Academic journal article African American Review

Somebody Else's Foremother: David Haynes and Zora Neale Hurston

Academic journal article African American Review

Somebody Else's Foremother: David Haynes and Zora Neale Hurston

Article excerpt

If there is a single distinguishing feature of the literature of black women - and this accounts for their lack of recognition - it is this: their literature is about black women; it takes the trouble to record the thoughts, words, feelings, and deeds of black women, experiences that make the realities of being black in America look very different from what men have written. (Mary Helen Washington, "'Darkened Eye'" 35)

It is not late-breaking news that literary criticism is another form of storytelling, of mythmaking. (Deborah E. McDowell, "Reading" 118)

Introduction: Possessing the Secret of Their Eyes Were Watching God

David Haynes's 1995 novel Somebody Else's Mama "takes the trouble to record the thoughts, words, feelings, and deeds of black women," while its narrative logic ultimately leads to what Mary Helen Washington terms a "common scene recurring in the fiction of black women writers," a scene in which women "share intimacies that can be trusted only to a kindred female spirit" ("' Darkened Eye'" 35). Washington, in her lucid and impassioned 1987 essay" 'The Darkened Eye Restored': Notes Toward a Literary History of Black Women," cites the friendship between Janie Crawford and Pheoby Watson in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God as providing one of the clearest enactments of that "common scene" in black women's literature. According to Washington, the conversation between Janie and Pheoby at the novel's end represents an exemplary moment of "female bonding," itself a prerequisite for women's "self-definition" (36). Similarly drawn together and defined by shared story, Paula Johnson and Miss Xenobia Kezee - the central characters in David Haynes's Somebody Else's Mama - are also talking just to each other at the end of the book. The novel thus ends with a convention Washington associates with African American women's literature in general, and Their Eyes Were Watching God in particular. By thus implicitly declaring himself and Somebody Else's Mama to be sympathetic, "kindred spirits" of Hurston and her novel, Haynes intervenes in conventionally gendered constructions of an African American literary tradition.

Their Eyes Were Watching God has constituted one of the most common sites for a contemporary, critical, and textual form of bonding among many African American women literary intellectuals. A number of contemporary black feminist writers and critics (Alice Walker, most famously) have dated their introduction and conversion to the study of African American women's writing from their first encounter with Hurston's novel. Their reading of the book, along with an account of the reading experience as personally and intellectually transformative, has provided them a means of self-definition as black feminist literary critics. These accounts often engage a rhetoric of possessives: The women possess, or are possessed by, Hurston and Their Eyes.

Sherley Anne Williams, in her foreword to the 1978 University of Illinois Press re-issue of the book, recounts her initial, graduate school encounter with Hurston in a time when "Afro-American literature was still an exotic subject" (vi). Having to share with other students the few available copies of a then-out-of-print Their Eyes, Williams reports that, when it had "finally become [her] turn to read" the book, she "became Zora Neale's for life" (vii). Mary Helen Washington, in her foreword to the 1990 Harper & Row edition of Their Eyes, traces a similarly possessive, but more collective, history for black women readers and teachers of Hurston's text:

Like most of my friends and colleagues who were teaching in the newly formed Black Studies departments in the late sixties, I can still recall quite vividly my own discovery of Their Eyes.... Andrea Rushing, then an instructor in the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard, remembers reading Their Eyes in a women's study group with Nellie McKay, Barbara Smith, and Gail Pemberton. …

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