The black feminist love story

"Zora Hurston, beating the mama drum," Library of Congress, 1937.
"Zora Hurston, beating the mama drum," Library of Congress, 1937.

One of the greatest romantic relationships in African American literature is between Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods and Janie Starks in Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Much has been written about Janie’s search for identity, love, and self-definition, and this discussion is often situated in the context of Black feminism. It was, after all, Black feminist and womanist scholars, particularly Alice Walker, who recovered the novel from the literary death male critics established for it after it was initially published in 1937. (Writer Richard Wright, for example, famously stated that Their Eyes, “carries no theme, no message, no thought.”) Since 1975, however, Their Eyes Were Watching God has become an emblematic Black feminist text in its emphasis on African American woman’s self-definition within the Black vernacular tradition—and it has become something of a touchstone for Black love stories as well.

In the novel, Janie’s quest for selfhood and agency drives her to move through, and liberate herself from, two relationships with men. First, she frees herself of the role of a beast of burden to Logan Killicks, an older man whom she is forced by her grandmother to marry to maintain respectability. The end of her second marriage, to the possessive Jodie Starks, likewise brings with it a new set of realizations about her own power. Yet it is Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake, her third husband, which tends to generate the most interest and discussion. (How compelling is their relationship? Political scientist and television host Melissa Harris Perry dedicated her recent book, Sister Citizen, to her husband, James, saying, “to James who is my Tea Cake…, except the part where she shoots him.”)

What is it about Tea Cake and Janie that inspires such attention and captures a Black feminist consciousness? On one level perhaps readers, particularly Black women, respond to the phenomena of romantic love between an African American woman and a man. Representations of “Black love” are still few in number. However, Janie and Tea Cake’s relationship is not the stuff of fairy tales. Tea Cake takes and spends Janie’s money without her permission (he later returns the money by gambling), flirts with other women, and hits Janie at one point to demonstrate to the Everglades male community that he can control her. Indeed, Their Eyes does not give us an HEA ending for the couple. Quite the contrary: as the dedication to Sister Citizen reminds us, before the novel is through, Janie must shoot Tea Cake, who has become rabid and crazed from a dog bite, in order to save her own life.

The fact that the novel portrays a deeply flawed romantic relationship and ends unhappily does not, of course, undermine its ability to speak to romantic love. As Eric Selinger has suggested, tragic endings and heartrending conclusions may help readers understand the magnitude of love in a way that is both moving and appealing. Perhaps the sad ending of the Janie/Tea Cake love story draws readers in this way.

Let me offer one further hypothesis about the novel’s appeal. Hurston’s story of Janie’s quest for love and self-definition both taps into, and has come to exemplify, a Black feminist ethos of romantic love.

Even as Janie’s quest for autonomy pivots on her relationship with Tea Cake, it is her choice to “live from within outward” which exemplifies the hallmark of Black women’s empowerment. Janie explicitly tells us that her love for Tea Cake allows her to define herself on her own terms. “Dis is uh love game,” she explains. “Ah done lived Grandma’s way, now Ah means tuh live mine.”

The relationship between Janie and Tea Cake may end in tragedy, but the novel goes on, and the effect of that relationship endures. Hurston’s decision to give space in the novel to Janie’s life after her third husband’s death illuminates one of the most powerful tenets of Black feminism: romantic love should, at its best, offer women deeper insight into life’s complexities, fostering greater self-consciousness. Although Janie returns to Eatonville heartbroken from the death of Tea Cake, she is far from a broken woman. ”So Ah’m back home agin and Ah’m satisfied tuh be heah,” she remarks instead. “Ah done been tuh de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons.”

Janie’s experiences outside of Eatonville provide her with a broader view of life that fosters a deeper understanding of her place in her community. Among those experiences, perhaps crucially, have been her experiences with Tea Cake: both of happy love and of tragic love. Having been “tuh de horizon,” she can not only live on without the love of her life, Tea Cake, but she can define her own life as an African American woman, no matter the constraints put upon her by both gender and race. Such self-definition is, this novel suggests, the greatest gift of Black feminist love.

Kim Gallon

Kim Gallon is an assistant professor of history at Purdue University and the founder and director of the Black Press Research Collective. A visiting scholar at the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University, she is completing a manuscript titled, We Are Becoming a Tabloid Race: The Politics of Gender and Sexuality in the Black Press, 1925-1945.

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