ESSAY: Morphing Mythologies for Racial and Gender Equality in Their Eyes Were Watching God and Sula

This paper was presented by Lettie Hempstock at the Binghamton Graduate Conference, "Shifting Tides, Anxious Borders," on April 18th, 2015.  They can be found on Facebook here.

I would like to begin with a quote by the renowned author of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, who said, “[Folklore] preserves mainly those situations which have repeated themselves again and again in the history of any given group. It describes those rites, manners, customs, and so forth, which insure the good life, or destroy it; and it describes those boundaries of feeling, thought and action which that particular group has found to be the limitation of the human condition […]” (8). Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison recognized that what Ellison said about folklore was true: it preserved the story of racial and gender subjugation within the United States. But Hurston and Morrison recognized something else in folklore as well. They saw that all folklore preserved not only the customs and manners of individual cultures, but that, traced back far enough, it preserved the story of the whole of humanity. With this knowledge as their beacon, Hurston and Morrison used folklore to reveal not only the fallacy of racial and gender boundaries in the United States, but to expose the shared truths and experiences of all humanity, dating back to prehistory. Hurston, in her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Morrison, in her novel, Sula, use goddess-lore to make a case for the equality of the races and genders in a rapidly changing era of American history.

First, it would be helpful to outline briefly the different archetypes Hurston and Morrison employ in detailing this shared cultural history. These include, but are not at all limited to, the Triple Goddess archetype and the Goddess and Son-Lover archetypes. Though there is much contention regarding the definitive origins of the Triple Goddess, the imagery has permeated mythological beliefs of nearly every culture. As the Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender explains, “Archaeological remains from Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic cultures suggest that goddesses were frequently worshipped at important stages of the life cycle; figurines from the Neolithic Anatolian site of Çatalhüyük depict a goddess in the three forms of a young woman, a mother giving birth, and an old woman” (Pechilis 653). This passage clearly defines the Triple Goddess as three aspects of womanhood: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. Therefore, this archetype dates back far enough to have potentially influenced all cultures, regardless of developments in racial and gender segregation or subjugation. The second archetypal set, the Goddess and Son-Lover, is said to have originated in Crete in the 15th century BCE. Jules Cashford and Anne Baring elaborate on this archetype: “It would seem that the god […] was still the ‘son’ of the goddess, personifying the dynamic force of growth, which must, like the tree, die an annual death into the body of the goddess in order to be reborn from her the following spring” (133). In short, the goddess has her lover in the spring, leading to the fruitfulness of the summer. Her lover dies in the fall, leading to the barren winter when she goes to retrieve him. He is then reborn as the goddess’ son, leading into the following spring and perpetuating this cycle. Because of the ancient origins of these archetypes and their universality of theme (the life cycle of humans and nature), it was wise for Hurston and Morrison to incorporate this element of folklore into their texts, which were written with a mind to the dissolution of racial and gender boundaries in the United States.

Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was published in 1937, just as the Harlem Renaissance was “winding down.” An effective description of the Harlem Renaissance comes from David Levering Lewis, who wrote, “The Harlem Renaissance (1917-1936) was a somewhat forced phenomenon, institutionally encouraged […] for the paramount purpose of improving race relations in a time of extreme national backlash […]” (68). What this definition excludes is how much of that forced phenomenon was geared to making white audiences accept the validity and value of black art and literature. Hurston used goddess lore to just such an end, and she does so by “African-Americanizing” goddess myths of antiquity. By African-Americanizing goddesses instead of gods, Hurston simultaneously used the changing nature of the Harlem Renaissance to push for gender equality as well. An examination of Hurston’s treatment of the Triple Goddess and Goddess/Son-Lover motifs clarifies the effectiveness of her process of African-Americanization.

Janie, Hurston’s protagonist and narrator, is very much the embodiment of the maiden aspect of the Triple Goddess at the onset of the novel; the reader sees her experience her first kiss and her reluctance to be married off by her grandmother. Though Janie is in her forties as she tells her story, she looks young enough to still be the maiden, as evidenced when her friend, Pheoby, exclaims, “You looks like youse yo’ own daughter” (4). At the very opening, before the reader is presented with the protagonist in her physical youth, Janie and Pheoby sit together on Janie’s back steps in the “fresh young darkness” (7). This implies both the cyclical nature of the Triple Goddess archetype (which allows Janie to return to her “fresh young” maiden state), but also to Janie’s race (through the imagery of the darkness).

Janie’s connection to the Triple Goddess is continued in Hurston’s portrayals of her as the mother aspect of the deity. The mother aspect directly relates to Hurston’s treatment of the Goddess/Son-Lover archetype as well, as Janie must be “motherly” in order to have a Son-Lover. Janie’s interactions with Tea Cake, her third husband, exemplify this relationship perfectly. In the characteristic fashion of mothers, Janie claims Tea Cake as “her Tea Cake” (183), which might just as easily be said as “her child.” The novel continues to present the unfolding relationship between Janie and Tea Cake with an age difference that would put one in mind of mother and son: “In the first place he looked too young for her. Must be around twenty-five and here she was around forty” (100). And yet, Tea Cake is simultaneously Janie’s husband and, therefore, Lover. That Janie is described in mothering terms, but is made bitter and lacks a physical child to show for her labors, parallels the frustration of black women during the Harlem Renaissance. Expected to be nurturing and hard-working, black women were denied the joys of equality within society, which, similar to Janie’s experiences, makes them bitter. In this way, Hurston is just as critical of black male treatment of black women (for even Tea Cake, arguably Janie’s “best” husband, treats her with condescension and disregard) as she is of the white society’s treatment of black society, again revealing her push for gender equality as well as racial.

Janie, in these examples, embodies the maiden, the mother, and the mother’s relationship with her Son-Lover, which leaves only the crone aspect of the Triple Goddess to explore. By presenting Janie as the Crone, Hurston places the responsibility of “killing” racism and sexism in her protagonist’s hands. Jurgen C. Wolter presents Janie’s three husbands as “false gods” who represent the supposed “promise” of the white male hierarchical system: “Janie’s decision against the front porch as the place for communicating her story is a decision against discriminating racial and sexual hierarchies…” (236). This is because the front porch was reserved for the dominant males to tell their own stories. Hurston has Janie refuse the standard of her society. That Janie’s rebuke of each husband leads to the eventual demise (physical or metaphorical) of each not only solidifies Janie as the Crone, or harbinger of death, to those husbands, but also as the Crone metaphorically to the false gods of racist and sexist ideology because of her refusal to tell her tale from the front porch.

Wolter’s argument about the front porch is a pertinent one, and relates to the idea that Hurston “African-Americanizes” goddess archetypes to make her literature more accessible and acceptable. That Hurston has Janie tell her story to Pheoby, who is given opportunities to interject her own thoughts, indicates the traditional oratory nature of African story telling. By applying this method of story telling to goddess lore from historically shared cultural backgrounds, Hurston African-Americanizes the goddess lore. She also does this through her use of African-American dialect. These choices morph the racial boundary of the Harlem Renaissance, while the physical location of Janie’s story telling transgresses gender boundaries, as indicated in Wolter’s argument.

But these boundary transgressions and mutations through goddess lore are not unique to Hurston: Toni Morrison adopts a similar technique in her novel, Sula. Larry Neal defines the Black Arts Movement (approximately 1965-1975) from which Morrison likely drew much of her inspiration: “The Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community […] It proposes a separate symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconology” (28). Just such a separate symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconology was passed down by literary artists such as Hurston, who African-Americanized antiquated archetypes to make them accessible to the rising black community. Morrison uses those African-Americanized archetypes to remind her audience that, though the black community and its relationship with the rest of society might change, it was paramount that African Americans not lose sight of their cultural past either. In this way, the boundaries between progress and nostalgia, black and white, male and female, were made porous. Osmosis was encouraged: look to the future, but keep roots in the past, leading to a balanced equilibrium. The goddess-lore used in Sula allows for this freedom of movement from the past to the future and back through a sense of nostalgia. That Sula was published in 1973 but is set between 1919 and 1965 is evidence of Morrison’s desire to retain connections to the cultural past.

Because Sula tells the stories of many women of many ages and their relationships with each other, each female character at some point or another embodies an aspect of the Triple Goddess archetype. The primary example of the maiden aspect is evident when the reader is introduced to Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who “were both twelve in 1922.” However, the reader is led to believe that they are wise beyond their years when the novel reads, “Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be. Their meeting was fortunate, for it let them use each other to grow on” (52). That they are wise enough in their youth to recognize that their race and gender will deny them any freedom or triumph leads one to believe that there is a cyclical element to what they are suffering, which parallels the cyclical nature of the female life evidenced in the Triple Goddess archetype. That they created something else to be could mean they chose to embody the goddess as a way of elevating themselves above their lots in life. And that they could use each other to grow on reminds the reader that both Nel and Sula are here representative of the maiden aspect of the Triple Goddess and therefore can use each other to grow into the mother aspect, in order to perpetuate the cycle.

That motherhood is questioned and complicated in Sula is in keeping with the tradition of the Triple Goddess, which makes no claims that the existence of the Mother is easy (which parallels the idea that the lives and motherhoods of independent black women are not always easy). Just as Nel and Sula are written together as the maiden, so, too, Hannah and Eva Peace are both written as the mother. Eva Peace is Hannah Peace’s mother, and Hannah is Sula’s mother. In an integral scene in the text, Hannah is burning to death. The one-legged Eva “knew there was time for nothing in this world other than the time it took to get there and cover her daughter’s body with her own” (75). Despite her own handicap, Eva smashes open the window and throws herself from it in an attempt to douse the flames killing her daughter. This clearly embodies the selflessness of the mother. However, Eva Peace did not do the same for her son, Plum, which indicates that he could not be an essential part of the Triple Goddess as Hannah could be.

Eva’s relationship with Plum complicates the representations of the Triple Goddess in the novel. The reader can envision Plum as Eva’s Son-Lover, though it is through Plum that Eva takes on the aspect of the crone, as opposed to the aspect of the mother. Excerpts from a haunting passage will reveal exactly how this is so: “[…] and look like when he came back from that war he wanted to git back in […] he wanted to crawl back in my womb and well …There wasn’t space for him in my womb […] so I just thought of a way he could die like a man not all scrunched up in my womb, but like a man” (71-72). Here, the relationship of the goddess with her Son-Lover concerns Eva, who feels she cannot birth her son a second time. The language of the passage refers to Plum as “spreading her legs” to get back in, which is clearly a reference to the “lover” aspect of their relationship. However, because Eva cannot accept her son as her lover and give him the rebirth the cycle demands, she transitions from mother to crone. As the crone, who is in charge of death and the underworld, she is able to burn her son to death that he might die of something more honorable than the drug-induced path down which he had gone. That Eva burns her son but cannot watch her daughter burn implies that Hannah, instead, should have been the one to take on the mother goddess role for a son-lover.

Morrison, like Hurston, is critical of men: Plum is addicted to drugs and is killed by his own mother because of it; the Deweys, three completely different boys Eva takes in, still can’t be told apart, which indicates that all men are the same; Shadrack, the “founder” of National Suicide Day, is insane; Ajax, Sula’s not-quite-boyfriend, has commitment issues. Through such representations of men (and black men, specifically), coupled with the overwhelming number of empowered women, the reader recognizes that Morrison was using goddess-lore to indicate that black women can not only find power and comfort inside of themselves, but that black men were major contributors to their need to embody the goddess at all. Morrison does not use this critique of black men strictly to make a feminist statement, but as a vehicle for promoting solidarity in the changing black community as well. Following Sula’s death, her body is left to the care of white society, who had taken charge of her burial and attended her funeral. Morrison seems to blame black society for not standing with their black sister at her time of death. The novel ends with, “Shadrack and Nel moved in opposite directions, each thinking separate thoughts about the past. The distance between them increased as they both remembered gone things” (174). This passage sums up Morrison’s idea that the migration of blacks to the north away from their roots in the south should not be all consuming and that their cultural past should not be remembered only as “gone things.”

Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was her attempt to African-Americanize goddess-lore of antiquity in order to make black literature accessible to all races and genders. Morrison must have felt this African-Americanization was successful, as she uses those versions of the Triple Goddess and Goddess/Son-Lover archetypes in her novel, Sula. In this way, the ebb and flow of black female society in the United States morphs: though it originated as a boundary to be crossed and obliterated, Hurston and Morrison reshaped it to be a circle, or a repeating cycle. Racial and gender boundaries, for them, were part of the cyclical nature found in goddess-lore. For these authors, mythology is morphed, but so is the shape of racial and gender boundaries in 20th century American history.

TEWWG and Sula WC

This essay was written by lettie hempstock.

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