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Malcolm X


"The black man never will get anybody's respect until he
first learns to respect his own women"
Mothers and Wives: Women's Roles in Zora Neale Hurston's
Their Eyes Were Watching God and James Baldwin's Go Tell It
On the Mountain Bryan D. Bourn Historically, the job of
women in society to care for the husband, the home, and the
children. As a homemaker, it has been up to the woman to
support the husband and care for the house; as a mother,
the role was to care for the children and pass along
cultural traditions and values to the children. These roles
are no different in the African-American community, except
for the fact that they are magnified to even larger
proportions. The image of the mother in African-American
culture is one of guidance, love, and wisdom; quite often
the mother is the shaping and driving force of
African-American children. This is reflected in the
literature of the African-American as a special bond of
love and loyalty to the mother figure. Just as the role of
motherhood in African-American culture is magnified and
elevated, so is the role of the wife. The literature
reflects this by showing the African-American man
struggling to make a living for himself and his family with
his wife either being emotionally or physically submissive.
Understanding the role of women in the African-American
community starts by examining the roles of women in
African-American literature. Because literature is a
reflection of the community from which it comes, the
portrayal of women in Zora Neale Hurston's There Eyes Were
Watching God (1937) and James Baldwin's Go Tell it on the
Mountain (1952) is consistent with the roles mentioned
above. There Eyes Were Watching God is a good place to
start examining the roles of African-American women. It is
written by a woman, Zora Neale Hurston, and from a woman's
perspective. This book examines the relationship between
Janie and her grandmother, who plays the role of mother in
Janie's life. It also looks at the different relationships
that Janie had with her three husbands. Janie's grandmother
was one of the most important influences in her life,
raising her since from an infant and passing on her dreams
to Janie. Janie's mother ran away from home soon after
Janie was born. With her father also gone, the task of
raising Janie fell to her grandmother, Nanny. Nanny tells
Janie "Fact uh de matter, Ah loves yuh a whole heap more'n
Ah do yo' mama, de one Ah did birth" (Hurston 31). Nanny's
dream is for Janie to attain a position of security in
society, "high ground" as she puts it (32). As the person
who raised her, Nanny feels that it is both her right and
obligation to impose her dreams and her ideas of what is
important in life on Janie. The strong relationship between
mother and child is important in the African-American
community, and the conflict between Janie's idyllic view of
marriage and Nanny's wish for her to marry for stability
and position is a good illustration of just how deep the
respect and trust runs. Janie has a very romantic notion of
what marriage should be. "She saw a dust-bearing bee sink
into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes
arch to meet the love embrace . . . so this was a
marriage," is how the narrator describes it (24). Nanny's
idea of a good marriage is someone who has some standing in
the community, someone who will get Janie to that higher
ground. Nanny wants Janie to marry Logan Killicks, but
according to her "he look like some ole skull-head in de
grave yard" (28). Even more importantly to Janie, though,
was the fact that "the vision of Logan Killicks was
desecrating the pear tree[1]" (28). Nanny tells Janie "So
you don't want to marry off decent like . . . you wants to
make me suck the same sorrow yo' mama did, eh? Mah ole head
ain't gray enough. My back ain't bowed enough to suit you!"
(28). After they have the fight over Logan Killicks, Nanny
says something, by way of an explanation of why Janie needs
to marry up the social ladder, that reveals a good deal
about the reality of being an African-American woman. She
says "De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah
can see" (29). Janie, out of respect for her grandmother,
went off to start her role as a wife. For the most part,
Janie's experiences as a wife are typical of what many
women go through, at least in terms of the roles that she
is cast in. In contrast to the role of the mother, which is
one of giving and nurturing, the role of wife is
characterized by giving up one's self in the marriage.
Janie, although she tries, cannot make herself love Logan
Killicks. "She knew now that marriage did not make love.
Janie's first dream was dead, so she became a woman" (44).
This point is important because it, more than even the
marriage ceremony, marks Janie's transition from Nanny's
child to a woman, not only in the biological and social
sense, but also in the sense that Nanny is talking about
when she says that the black woman is the "mule of de world
. . ." (29). It is not long before the newness of marriage
wears off for Logan and he introduces Janie to the physical
bondage that is expected of a wife. Logan tells Janie "I
aims to run two plows, and dis man Ah'm talkin 'bout is got
a mule all gentled up so even uh woman kin handle 'im"
(46). There is little doubt why Logan would need a mule so
gentle even a woman could handle it. As Logan realizes more
and more that Janie is not happy with him, he tries to
force her into the traditional wife role by having her do
more and more of the demeaning work around the farm. The
last straw is when he asks her to get a shovel and move a
pile of manure. "A feeling of newness and change came lover
her. Janie hurried out the door and turned south" the
narrator says. She leaves Logan behind for a young man, Joe
Starks, who she thinks is her answer to the pear tree. In
some ways her marriage with Joe Starks is more of a
hardship on Janie than her marriage to Logan. Although she
stays married to Joe until he dies, she soon begins to
understand that she has exchanged the physical and
emotional bondage of her marriage to Logan for intellectual
and social bondage by Joe. The scene where Joe Starks is
elected mayor illustrates this point, as the crowd wants to
here from "Mrs. Mayor Starks" (she no longer has her own
identity). "Mah wife don't know nothin 'bout no
speech-makin'. Ah never married her for nuthin' lak dat.
She's uh woman and her place is in de home " (69). It soon
becomes apperant that Joe, is only interested in having a
wife to use as a show piece. Janie wants to feel a part of
the community, but Joe keeps her isolated so that she will
continue to be his "prize" and not become just another
woman in the town. "Janie loved the conversation and
sometimes she thought up good stories . . . but Joe had
forbidden her to indulge . . . 'You'se Mrs. Mayor Starks,
Janie . . .'" (85). Janie tries her best to fulfil her role
as Joe's wife, but the relationship between them
deteriorates. The fight scene in the store is the breaking
point in their relationship. Joe start to make comments
about Janie's age and looks. He yells at her for not
cutting a plug of tobacco straight, saying "don't stand
dere rollin' yo' pop eyes at me wid yo' rump hangin' nearly
to yo' knees" (121). Janie pays him back however, saying
"talkin' 'bout me lookin' old! When you pull down yo'
britches, you look like the changeuh life" (123). As far as
Joe is concerned, Janie has broken her role- she has
humiliated him in front of his peers when it was supposed
to be her place to make him look good. "You wasn't
satisfied wid me de way Ah was . . . Mah own mind had tuh
be squeezed and crowded out to make room for yours in me"
is the way Janie explains it to Joe as he is dieing of
liver disease (133). After Joe dies, Janie meets and falls
in love with a younger man, Tea Cake. The character of Tea
Cake is important in looking at women's roles because he
shows that it is traditional male attitudes toward women
that keep them in their submissive roles. Janie and Tea
Cake leave town to get away from the image the people still
have of Janie as "Mrs. Mayor Starkes." This means a new
identity for Janie- but this time she is able to build her
own identity and what she gave up for Tea Cake she gives up
willingly, because she loves him. Janie is able to have
this kind of relationship with Tea Cake because he was
carefree; he is not caught up in the social or political
roles than most men strive for - he just wanted to have fun
and support Janie. The difference in this relationship is
illustrated by the fact that Tea Cake asks Janie to come
work with him in the fields. "Tea Cake asks and Janie
consents to work in the fields . . . his requests stem from
a desire to be with Janie . . . it isn't the white man's
burden that Janie carries; it is the gift of her own love"
(Williams, xv). The same roles for women can be seen in
James Baldwin's Go Tell it on the Mountain, a book written
be a man, from a male's perspective. Gabriel's relationship
with his mother is similar in many ways to Janie's with
Nanny. Gabriel is drawn to a wild lifestyle, against his
mother's wishes. "'Honey,' their mother was saying, 'don't
let your old mother die without you look her in the eye and
tell her she going to see you in glory" (Baldwin 76). It is
Gabriel's mother's wish that Gabriel dedicate himself to
the lord, and straighten his life out, and just like
Nanny's wish that Janie marry for social position,
Gabriel's mother's wish goes against his most basic
personality. When Florence decides to leave, however,
Gabriel takes over caring for the sick mother, and gives in
to her demands, as much as he can, that he dedicate his
life to religion. Just as Janie married Logan for Nanny's
sake, Gabriel denies himself to please his mother, and in
this way the mother passes her dream along to be lived in
the child. Gabriel's wife is an interesting character
because Baldwin shows her as both a wife and a mother, two
roles that, although they should be, are not always
compatible. She has to defend her husband for beating the
children. She says "your Daddy beats you . . . because he
loves you" (23). When Roy is stabbed, Gabriel blames
Elizabeth. "I'm sure going to have some questions to ask
you in a minute, old lady" (43). He goes on the say "and
for all the care you took of him . . . he might as well be
dead. Don't look like you much care whether he lives or
dies" (47). Gabriel is telling her that she has failed her
job as a wife - who is supposed to care for his children,
and as a mother - who is supposed to care for her children.
Gabriel couldn't have insulted Elizabeth more. When Gabriel
slaps Elizabeth, however, Roy comes to her aid. "Don't you
slap my mother. That's my mother. You slap her again, you
black bastard, and I swear to God I'll kill you" he says to
his father (48). That he would take the abuse he knows his
father will give him to stand up for his mother shows that
deep bond between mother and child that is such an
important part of traditional women's roles. Both There
Eyes Were Watching God and Go Tell it on the Mountain are
important works of African-American literature that show
clearly the importance of the mother figure and the bondage
of the wife in African-American culture. Malcolm X was on
the right track when he said that black men must respect
black women before they could ask that anyone respect them.
Malcolm understood the importance of the mother in passing
along cultural values and dreams to the children. It must,
then, have a great impact for young children to see the
submissive and degraded role that many women are forced
into by a male-dominated society. The men learn by example
that this is the way women should be treated, and the women
are conditioned to have so little self-respect that it is
easy for men to dominate them. Only by breaking the cycle
of having women in submissive roles can the society
advance. The best way to do this is to recognize the
importance of women in the African-American community and
use that to build self-respect for the women that will then
be passed along, like the dreams of Nanny and of Gabriel's
mother, to the children. 
Works Cited
Baldwin, James. Go Tell it on the Mountain (1952). New
York: Bantam-Dell,
Hurston, Zora Neale. There Eyes Were Watching God (1937). :
Urbana, Ill.: U
of Illinois P, 1937.
Williams, Shirley Anne. Forward. There Eyes Were Watching
God. By Zora
Neale Hurston. New York: Bantam-Dell, 1937. xv.


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