would sit in the doorway and play his guitar made people stop and listen and maybe disappoint the jukes for a night" (282). After "Janie and Tea Cake had friended with the Bahaman workers," a transnational diasporic community emerges on the muck as "the 'Saws' had been gradually drawn into the American crowd." After "many of the Americans" learned the diasporic dances and "liked it as much as the 'Saws,' ... they began to hold the dances night after night ... behind Tea Cake's house" (300).
The first sign of trouble in Hurston's symbolic East appears in Tea Cake's failed interior reckoning. As Gary Edwards points out above, Esu is a cross-dresser. In the face of Ms. Turner's color-coded disdain for him, the signs of Tea Cake's unreckoned interior surface. Janie's casual response to Tea Cake's paranoid suggestion that Ms. Turner intends to arrange a liaison between Janie and her brother doesn't assuage his fear. In fact, showing a lack of inter-personal awareness, and to Esu-Elegba's delight, Janie seems not to realize that the problem has more to do with Tea Cake's feelings than her own. She replies: "'If dat's her notion she's barking up de wrong tree. Mah hands is full already'" (291). Rather than the improvised reckoning of the blues singer, Tea Cake's response to issues which confront his interior, "'Thanky Ma'am,'" quickly becomes a trope of his stasis and the couple's thwarted excavation of Tea Cake's blues.
Hurston continues to emphasize Tea Cake's brilliance as a performer while his sense of himself erodes from the inside. As the diasporic storm approaches the muck, Janie, Tea Cake, Motor Boat, and Muck-Boy pit black American cultural rituals against its metaphysical force. Gravitating toward the anxious mood of the group, the narration asks Tea Cake "how come he couldn't play a lick or hit that box a lick or two?" and responds, "Well, all right now, make us know it" (302). Later, Muck-Boy goes "crazy through the feet and dance[s] himself and everybody else crazy." Tea Cake and Motor Boat throw a "show-off game" of dice and, for a moment, the folks "forgot the work and the weather watching them throw. It was art" (303). But imaging the rift between the black performers and the orisa symbolized in the storm, the narration slips out of sync with the metaphysical frame Hurston has established between timeless rhythms of sunrise and sunset. During the storm, "it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands" (303-04). In their modern selves, out of sync with the orisa and natural patterns, the group is surrounded by modernist metaphysical nothingness.
A conflict arises between images that structure Hurston's diasporic awareness and her imagination of the full range of Tea Cake's consciousness in the plot of the novel. As James Baldwin showed so compellingly in his work, often one's suspicion of others reveals one's self. This insight applies with great rigor to attitudes and fears which appear in Tea Cake but also mirror those of figures to whom he's contrasted in the plot: Mrs. Turner and Joe Starks. Despite Tea Cake's hatred for Mrs. Turner's color-struck adoration for Janie's physical appearance, Tea Cake was himself drawn to the same Janie that Mrs. Turner sees. This undercurrent casts new light on Tea Cake's ostensibly endearing and romantic fascination with, among other things, Janie's soft, long hair: "'Ah ain't been sleepin' so good for more'n uh week cause Ah been wishin' so bad tuh git mah hands in yo' hair.... It feels jus' lak underneath uh dove's wing next to mah face'" (258). That's why people of Mrs. Turner's ilk--and plenty of others--call it "good hair." The contradictory overlap between Tea Cake's and Mrs. Turner's perceptions fans the flames of his ambivalence and paranoia. Of Mrs Turner, Tea Cake says, "'Ah ain't mad wid her for whut she done, 'cause she ain't done me nothin' yet. Ah'm mad at her for thinkin'" (295). After identifying with money and "the bossman" instead of the natural world and the diasporic community of Bahaman and Indians, during the storm Tea Cake mouths more of Starks' class-conscious and patriarchal point of view. He tells Janie: "'Ah reckon you wish now you had of stayed in yo' big house 'way from such as dis.'" Janie replies, "'Ah'm wid my husband in uh storm, dat's all.'" Despite his now formulaic "'Thanky Ma'am,'" Tea Cake remains unconvinced. Attempting to return to the rhythmic frame of sunrise and sunset, Janie's response is still focused on herself: "'If you kin see the light at daybreak, you don't keer if you die at dusk. It's so many people never see de light at all'" (304). But, instead, "it stayed night." Despite his performances, the storm goes on and Tea Cake's doubt reappears.
As the storm continues, the patterns and diasporic energies (orisa) begin to emerge out of the modernist metaphysical abyss. These images depict the dissonance between secularized perspectives of the black Americans led by Tea Cake and the fluid and volatile diasporic structure of Hurston's recuperation narrative. The sympathetic, indeed heroic, portrait of Tea Cake in the plot masks a dangerous clash of energies in the emerging Diasporic Modernist metaphysics of Hurston's mythic method. The Diasporic Modernist mythic method in the novel appears from an understanding of how energies from Mules and Men and Tell My Horse overlap with images in Their Eyes and moments from Hurston's life. Showing the diasporic structure of her ethnographic research in Mules and Men, Luke Turner's initiation of Hurston into connection with the spirits of hoodoo connects the rituals of New Orleans to the loa or orisa of Haiti and West Africa. Turner clearly initiates Hurston into a spirit/energy related to Oya, wife of Sango, and the feminine energy of force and angry retribution in Yoruba-derived pantheons. In Nigeria, Oya's energy is invoked in the mighty waters of the River Niger and in the wind and rain of thunderstorms. Consequently, Turner chants to Hurston: "'You must come to the spirit across running water.... I see her conquering and accomplishing with the lighting and making her road with thunder. She shall be called the Rain-Bringer.'" Hurston remembers that "Turner painted the lightning symbol down my back from my right shoulder to my left hip. This was to be my sign forever. The Great One was to speak to me in storms" (Mules 200). Hurston was well aware of Esu-Elegba's role in the connection between people as well as between people and the loa or orisa. In Tell My Horse, she notes that "Papa Legba is always the first to receive sacrifice in any ritual invocation of the loa" (119).
Esu's dissonance widens the rift between the people of the muck and the orisa, the storm gathers force, and most of the muck takes notice. Signaling precisely the syncretic mix of West African and Christian cosmologies she found in Haiti, Hurston's thunder and lightning join Gabriel's trumpet and Sango's (bata) drums: "Gabriel was playing the deep tones in the center of the drum" (303). Most of the residents of the symbolic East were ready to heed the first signs. First a "band of Seminoles" passes by. They inform Janie that they are "going to high ground. Saw-grass bloom. Hurricane coming" (300). In response, the free-indirect narration carries a black communal voice obsessed with modern forms of ownership, attached to dollars, and rife with prejudice against American Indians:
Still a blue sky and fair weather. Beans running fine and prices good, so the Indians could be, must be, wrong, You couldn't have a hurricane when you're making seven and eight dollars a day picking beans.... Indians don't know much uh nothin', tuh tell de truth. Else they'd own dis country still. De white folks ain't gone nowhere. Dey oughta know if it's dangerous. (300)
Hurston's comic/tragic portrait of false consciousness is nothing that a few listens to Bessie Smith's "Back Water Blues" couldn't demystify. But, as we know, Tea Cake's blues don't provide the necessary confrontations in existential insight or social critique. The black American indifference contrasts the subtle and inclusive call-and-response rhythms of the symbolic East. Animals follow in the exodus as "the palm and banana trees began that long distance talk with rain." Finally, when the Bahaman folks begin to leave as well, Lias warns Tea Cake once more, "'De crow gahn up, man.'" Tea Cake's response shows his tragic identification with the rulers of the economy: "'Dat ain't nothin'. You ain't seen the bossman go up, is yuh?'" (301). Lias' ironic response hints at the diasporic metaphysics of Hurston's recuperation narrative, "'If Ah never see you no too' on earth, Ah'll meet you in Africa'" (302).
As Tea Cake fails to reckon with Esu-Elegba's interior gates, he falls out of sync with Janie and the metaphysics of the diasporic world. In a passage which shows the collisions in the deep structure of Hurston's mythic method, Tea Cake's first attempt to confide in Janie occurs in a pause allowed by Hurston's own patron energy, Oya. Tea Cake momentarily finds his voice amidst "a little wind-lull." Recalling Hurston's statement that the wind and storm "was to be my sign forever" shows the significance in the timing of the exchange. When Tea Cake claims that Janie has given him new reason to believe in their relationship, he is cut off in mid-thought by the storm and "wind [which] came back with triple fury." Tea Cake's nascent excavation shows the confusion Esu-Elegba can work in silence as he responds, "'Well then, Janie, you meant what you didn't say 'cause Ah never knowed you wuz so satisfied wid me lak dat. Ah kinda thought--'" (304). The furious winds cut him short. Of course, Tea Cake's problems are not about Janie anymore than her initial insecurities in Eatonville were about Tea Cake. The problems emanate from Tea Cake's unreckoned interior and the misalignments they cause in the exterior world. As the storm begins, the feminine energies of the diaspora assault the muck. The danger of the couple's inability to penetrate to the source of Tea Cake's fear grows in intensity and specificity. As if imaging the author's rage at Tea Cake's shortcomings, in the long night that "stayed night," the storm and wind (Oya, Hurston's own spiritual alter ego) thwart(s) the final beginnings of Tea Cake's descent. As they always do, unreckoned blues return. In this case, Hurston uses classic blues imagery which could have been drawn directly from Robert Johnson's "Hell Hound on My Trail."
Esu-Elegba's margins are challenges to intra- and inter-personal connections. Hurston's narration and Janie's consciousness enter into several combinations which allow these spaces to interact freely. As noted above, inability to choose a course of action transforms Esu-Elegba's playful challenge into dissonant futility, a figurative, personalized instance of hell. Tea Cake's internalized ambivalence about Janie's appearance and social class and his need to protect her are, through Esu's positioning of barriers, effectively off limits to both of them: They can not begin to talk about what ails him. As if from the unconscious, the danger returns in a surrealist's set of images. Emphasizing that Janie's personal confrontations with Esu-Elegba don't make her safe in the diasporic (interpersonal) logic of the recuperation narrative, the scene invokes forces which neither of the characters controls. As if overtaken by the patron energies of an author now frustrated by Janie's satisfaction with her own awareness, Janie is blown off into deep water by a gust of wind; as she clings to the tail of a cow swimming to safety, a rabid dog standing on the cow's back attacks her; Tea Cake is bitten before he saves Janie and sends "the dog to the bottom to stay there" (310). Force and violence, however, aren't effective methods for reckoning with Esu. Like the blues images in the psyche, the dog won't stay down.
In response to each of Esu-Elegba's instigations in Janie's consciousness, Tea Cake shows his inter-personal skill and speaks to Janie's state of mind. These connections thwart Esu-Elegba's meddling. In contrast, Janie's response to Tea Cake's doubt is nearly solipsistic; she tells him about herself. Speaking out of the storm from which he couldn't protect her, Tea Cake says, "'... reckon you never 'spected tuh come to dis when you took up wid me, didja?' "Janie's response again fails to connect with Tea Cake's interior, "'Ah'm thankful fuh anything we come through together.'" Signaling the repetitive stasis, Tea Cake responds predictably: "'Thanky Ma'am.'" In a final image of the "hellhound," Janie recollects that the dog "'wuzn't nothing all over but pure hate. Wonder where he come from?'" (311). Finally, Tea Cake succumbs to the cliched "dog in him." The jealousy mixes with the madness resulting from the "rabid dog" bite--syphilis?--and Tea Cake asks Janie about the rumors surrounding Mrs. Turner's brother. Referring back to herself, again Janie responds as she had in the past. Tea Cake, now gripped in stasis and mounting madness, again replies predictably, "'Thanky Ma'am'" (322). From this point, Hurston's use of the repetitive "Thanky Ma'am" phrasing resonates backward through the story. This is not the improvised disruption of Tea Cake's inter-personal performative brilliance. Rather it signals a thwarted reckoning with Esu's most intimate margins, an impotence in the face of the need for inter-personal excavation trapped in a shallow and static cliche.
Where are the new words? The plot of Hurston's Their Eyes has no space for Tea Cake's internal reckoning. Providing the structure of her mythic method, the images in the final section of the novel betray an unforgiving contempt for the figure instrumental in Janie's emergence. No one responds to anyone's call. Cut off by the wind, Tea Cake's calls hang in open air like the angular gestures of the Harlem dancers Hurston described in "The Characteristics of Negro Expression." But, like a performance in an empty hall, there's no longer any reciprocity in Hurston's antiphonal epistemics. Janie's responses themselves fail the inter-personal logic Hurston crafted with such care. Esu-Elegba's relation to the images at the crossroads of Janie and Tea Cake's efforts to connect to themselves and each other catches Hurston's work-in-progress and illuminates the brilliant flux of her design: the struggle to improvise language to chart the interior and inter-personal crossroads of black modern and diasporic life. As in Robert Johnson's life and music and Komunyakaa's poetry, in Hurston's work, reckoning with "the Little Emperor of the cross-roads" isn't abstract (246). It's a life-and-death struggle. As for the figure in Komunyakaa's Diasporic Modernist lyric "Confluence," in relation to Tea Cake, Hurston's voices "break open the pink magnolia / when struggle is home to the beast in us" (14).
From her first protagonist in "John Redding Goes to Sea" through Lucy and John in Jonah's Gourd Vine, Hurston's characters die when they can no longer improvise languages to articulate their experience. Although it offers a much more complicated set of reckonings than anything before it, Their Eyes Were Watching God fits the pattern with shocking fidelity. When Nanny confronts the generational differences in Janie's changing expectations, she cannot frame them with any meaning. Hurston's final image of Nanny shows her futile search for meaning in the depths of her own uncharted interior. Nanny's de-personalized medium instantly falls into nothingness: She "stayed on her knees 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." Without means to articulate the depths of her experience, Nanny gives up the search and prays, "'Lawd, you know mah heart. Ah done the best Ah could do. De rest is left to you.'" Obviously, for Hurston, the traditional abstractions are not enough: "A month later she was dead" (194). Joe Starks meets a similar fate as his crumbling prestige and Janie's pin-point retaliation combine to face him with the inadequacy of his voice: "Joe Starks didn't know the words for all this, but he knew the feeling" (239). Soon after, Starks is dead. Despite Tea Cake's genius as a performer and his ability to help reveal Janie to herself, the novel doesn't allow him a mode of descent. Something suggests that Nunkie just isn't the answer. The full implications of Tea Cake's need to protect Janie, as well as the source of his attraction to her, are beyond the crossroads of the novel's reckoning. From the first instance of violence between them, Hurston notes that Tea Cake didn't beat Janie "because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him" (294). As with all the other failures in Esu-Elegba's parable space, Tea Cake's true love and masculine need to protect intensify into their opposites: pure hate and a masculine compulsion to make conquests, to abuse, and, finally, to kill. During the storm, the angered feminine orisa put a momentary stop to the madness: "The wind and water had given life to lots of things that folks think of as dead.... Common danger made common friends. Nothing sought a conquest over the other" (305, 308). The peace doesn't last. Eventually, Tea Cake is overcome by the "fiend," returned as the worst possible invocation of Esu-Elegba's presence: "She saw him stiffen himself all over as he leveled and took aim. The fiend in him must kill and Janie was the only living thing he saw" (325).
Tea Cake isn't willing or able to make proper sacrifices to Esu-Elegba. Hurston sacrifices him to show that the personal and communal stakes that Diasporic Modernism unearths are high. Hurston's ethnographic research into diasporic cosmology discovered energies which unlocked the keys to Janie's personal and cultural self-realization. At the novel's close, Janie is poised for a full meditation on the ancestors. But it won't be pretty. Seen in this light, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a dangerous and unforgiving text. The orisa apparently haven't read the New Testament. As Hurston understood, the energies which emerge from what amounts to the archetypes of the diasporic unconscious are vital and violent, and (buy a map of the genome if you like) resolutions are beyond the ships on the internal and external horizons. Drawing insights from high modernism, black folk traditions, and a wide range of diasporic ethnographic and experiential material, Hurston shows, through Janie, the immediate necessity of both de-personalized attention to individual interiors and vigilant inter-personal connection to others attempting to do the same. This essay aims to illuminate the structure of her design in this regard. More importantly, I hope it bolsters respect for the bottomless mysteries of the creative process in general and Hurston's great novel in particular. Perhaps, I'm even after a little healthy fear in the face of the cultural, psychological, and metaphysical terrains of the diaspora. In reckoning with these energies, "fear is the most divine emotion," Hurston writes. "It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshiped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood" (Tell 139). As I tell my students, we're after engaging concepts, but we go in fear of abstractions and role models. It's not enough to praise Zora and emulate Tea Cake. The author died with her diasporic vision completely unrecognized, and brother Woods died like a god spelled backward.
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Edward M. Pavlic's book of poems Paraph of Bone & Other Kinds of Blue (Copper Canyon P, 2001) was selected by Adrienne Rich to win the The American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize. The Bloomsbury Review noted it as "one of the most beguiling and compelling volumes of poetry--jazz-licked or otherwise--to leap onto the literary stage." Pavlic's first book of essays, Crossroads Modernism, was published in 2002 by the University of Minnesota Press. He teaches in the English department and directs the Africana Studies Program at Union College in Schenectady, NY.
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|Author:||Pavlic, Edward M.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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