Laying Down the Rails: Sacred and Secular Groundwork in Zora Neale Hurston's Jonah's Gourd Vine and King Vidor's Hallelujah

By Wingard, Leslie | South: A Scholarly Journal, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Laying Down the Rails: Sacred and Secular Groundwork in Zora Neale Hurston's Jonah's Gourd Vine and King Vidor's Hallelujah


Wingard, Leslie, South: A Scholarly Journal


       "Dey talkin' 'bout passin' laws tuh keep black folks                             from buying railroad tickets."            --Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah's Gourd Vine 

Though it is clear that the characters in the novel Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934) and the film Hallelujah (1929) have no frame of reference for understanding how sexuality or progressive politics could beneficially coincide with religious practice, writer Zora Neale Hurston and director King Vidor certainly demonstrate that the train and railroad are spaces ripe with the potential to harness this type of collaborative power. Hurston and Vidor's locomotives and railroads are plot vehicles that illuminate how detrimental the division between sacred and secular can be. In particular, their trains, sometimes lurching violently, overdramatize the need for people to stop emphatically privileging the sacred over the secular or the secular over the sacred. Both narratives engage the secular train in conversations about sacred values and identify the potential for progress in the productive dissonance developed from the commingling of or confrontation between the sacred and the secular. By emphasizing the simultaneous excitement and fear that trains inspire and using the vehicle as a unique symbol of progress, the texts ultimately produce new ideas about how to slowly begin reconciling the structure through which sacred/secular debates are engaged. The novel and film argue for letting dissonance run its course so that it eventually brings productivity.

The term "productive dissonance" fits Vidor and Hurston's stories nicely: like Brent Hayes Edwards's case studies on black internationalism, the interwar period, and new understandings of the term "African Diaspora," these two works signal collaboration between the sacred and secular that "must necessarily involve debate and dissent" (Edwards 143). Vidor and Hurston's model trains are a source of inter-and intraracial discord at the same time that they represent the possibility of developing strong communities prepared to fight for civil rights or inclusivity. In both texts, the conflict the trains inspire is an allegory for the sacred/secular divide, with the resulting productive dissonance leading to new ways of thinking about religious fervor and sex outside of marriage. At some points in the texts, trains actually stand-in for black leaders themselves--or, are already model sacred/secular composites. At other points in the texts, trains simply suggest that these protagonists engaged in sacred and secular matters have the potential to enact great sociopolitical change in their communities. The train indeed simultaneously invokes fear about and suggests positive change; but, rather than indicating the train is going nowhere, this doubleness means that the vehicle--and therefore the texts' ministers and the early twentieth-century African American communities that follow them--will move forward sociopolitically if and when they accept ambiguity.

Overall, forward movement, however slight, of the mind, body, or soul connects syncretism, productive dissonance, and the train in Hurston's and Vidor's works. I treat the productive labor of syncretism in both works in this essay. In particular, both Jonah's Gourd Vine and Hallelujah conclude by depicting the train as both an abstract idea and physically useful; it is thus a question mark of sorts--an initiator of debate among readers and viewers--and symbolic of positive sociopolitical change. The train in each tale reflects the protagonist's relative political consciousness, symbolizes breaking bonds and expanding horizons, explores the limits of African American sociopolitical ambitions because of racism, and functions as a syncretic space.

In Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, Robert Hemenway writes that trains symbolize "the white man's mechanized world" (200). Accordingly, trains activate a ringing call to sociopolitical action for blacks in part because railroads are historically linked not only to African American cultural progress but also to white dominance: African Americans' civil rights were usurped for more than half a century via the U. …

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