Read in:- April, 2014
Here is a woman who led a wretched life for years, doomed to stagnate in the drab depths of oblivion even after her death which had gone under the radar and generated no nostalgia-soaked, emotional obituaries. She lay in an unmarked grave in the Garden of Heavenly Rest, Florida, treated by her own contemporaries like an outcast because of a difference in perspectives, to be resuscitated and acknowledged as one of the foremost powerful voices that ever reverberated across the African-American literary landscape years later. And here is her creation, a 'coffee-and-cream' skinned Janie Crawford, a child born out of a possible rape, a sure forerunner to Toni Morrison's Sethe, Denver and Beloved or Alice Walker's Celie and Nettie. A mulatto woman in a white man's world, who grew aware of an identity not shackled by notions of race, skin color, and even gender, who could look beyond the small horizon carelessly conferred on her by an era which was bluntly apathetic to her kind, who could aspire to be free of a legacy of mere victimhood.
And here I am, trying to make sure I do not fuse Zora and Janie together, unable to decide how to love, revere and pity them at the same time.
I watched the young and carefree Janie, who bubbled over with an enthusiasm for life, eventually morph into the Janie who embraced the bittersweet realization of having loved and lost. My eyes traced her unsure footsteps from financial servitude to financial stability, from the daily battle of ignoring the sting of self-denial to grasping at a life free of emotional subservience. I loved the hapless, innocent Janie who consented to being passed over like property from her grandmother's ownership to her first husband's just as much I admired the Janie who found her salvation in Tea Cake's good-natured laughter after two marriages which had simultaneously stripped her of her last shred of self-esteem and caused her to listen to that stifled inner voice. And I felt a strange kind of happiness building up inside for the Janie who would not succumb to the temptation of self-loathing like the misguided Mrs Turner, the Janie who found the firm ground of self-awareness to tread on while the world of conflicting ideas rotated on its axis like ever.
Zora Neale Hurston had a rich dual voice - one of them fearlessly recounting the quirks characterizing the Black American community in the deep south still clinging on to the outer fringes of a white-dominated society intertwined with the lyrical, oneiric voice of a philosopher and a feminist, possibly one of the first among her kind. And it is this wholly harmonious union of these two voices which transforms this bildungsroman into a honeyed ballad of love and grief, of psychological bondage and emancipation.
"He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom-a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God."
Janie never bore a grudge against her 'God' for making her path to fulfillment so long and arduous. She merely watched Him with hopeful eyes, lovingly accepting all He bestowed on her. And I watched Janie with a tear-strained smile.