Gender and Violence
Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass and Their Eyes Were Watching God share much in common, though the works were written at different points in time. Douglass’s autobiography first appeared in 1845, written to prove that a slave could develop, virtually unaided, into a moral and intellectual human being, and a speaker of power and eloquence. Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God appeared almost a century later in 1937 and is seen as a work that documents the legitimate experiences of black people, especially women. Yet, protagonists whose lives were shaped by violence, oppression, patriarchal control, and a quest for personal freedom characterize both works. One reason that could be attributed to the stark similarity in Douglass and Hurston’s narratives is the historical context and effects of slavery and oppression of the black people. Thus, the blatant enslavement and brutality described by Douglass manifests itself in Hurston’s work as gender and racial discrimination in a historical continuum of a society dominated by whites and a patriarchal attitude.
The fact that violence shaped the lives of both Douglass and Hurston’s Janie is self-evident in the narratives of both works. Douglass describes in vivid detail the deprivations and physical violence suffered by the slaves at the hands of inhuman owners. Take, for instance, his recounting of the great pleasure his master would derive from whipping a slave: “The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest.” (Douglass, 1995, p. 4) Douglass also makes it known to the reader that it was his witnessing of such violence and the dehumanization of both slave owners and slaves alike that made him determined from an early age to “understand the pathway from slavery to freedom.” (Douglass, 1995, p. 20) For Douglass, the pathway he found was empowerment through literacy and escape to a more liberal North. But, the drive to obtain emancipation for himself and his people came from the violence, which Douglass both experienced and witnessed. Thus, violence was central to his personal development and coming of age. Nothing else can account for his rise from the oppression of slavery to become a world famous freedom fighter, writer and orator.
Like Douglass, Janie Crawford’s life, too, is shaped by violence and oppression. The sexual rape of her grandmother and mother by white men directly affects Janie, as evidenced by her wish for a life different from a “nigger woman…mule of the world.” (Hurston, 1978, p. 29) Indeed, it is Janie’s drive to escape from masculine suppression and violence that leads her to leave Logan Killicks, defy Jody in public, and later tie her fortunes to Tea Cake, a man with nothing more to offer than his treating her well. Unfortunately, Janie’s quest to be treated as an independent thinking human in her own right proves to be quite futile given a society where men often resorted to violence to define their masculinity and superiority over women. Even Tea Cake is shown falling prey to this male perception. “He just slapped her about a bit to show he was boss.” (Hurston, 1978, p. 218) Thus, like Douglass, Janie’s life too is shaped by violence, suppression, and a quest for personal freedom.
Though Douglas’s narrative paints a far larger canvas of a society riddled with racial discrimination and violence, he takes the time and space to explore the treatment of women. In fact, Douglas’s descriptions find a match in Hurston’s narrative, as both authors describe the sexual, physical and psychological abuse endured by black women. It is the presence of such similar anecdotes, which then allows the conclusion that Douglass and Hurston’s works can be studied within a context of a historical continuum of racial and gender discrimination by a white dominated patriarchal society.
Douglass, F. (1995). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Unknown
Dover Thrift Edition).
Hurston, Z.N. (1978). Their Eyes Were Watching God. Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
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