“Ah was wid dem white chillun so much till Ah didn’t know Ah wuzn’t white till Ah was round six years old. Wouldn’t have found it out then, but a man come long takin’ pictures and without askin’ anybody, Shelby, dat was de oldest boy, he told him to take us. Round a week later de man brought de picture for Mis’ Washburn to see and pay him which she did, then give us all a good lickin’.
“So when we looked at de picture and everybody got pointed out there wasn’t nobody left except a real dark little girl with long hair standing by Eleanor. Dat’s where Ah wuz s’posed to be, but Ah couldn’t recognize dat dark chile as me. So Ah ast, ‘where is me? Ah don’t see me.’
“Everybody laughed, even Mr. Washburn. Miss Nellie, de Mama of de chillun who come back home after her husband dead, she pointed to de dark one and said, ‘Dat’s you, Alphabet, don’t you know yo’ ownself?’
“Dey all useter call me Alphabet ’cause so many people had done named me different names. Ah looked at de picture a long time and seen it was mah dress and and mah hair so Ah said:
“ ‘Aw, aw! Ah’m colored!’
“Den dey all laughed real hard. But before Ah seen de picture Ah thought Ah wuz just like de rest.
“Us lived dere havin’ fun till de chillun at school got to teasin’ me ’bout livin’ in de white folks’ back-yard. Dere wuz uh knotty head gal name Mayrella dat useter git mad every time she look at me. Mis’ Washburn useter dress me up in all de clothes her gran’chillun didn’t need no mo’ which still wuz better’n whut de rest uh de colored chillun had. And then she useter put hair ribbon on mah head fuh me tuh wear. Dat useter rile Mayrella uh lot. So she would pick at me all de time and put some others up tuh do de same. They’d push me ’way from de ring plays and make out they couldn’t play wid nobody dat lived on premises. Den they’d tell me not to be takin’ on over mah looks ’cause they mama told ’em ’bout de hound dawgs huntin’ mah papa all night long. ’Bout Mr. Washburn and de sheriff puttin’ de bloodhounds on de trail tuh ketch mah papa for whut he done tuh mah mama. Dey didn’t tell about how he wuz seen tryin’ tuh git in touch wid mah mama later on so he could marry her. Naw, dey didn’t talk dat part of it atall. Dey made it sound real bad so as tuh crumple mah feathers. None of ’em didn’t even remember whut his name wuz, but dey all knowed de bloodhound part by heart.”
I finished reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God last night and spent the day thinking about how one even begins to write about such a rich text. The above quotation might do me some justice.
I’m continually confronted with the dilemma of purpose, as I was earlier in the day when a friend noted, in frustration, “My existential crisis is that I don’t know what I should be doing with my life.” “Begin living without doing anything with your life. It will work itself out,” was my response. As familiar as her ‘crisis’ may be, I could not bring myself to providing her with a to-do list about how to turn herself into a ‘purpose driven individual’, simply because she would herself have to figure out the why outside of the how which the world so demands of us.
Janie walks back into the town her late husband built wearing overalls. She is dust beaten and exhausted from a long journey, and is welcomed by sneers and gossip. Before she reaches the porch of her own house the town has made up their own minds as to why she would return and what could have happened to this woman who left without as much as a goodbye.
I read this book with an awful amount of familiarity, recognising the Janie in myself.
Have you wondered how much of yourself is a result of what other people expected of you? If you didn’t have to wake up and “do what you need to do to get where you want to get” what would you be doing instead? Do you ever find yourself being reprimanded over doing things that come naturally to you and are seen as unproductive and backwards?
“Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.”
Janie gets pulled from days spent under a pear tree and married off by her grandmother to an old geezer who humps her so hard she cannot have children. She falls in love with Jody Stark’s potential and runs of with him to the land of promise, an entire turn built by black folks.
There Janie spends over twenty years of her life on the high chair that her grandmother had intended her to sit on. She is married to the wealthiest man in town, “doing well for herself”, is what many of us would have called it, yet it was all at a cost to her being. She was a prisoner of Jody’s ambition. He had her on a pedestal for everyone to see and never dare touch. Covering her magnificent hair so men would not be enticed by it, putting her “in her place” every chance he got, and turning around and accusing her of malice the moment he smelled death coming for him, never seeing his own hand in it all.
“Ah done lived Grandma’s way, now Ah means tuh live mine.”
I’m always amused by names given by coincidence. I ravelled at the names in Noviolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, names of Zimbabweans who dared place themselves in Paradise within a country that had all but erased their existence. Godknows is my favourite character from there, just as Tea Cake is here. Son of the Evening Sun, is how Janie saw him.
A lot of people might struggle with the language in the text. I’ve watched The Help (still to read the book), Django unchained, The Colour Purple and Beloved, but this is the first time I’ve been confronted with reading the language of the American south. I’m not even sure what it’s called, but I’d recognise it from a mile away. The narration brought the story to life. Having to say most of the words out loud for then to make sense had me speaking in an accent, adding me to the crowd on the stoep of Jody’s shop, or the door of Tea Cake’s shack.
A woman married thrice? How dare she? What makes her think she can? Has she no pride, no shame, going around being with whoever she pleases? Would all of this matter had she not been half-cast?
I feel in love with Janie the moment she ran off from her first marriage, my love for her was renewed the moment she decided to begin again with Tea Cake, “so soon after her husband had passed” many had exclaimed. She was clear about having done her duties for the world. She had spent over twenty years of her life living in an acceptable manner, but no more.
“Janie is wherever Ah wants tuh be. Dat’s de kind uh wife she is and Ah love her for it. Ah wouldn’t be knockin’ her around. Ah didn’t wants whup her last night, but ol’ Mis’ Turner done sent for her brother tuh come tuh bait Janie in and take her way from me. Ah didn’t whup Janie ’cause she done nothin’. Ah beat her tuh show dem Turners who is boss. Ah set in de kitchen one day and heard dat woman tell mah wife Ah’m too black fuh her. She don’t see how Janie can stand me.”
When Tea Cake, like “any ol’ man”, succumbs to his jealously and strikes Janie, I’m awoken from this infatuation I’m in with Janie. I’m expecting her to leave, to walk away, but she doesn’t, because although her other husband’s have never laid a hand on her, they exerted their power over her in the best way they knew how. Logan with his experience, Stark with his wealth, and now Tea Cake with his love. And so she stayed, this time not because she felt obligated to, but because she recognised the mad dog that would awake when a man’s pride was threatened.
“She tried to make them see how terrible it was that things were fixed so that Tea Cake couldn’t come back to himself until he had got rid of that mad dog that was in him and he couldn’t get rid of the dog and live. He had to die to get rid of the dog. But she hadn’t wanted to kill him. A man is up against a hard game when he must die to beat it. She made them see how she couldn’t ever want to be rid of him.”
And so she comes home, after having to kill the dog that her husband had become, she returns. She sits in her backyard and recounts the events that had led her to that point to her friend Phoebe, knowing full well that everyone else had already made up their minds. She doesn’t tell her life story because she wants to disprove any myths or right any wrong, not even so the community she so rashly left behind would embrace her. She does so because she owes it to herself to tell her own story, and so she does.
Image credit: @meaningfulmadness