Earlier this week (on Tuesday the 7th, to be precise) it was the 123rd anniversary of Zora Neale Hurston’s birthday, though to be completely honest I never would have known that had it not been for an elegantly executed Google Doodle. (It was also Simone de Beauvoir’s 106th birthday on Thursday, though to be completely honest I’ve never read her work.) Many happy returns Miss Hurston, wherever you may be.
I read Their Eyes Were Watching God relatively late by English curriculum standards: sophomore year of college, in a class on the black American novel. It was a very good read, not just because of its status as a literary landmark but also because of its powerful portrayal of a young black woman and her defiant, and at turns devastating, maturity into adulthood. But it’s a particular idea in the book – establishing one’s roots where there are none – that I find pretty interesting, especially as Hurston demonstrates the travails her protagonist Janie Crawford has to go through just to root herself in her world.
The quote itself comes from a sermon Janie’s grandmother, “Nanny,” gives to her granddaughter:
“You know, honey, us colored folks is branches without roots, and that makes things come round in queer ways. You in particular. Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfill my dreams of what a woman oughta be and to do. Dat’s one of the hold-backs of slavery. But nothing can’t stop you from wishin’. You can’t beat nobody down so low till you can rob ’em of dey will.”
On a literal level, neither Janie nor Nanny reveals the family’s real roots as a consequence of the violence inflicted by forced migration and slavery. But the “branches” create an interesting picture – there’s the sense that blacks possess largely lateral ties to one another instead of a solid, unshakeable common source. That such ties are rendered as branches definitely recalls the language of family trees, yet it also generates a disjointed set of connections, like toys hanging off a mobile as opposed to finely woven mesh. I guess to me Hurston is setting up what will eventually become Janie’s journey through independence; certainly the rest of Nanny’s speech tells us the Crawford women have no desire to stay without “roots” of their own. Here’s another excerpt:
“Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin’ on high, but they wasn’t no pulpit for me. Freedom found me wid a baby daughter in mah arms, so Ah said Ah’d take a broom and a cookpot and throw up a highway through de wilderness for her. She would expound what Ah felt. But somehow she got lost offa de highway…Ah been waitin’ a long time, Janie, but nothin’ Ah been through ain’t too much if you just take a stand on high ground lak Ah dreamed.”
It’s a beautiful sermon that goes everywhere with its scattered images – we get colored women “sittin’ on high” before Nanny, pulpit-less, crafts her own platform with her “broom” and “cookpot” and “highway through de wilderness,” the latter in fact “thrown” into the air for her daughter to follow. In fact, I feel like the imagery is even more resonant after having read Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, with the “highway” and “high ground” echoing Christian’s celebrated journey but from the alternate perspective of a black woman rather than a white man. Getting back to Eyes, though, I also love this passage because it establishes a geography that Janie can – or from Nanny’s perspective, must – navigate toward a utopia grounded in black cultural artifacts and signs. The Crawford women may not know (or wish to reveal) their roots, but with the branches strewn in their lives they manage to forge their own paths to paradise.
Or does Janie really get to create that path? After all, it’s Nanny’s dream we’re reading about here, and the grandmother makes it clear that her daughter strayed off of the highway. Indeed, there’s a slightly sinister irony in reading Nanny’s account, as told to Janie, of how “Freedom” [with a capital F] found me wid a baby daughter in mah arms.” Because while it’s clear Nanny wants her granddaughter to attain that freedom, it also means Janie has to fulfill the elderly woman’s wishes, and that gives the young girl no choice but to take that “highway.” We get a clearer sense of this from going back to an earlier passage, where a young adolescent Janie contemplates the world before her after her (not-so-subtle) sexual awakening:
She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her….Nothing on the place nor in her grandma’s house answered her. She searched as much of the world as she could from the top of the front steps and then went on down to the front gate and leaned over to gaze up and down the world. Looking, waiting, breathing short with impatience. Waiting for the world to be made.
You can decode the ‘flower’ imagery easily enough. What’s more intriguing is seeing how Hurston figures Janie’s view of life: the protagonist’s “leaves” and “buds,” coupled with her “struggle with life,” suggest she already feels rooted, and in this case she doesn’t enjoy being rooted where she is. And searching the world “up and down…breathing short with impatience” sounds to me as though she’s not satisfied (at this stage in the novel, at least) with a vertical path toward Nanny’s longed-for “pulpit.”
I could (and should) probably go deeper into the rest of the novel and tell you how Janie plants her roots, but it would be a disservice to those who haven’t read Eyes yet, and I’d most likely do a greater disservice to Hurston herself – if she’s not already rolling in her grave after this post, that is. Suffice it to say that Nanny’s advice to Janie is perfect for anyone in any day and age: “You can’t beat nobody down so low till you can rob ’em of dey will.”