Academic journal article African American Review

Biblical Trees, Biblical Deliverance: Literary Landscapes of Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison

Academic journal article African American Review

Biblical Trees, Biblical Deliverance: Literary Landscapes of Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison

Article excerpt

Enslaved by law or custom, African Americans have found the Promised Land metaphor an apt vehicle for describing the epic proportion of their suffering. Using this metaphor, they can identify with the Old Testament Israelites who were under God's special providence. When read typologically, their persecutions offer evidence that they are God's new chosen who, like the biblical Jews, can hope for a better life in a different place--a land attainable by a "flight out of Egypt," implying a "crossing over" the Red Sea or its symbolic equivalent. Black vernacular songs such as "Bound for the Promised Land," "Going Into Canaan," "I Won't Have to Cross Jordan Alone," and "Go Down Moses" attest to the metaphor's power for engendering hope. Indeed, the journey to the Promised Land frequently assumes the same symbolic significance as a return to the Garden of Eden or a search for it. The two places, Eden and the Promised Land, can share the same tropes and images, evoking an imaginative place on the other side of some barrier--often a river--that must be crossed for deliverance.

The Promised Land and Eden have been metaphors understood and used by such historic figures as Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. In one of the most poignant passages from Narrative of the Life, Douglass describes how the slaves were literally shut out of the master's garden, a metaphoric Eden, by a perverse chief gardener anxious to punish slaves who wished to eat from the tempting, fruit-bearing trees--trees that, by implication, would afford slaves access to knowledge of the good life or a land of milk and honey (39). In an implicit comparison of himself to Moses a century later, King famously proclaimed, "I've been to the mountaintop.... And I've seen the promised land" (286). More than any other Civil Rights leader, King understood the power of such rhetoric for galvanizing an oppressed people; indeed, his rhetorical stance proved a compelling metaphor in not only creating a watershed moment in American history but also in aligning that event with biblical precedent, the Hebrews' escape from slavery under God's protective eye. (1)

The Promised Land/Garden typology affords writers and speakers a host of images that carry symbolic weight. Garden images, notably the knowledge-giving trees of Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison, are powerful tools for African American writers inscribing into fiction the painful history of slavery and some psychological truths about enslavement. (2) Nonetheless, in Their Eyes Were Watching God and Beloved tree images convey multiple ideas; they posit knowledge of both good and evil. Hurston and Morrison respectively imply, however, that the fruit of trees must be tasted to provide protagonists the self-knowledge necessary for personal growth, redemption, and deliverance.

Fifty years following the 1937 publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Toni Morrison in 1987 published Beloved, a novel with striking affinities with its literary precursor. Like Hurston's, Morrison's novel brings her readers into a life of re-memory. While Hurston's protagonist realizes selfhood within and against a free black community, Morrison's Sethe sorts out her life within the context of slavery. Although their heroines have different backgrounds, Hurston and Morrison turn to some of the same tropes and images, drawn from black vernacular culture, to document their protagonists' attempts at self-liberation. The similarity of these images indicates not so much Morrison's indebtedness to Hurston as it does the existence of a tradition described by Morrison in an interview with critic Gloria Naylor. "Before I began to write," Morrison claims, "I had never read Zora Neale Hurston." She suggests that the similarities critics find mean that "the tradition really exists"; it "makes the cheese more binding, not less, because it means that the world as perceived by black women at certain times does exist" (qtd. in Awkward 165). …

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