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.