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"Love Me Like I Like to Be": The Sexual Politics of Hurston's Their Eyes were Watching God, the Classic Blues, and the Black Women's Club Movement
by Carol Batker
"Love Me Like I Like to Be": The Sexual Politics of Hurston's Their Eyes were Watching God, the Classic Blues, and the Black Women's Club Movement
African American Review
Updated: July 23rd, 2012
"Love me like I like to be": The Sexual Politics of Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God,the Classic Blues, and the Black Women's Club
zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God is a text at once (ac)claimed for its ability to speak to contem- porary gender and sexual politics and blamed for its inability to speak to the local, particularized politics of its time. Their Eyes has been used to situate strong, culture-based women at the cen- ter of an African American women's literary tradition, on the one hand, and has been read as reinforcing primitivism or as idealiz- ing the "folk," on the 0ther.l As important as Hurston's critical reception has been, it has mediated against considering her work as politicized in her own historical moment. Just as Claudia Tate notes the invisibility of the politics of early black domestic fiction, I am suggesting that much of the political embeddedness of Hurston's text has been lost. Their Eyes engages in early twentieth-century black feminist politics. To develop a context for the sexual politics of earlier writers, critics and historians have turned to the discourses of the black women's club movement, which had its origins in the anti- lynching campaign, and the classic blues, sung and written in large part by African American women. Pauline Hopkins and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, in particular, have been read as engaged in the political debates of the black women's club move- ment, as have Hurston's "urban" contemporaries Nella Larsen, Angelina Weld Grimke, and, obliquely, Jessie Fauset (Tate; Carby, Reconstructing; McDowell, "'Nameless' " 142).~Unaccountably, Hurston has been left out of this investigation, even though Their Eyes clearly took shape within a broad continuum of African American women's writing on sexuality early in this ~entury.~ Hurston's biography supports such historical contextualiza- tion of her work. She worked for Mary McLeod Bethune just before Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935 and traveled in the same circles as Alice Dunbar Nelson, an officer'in the Federation of Colored Women's Clubs (Hemenway 19; Hull 90,166). In addition, the discourse of the anti-lynching campaign must have been particularly visible to a student at Howard just before and during the push for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill in 1922.~ Hurston was also an authority on African American folk music, assisting Alan Lomax in his collect- ing and recording for the Music Division of the Library of Congress in 1935 (Hemenway 211). Although Hazel Carby has read Hurston as opposed to urban or commercialized versions of the blues ("Politics" 75), her relationship to them was complex. Hurston was a friend of Ethel Waters, for example, and attempted to sell her a song on at least one occasion (Hemenway 207,284).
Carol Batker is Assistant Professor of English at Florida State University. She is cur- rently producing a cross-cul- tural book-length study of U.S. women's literature and politi- cal journalism in the early twentieth century.
On a trip with Langston Hughes, she
stayed with Bessie Smith (106) and was
quite familiar with Harlem cabarets as
well as the Southern tent-show and
vaudeville tradition which showcased
classic blues singers (26-27). In fact, she
once joined a triveling theatrical
troupe as a wardrobe girl (17).~
It is my contention that Hurston
has been left out of this debate vrimari-
ly because her text disrupts neat dichotomies between respectability and desire, middle- and working-class discourses, and club and blues women. Their Eyes alludes to the politics of rape and lynching, as I discuss in detail below, by first charging Janie with sex- ual misconduct and then by exonerat- ing her, primarily in the trial scene. However, Their Eves does not reiect charges of ~frica; American woken's libidinousness at the expense of sexual expression, as literary critics have argued of other texts from this period. Critics like Carby and Deborah McDowell have generally read African American women's literature during.
the Harlem Renaissance as replicating the middle-class conservatism of club discourse and as opposing or suppress- ing the liberatory sexual discourse of the blues6 Hurston's text doesn't fit this critical bifurcation.
Historians, too, claim that club and blues discourses existed to some extent in opposition to one another. They argue that club women attempted to regulate desire (Carby, "Policing" 741) and refute racist ideologies that represented African American women as libidinous (Giddings 85-89). The classic blues, on the other hand, are often read as centrally concerned with expressing desire, with establishing African American women as sexual ~ubjects.~
However, drawing the opposition between the middle and working class and repressive or expres- sive sexual discourses too sharply risks oversimplification, as Ann duCille aptly warns in her discussion of the blues:
Such evaluations often erase the con- texts and complexities of a wide range of African American historical experi- ences and replace them with a single, monolithic, if valorized, construction: "authentic" blacks are southern, rural, and sexually uninlubited. Middle class, when applied to black artists and their subjects, becomes pejorative, a sign of having mortgaged one's black aesthet- ic to the alien conventions of the domi- nant culture. (71)
Privileging the working class not only dismisses middle-class African American experience, it also masks the complexity within each group. The pol- itics of both the largely middle-class club movement and the largely work- ing-class classic blues were striated. Each discourse struggled with class issues and with legitimating black female sexuality in a racist context which positioned African American women as libidinous. Before arguing for Hurston's political embeddedness, I will create the context for her literary interventions by detailing the various sexual ideologies of club and classic blues discourses, which at times over- lap and at times contradict one anoth- er. Then, I will argue that Hurston's Their Eyes, like historical discourses, refuses simple dichotomies between respectability and desire, and works with both blues and club discourse to legitimate sexual subjectivity.
With its origins in the anti- lynching campaign, the club movement produced a variety of strate ies for refuting racist sexual ide-
ology. Club women refuted charges of primitivism at times by emphasizing socioeconomic status and middle-class respectability. Statements like Mary McLeod Bethune's in 1933 publicized African American women's accom- plishments in order to dispel widely circulated sexual stereotypes:
As the years have gone on the Negro woman has touched the most vital fields in the civilization of today.. . . she is successful as a poet and a novel- ist; she is shrewd in business and capa- ble in politics; she recognizes the importance of uplifting her people through social, civic and religious activities . . . . (qtd. in Lerner, Black 583)
200 AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW
Ironically, the emphasis on middle- class resvectabilitv and material achievekent tended to displace sexual "immorality" onto the working class. Among club women the desire to pro- tect or uplift working-class women often went hand in hand with the belief that working-class women were actually or potentially licentious. It is worth noting, however, that these club women worked to refute primitivist ideology by arguing that sexual immorality was not a racial characteris-. tic. In her statement against racial prej- udice in 1925, social worker Elsie Johnson McDougald displaced sexual "immorality" onto the working class, arguing that " 'the women of the work- ing class will react emotionally and sexually, similarly to the working-class women of other races,' "and that " 'sex irregularities are not a matter of race, but of socio-economic conditions' " (qtd in Lerner, Black 170). Thus, McDougald represented morality as socially rather than biologically con- structed.
As Evelyn Higginbotham has argued, women like Mary Church Terrell both acknowledged class bias and reproduced it in their disco~rse.~ ~r~uin~
"that the more intelligent and influential among us do not exert themselves as much as they should to uplift those beneath them," Terrell clearly marks class differences even as she condemns middle-class apathy (qtd. in Higginbotham 206). She posi- tions working-class women as inferior and "immoral" even as she argues for identification and activism:
Even though we wish to shun them, and hold ourselves entirely aloof from them, we cannot escape the conse- quences of their acts. So, that, if the call of duty were disregarded altogether, policy and self-preservation would demand that we go down among the lowly, the illiterate, and even the vicious to whom we are bound by the ties of race and sex, and put forth every possible effort to uplift and reclaim them. (qtd. in Higginbotham 207)
HURSTON, THE CLASSIC
Exemplifying a similar class bias, Charlotte Hawkins Brown stressed the differences between herself and the working class by distancing herself from her slave past and by emphasiz- ing her educational and cultural achievements (Giddings 178). In repre- senting herself as successful, she, "like
other reform-minded people of her generation, . . . attributed the negative racial and sexual stereotypes to immoralitv among the 'lower' classes, rather thak whitevbias and abuse" (Hunter 3:706). Furthermore, Carby has argued in the context of urban migra- tion early in the century that middle- class ~fiican ~mericanwomen active- ly policed working-class women's sex- uality. Middle-class women, Carby argues, held "fears of a rampant and uncontrolled female sexualitv; fears of
miscegenation; and fears of the asser- tion of an independent black female desire" ("Policing" 741, 746). As I will demonstrate in more detail later, Hurston raises questions of respectabil- ity and class bias in the figure of Nanny. Although Nanny's focus on middle-class respectability and her reg- ulation of Tanie's sexualitv seem to reinforce polarities between middle- class sexual repression and working- class expressivity, Hurston works to dismantle the dichotomy, in part, by positioning Nanny as a former slave and a member of the working class.
The middle-class status of women involved in the black women's club movement did not always translate into conservative sexual politics. Club women like Nannie Burroughs were well aware of bourgeois elitism and confronted it directly in their writing. lo Burroughs foregrounded the respectability of working-class women in her instructions to recruiters for the Women's Convention:
Go out of your way to get an ordinary, common-sense, spirit-filled everyday woman. There are thousands of them to be had, and you can do more work in one month with this type of a woman than you can do in one year with the "would-be" Social Leader, who is entering these organizations
LUES, AND THE BLACK WOMEN'S CLUB MOVEMENT
devoted to uplift, for no other reason in monogamous or multiple partner- than to show her finery and to let her
ships, and blues about men's infidelity
less fortunate sisters see how brilliant-
or physical abuse of women and wom-
ly she shines. (qtd in Higginbotham
en's passive or active responses
(Harrison 13-14; Oliver 186). Burroughs's relationship to the large The lyrics of the classic blues clear- constituency of working-class women ly demonstrate an awareness of the in the Baptist church created a different ways in which class issues structured discourse on resvectabili- sexual volitics during this
ty, one that validated the Hurston's text period.l~araMartin's
labor of the working poor "Mean Tight Mama" rein-
and represented working- disrupts the forces the opposition
class women as "moral" neatness of between the middle and
agents (205).11 working class, representing
Like club discourse, middle- and the working class as sexual- the classic blues took on working-class ly more expressive: issues of class and sexuali-
Now my hair is ~~PPYand 1
ty, but by no means con- sexual polarities
don't wear no clothes of stituted a uniform ideolo- and achieves a silk, (2x) gy. They were sung by But the cow that's black and
space outside ugly, has often got the
class women and com
racist sexual Now when a man starts iivinl posed by women and I'm tighter than a psir of
men.12 The contingencies shoes, (2x)
of performance often sexual I'm a mean tight mama, with
my mean tight mama made thematics dif-subjectivity can blues. (qa in Oliver 179)
ficult to intervret. .
Working-class glues be represented Similarly, Ma Rainey's song
women might easily be and "Down in the Basement"
singing male-authored equates the basement with
lyrics to middle-class experienced. sexuality at the same time
African American or that she opposes basement
white audiences, for example. At other music or the blues to the parlor music
times the classic blues might be per- or "grand opera" of the middle class
formed and recorded by African (Lieb 146). These songs privileged
American women who, to varying working- over middle-class experience,
degrees, composed their own lyrics but at the same time they reinforced
and incorporated traditional melodies, the opposition which positioned work-
themes, and techniques into their ing-class women as overly sexual. As
blues.13 Even women-authored blues duCille has argued, the lyrics of sexual
ranged from the more traditional blues desire both situated African American
of Ma Rainey, who came from the women as sexual subjects and as over-
South, continued to tour in tent shows, sexed in an historical moment when
and performed for the working class, primitivism was selling well (73-74).
to the more "commercial" urban songs Hurston initially uses Tea Cake to
of singers like Edith Wilson and Lucille privilege working-class desire over
Hegamin, who sang to mixed audi- middle-class respectability. Tea Cake is
ences in cabarets and whose diction opposed to Nanny explicitly in Their
and delivery were designed to appeal Eyes, and while Nanny invokes club
to a middle-class crowd (Harrison 11- discourse, as I will argue further on,
12,220). Thematically, the majority of Tea Cake's sexuality draws on blues
classic blues are concerned with gender discourse for much of its potency. It
and sexuality, but include songs might seem that Hurston's positioning
affirming lesbianism, lyrics celebrating of Tea Cake as the embodiment of
heterosexual women's subjectivity unregulated working-class desire and
202 AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW
Nanny as the representative of middle- class norms of respectability reinforces elitist and racist versions of African American sexuality. But I will argue below that, like blues discourses, which offer this opposition and also deconstruct it, TheirEyes collapses the dichotomy between Nanny and Tea Cake, respectability and desire, in order to position Janie as sexual but not libidinous.
There is no consensus among blues critics about the extent to which the classic blues, as a commercial genre, pandered to sexual stereotypes. On one hand, William Barlow argues that advertisements used sexual stereotypes to sell race records and "the classic blues sometimes became a burlesque of African-American sexuality" (142). In a discussion of Bessie Smith and Sara Martin, Paul Oliver agrees that "the increased proportion of suggestive and pornographic material in their late ses- sions does lend support to the view that the record companies, confronted with the Depression, attempted to revive flagging sales with records of this character" (180). On the other hand, Oliver suggests that traditional folk blues were more sexually explicit than the classic blues and that the effective double entendre in classic blues songs arose in response to com- mercial bowdlerization (214-15).
Moreover, as Sandra Lieb argues in her discussion of the erotic lyrics of Ma Rainey's songs, Rainey "represented a new kind of female symbol in black popular entertainment, different from minstrel stereotypes of suffering mam- mies, tragic mulattoes, 'sepia lovelies,' and hot-blooded sexpots: she was a mama, an authority generative, nurtu- rant, yet sexual" (170). In effect Lieb suggests that Ma Rainey broke down the opposition between respectability or "morality" and sexual expressivity in her performances. Rainey was both "good" and sexual, "maternal and erot- ic'' (170).
Bessie Smith's "Young Woman's Blues," plays with the opposition between respectability and sexual assertion in similar ways. She rejects the middle-class or "high yella" repre- sentation of herself as immoral, "a bum," while asserting her sexual sub- jectivity:
Woke up this morning when chickens were crowing for day. Felt on the right side of my pillow, my man had gone away. On his pillow he left a note, reading I'm sorry you got my goat. No time to marry, no time to settle down.
I'm a young woman and ain't done running around. I'm a young woman and ain't done running around.
Some people call me a hobo, some call me a bum, Nobody know my name, nobody knows what I've done. I'm as good as any woman in your town, I ain't no high yella, I'm tequila brown.
I ain't gonna marry, ain't gonna settle down. I'm gonna drink good moonshine and run these browns down. See that long lonesome road, cause you know it's got a end. And I'm a good woman and I can get plenty men. (Smith)
Smith's use of "good woman" can be read as an ironic sexual innuendo. However, it can also be read as confus- ing categories of respectability and desire. As a woman deserted by her man (rather than the other way around), she asserts both her status as a "good woman" and her sexual poten- cy (which is challenged by her man's absence). In a complex rhetorical move, "Young Woman's Blues," claims both respectability and sexual subjectivity for working-class women.
Like some forms of club discourse, the classic blues also worked to regu- late sexuality. While these blues often position a woman as able to speak her mind or as physically strong and assertive, they convey a sexual ideolo- gy coextensive with that of the club movement insofar as they position women as the "moral" center of the home and valorize heterosexual monogamy. In the club movement, "protection" of working-class women
HURSTON, THE CLASSIC BLUES, AND THE BLACK WOMEN'S CLUB MOVEMENT 203
often relied on positioning them as vic- tims not only of sexual abuse but also of their ownsexuality, which, unregu- lated, could drive them to ruin, accord- ing to Carby. This attitude toward sex- uality has its corollary in the "mistreat- ing" man trope of the classic blues. The "mistreating" man may take a wom- an's money, beat her, prove sexually unsatisfactory, but most often he deserts her, probably for another woman. Many of the desertion blues position the woman as the site of monogamous heterosexuality-she sig. nifies on her promiscuous man, threat- ens him with violence, or pleads with him to come home.14 Placed in opposi- tion to promiscuous men but unable to reject them, many desertion blues women do appear to be-as middle-class women would claim-victims of their own desire.
Bessie Smith's "In the House Blues" represents a sexual ideology that rejects promiscuity at the same time the narrator is represented as a victim of her own desire. Smith sings,
Sitting in the house with everything on my mind (2x) Looking at the clock and can't even tell the time.
Walking to my window and looking outa my door (2x) Wishin that my man would come home once more. Can't eat, can't sleep, so weak I can't walk my floor (2x) Feel like calling "murder" let the police squad get me once more.
As a monogamous woman waiting for her man to come home. the narrator critiques her man's promiscuity and polices his desire. At the same time, it is her own desire for her man that weakens and maddens her. To some extent the narrator occupies simultane- ously a "moral," regulatory, and "immoral," sexually expressive space in the song.
However, Smith's song could also be interpreted as condemning desire in general, since both the male's philan- dering and the woman's own desire victimize her.15 This latter reading is
AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW
even more clearly represented in Ma Rainey's "Moonshine Blues":
I can't stand up, I can't sit down, The man I love has done left town;
I feel like screamin', I feel like cryin', Lord, I've been mistreated, folks, and don't mind dyin';
I'm goin' home, I'm going to settle down, I'm goin' stop my running around. (qtd. in Lieb 92)
A victim of both her man and her own ,desire, the narrator (like club women) suggests that unregulated desire is ruinous. She attempts to curb her man 1by leaving and naming his abuse, but she also decides to halt her own "run- Ining around."
Of course many blues reject "mis- itreating" men without denying female Idesire. Ida Cox's "Wild Women Don't IHave the Blues," for example, clearly Irejects the regulatory function of 7women left at home:
I yeeh hear these women raving bout their monkey men, About their fighting husbands and their no good friends. These poor women sit around all day and moan, Wondering why their wandering papas don't come home, Wild women don't worry, wild women don't have the blues!
Now when you got a man, don't ever be on the square Because if you do, he'll have a woman everywhere. I never was known, to treat no one man right I keep em working hard, both day and night. Because wild women don't worry, wild women don't have the blues!
(:ox's lyric not only critiques "mistreat- ing men," it critiques the whole notion C)f policing desire. The narrator, instead, argues for multiple partner- S,hips. This clear affirmation of desire, ttowever, is problematic in that it could
1: ye used to reinforce stereotypes about Llfrican American women's libidinous- rless. Far from uniform in their treat- rnent of sexual legitimacy, then, the C'lassic blues reinforce, invert, and deconstruct the opposition between middle- and working-class sexualities, respectability and desire. Hurston's use of club writings and classic blues lyrics demonstrates that neither historical discourse represented sexuality unproblematically and both proved useful in representing African American women as sexual subjects.
heir Eyes concerns itself with the
Tquestion of African American women's sexual legitimacy. Hurston's novel is framed by scenes that repre- sent Janie as oversexed-in the initial porch scene and at the trial. Nanny also represents Janie as libidinous and, like some club women, uses middle-class respectability as a strategy of contain- ment. If read as a defense from such charges (as the trial scene makes plain), Janie's story takes on an explicitly political valence.
Initially, the discourses of the porch sitters and Nanny are coexten- sive with the regulatory discourses of both the club movement and the classic blues. The novel opens with working- class African Americans on the porch, in the schoolyard, and in the person of Nanny all representing Janie as too sex- ual. In a controversial move, the text establishes women's sexual "morality" as an issue within the African American community, reproducing a version of white racist ideology. As we will see, however, it also inverts class biases-the "moral" working class stand in judgment of Janie. The porch sitters represent Janie as sexual, ques- tion whether she ever married, suggest that her age is inappropriate to her lover's, and conjecture that she has lost all of her money to Tea Cake. They position Janie as the victim of a "mis- treating man" and of her own desire. Both Pheoby and Janie recognize that Janie's sexual reputation is the focus of the community's attention. Pheoby chides, " 'De way you talkin' you'd think de folks iidis town didn't do nothin' in de bed 'cept praise de
Lawd' " (Hurston 13).Janie sighs, I/ i . . .They got to look into me loving Tea Cake and see whether it was done right or not!' " (17).
Like many club women, Nanny focuses specifically on issues of respectability. Positioned as Janie's moral guardian, she justifies her rejec- tion of Janie's working-class sexual experimentation as a form of "protec- tion." She represents Janie's sexuality as highly vulnerable because she reads men as abusive and "immoral." Nanny sees Johnny Taylor's kiss as "lacerating her Janie," and she sees herself as " 'guidin' yo' feet from harm and dan- ger' " so that " 'de menfolks white or black . . . [won't be] makin' a spit cup outa you' " (26,27,37). In addition, she frames her discussion with the story of her own and Leafy's rapes.
Nanny's position as moral guardian is revisionist to the extent that she is a working-class woman whom various club women would have read as immoral, and she was raped under the abuses of slavery, which under white racist ideology would have positioned her as a "loose" woman. In addition, the emphasis on male abuses would seem to reject stereotypes of African American wom- en's seduction by suggesting an histori- cal rather than a biological basis for sexual "immorality." However, Nanny practices a version of African American club women's class bias, reproducing stereotypes by reading working-class sexuality in general as dangerous. When Janie rejects the idea of a "respectable" middle-class marriage to Logan Killicks, Nanny represents her as lascivious, "indecent," and a victim of her own desire, like Leafy:
"So you don't want to marry off decent like, do yuh? You just wants to hug and kiss and feel around with first one man and then another, huh? You wants to make me suck de same sor- row yo' mama did, eh? Mah ole head ain't gray enough. Mah back ain't bowed enough to suit yuh!" (28)
Because Nanny sees socioeconomic positioning as contributing to women's
HURSTON, THE CLASSIC BLUES, AND THE BLACK WOMEN'S CLUB MOVEMENT 205
class marriage and "respectability" as protection from sexual abuse. Nanny, like Elsie Johnson McDougald, intro- duces a sociological refutation of prim- itivism which sees sexual "immorality" as a racial trait. However, she also rep- resents working-class desire as illegiti- mate. For Nanny, like some club women, middle-class status is a neces- sary precursor to the expression of African American women's subiectivi- ty. Nanny's position as a slave and the birth of Leafy keep her in the working class with a " 'broom and a cook-pot' " and " 'no pulpit' "to " 'preach a great sermon about colored women sittin' on high' " (32).At first Nanny sees educa- tion as a means of transcending sexual abuse and hard manual labor, but, in fact, schooling does not offer protec- tion, as Leafy's rape so poignantly proves and as Janie's kiss portends. Leafy's education ends in her " 'drinkin' likker and stayin' out nights' " (37). Consequently, Nanny associates African American women's agency with middle-class marriage and its attendant "respectability" and sta- tus. Janie describes Nanny's position:
"She was borned in slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn't sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin' on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat's whut she wanted for me-don't keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn't have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool tuh do nothin'. De object wuz tuh git dere." (172)
Their Eyes positions Nanny as tak- ing issue with white racist ideology by attributing sexual "immorality" to eco- nomic conditions rather than to racial traits. Meanwhile, the text also posi- tions Nanny as advocating a version of middle-class African American wom- en's class bias-"sexual irregularities" are not essential to working-class women, but socioeconomi~ conditions make women more vulnerable to sexu- al abuse and thus less likely to "'take uh stand on high ground.' " Nanny pushes Janie into the middle class wise doomed by her class position to become a "loose" woman. Ironically, even though Nanny is represented as working class and unfallen, she articu- lates a view that makes a middle-class position necessary to an unfallen state.
Hurston ultimately uses Nanny to dismantle middle-class notions of respectability. The figure of Nanny challenges middle-class authority over sexual norms in her final repudiation of middle-class status as necessary to sexual subjectivity. Nanny eventually regrets Janie's marriage to Logan Killicks, recognizing the denial of Janie's sexual subjectivity as similar to her own experiences. She identifies with Janie by telling her, " 'Tain't no use in you cryin', Janie. Grandma done been long uhfew roads herself,' "by feeling "an infinity of conscious pain" for her part in advocating Janie's liai- son with Killicks, and through her death (43). Her identification with Janie implies a critique of her former posi- tion that as a member of the working class Janie was destined to be "immoral."
Expanding this critique, Their Eyes disputes the class bias implicit in Nanny's argument by showing how focusing on victimization and respectability result in stifling African American women's agency and sexual subjectivity. Janie claims that "she had been set in the market-place to sell" in her marriage to Logan, implying that her "respectable" marriage smacked of prostitution or slavery (138). Again with Jody, Janie has money and respectability, but Jody's objectification of her and his demand for her submis- sion stifles any desire she might feel for him. Even after Jody's death, when [anie lets down her hair and recognizes in herself "a handsome woman," her class position continues to repress sex- ual expression (135). Her suitors "felt that it was not fitting to mention desire to the widow of Joseph Starks. You spoke of honor and respect" (143).
While Janie's middle-class mar- riages stifle desire, her working-class
AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW
marriage embodies it. This dichotomy would suggest that Their Eyes reinforces the opposition between work- ing-class sexual expressivity and mid- dle-class repression, and merely reverses their hierarchical relationship. Reading the novel as a rejection of mid- dle-class respectability in favor of working-class desire is reminiscent of blues texts like "Mighty Tight Woman." These texts specify class dif- ferences in order to privilege working- class sexuality, but they risk reinforc- ing racist sexual ideology that sees the working class as too sexual, even as they reject elitism. Reinforcing sexual stereotypes is a real possibility for Janie, who deserts Logan, rids herself of Jody in her dozens exchange, and names and rejects both Logan's and Jody's inadequate sexual perfor- mances.
However, even though Hurston's text violates middle-class notions of respectability, it does not revel in sexu- al exvressivitv. Hurston refuses to
privilege working- or middle-class sex- uality; rather, she confounds this oppo- sition. Their Eyes strategically com- bines expressive and regulatory dis- courses of sexuality, policing desire not to suppress it but to legitimate it. Hurston's text does not conflate wom- en's sexuality with a "morality" defined by monogamy, for example; however, it does represent Tanie as het- erosexual, and it enhorses serial monogamy rather than multiple part- nerships. The sexual politics of Ma Rainev's lesbian "Prove It on Me Blues" or the enticing homosexuality of the narrator's male rival in Rainey's "Sissy Blues" were clearly articulated in the classic blues and were celebrated in the artistic circles Hurston traveled within in Harlem (Hull 8-9; Oliver 206). These sexual politics are, however, absent in Their Eyes. Furthermore, the novel aligns itsefi only tentatively with blues like Ida Cox's "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues" and Bessie Smith's "Young Woman's Blues," songs which advocate multiple part- nerships in response to "mistreating" men. Like these blues women and Leafy, Janie has multiple partnerships: She leaves Logan, marries Jody, and sleeps with Tea Cake after Jody's death, but she marries and "settle[s] down" with each. The novel advocates women leaving "their fighting hus- bands and their no good friends," but it stops short of suggesting, as "Wild Women" does, "When you got a man, don't ever be on the square."
Furthermore, Hurston's text rarely represents Janie's desire explicitly. Instead of boasting about Janie's sexual abilities, Their Eyes focuses on her rejection of Logan and Jody as sexually inadequate. There is a subtle and strategic regulation of desire in the text's decision to make Janie's desire implicit. This strategic choice can best be seen when Hurston's text is read opposite classic blues which resist the sexual regulation of desire. Celebrating the sexual desires and abilities of women, this classic blues tradition may express dissatisfaction with a "mis- treating man," but it combines a cri- tique of physical abuse or sexual inade- quacy with a woman's assertion of her own sexual potency. The narrator in Ida Cox's "One Hour Mama," for example, combines a critique of men's sexual ability with a celebration of her own:
I've always heard that haste makes
So I believe in takin' my time.
The highest mountain can't be raced
It's something you must slowly climb.
I want a slow and easy man; He needn't ever take the lead, Cause I work on that long time plan And I ain't alookin' for no speed.
I'm a one hour mama, so no one
Ain't the kind of man for me.
Set your alarm clock papa, one hour
Then love me like I like to be.
I don't want no lame excuses,
Bout my lovin' being so good,
That you couldn't wait no longer
Now I hope I'm understood.
I'm a one hour mama so no one minute
Ain't the kind of man for me.
HURSTON, THE CLASSIC BLUES, AND THE BLACK WOMEN'S CLUB MOVEMENT 207
Like Tanie, Ida Cox's narrator in "One HOU; ~ama"criticizes men for unsat- isfactory sexual performances and demands that they "love me like I like to be." However, the narrator in "One Hour Mama" boasts about her own sexual prowess as "the highest moun- tain" and about a woman who "Takes an hour 'fore I get started, / Maybe three 'fore I'm through." This kind of boasting by a female narrator, though common in classic blues by women- "Coffee Grinding Blues" by Lucille Bogan, "Mighty Tight Woman" by Sippie Wallace, "Sports Model Mama" by Victoria Spivey, for example-is almost nonexistent in Their Eyes. Couched in the nayvet4 of a young woman asking sexual advice from her grandmother, Janie's description of her own desire-" 'Ah wants to want him sometimes. Ah don't want him to do all the wantin' (41)' "-is subdued next to the narrator's expression of desire in "One Hour Mama," and there is no description of Janie's own sexual prowess. Instead, Janie's criticism of Logan and Jody's sexual inadequacy has the directness and the enthusiasm of the classic blues, as Janie's descrip- tion of Logan proves: "Some folks never was meant to be loved and he's one of 'em. . . . Ah hates de way his head is so long one way and so flat on de sides and dat pone uh fat back uh his neck. . . . His belly is too big too, now, and his toe-nails look lak mule foots." (42) Most often, Hurston's text empha- sizes Janie's dissatisfaction with or admiration for, in the case of Tea Cake, male sexualitv. In her well-known dozens exch;nge with Jody, Janie does describe herself as sexual in addition to criticizing Jody: "Naw, Ah ain't no young gal no mo' but den Ah ain't no old woman nei- ther. Ah reckon Ah looks mah age too. But Ah'm uh woman every inch of me, and Ah know it. Dat's uh whole lot more'n you kin say. You big-bellies round here and put out a lot of brag, but 'tain't nothin' to it but yo' big voice. Humph! Talkin' 'bout me lookin' old! When you pull down yo' briches. vou look lak de change uh " life.'' (122123) This is the only statement Janie makes about her own sexual ability, and the passage works rhetorically to empha- size Jody's inadequacy over Janie's sex- ual ability. As an expression of desire, it is a far cry from assertions of sexual ability in the classic blues. The narrator in Ida Cox's "Hard Times Blues," for instance, claims to be "a big fat mama got the meat shakin' on my bones/ And every time I shake some skinny gal loses her home." Similarly, Lucille Bogan's narrator in "Coffee Grinding Blues" revels in her sexual subjectivity: Ain't nobody, ain't nobody, ain't nobody in town Can grind their coffee like mine I drink so much coffee I grinds it in my sleep (2x) An when it gets like that you know it can't be beat. It's so doggone good that it made me bite my tongue (2x) Gone keep it for my daddy ain't gone give nobody none. That Their Eyes subdues Janie's sexual expression in a milder form than the classic blues can be seen as further evi- dence of the text's desire to "legit- imize" or represent sexual subjectivity as acceptable for women without rein- forcing negative stereotypes. At the same time, Janie's rejection of Logan and Jody as sexually inadequate sug- gests her sexual subjectivity without positioning her as a seductress. Hurston's text could be read as subordinating blues sexuality to con- :ems over sexual stereotypes, suggest- ing a relationship characterized by reg- ulation or prescription. Although there is some regulation here, Hurston's text strategically invokes rather than remesses sexual content. The sexual mktaphors in Their Eyes are milder than those in the classic blues, but their rhetorical effectiveness depends on the 2xtent to which they recall a strong sex- ual blues or folk tradition. Mules in the zlassic blues, for instance, were metaphors fir sexual "driving I mule," and for cuckoldry, "another AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW mule's in your stall," or "kicking" in your stall (Taft 2:1693). Their Eyes signifies on blues mules mildly but effec- tively when Logan's decision to put two mules in his stall satisfactorily money. The story of Annie Tyler signi- fies on desertion blues. Tyler is both the victim of her man, deserted and robbed of her money, and a victim of her own "illegitimate" desire as an issues in Janie's coupling with ~od~.l~ older woman sleeping with a younger Furthermore, Tea Cake is, in blues terms, Janie's "easy rider," a phrase used frequently in the blues to connote a good lover by equating sexual motion to the swinging motion of someone riding a mule (Lieb 99; Oliver 214-215). The text makes subdued but effective use of this trope in Janie's sex- ual fantasy, which represents the world as a "stallion rolling in a blue pasture of ether," and in its representation of Tea Cake as the realization of this fan- tasy, "bucking around the room in the upper air" or "prancing around her" when a breeze blows through her open bedroom window (Hurston 44,163, 286). In addition, the romantic image of Janie's sexual awakening, lying under a pear tree watching bees pollinate flowers, is passive, as Mary Helen Washington points out, yet also sug- gests a strongly sexual blues image (240).17 Women's sexuality was associ- ated with fruit trees in the classic blues, as variations such as "If you don't like my peaches / Don't shake my tree" make plain (Taft 1:617). The effect of Hurston's quiet appropriation of blues metaphors is to dismantle the opposi- tion between respectability and desire. The sexual connotations of the blues escape or move beyond middle-class mores without reinforcing racist sexual stereotypes. Janie is represented as both sexual and respectable at once. Similarly, in her marriage to Tea Cake, Janie's middle-class status works not against but in concert with repre- sentations of desire. Hurston uses Janie's marriage to Tea Cake not sim- ply to represent desire but also to legit- imate it. Tea Cake is Janie's easy rider, and as such he poses a threat to mid- dle-class morality. When Janie decides to marry Tea Cake, Pheoby tells her of Annie Tyler, a middle-class woman prostituted by working-class men who sleep with her in order to rob her of her man. Inserted into the working class as a middle-class woman, Janie is not rep- resented as the victim of her own or Tea Cake's desire. She is not prostitut- ed by Tea Cake, and their liaison is read as sexual but not immoral. In this scene Hurston deconstructs the opposi- tion between legitimate middle- and illegitimate working-class sexuality just as she folds club and blues discourse in on top of one another. In the story of Annie Tyler, Hurston rejects the polic- ing or prescribing functions of both club and blues ideology. The stakes are just as high in the trial scene where Janie's sexual subjec- tivity is the crime and desire is the object of interrogation. Janie's trial repeats the early porch scene, position- ing her as a "loose" woman. This time, however, middle-class whites as well as working-class African Americans are trying to take the measure of Janie's "morality." The white jury tries "to lis- ten and pass on what happened between Janie and Tea Cake Woods . . . as to whether things were done right or not" (Hurston 274). The African American community claims that Tea Cake took good care of Janie and she betraved him: He worked like a dog for her and near- ly killed himself saving her in the storm, then soon as he got a little fever from the water, she had took up with another man. Sent for him to come there from way off. Hanging was too good. (276) The cultural resonance of "hanging" as it applies to Janie's sexual reputation in the trial scene could not have been lost on Hurston and demonstrates her familiarity with historical discourses. In her decision to situate an oblique reference to lynching within the African American community, Hurston collapses and rejects the sexual polic- ing of both the white middle class and HURSTON,THE CLASSICBLUES, AND THE BLACK WOMEN'S CLUB MOVEMENT 209 the black working class. Janie ultimate- ly establishes her innocence in both communities, refuting racist sexual ide- ology: "She had to go way back to let them know how she and Tea Cake had been with one another" to dispel their "lying thoughts" (278). Class tensions around issues of sexuality were expressed and were sometimes successfully negotiated in both blues and club discourses by con- futing middle- and working-class "morality," respectability, and desire. Hurston's text, participating in and reconstructing this dialogue, also worked to deconstruct or collapse class-based sexual hierarchies, to repre- sent desire while rejecting both bour- geois elitism and racist sexual ideolo- gy. Criticism which has situated African American women's texts of this period historically has served an important function. However, too often it has reinforced oppositions between middle-class (and literary) sexual repression and working-class sexual expressivity. While Hurston's text can be read as policing sexuality to some extent, the text is far more invested in disrupting the neatness of middle- and working-class sexual polarities and achieving a space outside racist sexual ideology where sexual subjectivity can be represented and experienced. Sexual subjectivity in Their Eyes emerges from a history of racialized rape, lynching, and ideologies which represented African American women as oversexed, and it is also constructed by the class politics of racial uplift. These historical tensions are not simply "reflected" in women's fiction. Narrative acts upon, negotiates with, complicates, and can partially resolve historical entanglements. It is as agent, as an active force within a larger com- munity of discourses, that fiction becomes political. Careful attention to the ideological asymmetries and align- ments of historical discourses creates space for literary intervention. The sex- ual gains of literary, blues, or club movement politics may be partial and somewhat contradictory. However, together, they represent African American women's imaginative and active role in establishing their own models of sexual subjectivity. Notes 1. For summaries of these two critical trends, see duCille 80-81 and Awkward 2-5. Carby suggests that Hurston's current critical popularity, like her popularity in the twenties, depends on a fascination with the primitive and exotic ("Politics" 73). She reads Hurston's representation of rural African American folk culture as "utopian," "essential," and removed from history and politics. duCille argues for situating ~urston'in rel'ation to earlier writers and her contemporaries. In par- ticular, she suggests similarities between Hurston's Seraph on the Suwanee and Alice Dunbar- Nelson's "A Modern Undine" (83). Sexuality in Hurston's work is often subsumed under discussions of gender politics which focus on Janie's autonomy-whether or not Janie submits to physical abuse or achieves a voice, for exam- ple (see Bethel 180, 185; Hemenway 232-43; Hite 442-45, 448; and Pryse, 14-15). In addition, none of the critics who look specifically at sexuality in Hurston's work has situated his or her analysis his- torically (see Awkward, " 'Inaudible' " 81-82; duCille 116-23; Washington 240; and Willis 49-51). While Hurston may not have been directly involved in the anti-lynching campaign, she was a stu- dent at Howard between 191 9-1 924 (Hemenway 18). In addition, the club movement had its origins in the anti-lynching campaign, and the campaign certainly influenced club politics (Giddings 83). That Hurston was influenced by the folk traditions that form much of classic blues ideology has been noted, though not in any sustained way, by blues and literary critics (see Baker 14; Ellison 198; Long 135; and Wall 75, 92; see also my comments on duCille above). For a summary of this literary debate, see duCille 70. While Deborah McDowell generally oppos- es literary representations of sexuality to representations of desire in the classic blues (" 'Nameless' " 142), she does acknowledge briefly that Fauset appropriated classic blues innuendo in the title of Plum Bun ("Introduction" xx). AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW 7. For critics who contrast literary representations of sexuality with the expressivity of the classic blues, see Carby, "It Jus Be's" 250; Hull 24-25; and McDowell 142. In her analysis of Their Eyes, duCille discusses Hurston's "bourgeois blues," a phrase coined to confound the critical opposition between middle- and working-class discourses (84, 118). However, duCille tends to use this phrase ahistorically, ignoring Hurston's actual use of blues tropes, for example. Perhaps because of this, she, like others, reads Hurston's text as primarily concerned with challenging male authority rather than as representing a female sexual subject. For blues critics who also reify the classic blues to some extent, see Harrison, Reitz, and Russell. They represent classic blues singers and narrators as independent and as sexual subjects for politi- cal reasons-to counteract racist sexual stereotypes, to correct an emphasis in blues criticism on desertion themes, and to provide, in Harrison's words, an historical "model" of African American women as "sexually independent, self-sufficient, creative, assertive, and trend setting" (1 0). In her pioneering work on lynching, Ida B. Wells exposed the systemic nature of white abuse and racist sexual ideology in the South. Wells was also an active force in the club movement, running for president of the National Association of Colored Women as late as 1924 (Duster xxvii). Wells insisted that the image of African American women as libidinous worked to support a racist legacy of slavery in which white men considered it their prerogative to rape African American women (Giddings 31). Paula Giddings and Gerda Lerner, while appreciating middle-class African American women's significant contributions, both acknowledge strong class biases in the club movement (Giddings 95; Lerner, "Early" 857). Burroughs was a leader of the Woman's Convention, an auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention; was the founder and head of the National Training School for Women and Girls (Higginbotham 8, 84); and was also a member of the National Association of Colored Women (Jones 31). Higginbotham qualifies her argument by stating that even a working-class version of respectability defined itself in opposition to "negative black Others," those that it represented as unhygienic, for example (203-04). Amy Jacques Garvey, working out of the urban, working-class Universal Negro Improvement Association instead of the middle-class club movement, was also able to avoid class bias at the same time that she advocated African American women's leadership roles. She critiqued middle-class materialism as decadent, rejected upward mobility, and saw idealizing femininity as a form of male domination (Matthews 869, 872). At thls tlme no substantial study of the effects of class or gender on the lyrics of the classic blues has been undertaken, even though liner notes show that many classic blues song writers were men, and classic blues singers who wrote or chose their own songs for performance came from and sang to both the working and middle class. Most classic blues singers' origins were in the working class, but a few-Trixie Smlth and Edith Wilson, for example-were born into middle-class families (Barlow 138). Lieb and Harrlson document the diversity of blues women's styles and audiences, but they don't take this diversity into account in specific readings of lyrics (Harrison 11, 12, 183, 208, 220; Lieb xiv, 22, 51). A study of this kind could demystify the classic blues and read classic blues ideology as diverse and contradictory. For a list of blues written and sung by classic blues women, see Harrison 249-250; Lieb 193- 197; and Reitz 57. 14.Additional examples include Ma Rainey's "Weepin' Woman Blues," "Llttle Low Mama Blues," and "Daddy Goodbye Blues" (Lieb 84-85) Carby argues that "In the House Blues" doesn't position the narrator as a victim. The song con- stitutes "a parody of the supposed weakness of women" because the strength of Smith's voice con- tradicts the helplessness she expresses ("It Jus Be's" 254). However, the narrator's rage does not necessarily exist in opposition to her victimhood. It results from both her man's desertion and her own desire, which is uncontrollable. Signifies is used here as it is defined by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "as a metaphor for formal revi- sion, or intertextuality within the Afro-American literary tradition" (xxi). In my study, I examine the "revision or intertextuality" between literature and African American women's political and cultural dis- courses. It is also worth noting that, although Janie is represented metaphorically as a passive flower waiting for a bee, in both the early pear tree scene and the final scene of the book Janie achieves sexual satisfaction, if not orgasm, on her own, through fantasy. This to some extent suggests an alternative to heterosexuality, as does the novel's refusal to introduce the possibility of Janie's becoming pregnant. HURSTON, THE CLASSIC BLUES, AND THE BLACK WOMEN'S CLUB MOVEMENT Works Awkward, Michael. 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African American Review, Volume 32, Number 2 O 1998 Carol Batker