I just finished reading another book that Kris handed down to me: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Different books hit you in different ways, some with their plots, some with their characters, some with their settings. Hurston’s book grabs you with an astonishing use of language itself. Hurston tells the life story of a black woman in the early 20th century in Florida. The narrative changes back and forth between first person and third person as the tale is told by Janie and about Janie as she becomes emancipated from the grandmother that raised her and from the men that enter her life. The book was published in 1937 and is consciously feminist in tone. My favorite quote occurs early as Janie’s grandmother is telling Janie her fears for Janie’s future:
Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able to find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down the load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.
Two other aspects especially resonated with me. Our time in Sri Lanka has reminded us that there are many forms of the English language. This year I had many reminders that I had a heavy American accent that was difficult for Sri Lankans to understand. When Kris volunteered in the English language teaching unit of the Faculty of Science, she got some hints that “real” English was what they spoke in England. She was given a pass, however, because most of her students would be studying in the US, not in England. This caused us to revisit the question of whether or not there was one “correct” English or whether there are multiple “correct” English-es, even if they are sometimes mutually unintelligible.
Hurston lets her characters speak in their own dialect. Is it a “correct” English even if it is not American standard English? The wonderful, vivid imagery conjured up by her character’s speech makes a case that such expressive language must be, in some sense, legitimate. Here is an example: Janie has returned to town after leaving with the love of her life. She has told her best friend the story of her journey and now tells her friend of her indifference to what the townsfolk think of her.
“Ah know all dem sitters-and-talkers gointuh worry they guts into fiddle strings till dey find out whut we been talkin’ ’bout. Dat’s all right, Pheoby, tell ’em. Dey gointuh make ‘miration ’cause mah love didn’t work lak they love, if dey ever had any. Then you must tell ’em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”
“Lawd!” Pheoby breathed out heavily, “Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus’ listenin’ tuh you, Janie. Ah ain’t satisfied wid mahself no mo’. Ah means tuh make Sam take me fishin’ wid him after this. Nobody better not criticize you in mah hearin’.”
“Now, Pheoby, don’t feel too mean wid de rest of ’em ’cause dey’s parched up from not knowin’ things. Dem meatskins is got tuh rattle tuh make out they’s alive. Let them consolate theyselves wid talk. ‘Course, talkin’ don’t amount tuh a hill uh beans when yuh can’t do nothin’ else. And listenin’ tuh dat kind uh talk is jus’ lak openin’ yo’ mouth and lettin’ de moon shine down yo’ throat. It’s uh known fact, Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”
The second resonance has to do with my personal history. When I went to the University of Chicago in 1972, they were just opeing up their core curriculum to subjects not found in “the Great Books.” They gave students a choice and I ran from the Great Books with a vengeance. I’m not saying that was the right choice, but it was the choice I made at the time. So my first year Humanities sequence was a quarter of classical philosophy and two quarters of black literature. I enjoyed both very much and learned a great deal from both. Reading Richard Wright, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, et al., helped me make sense of my encounter with the South Side of Chicago. But there was no mention of Hurston. So now I learn that Hurston’s wonderful stories were a victim of politics and it was not much later than 1972 that Huston was “re-discovered.” So, it was a bit ironic to me that the edition I read of Their Eyes Were Watching God” is obviously one created for use in the college classroom.
Recommended, primarily for the delightful use of the English language.