double colonization in african-american communities

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston (1901?-1960) was born in Florida and studied anthropology at Bernard and after in her own life. Her research covered the folkways of Haiti and the West Indes and voodoo in the black South. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is largely considered to be Hurston’s masterpiece. It tells the story of Janie, an African-American woman who felt abused by her first two husbands and finally went on to find love in her soulmate, Teacake (no, really). They escape together to Florida and work side-by-side happily until Teacake contracts rabies trying to save Janie’s life, and in a fit of madness he drives Janie to murder him in self-defense. At her trial, the black men of her community try to convict her, but she is found not guilty thanks to the testimony of the white doctor and sheriff. The novel represents an exploration of double colonization — that is, it interrogates how an oppressed class (black men in America) in turn oppress the only group lower than them on the social totem pole (black women). For its focus on female autonomy (complete with a conclusion that has Janie swearing off male companionship and realizing her strength as a sole individual), it has become a key feminist text.

There are many interesting racial observations in this text. The African-American characters discuss only feeling human when they are outside of the presence of white people. Also, in times of duress, they turn to the language of their oppressors, insulting each other by the use of the term ‘nigger,’ for example — those who observe the trial tell one another that she can’t be innocent because “no nigger woman” was ever treated better, as though a black woman is worthy of a lesser standard of care than a white woman or even a black man. Within these communities, wife abuse is discussed as a common place thing; the men look down at those who don’t abuse their wives, and death is a very real possibility for the women in the novel.

Janie’s first marriage comes about because she shows interest in boys and her grandmother, scared that Janie is reaching sexual maturity, insists on marriage to a stable man. Janie’s own mother was supposedly “loose,” pregnant as a teenager and absent through Janie’s life, and her grandmother fears that fate for her. Marriage, to Janie’s grandmother, represents safety and stability and, on a certain level, insurance for the future. Janie’s life becomes determined by what she can give back to the grandmother in terms of peace of mind and comfort. This husband is no great shakes, but he does provide for her — but she abandons him for a man who turns out to be a horrific abuser — essentially buying into the cycle of violence that her mother fell into. She claims to be making a move for independence, but she seems to be just running into the arms of an oppressor. I find it interesting how easily she takes the last name of the new husband, Joe Starks. She feels no connection to her name, apparently, and is very willing to be renamed by anyone who so desires it. When the marriage turns controlling and violent, Janie claims that all she ever wanted was a “natural” marriage, but such a thing is impossible, especially with Joe whom she ran to as some form of salvation. When Joe dies, she feels free — but even though the entire community knew of the abuse she suffered, they expect her to mourn Joe and keep up the traditional period of such feelings.

Over the novel, Janie develops hateful feelings towards her grandmother, but I think it’s hard to see how the grandmother could have acted in any other way. For him, Janie’s first marriage was the only real possibility for freedom for Janie; had she stuck with it, she may have been bored but she certainly wouldn’t have been abused as she was by the man into whose arms she sought solace. I’m not sure a woman with Janie’s family history can necessarily be trusted to choose the right mate. Those cycles of violence are strong! The question is, is boredom really the worst outcome?

Even Teacake, her supposed soulmate, eventually beats her. There is a sickness within this community that is rooted in a history of being owned, because that history makes the possession of other people seem correct and natural. Janie believes it improves her relationship with Teacake. The sickness runs deep.


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