Academic journal article African American Review

"The Porch Couldn't Talk for Looking": Voice and Vision in 'Their Eyes Were Watching God.'(Zora Neale Hurston)(Critical Essay)

Academic journal article African American Review

"The Porch Couldn't Talk for Looking": Voice and Vision in 'Their Eyes Were Watching God.'(Zora Neale Hurston)(Critical Essay)

Article excerpt

"So 'tain't no use in me telling you somethin' unless Ah give you de understandin' to go 'long wid it. Unless you see do fur, a mink skin ain't no different from a coon hide." (Hurston, Their Eyes 7)

When Janie explains to her friend Pheoby the reason that simply telling her story will not suffice, why she needs to provide the "'understandin' to go 'long wid it,'" she employs a metaphor of vision: Unless you see the fur, you can't tell a mink from a coon. Stripped of their defining visual characteristics, the hides collapse into sameness. Recognizing visual difference, Hurston suggests, is crucial to understanding how identity is constructed: by skin and color. With this claim, she invokes new avenues into an African American tradition that has privileged voice as its empowering trope. From Phillis Wheatley's demonstration that an African can have a poetic voice, to Frederick Douglass's realization that freedom is measured by words and the ability to address a white audience, to Charles Chesnutt's presentation of the triumph of black storytelling in The Conjure Woman, voice has prevailed as the primary medium through which African American writers have asserted identity and humanity. Voice announced that visual difference was only skin deep, that black bodies housed souls that were, in essence, no different from those residing in white bodies. Their Eyes Were Watching God is very much a part of this tradition, and has inspired many fine studies on the ways that its protagonist finds a voice and a self. (1) Yet, as others have pointed out, Janie's voice is by no means unequivocally established by the end of the book. Robert Stepto was among the first to express dissatisfaction with the narrative structure and its third-person narrator; for him, the use of the narrator implies that "Janie has not really won her voice and self after all" (166). More recently, Michael Awkward has pointed out that Janie is not interested in telling the community her story upon her return (6), and Mary Helen Washington argues that Janie is silenced at crucial spots in the narrative. Carla Kaplan, reviewing the discussions of voice that the novel has inspired, examines the ways that voice is both celebrated and undermined, noting th at "Hurston privileges dialogue and storytelling at the same time as she represents and applauds Janie's refusal to speak" (121). Clearly, Janie's achievement of a voice is critical to her journey to self-awareness, but the highly ambivalent presentation of voice in the novel indicates that voice alone is not enough. As Maria Tai Wolff notes, "For telling to be successful, it must become a presentation of sights with words. The best talkers are 'big picture talkers'" (226). For Hurston, then, the construction of African American identity requires a voice that can make you see, a voice that celebrates the visible presence of black bodies.

I would suggest that, with its privileging of "mind pictures" over words, Their Eyes Were Watching God goes beyond a narrative authority based solely on voice, for, as Janie tells Pheoby," 'Talkin' don't amount tuh uh hill uh beans when yuh can't do nothin' else'" (183). In contrast to Joe Starks, who seeks to be a "big voice" only to have his wish become humiliatingly true when Janie informs him that he" `big-bellies round here and put out a lot of brag, but 'tain't nothin' to it but yu' big voice' "(75), Janie seeks for a voice which can picture, which can make you see. The ability to use voice visually provides a literary space for African American women to relate their experiences in a world where, as Nanny says," 'We don't know nothin' but what we see'" (14). Thus, to expand "what we see" increases what we know. Throughout the novel, Hurston's use of visual imagery challenges dominant theories about the power hierarchies embedded in sight, long associated with white control, with Plato's rationality and logic, and, from a Freudian perspective, with male sexual dominance. …

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