Printer Friendly

The trope of the falling hair in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Janie Crawford, the central character in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a woman "search[ing] for her authentic self " (Danticat ix). As presented in the novel, Janie is consistently described in terms of, and associated with, images of her long, falling hair. Hurston's use of recurring references to Janie's hair represents what I will refer to as the trope of the falling hair, which offers a tropic (turning or changing) meaning that "effects a conspicuous change in what we [readers] take to be its [Janie's hair] standard meaning" (Abrams 64). Used thus, the trope of the falling hair establishes Janie's cultural identity, a term which critic Homi K. Bhabha defines as the "pre-given ethnic or cultural traits set in the fixed tablet of tradition" (2). Hurston's hair imagery is an expression of race and gender, as ethnic difference, which "from the minority perspective, is a complex, on-going negotiation" that takes place in the space between pre-given categories and "domains of difference" (2). Hurston, in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, writes that "no matter where two sets of people come together, there are bound to be some in-betweens" (171), and this is the space critic Naomi Pabst refers to as the site in which Hurston explores "her own simultaneous blackness and mixedness" (182). The interstitial location of the domains of difference between black and white culture is thus the site of Janie's negotiation of her own cultural identity as symbolized by Hurston's use of the trope of the falling hair.

Hair as Proxy

In her essay "Hair Piece," critic Paulette M. Caldwell views hair as "a proxy for legitimacy," stating that:
   Hairstyle choices are an important mode of self-expression. For
   blacks, and particularly for black women, such choices also reflect
   the search for a survival mechanism in a culture where social,
   political, and economic choices of racialized individuals and
   groups are conditioned by the extent to which their physical
   characteristics ... approximate those of the dominant racial group.

Caldwell suggests that hair as expression of identity results from negotiating between two domains of difference: black culture with its emphasis on "natural" hair and the dominant racial group of white culture with its emphasis on "straight" or "straightened" hair.

In the opening pages of the novel, Hurston's first presentation of Janie draws attention to Janie's straight hair through the introduction of the trope of the falling hair. First, Janie is described by the porch sitters (the townspeople of Eatonville, Florida): "What dat ole forty year ole 'oman doin' wid her hair swingin' down her back lak some young gal?"(2). Hurston's authorial voice then provides the following expanded description: "The men noticed ... the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume" (2). Janie's hair is both visually stereotypical of non-African women ("swinging to her waist") and symbolic of her confident self-expression ("like a plume") of the identity she has forged while she was away from Eatonville. Janie does not have her hair bound up like the townspeople would traditionally expect of a woman of her age and position in the black culture.

This description of Janie's return to Eatonville is followed in the second chapter by another depiction of Janie's hair as an identifying characteristic. Janie recounts to her friend, Pheoby, the experience of seeing herself for the first time in a photograph. In the photo, Janie is situated among the four white grandchildren of the woman for whom her Nanny worked. Janie is startled by what she sees: "a real dark little girl with long hair ... dat's where Ah wuz s'posed to be, but Ah couldn't recognize dat dark chile as me" (my emphasis) (9). The trope of the falling hair shifts here from the perspective of the author and townspeople to the perspective of the central character. Janie must reconcile what she sees (a black child) with what she has previously understood about herself (self-identity). The scene introduces the origin of Janie's identity confusion resulting from the existence of domains of difference. In Janie's retelling, this seminal moment gains additional import as she states, "Ah was wid dem white chillum so much till Ah didn't know Ah wuzn't white till Ah was round six years old" (8). The binary between black and white culture is of note: Janie, who didn't know she was not white, is the only black child among the five children, yet in the photo, she is the "dark little girl" but with "long hair," which is a characteristic that associates her with dominant white culture.

As a cultural anthropologist, Hurston must have known the residual cultural influences of African culture within Southern black culture, including the symbolic presence of hair as a statement of identity. Social scientists Tabora Johnson and Teiahsha Bankhead report that:
   In Africa, hair was used to denote age, religion, social rank, and
   marital status as well as other status symbols.... It is an
   understatement to suggest that hair is merely part of African
   cultural identity, as hair and identity are inseparable. (87)

The use of the trope of the falling hair establishes Janie's on-going negotiations between domains of difference. Throughout the course of the novel, Janie's negotiations between black and white culture will lead to her arrival at a sense of her own personhood.

On-going Negotiations

Hurston's presentations of Janie's understanding of relationships between men and women are also central to Janie's on-going negotiations between differences of domain. Before Janie has her own personal experiences with men, she experiences men through the stories her Nanny tells her. These stories take the form of multi-generational and mixed-race narratives, as in Nanny's tale of herself and the slave master before the master went off to the Siege of Atlanta during the Civil War: "But pretty soon he let on he forgot somethin' and run into mah cabin and made me let down mah hair for de last time. He sorta wropped his hand in it, pulled mah big toe, lak he always done, and was gone after de rest lak lightnin'" (16-17). The physical intimacy between the two is of interest with its reference to Nanny's "let[ting] down mah hair," which links Janie to Nanny via the trope of the falling hair. The result of the relations between Nanny and the slave master was Janie's mother, who has characteristically white features, as noted by the angry slave mistress, who challenges Nanny by asking, "'[W]hut's yo baby doin' wid gray eyes and yaller hair?'" Nanny tells Janie that the slave mistress "kept on astin me how come mah baby look white" (17). This establishes Janie's hybrid genetic ethnicity, her "mixedness" that helps define her cultural identity. Her Nanny, having been impregnated with Janie's mother by a white slave master, and, Janie's mother having been raped at seventeen by a school teacher (19), leave Janie with no models for loving relationships between men and women of her own ethnic identity, but with images of historical patriarchal oppression. This leads to the complicated negotiations between Janie's black husbands and her own mixed race identity that dominate the narrative that follows.

When Janie is only sixteen, Nanny arranges a marriage for her to Logan Killicks, an older black man, with the good intention on Nanny's part, to "see [Janie] safe in life" (15). The scenes that accompany this portending marriage include notable use of the trope of the falling hair. In response to seeing Janie's "terrible agony" over the arranged marriage, Nanny "brushed back the heavy hair from Janie's face" (14). Nanny pulls Janie to her lap in a manner reminiscent of childhood, and tells her: "Yo' Nanny wouldn't harm a hair uh yo' head. She don't want nobody else to do it neither if she kin help it." In these passages, then, Janie's hair becomes emblematic of Janie herself, as Nanny brushes Janie's hair as if she is stroking her face and then refers to Janie as hair being kept from harm. The culminating scene before Janie's departure is presented almost as a photographic image:
   For a long time [Nanny] sat rocking with the girl held tightly to
   her sunken breast. Janie's long legs dangled over one arm of the
   chair and the long braids of her hair swung low on the other side.
   Nanny half sung, half sobbed a running chantprayer over the head of
   the weeping girl. (14)

The swinging hair in this passage is familiar from its presence in the opening pages of the novel. The "long braids" here are paradoxical: they could just as easily be child's braids, which make her arranged marriage more poignant, or as braids in an African tradition that might symbolize or operate as a visual code regarding the pending arranged marriage, for "Africa hair was used to denote... marital status" (Johnson and Bankhead 87). Janie's impending marriage to Logan now sets in motion Janie's leaving her Nanny, her home, her childhood innocence and venturing into a world where she will negotiate the complexities of the domains of difference between husbands and wives.

Logan, Joe, and Tea Cake

Janie's series of marriages to Logan Killicks, Joe Starks, and Tea Cake demonstrate a progression in her understanding of relationships. Since the only model she knew of marriage is that of Mr. and Mrs. Washburn, her Nanny's white employers, she must learn from her own experiences how to be in relationships with black men. Janie negotiates the feeling of dissatisfaction in her unloving first marriage to Logan Killicks, the feeling of being cared for, yet controlled by Joe Starks, and the feeling of finding self-identity with Tea Cake.

Janie's arranged marriage to Logan makes her unhappy because she doesn't love him according to what her inexperienced perception of what love is. When the two are first married, Logan dotes on her, but this quickly fades: "Long before the year was up, Janie noticed that her husband had stopped talking in rhymes to her. He had ceased to wonder at her long black hair and finger it" (26). Readers see how this relationship has changed; Logan's treatment of Janie from a prized object of affection transforms to an expectation of a wife's role that relegates her to chattel, to a mule on his farm, which is evident as he tells Janie that, "Mah fust wife never bothered me 'bout choppin' no wood nohow.... You done been spoilt rotten" (27). Moreover, Logan's criticism of Janie is rooted in his perception that she does not play the role of a black wife relative to his role as a black husband: "Ah thought you would 'preciate good treatment. Thought Ah'd take and make somethin' outa yuh. You think youse white folks by de way you act" (30). Logan's and Janie's experiences are different; Janie's early upbringing as a mixed race child on a white family's property informs her behavior, which is in contrast to the model of a black wife that Logan experienced in his first marriage. Logan's declining love of Janie is expressed through the trope of the falling hair; not only does he cease expressions of romantic love ("stopped talking in rhymes to her"), but he also abandons his loving intimacy of her physical presence ("ceased to wonder at her long black hair and finger it").

A disillusioned and lonely Janie is ripe for the picking when Joe Starks arrives. Hurston presents him as "a citified, stylish dressed man" who "walked like he knew where he was going" and who reminded Janie of Mr. Washburn (27). In order to catch his attention, Janie works the pump handle, which "made a loud noise and also made her heavy hair fall down" (27). The trope of the falling hair is brought into play; the "long black hair" that no longer attracts Logan is intentionally offered to this new suitor.

Janie is sweet-talked away from Logan by Joe Starks who offers her a richer and different life: "A pretty doll-baby lak you is made to sit on de front porch and rock and fan yo'self and eat p'taters dat other folks plant just special for you" (29). Joe offers Janie a lifestyle akin to that of a white woman, and which hearkens back to the innocence of Janie's childhood with the Washburns. For Joe, Janie is not a mule, but a doll to dress up: "You come go wid me. Den all de rest of yo' natural life you kin live lak you oughta. Kiss me and shake yo' head. When you do dat, yo' plentiful hair breaks lak day" (30). The trope of the falling hair recurs here; however, once Joe establishes his store in Eatonville, he makes Janie cover the same "plentiful hair" that attracted him to her. Joe's jealousy is evident as Hurston tells how, "[Janie's] hair was NOT going to show in the store... She was there in the store for him to look at, not those others" (55). Joe's insistence that Janie cover her hair is an act of repression, a negation of her hair free in the sunshine on the porch (white world) and a return to the enslavement (black world), for "when the hair is covered--as it had to be on the plantation or other places where African women existed, they were deemed less feminine and thus less womanly" (Johnson and Bankhead 92). Janie is confronted again by the conflicting domains of difference that require her negotiation. After Joe dies, Janie is liberated from his repression: "She tore off the kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair. The weight, the length, the glory was there" (87). Hurston shows how Janie recognizes that she is in transition as she looks in the mirror and sees that "The young girl was gone, but a handsome woman had taken her place" (87). The trope of the falling hair is symbolic of her self-awareness of her changing identity. This is coupled with Janie's inheriting Joe's store, making her no longer a dependent woman, but an independent merchant in her own right.

Janie meets Tea Cake when he enters her store one day. He is a confident, handsome, younger man, and they flirt over a game of checkers. After a brief courtship, Janie wakes from a nap to find Tea Cake in the intimate act of combing her hair. When she asks about the comb, Tea Cake tells her: "Ah brought it wid me. Come prepared tuh lay mah hands on it [her hair] tuhnight" (103). Interestingly, Janie's hair is not mentioned right away in the Tea Cake narrative as it has been previously, making the hair not an initiation, but a consummation to the intimacy of the act of combing, which Janie says makes her "comfortable and drowsy" (103). The trope of the falling hair is modified and replaced by the combing and stretching of her hair.

Despite the townspeople's disapproval both of the age difference between Janie and Tea Cake and of her decision to sell the store she inherited from Joe, they marry and move south to the Florida Everglades where they work as migrant laborers. When Janie was married, both to Logan and Joe, she was chattel on a farm and in a store, respectively, and in relationships in which she was inferior to her husbands. Her decision to sell the store and leave with Tea Cake is a rejection of marital inequality; without land or store or fixed domains, she and Tea Cake can be equals as migrant workers living an existence where the domains of difference between black and white culture require far less negotiation, possibly leading toward greater happiness. Sadly, the disastrous effects of a hurricane destroy Janie's happy relationship with Tea Cake after he is bitten by a rabid dog and Janie is forced to kill Tea Cake in self defense.

After this tragedy, she returns alone to Eatonville. In one of the final scenes in the novel, Hurston shows Janie back home, in her room, "Combing road-dust out of her hair" (192). Here, the return of the trope of the falling hair indicates both her independence, by combing her own hair, and her arrival at her own home and own life by ridding herself of road-dust. Moreover, Hurston evokes the opening image of Janie's waist-long hair as she replaces it with an image of Janie integrated into the physical world as she "pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder" (193).


With her return to Eatonville, Janie's journey is complete. She has, through three relationships, come to understand the complex negotiations between domains of difference between the black culture of her husbands and her own mixed race identity as she "survive[s] her grandmother's restricted vision of a black woman's life and realize[s] her own self-conceived liberation" (Danticat xv). As a result, she has arrived, as her own mixed race person, at a cohesive sense of cultural identity, as expressed in the finale of the novel when readers learn that for Janie, "Here was peace" (193). Janie Crawford's story is an example of what Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat calls "one of the many shrewd manifestations of Zora Neale Hurston's enormous talents: her ability to render a world complete with its codes and disciplines [ . . .] and then placing in that world her vision of how her people--the women and men of her own creation, her characters--function, triumph, and survive" (ix). Moreover, as a visual guide for readers to follow Janie's progress, Hurston employs the trope of the falling hair. If, as critic Mary Helen Washington has stated, that it is as if "[Janie's] hair becomes another character in the novel" (cited in Rooks 7), then it is possible to view the trope of the falling hair, if not as a character, then as an emblem of Janie's character, for its consistent and recurring presence is intricately connected to Janie. In this way, Hurston's linking Janie's waist-length hair to the "waist of the world" brings closure to Janie's circular journey to a negotiated understanding of her own personal and cultural identity: a triumphant independent survivor at peace with herself.

Molly Fuller

Kent State University

United States of America

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 5th Edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1988.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

Caldwell, Paulette M. "Hair Piece." Critical Race Theory. Ed. Richard Delgado. Philadelphia: Temple UP 1995. 267-80. Print. Danticat, Edwidge. Hurston, ix-xviii.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Track in a Road. NY: Harper Collins 1990.

--. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 75th Anniversary Edition. Forward, Edwidge Danticat. Afterword, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Harper Perenial, 2013.

Johnson, Tabora A., and Teiahsha Bankhead. "Hair It Is: Examining the Experiences of Black Women with Natural Hair." Open Journal of Social Sciences 2 (2013): 86-100.

Pabst, Naomi. "Blackness/Mixedness: Contestations Over Crossing Signs." Cultural Critique 54.1 (2003): 178-212.

Rooks, Noliwe M. Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

Said, Edward. "An Ideology of Difference." "Race," Writing, and Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. 38-58. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. Washington, Mary Helen. Rooks. 7.
COPYRIGHT 2015 University of Puerto Rico, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Essays/Ensayos
Author:Fuller, Molly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2015
Previous Article:Echoes of birds' song and poets' song.
Next Article:Horny Vikings and the ghost of Geronimo: the semiotics of foreign and domestic indigenous cultures in modern North American narratives.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |