Perception of Black Culture as Depicted in Toppled from a Shrine’
For hundreds of years, the dominant culture in America has categorically underestimated black southern culture and vernacular, mistaking these segments of American life as largely simple, vulgar, and uneducated; Zora Neale Hurston sought to change those perceptions. One of her most significant attempts to do so is her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine. Here, Hurston often changes the style of her narrative voice, going from a biblical tone in one moment to dry, journalistic writing in the next. She uses this technique to great effect during John’s divorce trial, creating a grand sense of tension that is immediately dashed in the eyes of the prejudiced white judge and jury. Furthermore, she is able to use John Pearson as a trickster from African folklore, putting the same judge and jury at the butt of a joke and making them look like fools for minimizing the complexity and depth of John and Hattie’s relationship. In a novel operating almost entirely within black communities, John’s divorce trial provides the largest and most significant interaction with white society. With this scene, Hurston uses metaphor, varying levels of diction, and the trickster archetype to demonstrate that white society has categorically underestimated the complexity of black life in the south at this time, and that that white people have made fools of themselves as a direct consequence.
In Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Hurston wields her mastery of language and of different levels of diction to promote the value of black culture. John’s divorce trial is one of the best examples of her talent; Hurston jumps, in this instance, from her unobtrusive narrative voice into a prophetic rant about the two-faced members of John’s congregation. She proclaims that there is “no fury so hot as that of a sycophant as he stands above a god that has toppled from a shrine,” not two paragraphs after talking about potato pones and corn-bread dressing (Hurston, 166). These words are distinctively biblical, not simply in talking about a god but in inverting a traditional word ordering (“no fury so hot”) to give the passage a biblical diction. This decisive and abrupt shift in language is meant to set up John’s trial as a pivotal point within the story, and it works very effectively. Everything about John and Hattie’s divorce is sanctified by Hurston’s words; it becomes a dire and sacred affair. Even Hattie, the antagonist of the scene, “was a goddess for a moment” (Hurston, 167). However, the tension and direness Hurston weaves in the pre-trial moments is immediately undone once the white judge takes his seat, “as a walrus would among a bed of clams” (167). Due to his own racism, the judge is blind to the intense personal drama playing out before his own eyes; Hurston says herself that the “waves of pang…in the room did not reach up to [his] bench” (167). This reality is reinforced even further by the abrupt shift in language once the trial begins. The prophetic voice is gone, and Hurston shies away from almost any descriptive language at all. It’s as if the text itself becomes as blind to John and Hattie’s complex emotional struggle just as the white jurors do.
With the divorce trial, Hurston is able to demonstrate that the black culture that white society sees as mundane is in fact rich with emotionality and drama on a biblical scale. By having John Pearson remain silent during his trial, Hurston sets him up to operate in the “trickster” archetype present in African and African-American folklore. As he explains to Hambo after the trial, he withheld information about Hattie practicing voodoo because “dey some things [white folks] ain’t tuh know” (Hurston 169). Much like Brer Rabbit from plantation folklore or Anansi the spider from African folklore, John is able to put himself in a position of power over a seemingly more powerful adversary (in this case white society as a whole) by outsmarting his observers through manipulation and secrecy. Furthermore, in the world of the novel, voodoo appears to be a legitimately powerful force; this potentiality is suggested through Lucy’s untimely demise and John’s initially complacent attitude toward his marriage with Hattie. By choosing to withhold the details of Hattie’s conjuring from the court, John is quite literally protecting a powerful form of magic from people who would not be able to understand nor control it. In this case voodoo serves as a metaphor, suggesting that there are incredibly valuable and powerful aspects of black folk culture that most of white society could not hope to comprehend. John acting as a trickster character in this setting inevitably puts the white jury members and judge, as well as all who underestimate black culture, at the brunt of the joke. In the eyes of the reader, this tactic severely undercuts the court members’ perceived sense of cultural superiority, making them the stupid ones in the scenario.
Through Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Hurston is able to turn racism into something that makes its perpetrators appear foolish. She rejected the idea of eschewing black stereotypes in favor of white cultural norms, instead choosing to promote the aspects of African-American culture that much of white society incorrectly viewed as primitive. As she stated in her essay, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Hurston is not “tragically colored.” This idea is largely seen as a response to W. E. B. Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness, the idea that African Americans are divided in their identity between being black and being American. Rather than fit a predefined mold of what being “American” meant, Hurston chose to redefine those terms through glorifying and illustrating the beauty of everyday life for black Americans, thereby creating a new definition of American identity.
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