Academic journal article African American Review

"Papa Legba, Ouvrier Barriere Por Moi Passer": Esu in Their Eyes & Zora Neale Hurston's Diasporic Modernism

Academic journal article African American Review

"Papa Legba, Ouvrier Barriere Por Moi Passer": Esu in Their Eyes & Zora Neale Hurston's Diasporic Modernism

Article excerpt

Papa Legba, opener of gates, (opportunities) is always the first to receive sacrifice in any ritual invocation of the loa.... they sing "Papa Legba, ouvrier barriere por moi passer." (Tell 148)

She thought awhile and decided that her conscious life had commenced at Nanny's gate. (Their Eyes 182)

Real gods require blood. (Their Eyes 293)

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel of transitions. At one crucial moment, as Joe Starks funeral ends, Hurston marks the transition and images the "Little Lord of the Crossroads ... leaving Orange County as he had come--with the outstretched hand of power" (246). To those who read Their Eyes as an American novel, this sentence voices an ironic tribute to the pomp and failure of Joe Starks' modern identity. This sentence, however, might make readers attuned to West African cultural traditions edgy, even suspicious. Tell these readers that Hurston wrote much of Their Eyes in the Haitian night, her mind full of images from her ongoing research into Voodoo cosmology and ritual, and the sentence begins to change. In Tell My Horse, Hurston published her research from the Caribbean. There, she records praise-names for the West African (Yoruba) messenger/trickster deity in Haiti. One of the names she records is "Baron Carrefour, Lord of the Crossroads. The way to all things is in his hands" (Tell 128). With this, we realize two things: The "Little Lord of the Crossroads" in Their Eyes is Esu-Elegba, and Esu's "outstretched hand of power" signifies much more than Joe Starks' modern American vision could fathom. A series of revelations follow as the novel sheds its skin, and its structure opens anew. In various guises, Esu appears at each of the novel's crossroads, and Their Eyes becomes a key text in an alternate modernist tradition, Diasporic Modernism.

During her research in Haiti, Zora Neale Hurston found that the crossroads of the black diasporic world were in the hands of a multi-faceted figure: Esu-Elegba. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, she uses Esu as the modernist force of disruption and renewal, the frustrating key to the de- and inter-personal crossroads of redemption in the novel. Hurston's insight into the connection between the psychological and cultural terrains of black American modernity and diasporic mythology and ritual--unremarked for over sixty years--is the fundamental link to this alternate approach to modernism. It does not constitute a "counter-modernism," since Hurston's fully developed approach is what I would call "post-oppositional." The foundations of her diasporic alternatives are too expansive, their options are too fluid, to sustain the rigid identities requisite for opposition. Absorption is closer to Hurston's relationship to prevailing modernist insights than opposition. Hurston's approach expands the ways we understand diasporic encounters with modernity. For Hurston, Esu-Elegba invokes black cultural confrontations with the dissonance at the modernist crossroads. In his poem "Confluence," Yusef Komunyakaa echoes Hurston's insight and reckons with a Diasporic Modernist meeting place, the crossroads of "Bloodline and clockwork. / The X drawn where we stand" (14).

Most forms of modernism seek to disrupt conventional perceptions, particularly those regarding the relationship between exterior ("objective") and interior ("subjective") realms of experience. Employing knowledge of West African cultural traditions gained from her ethnographic work in Haiti, Zora Neale Hurston, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, approaches this relationship in a manner that sounds the keynote of a specifically diasporic form of modernism. The key to understanding Hurston's vision lies in her use of the image of the "crossroads" and particularly of the diasporic trickster/messenger usually known as Esu-Elegba. Where most modernisms invoke some sort of crossroads between external and internal realms, recognizing the presence of Esu-Elegba in Their Eyes helps to establish Hurston's truly central importance in an expansive modernist tradition that includes, but is not limited to, Euro-American writers such as Eliot, Pound, and H. …

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