Historically, the job of women in society is 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 Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain (1952) is consistent with the roles mentioned above.
Their 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 tree1” (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 Their 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.