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Transforming Vision: Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston

by Trudy Bush

Trudy Bush is a CHRISTIAN CENTURY associate editor. This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 16, 1988, p. 1027. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


More than a decade after Zora Neale Hurston died penniless in a Florida welfare home, Alice Walker made a pilgrimage to the town where the anthropologist and novelist had lived, and placed a monument on her unmarked grave. Posing as a niece of the all-but-forgotten writer, Walker gathered what information she could about Hurston’s youth and final years in the state. For Walker, this journey was an act of filial piety toward the writer whom, above all others, she considers her literary foremother.

As she refused to let weeds and neglect obliterate Hurston’s grave, so Walker has fought to win recognition for Hurston’s work. Of Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Walker says that "it speaks to me as no novel, past or present, has ever done." That novel is only now receiving the wide reading and acclaim it deserves.

In Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers, Barbara Christian points out that "a persistent and major theme throughout Afro-America women’s literature [is] our attempt to define and express our totality rather than being defined by others." In this attempt, Hurston was the pioneer in whose path black women writers of the ‘70s and ‘80s have followed. Though 45 years separate Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Color Purple, the two novels embody many similar concerns and methods, ones that characterize the black women’s literary tradition -- a tradition now in full flower through the work of such writers as Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara, Ntozake Shange and Audre Lorde.

Hurston and Walker reclaim two often territories: the language of black folk culture and the experience of uneducated rural southern women. They find in both a wisdom that can transform our communal relations and our spiritual lives. As Celie in The Color Purple says, referring to God: "If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you."

Born and raised in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, Hurston escaped the hurt that racism inflicts on many black children. She was nourished by a tradition of storytelling and expressive, colorful, metaphoric speech. Because she experienced both herself and her people as beautiful and powerful, Hurston was able to explore and celebrate black life on its own terms, not primarily in its relationship to white society. Free from the compulsion to concentrate on racism and oppression, she could as an anthropologist delight in collecting black folklore -- in Mules and Men -- and as a novelist focus on a young woman’s quest for identity and wholeness -- in Their Eyes Were Watching God.

That novel, a kind of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Black Woman," depicts the process of a woman’s coming to consciousness, finding her voice and developing the power to tell her story. This fresh and much-needed perspective was met with incomprehension by the male literary establishment. In his review in New Masses, Richard Wright said the novel lacked "a basic idea or theme that lends itself to significant interpretation." Hurston’s dialogue, he said, "manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk mind in their pure simplicity, but that’s as far as it goes. . . . . The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought." Many male reviewers and critics have reacted with similar hostility and incomprehension to The Color Purple. But to be blind to the definitions these and other women writers give to women’s experience is to deny the validity of that experience.

For Hurston’s heroine, Janie, self-discovery and self-definition consist of learning to recognize and trust her inner voice, while rejecting the formulations others try to impose upon her. Increasingly, she comes to validate "the kingdom of God within" and to refuse to be conformed to the world. Like the women in Walker’s novels, Janie must find the ground of her being, a source of value and authority out of which to live. This problem is especially acute for black women, both writers seem to be saying, because the structures neither of society nor of formal religion provide this grounding. Janie finds it by being true to her own poetic, creative consciousness; in The Color Purple Walker’s characters discover it through the strength and wisdom available in the community of women.

The ways of the world are represented for Janie by the views of her grandmother, Nanny and her first two husbands, Logan Killicks and Joe Starks. Nanny sees society as a hierarchy, with black women at the bottom. As she tells Janie,

Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tub find out. Maybe it’s some place off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but we see. So de white man throw down de 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 far as Ah can see.

Though born into slavery, Nanny had "dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do." She wanted to "preach a great sermon about colored women sittin’ on high, but they wasn’t no pulpit for [her]." She tries to fulfill her dreams first through her daughter and then through Janie. But slavery and years of dependence on a white family have warped Nanny’s dream. She can think of no better way to protect Janie than by marrying her to a middle-aged black farmer whose prosperity makes it unnecessary for him to use the girl as a "mule."

In her depiction of Janie’s first two marriages, Hurston explores the role that sexism -- especially a sexism that blindly mimics white values -- plays in black women’s oppression. When 16-year-old Janie refuses to be submissive and worshipful to the crude Killicks, he tries to break her spirit by reducing her to the level Nanny feared -- that of a beast of burden, who plows the fields at her master’s command.

Joe Starks wants to be "a big voice" in his all-black town, patterning himself after the white men he has observed bossing their communities. He gives Janie possessions and status, but assumes that her identity will come only from her role as his wife. He demands complete submission and keeps her aloof from the community, making her play the role of an idle woman to show off his prosperity and power. By uncritically copying white society’s class system and materialism, as well as the sterile ideal of the turn-of-the-century white, southern lady, Starks kills both his marriage and, eventually, himself.

Despite her oppressive environment, Janie grows steadily in self-knowledge and discernment. She has the sensibility of a poet who, in Wordsworth’s phrase, "sees into the life of things." The image of a blossoming pear tree, buzzing with bees and dusting the world with pollen, becomes her image of community and her metaphor for what marriage should be. The horizon represents Janie’s need to explore all the dimensions of life and of her own self. This ability to understand and express her inner life through powerful figurative language characterizes Janie throughout the novel.

Though she remains with Starks until his death, Janie increasingly trusts and articulates her own values. She finds happiness in her third marriage by rejecting the hierarchical, materialistic codes others have imposed on her. She gladly works in the fields with Tea Cake, who is younger and much poorer, because they do not like to be separated all day. With him she becomes part of the rich communal life of music-making and storytelling; she, too, becomes one of the "big picture talkers using a side of the world for a canvas."

Janie’s experience teaches her that there are "two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh themselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves." For Janie, learning about living means going to the horizon of her consciousness and establishing joyful relationships with others. Her eyes have been watching God -- the God who manifests himself in nature, in other human beings and, especially, in our deepest selves.

Hurston was a lone voice, and she presented a character whose insights came largely from individual experience. Walker, by contrast, places greater emphasis on the importance of sisterhood. In The Color Purple, all the major relationships are triangular, with a man at the triangle’s apex and two women at its feet. If the relationship between the women remains competitive, one of them is destroyed; if the women recognize their sisterhood and become united, they transform the destructive triangle into a circle of cooperation, where all -- men and women alike -- are equal.

As Celie and Shug learn to care for each other -- the novel’s primary relationship -- not only Celie but also her husband Albert are reborn as full, creative human beings. As Celie’s sister, Nettie, and her fellow missionary, Corrine, allow jealousy and evasiveness to undermine their relationship, Corrine is gradually destroyed. Caught in the competitive pattern of male dominance, Corrine must die so that Nettie and Corrine’s husband can be happy. However, when small groups of women succeed in establishing healing circles, these circles begin to intersect and become more and more inclusive. By the novel’s end, even Eleanor Jane, the white mayor’s daughter, has begun to enter this woman-centered community as an equal, contributing member.

The Color Purple takes up the project of women’s self-definition where Their Eyes Were Watching God ends it. Shug is a woman who, like Janie, has grown strong by being true to her own experience. As Celie says, "When you look in Shug’s eye you know she been where she been, seen what she seen, did what she did. And now she know." Hurston’s novel ends with a hint of the effect such a woman can have on other women’s lives. After listening to Janie’s story, her friend Phoeby states, "Ah done growed ten feet high jus’ listenin’ tuh you, Janie. Ah ain’t satisfied wid mahself no mo’." Walker goes on to make women’s communal empowerment the primary focus of her novel.

The way Celie’s church treats her bears out Alphonso’s cynicism. Celie can’t resolve the conflict between her justified rage at the "father" who abuses her and the church that has taught her, "Bible say Honor father and mother no matter what." When she becomes pregnant, the church women blame rather than help her. Later Celie feels that she must win approval by doing the same sort of menial work for the church that she does for Albert at home -- cleaning the floor and windows, washing the linens.

In Walker’s 1976 novel Meridian, set during the civil rights movement, Meridian Hill begins going to church after a long absence. Having long considered the church "mainly a reactionary power," she finds the black church transformed into a community keeping alive the spirit of martyrs such as Martin Luther King, Jr. It has learned to weave the fight for justice into its songs and sermons. The church has come to mean not a particular denomination, "but rather communal spirit, togetherness, righteous convergence."

But in The Color Purple, set in an earlier time, Walker implies that the male-dominated church, an institution where women compete for men’s attention and approval, cannot be a supportive community. Celie sees God as a tall, gray-bearded white man wearing long robes, who acts like all the other men she has known, "trifling, forgitful and lowdown." Once she becomes fully conscious of her notion of God, she can no longer address her letters to him.

Shug’s spiritual insight saves Celie from remaining stuck in a bitter rejection of religion. Like Janie’s and Meridian’s, Shug’s spirituality derives from a mystical experience: "One day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it came to me:

that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed." Shug develops the holistic consciousness of the Christian mystics, of Buddhist and .Hindu thought, and of African animism. She realizes that God is inside each person; people come to church to share, not to find, God.

Shug’s insights transform Celie’s religious beliefs. But that transformation isn’t easy. As Shug tells Celie, "You have to get man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a’tall." The anthropomorphized white God has so obstructed Celie’s view that she has never really seen the world’s beauty and color. Now she comes to realize that loving the world, herself and other people -- admiring the color purple -- is the way to love God.

Walker has called The Color Purple a historical novel dealing not "with the taking of lands or the births, battles, and deaths of Great Men," but with "the historical and psychological threads of the lives my ancestors lived." Walker stresses that in the novel she gives her ancestors, turn-of-the-century black women, their own voice:

For it is language more than anything else that reveals and validates one’s existence, and if the language we actually speak is denied us then it is inevitable that the form we are permitted to assume historically will be one of caricature, reflecting someone else’s literary or social fantasy ["Finding Celie’s Voice," Ms. (December 1985) , P. 72].

Yet in part the novel does deal overtly with "the taking of the lands." Through Nettie’s story, the theme of women’s exploitation by men is set in the larger context of the exploitative relationships between races and nations. Furthermore, in the Africa of Celie’s ancestors, sexism also must be transformed by the powers of community and sisterhood.

The novel’s inclusive, holistic consciousness also manifests itself in its form. Whereas Hurston’s novel takes its form from the storytelling traditions of black culture, The Color Purple is more consciously literary. Written as a series of letters from Celie first to God and then to Nettie, the novel asserts its kinship both with the traditional literary form open to women -- letters and journals -- and with the 18th-century epistolary narratives out of which the English novel arose. Unlike Hurston, Walker links her novel to the larger literary tradition. The great achievement of both writers, however, has been to open that tradition to black women’s voices and to the transforming spiritual power of their vision.


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