“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” – Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
My grandmother often tells the story of her mother’s frequent returns home to Mississippi after getting married at 13. She would have her first three children in tow as she repeatedly left her marriage home in Alabama—the place she ran off to marry the 19 year old with the sweet voice. The most infamous story is how my great-grandmother stuffed her clothes in the suitcase of her sister who was visiting. When her sister returned home she was shocked to find my great-grandmother’s clothes and even more shocked when she appeared on her door-step a short while later. But however long my great-grandmother stayed away, eventually her husband would always come for her and she’d leave with him. I never met my great-grandmother, so I can’t ask her what kind of pain drove her frequent attempts to run away, neither can I ask her about the kind of resolution that drove her to return.
What I am more curious of is the type of refuge she received at her mother’s home—that mother who had a husband in St. Louis who never returned—what kind of strength and salvation was conjured between two generations of hurt women in that space? What did my great-great grandmother teach her daughter about love and forgiveness and making lemonade from the lemons life had given her?
Returning home is a theme explored everywhere from the Bible to 21st century art. It is a tradition with particular significance in the cannon of black female art and literature. Coming home isn’t a destination, it’s a pilgrimage back to the place that either defined or broke you or both. Returning to that place is not only where black women have come to rest, but to confront the things they were unable to out in the world. The thing that they are often confronting is themselves. Home is never a place to quit, but to restore and figure out how to go on from their current state. Most recently, Annalise Keating showed us the kind of refuge home serves a black woman when the world is threatening to break our bodies and our spirits.
At home Annalise is not able to simply rest, she must confront the pain of her father leaving and the confusion of how her mother forgave him. There is a lesson she is meant to learn no matter how reluctant she is. The sweet is never without the bitter.
Zora Neale Hurston blessed the cannon with her pioneering pilgrimage tale, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Beyoncé offered her own tale of returning home in Lemonade. As I watched the Queen Bey deliver her most vulnerable work to date I was struck by the similarities I found between the woman she portrays and Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
I’m from Ohio, a prominent state in the Underground Railroad and trek to freedom for many courageous runaway slaves. When WGN announced it’s new show, ‘Underground,’ about a group of individuals determined not to be bound by slavery, and the individuals committed to the abolitionist movement, I vowed to watch. Now, I am an avid fan.
I wrote a piece for Superselected on how Underground is revolutionizing the depiction of slavery due to its focus on resistance.