Inspired in part by Mary Helen Washington’s “I Love the Way Janie Crawford Left Her Husbands: Zora Neale Hurston’s Emergent Female Hero,” my Black Feminisms seminarians discussed the search for self-definition and subjectivity among black women, especially in light of the derogatory stereotypes we have had (and continue) to combat. This week’s discussion in some ways continued last week’s on reconstructions and the “politics of respectability.” We read and discussed Hazel Carby, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and Ann duCille in conversation with Nella Larsen’s Passing, tackling issues of passing, sexuality, desire, and subjectivity. I continue to wonder and to prod my students to consider what a black female sexual subjectivity might look like were it free from the specter of the oversexualized siren haunting our every move.

Hurston’s “Janie” is certainly a fictional hero for many of us: she leavess her arranged marriage and sets off on an adventure that, some argue, assists her in finding and defining herself. Except that travel and movement for Janie is coupled with her attachment to a man. A woman alone in the early 20th century had no business taking to the road (blueswomen excepted). Mary Helen Washington’s description of Janie as an emergent hero suggests that Hurston’s quest for Janie is never actualized. And maybe it isn’t. Maybe her work was to pave the road for other black women to follow.


About jennifer williams

Jennifer D. Williams is a writer and professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies. She has published in academic journals and online at Ms.blog, PopMatters, among other sites. Jennifer is currently working on a book that looks at black women's urban literature between the Depression and the civil rights era.

2 responses to “(s)heroes

  1. Oh, interesting! Emergent. I need to read that piece. Also, did you all consider the tv movie version? I need to look at it again, but I really felt when I watched it that Janie’s subjectivity and agency were compromised in that version of the text. I’m not sure if it was Halle Berry’s performance, the script or what else, but it bothered me.

  2. Sound like a wonderful seminar.When I read <>Passing<>, I couldn’t help feeling overwhelmed by the tension in the women’s interaction. Regardles of the characters’ attitude towards passing, they were all drawn into preserving the societal codes that kept them in “their place.” Because they internalized those codes so deeply, no real respect for other women seemed possible within the novel’s world. Hence the jealousy and the unexplained death sealing the turmoil.Hurston’s Janie and Hurston herself as a character from her essays, are powerful heroines — and I am using the word with premeditation. In their extreme individualism, they are exploring the potential of <>thinking<> for a woman, which means, inevitably, thinking outside the box. It’s no armchair philosophy, but a walk down a dangerous path of self-discovery. It seems like even in the world today — so long after <>Their Eyes Were Watching God<> — there aren’t many issues as vulgarized, fought against, and belied as women’s thinking. It’s a real threat to neat societal systems and their norms, because women’s respectability cannot be defined within them. Women’s self-respect and respect towards other women demands a great deal of re-thinking and self-control. There’s a long path towards it which starts with realizing that we all — women included — put forward harsher moral standards when evaluating women and at the same time tend to belittle the gravity of women’s issues.What do you think were the most important gains of the seminar for you and your students? How did you define ‘respectability’?How did your students perceive Larsen’s protagonist?

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