In a world where Standard English is the “standard,” the incorporation of improper linguistic forms in speech and writing seems like nails scraping against a chalkboard. Grammarians and rhetoricians cringe at the thought of manipulating the standard way in which English should be represented. Sometimes, however, maintaining a “standard” stifles a person’s ability to truly convey his or her own voice. In her 1937 poignant novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston deliberately deviates from conventional Standard English in order to achieve a realistic voice for her protagonist, Janie Mae Crawford. Through Black Vernacular English, Janie is able to convey her own genuine voice in the tale she tells, thus making the story uniquely her own. Nevertheless, the novel itself is not written entirely in Black Vernacular English. Technically, Hurston implements nonstandard English vis-à-vis the character dialogue. In the rest of the novel, Hurston maintains a strong command of Standard English. Thus, the author’s implementation of Standard English in her narration complements the respective Black Vernacular English that Janie displays when she narrates. In fact, as the author of the novel itself, Hurston is endowing some of her narrative “time” to the Black vernacular. A narrative voice is a powerful one, so to have a narrative voice speaking vernacular is to invest that vernacular with power, while also changing the default image of the narrator. By deviating from Standard English, the narrator no longer speaks from a position of social privilege. Instead, the narrator is an empowered vernacular speaker – it is Janie Mae Crawford, who represents a race and a gender that is notorious for being stifled. Thus, there is far more than a grammatical-correctness debate at stake with this novel. Through the coupling of Black Vernacular English with Standard English, Hurston’s story liberates linguistic forms just as effectively as it portrays a female who unshackles herself into self-defining womanhood. As a novel that is hallmarked by a young African American woman’s journey in discovering her own voice, Their Eyes Were Watching God epitomizes the role that specific diction and linguistic strategies play in order to elicit an empowering literary strategy in tandem with conveying a rich portrayal of an all-too-often-silenced voice.
Since its debut in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God has been no stranger to critical scrutiny. Sharp comments about the novel’s portrayal of dialect have been both a sign of pearl and peril for Hurston’s reputation. While some deem the work to be somewhat of an over-literary expression, these critics’ impetuous remarks overshadow the ingenuity that is espoused from Hurston’s ability to intertwine two dichotomous forms of writing. Inevitably, at the hand of exhibiting a true and authentic voice in nonstandard English, Hurston relinquishes the luster that comes from a more polished form of writing – causing readers to now question their understanding of what is and is not appropriate in the professional appeal of the American Standard edited English language. In this quest for discerning the truth, readers often overlook the fact that Hurston deliberately implements nonstandard English in an attempt to elicit a new way of thinking – one that, even though may challenge traditional writing techniques, actually educes a novel whose criticism opens readers’ eyes to a newfound truth about humanity.
The significance of the dichotomy between Standard and nonstandard English goes deeper than a work’s superficial grammatical errors. Standard English—in every perception and connotation of the phrase—is prescriptive. However, its technical definition is arbitrary, at best. The Merriam Webster online dictionary defines the phrase ‘Standard English’ as: “substantially uniform though not devoid of regional differences, that is well established by usage in the formal and informal speech and writing of the educated, and that is widely recognized as acceptable wherever English is spoken and understood" (“Standard English”). For such a seemingly generic definition, many scholars and academics, alike, place an immense amount of weight on the notion, maintenance, and incorporation of “Standard English.” From an early age, students are encouraged to learn it and practice it because it is good for them. For instance, common standardized “rules” include the notion that a subject should always precede a verb, and the verb must always agree with its subject in terms of time and tense. If seemingly-minor rules like the above mentioned are broken, then ideas can become miscommunicated and meanings can become lost. Thus, Standard English is a unifier, a common ground connecting all parts of the country. It is the language that everyone is expected to know and utilize.
Aside from its ability to foster a prescription for effective communication, Standard English plays a crucial role in aesthetics. With knowledge of Standard English, readers will be better apt for discerning the level of correctness within a work. Put bluntly: Standard English is the writing style that is associated with proper, conventional writing. The word ‘proper’ itself can be defined as: “Behaving in a way that is correct according to social and moral rules” (“Proper”). In a contemporary society that is rooted in the desire to “be the best,” Standard English allows people to present the best versions of themselves through speech and writing. Think about it: the diction in reference books, scholarly articles, and even medical terminology all reflect the standards that coincide with Standard English; they are all written “properly.” If they did not exemplify this level of proper writing, then these works would lose their credibility. People look to reference books and scholarly material because those works are reliable. The same would be true for a person who is seeking advice from a doctor – that is, the medical professional’s ability to maintain a level of “properness” allows for people to deem him or her as authoritative. Therefore, incorporating Standard English elevates certain works, subjects, and professions to a “proper,” more trustworthy degree.
While the term seems to be synonymous with social and moral standards for “properness,” Standard English is actually very subjective because it is grounded in aesthetics – the majority of people who use Standard English do so in order to avoid negative judgment. On the other side of the spectrum, nonstandard English is a contention that is just as skewed. In fact, in many cases, people deem English to be “nonstandard” based on personal, social, and moral preferences – how uneducated a person may appear to be through his or her speech and writing. In tandem with this notion, Standard English becomes the “standard” because it appears as the inherent choice for normalcy, or not coming across as “weird” or “unprofessional.” Notice the repetition of the word ‘appear’ when noting the stakes of these claims. Though it may sound pretentious, people strive for normalcy because that is the desired level of appearance in the professional and scholarly realm – being seen in this light coincides with giving a credible impression.
With these notions in mind, it is not uncommon to notice college intro-level composition books attempting to discern the functionality of Standard English in writing. Why Write Rice? Thinking Through Writing is a prime example of a work that elaborates on the concept of Standard English and its subjectivity. Along with the other contributing authors of this book, Dr. Thomas Dow contends that Standard English “privileges the ‘standard’ dialect of American edited English over other variants of usage” (143). In this sense, Standard English functions as a matter of preference rather than a requirement. Adhering to the rules that are created by these standards will pilot readers, writers, and speakers to favorable judgment. The book elicits the following example: “These kinds of rules say that your subject and verb should agree as in ‘I am’ instead of ‘I is,’ and that you should say ‘He doesn’t have any time for that’ instead of ‘He don’t got no time for that’” (143). Though they were technically “incorrect,” the latter examples in each respective pairing were still understood in content. Therefore, following Standard English standards is not a matter of being understood; it is, as Dr. Dow and his colleagues indicate, a matter of being judged. In fact, this judgment is crystallized through the following explanation:
Certainly you will still be understood if you write in run-on sentences, if your verbs don’t match your subjects, and your prose is peppered with double-negatives. However, while you will be understood, you just might also communicate a few things you might not want to – the idea, perhaps, that you are not a very careful communicator, that maybe you are not very well educated, that you might not be good at a job that you are applying for, and so on. These may very well be unfair judgments, but they are judgments that people will make. We are judged not just by what we say, but also by how we say it. (143)
Standard English still may be subjective, but it is consistent – this linguistic format follows basic grammatical and rhetorical conventions, which is a catalyst for allowing people to be in command of their contentions in speech and writing. This is echoed through the abovementioned statement: “We are judged not just by what we say, but also by how we say it” (143). Therefore, maintaining such a stronghold of one’s rhetoric allows people to avoid misinterpretation and thus misjudgment of the work’s intended meaning.
While it is a major factor in the interpretation of one’s speech and writing, judgment should not be an excuse to stifle people from speaking and writing in a format that deviates from Standard English. Jacques Derrida, who is an authority in grammatology, actually extends a well-rounded scope for viewing writing. He states:
There is therefore a good and a bad writing: the good and natural is the divine inscription in the heart and the soul; the perverse and artful is technique, exiled in the exteriority of the body…the good writing has therefore always been comprehended. Comprehended as that which had to be comprehended: within a nature or a natural law, created or not, but first thought within an eternal presence. Comprehended, therefore, within a totality, and enveloped in a volume or a book. (312-313)
According to Derrida, the basis for “good writing” is comprehension. The reader must be able to understand the material that he or she is reading. Derrida does not mention that in order for writing to be “good,” it needs to be written properly. In fact, he holds that the “perverse and artful is technique, exiled in the exteriority of the body.” It can be argued, then, that the technique of using Standard English is actually a catalyst for making the work “perverse.” In this instance, proper grammar is rooted in the exterior of the work; it is the facet of writing that people actually see. Thus, just because a work may be written well does not mean that it can be comprehended. For instance, a text may embody permissible grammatical forms, but it could be rife with unintelligible diction due to a verbose display of language that is garrulous and superfluous. In other words, the text could just be too wordy for everyday speech by the everyday man (or woman). This excessive usage of language (written or oral) would actually serve as a deterrent from the goal of the rhetoric in the first place: to be comprehended. A work that exudes nonstandard English vis-à-vis grammatical manipulation in an effort to capture a specific vernacular may, in fact, be easier for a reader to understand. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s incorporation of both Standard and nonstandard English complements the text, and thus successfully enhances the readers’ overall ability to comprehend the themes and meanings throughout the work. Hence, Standard and nonstandard English should be viewed as guidelines for rhetoric, rather than a type of be-all, end-all set of conventions and rules.
While nonstandard English can be deemed as “good” writing based on its ability to be comprehended, an emphasis on this linguistic format over Standard English can actually create an adverse effect outside of the earlier-noted contentions about (mis)judgment. In tandem with this notion, Lisa Delpit’s book Other People’s Children dedicates an entire chapter – “The Silenced Dialogue” – to exploring the binary of Standard and nonstandard English through an underlying argument about power. She addresses the challenges teachers (African American and Caucasian alike) face when teaching African American and poor children how to read and write. She argues that the middle-class Caucasian teachers – or “Liberals” – emphasize that the primary goal of education is for children to become autonomous. Delpit claims this is reasonable for these people because the children (of the white, middle-class Liberals) are already engrossed in the culture of power and know how to internalize the codes that go along with it (28). For the black community, such a teaching method (solely teaching African American children how to read and write in nonstandard English in an attempt to maintain their culture’s autonomy) would not go over as well because the vast majority of people in this sector would be at a disadvantage. “Dialect reading” – introduced by well-intentioned white liberal educators – was seen by the black community as a plot to prevent schools from teaching the linguistic aspects of the culture of power (29). Basically the black students cannot have a chance at succeeding in the larger society if they only know how to speak their “uneducated” dialect.
“Uneducated” dialect emerges when a person’s speech and writing elicit characteristics that make it appear to deviate from the “proper” conventions that are emphasized by social and moral guidelines. For example, the phrase “I be going to the store” makes the writer appear to be uneducated due to using the word ‘be’ instead of ‘am.’ The misuse of one two-letter word sparks immediate judgment about the author. Therefore, despite how minor they may seem, these linguistic variations cause teachers and grammarians alike to develop Standard English guidelines and criteria. Sociolinguistics plays a major role in this process because in tandem with the distinction between Standard and nonstandard English, people seek ways to maintain a level of cultural and group loyalty. These concerns stem from an apprehension of sounding “too white.” In the case of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston achieves cultural and group loyalty through Janie’s – and the other characters in Eatonville, Florida – African American dialect. Nevertheless, she balances the realm of sociolinguistic power through her peppering of Standard English when she narrates.
Regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender, social groups desire the chance to achieve some level of status in the world of work. Maintaining Standard English conventions is a fundamental way in which these groups attempt to stand out in the “real” world. Writing from a perspective of social privilege allows people to appear as if they are a part of higher social standards. Nevertheless, these groups also covet their cultural values. From a young age, students are taught to listen to their teachers who strive to instill a standard – “proper” – linguistic foundation. While these conventions may work in a classroom where teachers serve as role-models, outside of school, people tend to speak differently. Derrida contends that, “There is much to say about the fact that the native unity of the voice and writing is prescriptive. Arche-speech is writing because it is a law. A natural law. The beginning word is understood, in the intimacy of self-presence, as the voice of the other and as commandment” (312). Consequently, maintaining a level of Standard English tends to be prescriptive. Students are taught to speak “properly” because it will help them become successful in the world outside of school. Unfortunately, this may come at the expense of expunging an individual’s authenticity.
Despite one’s usage of Standard English, a person’s dialect inevitably tends to resurface. In The Skin That We Speak, Michael Stubbs delves into sociolinguistic notions in tandem with dialectology. He shares his insight by deeming that “dialect” is in everyday usage based on the language variety used in a particular geographical region or by a particular social class group (Stubbs 72). Therefore, every part of the globe maintains its own unique way of speaking. Standard English just creates a common ground – a universal way of speaking and writing properly. Derrida elaborates upon this by contending that writing is always atonal. He claims that:
The place of the subject is there taken by another, it is concealed. The spoken sentence, which is valuable only once and remains “proper to the place where it is,” loses its place and its proper meaning as soon as it is written down. The means used to overcome this weakness tend to stretch out written language and make it elaborately prolix; and many books written in discourse will enervate speech itself. (329)
Essentially, then, Standard English itself acts as a double-edged sword. While it does unify the myriad of dialects across the world, it can also cause a person’s intended meaning to become masked by verbose speech and writing. Therefore, writing (and speech) should be natural, for in doing so, it is “immediately united to the voice and to breath. Its nature is not grammatological but pneumatological. It is hieratic, very close to the interior holy voice of the Profession of Faith, to the voice one hears upon retreating into oneself…” (312). Maintaining “natural” speech and writing means that the author’s way of expressing his or her ideas remains unedited, untouched, and preserved in his or her own voice – through dialect. One’s words are not polished for the sake of appearing “proper;” instead they echo the instinctive and pure articulation of the person who expressed them – that is, words are as personal as the being who utters them; polishing their linguistic choices would be like buffing realism off of the individual person. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston achieves this level of naturalism through her usage of Black Vernacular English whenever the characters engage in dialogue.
Hurston wrote her novel during the Harlem Renaissance. A time of “unusually fertile cultural activity,” this era marked a period of immense creative outgrowth from the African American community in tandem with poetry, fiction, drama, essays, music, dance, painting, and sculpture (Gates and Smith 929). Though it only lasted for twenty years (1920-1940), the Harlem Renaissance was a time in which black writers, artists, and intellectuals alike “reached out” in order to prove their intellectual and creative genius to not only the whites but also to the greater world (932). The common source for this creativity was “the irresistible impulse of blacks to create boldly expressive art of a high quality as a primary response to their social conditions, as an affirmation of their dignity and humanity in the face of poverty and racism” (930). Thus, by being able to establish this worth, black America could finally be seen as deserving of greater justice, compassion, equality, and respect.
With the premise of portraying black Americans as genuine human beings, many African American writers used their pens to convey a reality that would stand the test of time. Zora Neale Hurston was one of these writers who epitomized this concept and flourished during the Harlem Renaissance. In addition to Their Eyes Were Watching God, her 1934 essay, “Characteristics of Negro Expression” sheds light on the black population and their right to be considered a part of humanity. Stating, “The Negro’s universal mimicry is not so much a thing in itself as an evidence of something that permeates his entire self,” Hurston contends that “drama” is the most notable characteristic in Negro expression (1050). She holds that “every phase of Negro life is highly dramatized…there is an impromptu ceremony always ready for every hour of life. No little moment passes unadorned” (1051). This statement illustrates the value that the black population puts forth not only toward life in general, but toward the littlest, most finite moments in life. Appreciating the smaller moments – just as much, if not more than the bigger moments – is a true testament to what it means to be humane.
Being “humane” is part of the human experience; this, therefore, is not determined based on skin color. Drawing upon the characteristic of originality, Hurston contends that, “while he [a Negro] lives and moves in the midst of a white civilization, everything that he touches is re-interpreted for his own use” (1056). By modifying the white population’s language, mode of food preparation, practice of medicine, religion, sense of style and fashion, and even musical instruments, African Americans showed that a new art has arisen in the civilized world, and “thus has our so-called civilization come. The exchange and re-exchange of ideas between groups” (1056). This point is a valid one, for it hones in on the African Americans’ willingness to adapt – and adopt – characteristics from other cultures (particularly the whites). Nevertheless, the blacks do not outright copy these traditions; they modify them. This is key in illustrating the notion that African Americans are, indeed, a part of humanity.
The rhetorical strategies in Their Eyes Were Watching God are a testament to the Negro-expressive “drama” and portrayal of African American “humanity” that fueled the Harlem Renaissance. From cover to cover, Hurston braids Standard English and Black Vernacular English as poignantly as the repeated feminist references to Janie’s hair. In Chapter 5, she illustrates the following rendering of Black Vernacular English vis-à-vis the character’s (not the narrator’s) usage of dialogue. The passage entails: “‘Dat ‘oman ain’t so awfully pretty no how when yuh take de second look at her. Ah had to sorta pass by de house on de way back and seen her good. ‘Tain’t nothin’ to her ‘ceptin’ dat long hair’” (38). There is a clear feminist allusion being made, for “dat long hair” is the predominant feature that allows people to pay attention to Janie. Moreover, the way in which this quotation is written highlights the usage of nonstandard English. By writing this passage in Black Vernacular English, Hurston creates a voice for the character who is speaking. Though she is the author of the tale, the quotation marks indicate that Hurston – in her Standard English voice – is not technically narrating. This, in turn, adds emphasis to the comment about Janie’s hair because it indirectly insinuates that “dat long hair” is something of value for the specific character who made that statement. The assertion is not generalized, but rather, it is an example of the genuine opinion that comes from a specific person with a specific voice. If it was written in Standard English, the statement would have become lost in the narrator’s attempt to further the plot. However, by using a writing style that is rooted in the Black vernacular, Hurston is not only able to formulate opinions within her characters, but she is also able to bring those opinions to life through the voice she creates for these characters.
Hurston’s simultaneous portrayal of Standard and nonstandard English sparks a dichotomy for explicit grammatical “correctness.” In his work, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois states, “One ever feels his two-ness, - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (689). This passage sheds light on the very realistic intrinsic binaries that people –like the African Americans Du Bois alludes to; like the billions of people who have a sense of identity and affiliate themselves with more than one notion – face every day. With this passage, Du Bois is saying that for someone to be truly aware of him or herself, then this person must realize that there is more than one component to who they actually are. In essence, then, Du Bois’ illustration about “two-ness” reflects the duality that stems from using conventional and nonconventional forms of grammar within the same novel – that is, Hurston incorporates Standard English to convey a standard, educated voice; she also expresses Black Vernacular English to depict a more unique voice that mirrors the individual of whom the voice belongs.
Notably, in The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois is honing in on the fact that the newly emancipated African American population is now caught in a catch-22 – “Africanize America” or “bleach his Negro soul” (689). The question of which option truly represents the African American individual now permeates. If he chooses the first one, he stays true to his skin color, his heritage, his people. If he chooses the second option, he conforms to the all-encompassing white-ruled society of which he, as a newly-freed slave, is now a part. Du Bois describes this obstacle further when he states, “He [an African American] simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face” (689-690). Thus, together with his notion of “two-ness,” Du Bois points out the identity struggle that African Americans faced. In tandem with a notion Paul Laurence Dunbar coined, the African Americans were now presented with the decision of which “mask” to wear (Dunbar 906). Subsequently, the question now morphs into: how “white” can an African American actually be until his skin color overshadows his actions? Likewise, how “black” can an African American be until his heritage and overall mindset overpower his standing in society? This is all determined based on the “mask” that the African American individual chooses to wear. Though cultural loyalty poses the binary of “two warring ideals in one dark body,” the fact that the American/Negro dichotomy remains rooted in one body exudes the “strength alone that keeps it from being torn asunder” (689). Ultimately, though the African Americans were living through a much more trying time under far worse circumstances, Du Bois’ notion of “two-ness” is what makes the African American who he really is: African and American.
As an African American female author who uses Standard English to express her own voice while intertwining nonstandard English to convey her African American female protagonist’s voice, Hurston brings Du Bois’ contentions about “two-ness” to a feminist perspective. She begins Chapter 2 by stating, “Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches” (8). Per her narration style, Hurston uses Standard English in this quote to convey a metaphor that connects Janie with nature. Her words are articulated clearly, and the metaphor is understood: Like a tree “in leaf,” Janie is growing, but she must also be ready to weather any storms that may come. As the chapter unfolds and the Black Vernacular voice takes precedence, the readers soon see a morphing of these sentiments. Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, contends, “You know, honey, us colored folks is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways. You in particular. Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfill my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and do. Dat’s one of de hold-backs of slavery” (16). Evidently, the tree metaphor is still relevant; however, now – because of Nanny’s usage of nonstandard English – layers are being added to the original notion. The metaphor is no longer solely about Janie’s development into adulthood; it now embodies notes that remind readers about her culture and her identity. When the first sentiment was conveyed in Hurston’s voice, Standard English masked the deeper level of the metaphor. In fact, if the quote was read on its own in a different context outside of the novel, it could be assumed that Hurston was referring to Janie as a “white” girl because there is no indication of cultural identification. Nevertheless, when Nanny’s dialect-driven speech is unveiled, color – quite literally – is added to the original metaphor. The reader still knows that the metaphor directly deals with Janie from Nanny’s direct phrasing of “you in particular.” Now, though, Hurston’s ability to polish the very same sentiments that Nanny conveys thus reflects the two-ness of Janie’s own struggle with individuality. Apart, the two quotes echo Janie’s blossom into adulthood; however, when paired side-by-side, it becomes evident that without Nanny’s coloring of Hurston’s Standard edited English, the true “hold-back” is not slavery. It is the spit-polishing of an authentic voice.
Hurston’s own implementation of a narrative that is highlighted by dueling linguistic formations illustrates a refreshing take on “Black Feminism.” In “African-American Women’s Feelings on Alienation from Third-Wave Feminism: A Conversation with my Sisters,” Aretha Marbley explores this groundbreaking notion in tandem with the differences in perspective among white women and men and black women and men. The following quote illuminates these clashing roles: “On the one hand, African American women share a past and present oppressive history of sexism with white women. On the other hand, the African American woman’s oppressive experiences have served to both bond and separate her from white feminists” (610). Just like her protagonist, Hurston herself is an African American female. Through both Janie and herself dictating the narrative in Black Vernacular English and Standard English respectively, Hurston heightens the argument of “Black Feminism” to a whole new linguistic level. By pairing feminist themes – such as the significance of Janie’s hair or the idea of a budding tree – alongside writing that is rooted in the African American Vernacular, Hurston evokes a poignant depiction of sexism while simultaneously illustrating a formidable nod to Black culture.
Black Feminism is not only limited to Du Bois’ contentions about “two-ness.” Dianne Sadoff’s work in “Gender and African American Narrative” adds a unique layer to this concept. She explores the notion of black autonomy and finds that, “in double-voiced narratives, African-American narrators appear to speak for, even as they subvert, narrative conventions and generic constrictions” (Sadoff 120). Through Hurston’s usage of Standard English and Janie’s display of Black Vernacular English, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a telling portrayal of the double-voiced narrative. Janie attempts to maintain black autonomy vis-à-vis the linguistic decisions she makes. For instance, she presents the following assertion to her first husband, Logan: “‘S’posin’ Ah wuz to run off and leave yuh sometime” (30). As the omniscient narrator, Hurston immediately follows this statement with her own contentions: “There! Janie had put words in his held-in fears. She might run off sure enough. The thought put a terrible ache in Logan’s body, but he thought it best to put on scorn” (30). Hurston’s voice serves a dual purpose. For one, it advances the plot by moving the story along from one concept to another. It also explains Janie’s assertions in a clearer, more grammatically correct form of rhetoric. Nevertheless, through her usage of nonstandard English, Janie stays true to her African American identity and thus herself. However, through her phonetic spellings and deliberate grammatical errors, Janie’s identity and inner-self do not always come across clearly. Therefore, it is helpful to have Hurston’s narration as a way to maintain Janie’s black autonomy while simultaneously explaining the language in a fashion that is more standardized and easier to understand for the reader who may not be accustomed to reading (or hearing) Black Vernacular English.
Maintaining black autonomy is a crucial – yet difficult task – for the often-oppressed African American female. In “Gender Differences in Attitudes toward Black Feminism among African Americans,” Evelyn Simien explores the African American culture specifically through black females. She delves into the history of African American female struggles in order to convey that they are still very much a reality today for this sector. Simien contends: “For decades, the women’s liberation movement reflected white, middleclass bias in its objectives and aims. Its membership and leadership treated the interests of black women as secondary to their own by excluding them from the movement’s agenda” (317). Though it may seem like an arduous fight, African American women still continue to make strides toward equality – namely equality with their white female counterparts. Thus, there is an evident struggle that African American women face in the question of “race loyalty for African Americans in general and African American women in particular” (318). In conversation with the dichotomy of when to use Standard and nonstandard English, Hurston’s novel gives the African American female – both the educated writer who is Hurston and the struggle-to-survive headstrong Janie– a voice.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie is subjected to inequality based upon her gender and her skin tone. Early in the novel, Nanny states, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin’ fuh it tuh be different wid you” (14). With this passage, readers see Janie’s grandmother using Black Vernacular English to illustrate her contentions about African American females and their role in the world. Her statement would not have been as effective if it was spoken in Standard English. It would have lost its sense of realism and – equally as important – her voice. Nanny’s diction correlates her identity with that of Janie. They are both simple African American women who are trying to survive in the “standard” of a white-male-dominated world. Their mutual vernacular characteristics thus allow them to share in their cultural identity. This passage is a paramount example of Feminism vis-à-vis gender inequality, which is mirrored in Nina Baym’s contentions about the goals of exploring this principle. She deems that these goals are: “to revalue such traditionally denigrated female attributes as compassion, empathy, nurturance” and “to remove the barriers that have kept women from the sources of power, property, and pleasure in our culture” (213). By “prayin’” for Janie – as an African American female – to no longer be a representation of “de mule uh de world,” Nanny’s honest, unedited convictions are all the more powerful. They depict the “traditionally denigrated female attributes” of compassion, empathy, and nurturance. If Nanny’s speech was edited to fit Standard English conventions, this extremely poignant passage would become completely obliterated. This segment evokes the notion that gender inequality is real, and being an African American female does not make it any easier for Janie to “remove the barriers.”
In tandem with the challenges of maintaining “black autonomy,” Hurston further utilizes the writing strategy of “two-ness” or “double-voiced narrative” in order to portray Black Feminism. Evidently, she does more than incorporate Standard English and Black Vernacular English. She is corroborating the conventional and unconventional techniques of rhetoric in order to liberate her two main African American female voices: her own voice as a narrator and Janie’s voice as the protagonist and dual narrator. Effectively conveying “voice,” therefore, is not easy. Derrida draws upon the Greek philosopher and rhetorician, Aristotle when he states, “Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words; it is because the voice, the producer of the first symbols, has a relationship of essential and immediate proximity with the mind” (307). This passage illustrates the correlation between the spoken and written word in tandem with the role these respective processes play in illustrating one’s voice. Thus, with each grammatically incorrect phrase from Janie, Hurston not only presents a unique voice, but she also gives readers a deeper insight into her character’s mind. This exchange of ideas from mind to mouth – or quite literally, Hurston’s head to the pages of the novel itself – is the essence of natural, unpolished writing. Derrida actually elaborates upon the role of writing further when he deems:
Writing is a signifier, the graphic sign of mental speech, itself a sign of ideas. As such, it is doubly removed from true ideas in consciousness. It represents the twin dangers of difference and alterity (or otherness) because it depends on something else or “other” to be “itself.” As such, it is the perfect embodiment of the concept of the differential constitution of identity. (300)
Therefore, Janie’s identity is her Black Vernacular English writing style. Likewise, Hurston’s identity is her grammatically-correct, Standard English writing style. As technically the author behind both “voices,” Hurston masterfully respects her character’s black autonomy and sense of otherness vis-à-vis the diction she has Janie convey.
By exploring the way in which other cultures view women, readers will be better equipped in their analysis of Hurston’s approach to portraying a protagonist who simultaneously represents an underrepresented culture and gender. In Womanhood a Vital Element in the Regeneration and Progress of a Race, Anna Julia Cooper – who is also a prominent African American female author – directly draws upon characteristics about women from other cultures. She states, “In Oriental countries woman has been uniformly devoted to a life of ignorance, infamy, and complete stagnation” (Cooper 619). She even references the Muslim culture in saying that “Mahomet makes no account of woman whatever in his polity” (620). Evidently, females are not presented in the best light. As an African American female and inherent “mule uh de world,” Janie is not depicted positively either (14). By manifesting the narrative power in Janie’s voice, Hurston challenges the abovementioned restrictive feminist conventions – illustrating that an African American female’s vernacular voice commands the same level of respect as that of any man.
When Cooper references a British and an American writer, their respective quotes deem otherwise about women and thus align with Hurston’s efforts. Cooper draws upon the following statement from Thomas Babington Macaulay: “You may judge a nation’s rank in the scale of civilization from the way they treat their women” (621). She then follows this quote with the following from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I have thought that a sufficient measure of civilization is the influence of good women” (621). These respective British and American writers clearly value females; they both even make mention of the role females play in the civilization of their countries. It seems surprising, then, for Cooper herself to assert: “ Only the BLACK WOMAN can say, ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me” (“Womanhood a Vital Element in the Regeneration and Progress of a Race” 31). By referencing the notion that “the whole Negro race enters with me,” Cooper sheds light on the fact that in the eyes of the other races, African Americans were so low that – male or female – gender did not matter because they were “Negro.” Nevertheless, with an understanding of the importance women really did have (such as childbirth, child-rearing, caring for the home, etc.), the beginning part of Cooper’s quote – “Only the BLACK WOMAN can say, ‘when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood” – indicates the level of self-respect that the African American women had for themselves and one another. They may know that they are considered lower than dirt in the eyes of their white counterparts (and perhaps their fellow African American males), but nobody can take away their (the African American females’) self-worth and dignity. As long as they have that, then they feel confident to walk with their heads held high – the way Janie confidently walks back into Eatonville with “dem overalls” – alongside the rest of the Negro race that should do the same when they walk with African American females. Thus, while it speaks to the oppression of African American females, this quote – more importantly – illuminates the reassuring confidence that the African American population as a whole is starting to build as they make strides toward being seen as equals with the white population – a struggle that Janie knows all too well in her quest to achieve gender equality and self-defining womanhood.
Cooper’s powerful feminist assertion is appropriate for echoing Janie’s blossoming attitude about love and life. Toward the end of the novel, Janie states, “‘Dis is uh love game. Ah done lived Grandma’s way, now Ah means tuh live mine’” (114). Markedly, Janie is taking a stance for herself. She does not even listen to her grandmother – a notable influence in the beginning stages of the novel – anymore. Similar to the way in which Cooper says that only the “black woman can say” what to do, so too does Janie exhibit a steadfast desire for maintaining a personal level of autonomy and responsibility. If it was written in Standard English, this passage would have echoed Hurston’s narrative voice and thus overshadowed the climactic point where Janie finally realizes that she should live a life that makes her – above anyone else – happy. Fittingly, the dialect that is conveyed in this quotation solidifies the growing confidence that is manifested in Janie’s voice.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, there seems to be a suspicious absence of the representation of power through white people, yet there still seems to be traces in that Janie is held higher in status over others because of her physical appearance. In fact, early in the novel, Janie admits, “‘Ah was wid dem white chillum so much till Ah didn’t know Ah wuzn’t white till Ah was round six years old’” (8). Ironically, even though her dialect reflects Black Vernacular English, Janie considers herself white (and thus socially privileged) when she is a small child. Though reality soon hits her when she realizes she no longer “wuz just like de rest,” Janie’s affinity with white people provides her with a fundamental seed for self-confidence – and perhaps a foreshadowing of empowerment – at an early age (9). Nevertheless, although she inadvertently neutralizes herself from her own race, Janie’s rhetoric gives her an innate sense of identity that reinforces the true bond she has with her black culture. No matter how “white” she may have thought she was, Janie’s vernacular always reflects the true reality about her identity – that she is African American.
Among her African American counterparts, Janie’s physical description – particularly when she is older – is no longer characterized by her skin color, but by that of her beauty. In essence, this beauty elevates Janie over the black people of her race. The way in which Hurston describes Janie through Standard English in comparison to the way in which Pheoby Watson – Janie’s best friend – expresses similar sentiments with the Black Vernacular is striking. Hurston writes, “The men noticed her firm buttocks like she had grape fruits in her hip pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume…it was a weapon against her strength…it was a hope that she might fall to their level some day” (2). Pheoby, on the other hand, says, “‘Ah see you is. Gal, you sho looks good. You looks like youse yo’ own daughter…even wid dem overhalls on, you shows yo’ womanhood’” (4). It is important to note that Hurston’s contentions are observational in that she is acting as the narrator. Pheoby, however, is directly conversing with Janie, which levels her narrative position and places her as an equal to Janie, rather than an objective observer.
Neither Hurston nor Pheoby hold back in their assertions about Janie’s appearance, but the way in which each source depicts the protagonist sheds light on the message behind their respective writing. By describing Janie in Standard English, Hurston illuminates certain factors that the reader does not see as explicitly in Pheoby’s version. For instance, Hurston deliberately points out Janie’s “great rope of black hair” before she underscores the fact that Janie is in a higher position of power. This insinuates that her physical features are, indeed, empowering “weapons” for her. Thus, her beauty and hair serve as components that – if taken away – will cause her to “fall to their level some day,” suggesting that she – from the Standard English “privileged” and “polished” perspective of Hurston as a narrator – is positioned in a higher-level status than her contemporaries.
Pheoby, a fellow African American female who speaks in a dialect similar to that of Janie, uses words like “daughter” and “womanhood.” While her grammar is technically incorrect, Pheoby’s implementation of diction is precise and poignant. Instead of pointing out the elements that make Janie powerful (like her beauty), Pheoby – like her rhetoric – keeps her contentions simple and highlights Janie’s physical status as a fellow woman. Thus, it may not be a coincidence that the implementation of Standard English hones in on notions of power and status, for the idea of Standard English directly correlates with the connotation of sociolinguistic privilege.
Dialogue is not the only writing strategy that Hurston utilizes in order to achieve robust realism. She pens her tale through a reflective story-like style. Through writing that emulates a dialect that is grounded in Black Vernacular English, Janie recounts her experience of maturing into adulthood to Pheoby. As Maureen McKnight states, “Hurston indicates that a self-conscious nostalgia filters that to be remembered from that to be forgotten, an emotional response that tremendously aids Janie in establishing an independent, judicious, and perceptive self” (McKnight). Appropriately, Janie’s tale is one that shows not only a physical maturation into womanhood, but it also illustrates her budding confidence and emotional growth. This is epitomized through the way in which she ends her story to Pheoby. She urges, “‘you got tuh go there tuh know there…two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves’” (192). The italics that Hurston uses in this passage depict the emphasis on certain words – it is as if Janie is passionately speaking the words in front of the readers instead of Pheoby. Thus, this ardor reflects the fact that Janie is emphasizing to Pheoby that in order to have a fulfilled life, people must actually go out and live their lives. Merely going through the motions day-in and day-out is not Janie’s idea of living out a fulfilled life. Ironically, in an attempt to avoid being the “mule” of the world, Janie was raised to please other people – from Nanny to her three husbands. Fortunately, she discovered that this is not the way in which one truly lives out his or her life. This is the fundamental reason she is passing on her story (and lessons) to her best friend, who happens to be a fellow African American female, rather than someone of social privilege, such as a white male. Pheoby now holds the responsibility – and, inevitably, the narrative power – of spreading the story, so others can learn from it.
Janie’s story is more than just a “story,” and this is vital for understanding Hurston’s narrative and linguistic strategies. The author devotes several of the novel’s initial pages to differentiating the role between storytelling and gossiping. She states, “‘So long as they get a name to gnaw on they don’t care whose it is, and what about, ‘specially if they can make it sound like evil’” (6). Here, the reader learns that gossiping acted more as a form of spreading spite than it did of actual storytelling. This is an imperative element to note, for Janie – through the encounters she entails – is not gossiping; she is telling a story. Thus, with storytelling comes the need to capture and portray the storyteller’s voice. This story is just as moving as an account like Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl . Hurston may not be telling a first-hand slave narrative autobiography, but through Janie, she is depicting a first-hand account of slavery in its own right. Therefore, Janie zealously asserts, “‘Ah don’t mean to bother wid tellin’ ‘em nothin’, Pheoby. ‘Tain’t worth de trouble. You can tell ‘em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ‘cause mah tongue is in mah friend’s mouf’” (6). Of all the eloquent writing in the novel, this quote serves as the most poignant catalyst behind Hurston’s decision to incorporate Black Vernacular English into the work. Through her display of African American dialect, the author underscores the fact that the story is, indeed, Janie’s tale to tell. It is not coming from anyone else’s “mouf.” This is why it is so imperative for Hurston to capture the Black dialect in such a realistic light; if she were to write the story entirely in Standard English, the tale would no longer belong to Janie because it would lose her voice. Janie’s tale is an elevation from the gossip that the people were accustomed to spreading around the porch. Janie’s reflection of her life experiences over the past forty years serves as an open book about her journey to become the independent woman who is able to confidently share her tale. Because the story is being recounted through specific dialect and diction, Pheoby (and the readers) is hearing the tale in the fashion that Janie wants it to be heard. There is no room for bias to be implemented or for the story to become polished and “proper.” Just like Janie’s life, the tale is told uncensored and unbarred. If there were any details that were changed, then Janie herself would have done so, and Pheoby would have never known the difference. Thus, if Pheoby decides to continue sharing the story, then she will be doing so through Janie’s “tongue.”
Hurston’s incorporation of Black Vernacular English in the novel highlights the fact that Janie’s voice is behind the words. Janie knows that the story is her own and, therefore, she only needs to share it one time – the way she wants it to be heard – to Pheoby. Because the tale is told vis-à-vis a stream-of-consciousness writing technique, Hurston must use Standard English to advance the plot for the details that are outside of Janie’s realm of consciousness. Basically, Hurston supplies the details that connect the fragments of Janie’s string of memories together in order to make one coherent story for readers to understand. The author incorporates these details through Standard English – as opposed to the vernacular of the majority of the novel –in order to maintain the autonomy behind Janie’s voice.
Furthermore, it is important to note that the novel itself is not told through a generalized version of Black Vernacular English; it is conveyed through Janie’s specific, personal rendering of the dialect. Subtle details such as the word ‘Ah’ instead of the pronoun ‘I’ indicate a level of consistency that can only be achieved if the dialect was specific to one person. Therefore, Janie maintains total control over the voice and details she chooses to share explicitly with Pheoby and implicitly with the readers. This level of control is retained through her specific usage of linguistics, for the rhetorical strategies she makes allows her to ascertain the legitimacy of herself (in tandem with black autonomy) and the words of her story. If Hurston wrote the novel entirely in Standard English, the rhetorical components would certainly have been more “proper.” However, the story would have instantaneously become just as inaccurate as the gossip that is told by the jeering porch-sitters. Similar to the way in which a reference book would lose its credibility if it was written entirely in nonstandard English, this novel would have lost its integrity if Janie’s genuine voice was not conveyed. Unlike the trials and tribulations she has clearly faced throughout the story, Janie now – at last – holds the power. She can finally speak for herself, and that means using the language that she knows – not the language someone else wants her to know and use.
Words are – without doubt – the most powerful tool that humans have. The ability to properly communicate one’s inner-most thoughts and feelings is absolutely vital for human survival. Nevertheless, properly conveying words sometimes deters from the deeper meaning that an author strives to express. Therefore, occasionally communicating something improperly creates an even stronger message than proper, standard forms. Hurston’s integration of nonstandard English represents the epitome of incorporating a liberating rhetorical strategy – thus empowering readers (black, white, male, and female) much in the same way she empowers her African American female protagonist. By rebelling against the conventions of Standard edited English, Hurston provides readers with a refreshing and unique perspective of the power that is embedded – but often overlooked – within a work’s narrative structure. In sharing her narrative voice with that of a vernacular speaker, Hurston achieves a feat that not many authors even venture to attempt: she levels the playing field between Standard English and Black Vernacular English. In this sense, despite societal mores and inevitably-impetuous judgments, one linguistic form is no longer more “proper” than the other. The bias has been eliminated, causing the corroboration of the two rhetorical methods to illuminate a voice that would have otherwise been masked by pretentious interpretations of sociolinguistic standards. In tandem with the themes and ideas that are improperly written in Their Eyes Were Watching God, readers must look deeper at the words themselves to truly hear the development of voice and individuality that is epitomized in the novel. Only then, will Hurston’s story about Janie’s tale be properly told.
Author’s Bio: Based outside of Chicago, IL., Nicole A. Selvaggio holds a Master's Degree in English from Southern New Hampshire University. She currently works as an adjunct English Professor at Moraine Valley Community College, where she teaches various levels of composition courses. Her piece, "Educating Through Coaching: Defining Your Role and Instilling a Dynamic Classroom Environment" has been published on a national scale and received widespread recognition for its display of innovative teaching techniques. In September 2016, she presented her work on this article at the College of DuPage Writing on the Edge Conference. Her interests include: Linguistics, African American literature, early American literature, and sports psychology.
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