Reflections on Their Eyes Were Watching God by Alison Cable
The Dream Keeper, by Langston Hughes
Bring me all of your dreams,
Bring me all of your
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.
I love this prayer-like poem. It’s simple and painful, but it’s more than that. A Black American Harlem Renaissance writer, Hughes knew all too well the “too-rough fingers” of the world, and this poem, like many of his others, exposes the raw fragility of dreams. The idea of wrapping dreams up in a “blue cloud-cloth”– the sky as a vast blanket that protects dreams from the realities that threaten them—is comforting and hopeful, and universal.
Last summer, Toby and I were discussing a salon on Catcher in the Rye, but then came the murder of George Floyd and the BLM protests and we reconsidered whose story we’d rather hear, and really listen to—Holden Caulfield or Janie Crawford? Both coming of age tales, both quests for self-discovery, both written with skill and style, recognized as American classics. But whose voice do we want to hear right now? Need to hear. Janie’s, of course. Their Eyes Were Watching God was the clear choice, and the positive response from participants is a message in and of itself. There was so much to explore, we’ll be running it again in November. It’s in these choices that we can open ourselves up to examination and real change.
We ran a four-hour intensive, in which we looked carefully at the ways in which Zora Neale Hurston empowers Janie, by making her the teller of her own story and placing her within the classic quest structure as hero, unheard of for a mixed-race girl from Florida in the 1930’s. We talked about how Hurston uses the vernacular to subvert the traditional linguistic hierarchy and by extension asserts that Black folk culture is valuable, worthy of “literary fiction” and our close attention (not always the assumption during the Harlem Renaissance). It’s also just a beautiful story, and we delighted in the magic of her descriptions (‘Put me down easy, Janie, ah’m a cracked plate’).
We also talked about the nature imagery in the novel, and Hughes’ ‘cloud-cloth’ reminds me of Hurston’s recurring image of the horizon– from the evocative opening lines (‘Ships at a distance hold every man’s wish on board’) to the final lines, where Janie wraps herself in the horizon, having been there and back.
Toward the beginning of her coming-of-age journey, Janie aspires to fulfilment through love and self-expression, but her grandmother marries her off to a man who will treat her as a servant:
Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon—for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you—and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. (102)
But two husbands and a hurricane later, Janie has returned home from her quest to tell her story and share the prize with her community:
Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in it’s meshes! She called in her soul to come and see. (221)
While this is not a book overtly about racism, it is a portrait of Black life in a racist society. White readers like myself who attend to it closely are given an opportunity to take a step toward understanding the lived experience of racism. Hurston celebrates the living rhythms of Black communities and cultural expressions, and portrays Black people within their own framework, not simply responding to white people nor the racism white communities perpetrate (e.g. through the use of the vernacular, the absence of white characters). Zadie Smith sums it up better than I can: “It is about the discovery of self in and through another. It suggests that even the dark and terrible banality of racism can recede to a vanishing point where you understand, and are understood by, another human being.”