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Power of Prose Index

Power of Prose

African American Women

Words Walking Without Masters American literature is unique in the number of voices and cultures it conveys, giving it the power to transform opinions and challenge stereotypes in both obvious and subtle ways.  Christa Smith Anderson  explains that in the first half of the 20th century, Zora Neale Hurston’s use of black dialect and folk speech drew both praise and criticism. By the end of the century Toni Morrison and Alice Walker had won the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes respectively, for their “voice” driven prose.

But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment. [1]

Zora Neale Hurston

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, talk is a character in its own right. Janie Starks is, as was Zora Neale Hurston growing up in Eatonville, Fla., immersed in the speech of people who speak freely in towns that are populated and governed almost exclusively by black Americans. In the fictional town created by Hurston, talk is made of “Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song.[2] The talk is frequent and, sometimes, the judgment pervasive. Phoeby Watson tries to quell the gossip when Pearl Stone calls Janie’s younger love interest, Tea Cake, a “boy.” “Tea Cake ain’t been no boy for some time. He’s round thirty his ownself,” Phoeby says. Pearl replies, “Don’t keer what it was, she could stop and say a few words with us... She de one been doin’ wrong.[3] Phoeby reads another meaning in Pearl’s anger, and tells her as much: “You mean, you mad ‘cause she didn't stop and tell us all her business... The worst thing Ah ever knowed her to do was taking a few years offa her age and dat ain’t never harmed nobody.[4]

Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, passes on stories of slavery and the Civil War. The history of racial oppression and sexual inequality has made black women “de mule uh de world,” as Nanny teaches Janie. But Nanny, a former slave, hopes the tradition can be broken in her granddaughter. She tells Janie: “Ah been prayin’ fuh it tuh be different wid you.” [5] By novel’s end, it is different. Janie transcends as best she can, making the world hers in the memory of her late love, Tea Cake. “She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.[6]

Hurston’s heavy use of dialect and folk speech drew both praise and criticism…

Hurston’s heavy use of dialect and folk speech drew both praise and criticism from her African-American contemporaries. Philosopher and critic Alain Locke praised Hurston’s “gift for poetic phrase… and rare dialect,” and considered it a welcome replacement “for so much faulty local color fiction about Negroes.” Yet he also felt that Their Eyes Were Watching God lacked psychological depth.[7] The harshest criticism came from Richard Wright, who wrote that Hurston “exploits that phase of Negro life which is ‘quaint.’” Wright said Hurston’s dialogue captured only the “psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity,” and likened Hurston’s technique to that of a minstrel show designed to appease a white audience. During a time of pervasive and overt racial oppression, Wright found in Their Eyes Were Watching God, “no theme, no message, no thought.[8]

A new generation of African-American writers, however, came to find much more in Their Eyes Were Watching God than a superficial story cloaked in dynamic speech. Nor, as many argue, is the use of language in Janie’s journey of self-discovery and determination simplistic. Sherley Anne Williams writes of Hurston that:

to characterize her diction solely in terms of exotic ‘dialect’ spellings is to miss her deftness with language. In the speech of her characters, black voices - whether rural or urban, northern or southern -come alive. Her fidelity to diction, metaphor, and syntax… rings, even across forty years, with an aching familiarity that is a testament to Hurston’s skill and to the durability of black speech.[9]

Williams’ words appear in the Foreword of the 1978 reissue of Their Eyes Were Watching God. The publication followed decades in which Hurston and her work had fallen into relative obscurity. Williams’ first exposure to Hurston’s novel came in a setting in which the works of Hurston and other writers of the Harlem Renaissance had become rare, consigned to the out-of-print annals of literary history. It’s a striking contrast to the current availability of Their Eyes Were Watching God. It can be found in bookstores and on syllabi of college courses across the country due in large part to the sleuthing of a young Alice Walker, who would within a decade become a Pulitzer-Prize winning author herself with The Color Purple.

Together, Hurston and Wright best “represent a whole sense of African-Americans’ experiences”

Novelist Marita Golden was introduced to Hurston’s work during the Walker-prompted resurgence of the 1970s. Although Walker viewed Hurston’s relegation “to a sneering oblivion” by her critics as “a cautionary tale,[10] Golden believes that joining Hurston’s name with that of her harshest critic is a way to support talent and originality among black writers today. Golden founded the Hurston/Wright Foundation, which has awarded tens of thousands of dollars in cash prizes to writers of African descent. Hurston and Wright “represented different but complementary poles in cultural attitudes and experience of African Americans in the U.S,” said Golden in a telephone interview. Together, she says, they best “represent a whole sense of African-Americans’ experiences.”

Alice Walker

Walker's Pulitzer-Prize was awarded as much for her storytelling as her groundbreaking use of non-standard dialect in The Color Purple. The novel begins with heroine Celie's letters to God. Celie is black, poor, motherless and was sexually abused as a child. But in the hands of Walker, Celie is anything but marginal. Her voice, although reflecting an impoverished upbringing with little education, is a powerful force that challenges conventional notions of worth and intelligence.

Celie writes her letters in non-standard dialect, what Walker has called black folk language...There is a continuous emphasis on the oral sound and sense of what Celie writes, rather than on the written style of the letters. There is also a keen and enduring quality of honesty throughout Celie's letters. She is writing to God, trusting him as she would trust a best friend for guidance and strength to carry on, despite the terrible, painful unhappiness that she feels within her and all those around her."[11]

Dear God,

I was in town sitting on the wagon while Mr._____ was in the dry good store. I seen my baby girl. I knowed it was her. She look just like me and my daddy. Like more us then us is ourself. She be tagging long hind a lady and they be dress just alike. They pass the wagon and I speak. The lady speak pleasant. My little girl she look up and sort of frown. She fretting over something. She got my eyes just like they is today. Like everything I seen, she seen, and she pondering it. [12]

It’s difficult to conceive of someone who would be more socially marginalized than Celie.  “Dear God, My mama dead,” begins the second in a series of letters to God that appears early in the novel. 

At one point, Celie gives up on God and starts writing instead to her sister, Nettie. Celie gets an unexpected response from Shug, her free-spirited companion who isn’t religious. Or so Celie thinks. “What happen to God? ast Shug.” Celie tells her, “Big a devil as you is... you not worried bout no God, surely.” Shug tells her, “Just because I don’t harass it like some peoples us know don’t mean I ain’t got religion.[13] The women go on to talk about God and church, and the difference between individual spirituality and social religion. Shug points out to Celie that Celie’s only questioning things because she still accepts the notion of a blue-eyed, white male God that was handed down to her from white society. “Here’s the thing, say Shug... God is inside you and inside everybody else... But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking.[14]

“Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I’m still adrift,” Celie writes to Nettie of her conversation with Shug. “Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing.” Once Celie begins to see God as Shug does, the evil of people, and the obstacles Celie has faced, begin to shrink. “Now that my eyes opening, I feels like a fool,” she writes.[15]

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is perhaps the most critically acclaimed and widely studied American author living today. She says language is “the thing that black folks love so much — the saying of words, holding them on the tongue, experimenting with them.[16] In announcing Morrison as the winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature, the Nobel Foundation said that Morrison “delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race.[17]

Morrison repeatedly frees the voices of black characters from constraints that might marginalize them. In the novel Sula Hannah deftly snaps beans before the following exchange:

Eva watched her a moment and then said, ‘You gone can them?’ ‘No. They for tonight.’ ‘Thought you was gone can some.’ ‘Uncle Paul ain’t brought me none yet. A peck ain’t enough to can. He say he got two bushels for me.’ ‘Triflin’.’ ‘Oh, he all right.’ ‘Sho he all right. Everybody all right. ‘Cept Mamma. Mamma the only one ain’t all right. Cause she didn't love us.[18]

In Song of Solomon, Morrison captures the conversation of two boys, Guitar and Milkman, and Pilate, Milkman’s aunt, whose reputation as an “ugly, dirty, poor, and drunk” outcast precedes her. But when Guitar takes Milkman to meet Pilate, she has the conversational upper-hand. Milkman, despite his preconceived and condescending judgment of her, finds himself the center of the joke. “What you want?” Pilate asks them. “Nothin. We just passin by,” Guitar says. “Look like you standin by,” she replies. Guitar says they can go and leave her be if she wants them to. “I ain’t the one with the wants,” she says.

Pilate eventually asks Guitar about Milkman, who has remained silent throughout the exchange. “Do he talk?” Pilate asks. Guitar answers, “Yeah. He talk.” Milkman finally says, “Hi,” after Guitar tells him to say something. Pilate’s already chastised Guitar for saying “Hi” instead of “hello.” (“What kind of a word is that?” she had asked Guitar. “It means hello,” he explained. “Then say what you mean,” she said.) Pilate continues the scolding when Milkman says “Hi.” She laughs and says, “You all must be the dumbest unhung Negroes on earth. What they telling you in them schools? You say ‘Hi’ to pigs and sheep when you want ‘em to move. When you tell a human being ‘Hi,’ he ought to get up and knock you down.’[19]


Voice writing is plentiful in literature by African Americans

Although powerful examples of voice writing are plentiful in literature by African Americans, some believe that the publishing industry uses that model to limit possibilities for black writers. In Percival Everett’s novel Erasure commercial success eludes the main character, Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, an African-American writer whose characters do not speak what is perceived to be “black English.” Marita Golden says that, with Erasure, Everett “manages to use dialect to satirize ways in which people can be imprisoned by situations.” Monk only finds publishing success when he writes My Pafology, a work full of exaggerated dialect that plays into stereotypes of African-American speech: “It be eleben-thirty in the moanin. I check the kitchen floor fo’ blood on my way through.[20] My Pafology is written under a pseudonym, symbolic of how Monk must relinquish his identity to write in an unfamiliar dialect:

I remembered passages of Native Son and The Color Purple and Amos and Andy and my hands began to shake, the world opening around me... people in the street shouting dint, ax, fo, screet and fahvre! and I was screaming inside, complaining that I didn’t sound like that, that my mother didn’t sound like that, that my father didn’t sound like that.[21]

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Sherley Anne Williams, Links and resources about this author.
  • Harlem Renaissance, A look at the art of  this era  from the Online NewsHour.
  • Marita Golden, In a career that spans more than twenty years, Golden has distinguished herself as a novelist, essayist, teacher of writing, and literary institution builder.
  • Hurston/Wright Foundation, Learn more about this Foundation, established by Marita Golden.
  • Toni Morrison, the first African- American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.
  • Toni MorrisonA look at the author's career through the University of Minn.
  • Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2003.
  • Lewis, David Levering, ed. The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. New York: Viking, 1994.
  • Lyons, Mary E. Sorrow’s Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1990.

Back to Essay

Christa Smith Anderson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia. After several years producing and writing television news, she is now a federal government employee by day and a fiction writer the rest of the time. She received the 2002 Cynthia Wynn Herman Scholarship from George Mason University and has published non-fiction in So to Speak, a Feminist Journal of Language and Arts.

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  1. Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Illinois Books edition.  Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1978. 10.
  2. Hurston, p.10
  3. Hurston, p.12
  4. Hurston, p.13
  5. Hurston, p.29
  6. Hurston, p.286
  7. Locke, Alain. Opportunity. June 1, 1938. http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/railton/enam312/znhhp.html, accessed March 14, 2004.
  8. Wright, Richard. “Between Laughter and Tears.” (review) New Masses, 5 October 1937. http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/railton/enam312/znhhp.html, accessed March 14, 2004.
  9. Williams, Sherley Anne. “Foreward.” p. ix. Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago. Illini Books edition, 1978.)
  10. Walker, Alice. “Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and A Partisan View.” In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. San Diego, New York, London: 1983. p. 86
  11. Cliff Notes, The Color Purple, Copyright © 2000-2004 by Wiley Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved. http://www.cliffsnotes.com/
  12. Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York (etc.): Pocket Books, div. of Simon & Schuster. S, 1982.
  13. Walker, p. 199.
  14. Walker, p. 202.
  15. Walker, p. 204.
  16. Atkinson, Yvonne "Language That Bears Witness: The Black English Oral Tradition in the Works of Toni Morrison." The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison: Speaking the Unspeakable. Ed. Mark C. Conner. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
  17. Nobel Prize in Literature (http://www.nobel.se/literature/laureates/1993/press.html)
  18. Morrison, Toni. Sula. Quality Paperback Book Club Compilation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973. 68.
  19. Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon.  Quality Paperback Book Club Compilation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977. 36-37.
  20. Everett, Percival. Erasure. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2001. 65.
  21. Everett, p.61

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