Nanny, Leafy, and Strength over Slavery in Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God follows Janie Crawford’s journey through three marriages and her search for freedom, independence, and love through black womanhood in the 20th century. In the beginning of the novel, Hurston, through telling Nanny’s story, shows how black women of the 19th and 20th centuries have dealt with attempting to find power and be resilient through adversity. In her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston uses Nanny’s journey in trying to protect Leafy and the story of her struggles in doing so to portray how despite those struggles, she can overcome them through finding strength in her vulnerability as a black, enslaved woman.
Hurston first portrays the idea of power in vulnerability through alluding to the historical and cultural context of the lives of black women, and more specifically, of enslaved black women and their female descendants. After Nanny has sat Janie down after reprimanding her for kissing a boy from the neighborhood, Hurston begins to describe the situation of black people, by saying that they are “branches without roots”, especially Nanny and other enslaved, black women (Hurston 16). Hurston’s use of imagery with the phrase “branches without roots” expresses on one level that black people have no foundation or basis from which to draw strength or power, and on another level, they factually do not have any roots in the United States, as nearly all black people were forced from their home countries and into America. Black people are branches without roots, connected only by their shared histories of struggle for freedom, independence, and humanity, with no foundation upon which they may draw any strength to fulfill dreams. This shows how black people are born into instability because of the fact that they are black. This is significant to mention because it means that although they have no foundation from which they may draw strength from behind them, they have those “branches” or their offspring to do so, by continuing to work hard and with hope to provide better futures for them. Hurston shows that despite the lack of stability and strength, Nanny and other black folk could never be “beat down…so low” as to be “[robbed] of they will.” (16). Hurston’s tone expressed through Nanny in this line is one of resilience, with her creating an image of a black person being physically beaten “low” but still maintaining their dignity and their will—they can never be beaten down low enough. Near the end of that paragraph, Hurston’s repetitive use of “Ah didn’t want” (16) in four different lines shows how Nanny’s sheer will and determination in wanting a better life for Leafy and herself allowed for her to find the strength to, without much support, escape her situation.
Later on in the chapter, Hurston details how Nanny found power in her vulnerable state and situation. Nanny’s mistress visits her bed after the Master has left for war, and is angered upon the sight of Nanny lying in bed with newborn Leafy. Hurston expresses this anger with the Mistress saying that Nanny does not realize “who is Mistis”, so she begins hitting her, and Nanny felt the “last licks” the Mistress gave her “burn like fire”, having not felt the first couple because she was looking after Leafy (Hurston 17). Hurston’s use of alliteration with “last licks” brings attention to Nanny’s resilience and strength, with the rolling ‘l’ sound contrasting with the simile “burning like fire”. Hurston’s use of this simile fleshes out the great physical pains Nanny endured in her fragile state, just having given birth to Leafy. Fire destroys anything it touches, and despite the burn of her face and body at the hands of the jealous and angry Mistress, Nanny was not destroyed. Instead, the Mistress has even gotten to the point of feeling like she must remind Nanny that she is the superior one.
Hurston says that Nanny showed no visible signs of being affected by the violence: “Ah didn’t cry” and “Ah didn’t do nothing else” (17). Hurston’s purposeful and repeated diction of “Ah didn’t” shifts the power over to Nanny, as she is making choices to not give in to the weakness the Mistress expected her to show. This is her finding strength despite her obvious vulnerability while lying in bed with Leafy in her lap. Instead she has a cool demeanor, saying that “Ah ain’t nothing but [an N—] and a slave” (17) to the Mistress’ face when asked how the baby was white. Hurston’s use of dialect with “ain’t nothing” and the diction of “[N—] and slave” are obvious reminders to readers and to the Mistress that despite being an object, not even a human being, in addition to being a black woman Nanny was able to be equal, in a sense, to her white Mistress, and probably even greater because Nanny is the one in bed having had the child of the Master, not the wife. In her submissiveness, saying she is “nothing”, Hurston is saying Nanny is everything—that she is equal to the white woman, perhaps even greater, and it is in this submissiveness and forced servitude that Nanny is still able to find strength. Hurston shows that Nanny is not the promiscuous black slave-woman all raped black women were believed to be when they gave birth to the mixed-white children of their masters, but that they she and women like her are more, more for being a woman and a mother who protect her children. Consequently, Hurston’s literary choices go beyond the story of Nanny as a character and serve to show the ways in which black women have shown resilience through adversity in a historical context for the sake of their children and for better futures.
Zora Neale Hurston uses Nanny’s story in Their Eyes Were Watching God and her struggles as a representation of the struggles of enslaved black women and attempts to further the idea that they are more than the subservient attitudes they must take and the loss of independence and freedom they have had to endure. Hurston instead shows that there is yet strength to be found in that submissiveness through using their dedicated love and hope for a better future as a path to relative independence and freedom.
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Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God follows Janie Crawford’s journey through three marriages and her search for freedom, independence, and love through black womanhood in the 20th century. […]