In Search of the Pear Tree

I’ve read Their Eyes Were Watching God almost every year since I was a sophomore in high school. Each experience grounds me deeper into my self, revealing new truths even after I left the last reading assured I learned all there was to know. This time around, I found the life of Janie Crawford drawing me closer to another woman in my life, my great-grandmother. The woman’s life hangs over my family like a legend. Much like Janie, my great-grandmother ran away from home at a young age in search of, I believe, that same pear tree that awakened Janie in her grandmother’s front yard. And like Janie, my great-grandmother paid a price for such curiosity, such fearlessness, such hope.

When Janie’s grandmother sees her granddaughter begin to blossom with the same curiosity, fearlessness and hope that ignited my great-grandmother, she cuts the young girl down with the reality that the negro woman is the mule of the world. I’m not sure if my great-grandmother had gotten that talk from her mother before she ran off, but I can imagine that life sure did to my great-grandmother what Janie’s grandmother did to her: “[take] the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon,…and [pinch] it in to such a little bit of a thing that she [Janie’s grandmother] could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her.”

I wonder often about the woman I’ve never met, but whose life story I can recite as if it were my own. I wonder what pieces of herself she had to hide, like Janie, in order to stay outwardly alive. What had fallen off her internal shelf and did she ever pick it up? Did she ever get to experience what Janie witnessed the bees and the buds of flowers did in that pear tree? Did she ever get time to pull in her horizon and look over what was caught in its meshes? How many of our great-grandmothers lived like Janie, or longed to? These are questions that sparked Alice Walker’s collection, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, and it is one that I think about each time I try to understand my own life. The freedoms, however little they sometimes seem to be, were paid for in gold by women like Janie, like my great-grandmother, who dared to follow their heart.

Their Eyes Were Watching God has, in some magical way, brought me closer to my great-grandmother as I find myself capable of looking at her story as something more than a larger than life legend and something tangible, tactile, like the textures of my own life that change with each new life experience. Though I imagine that a lot of my great-grandmother’s naive dreams were crushed after she ran away from home, I admire her the same way I do Janie Crawford; they were women who were not satisfied being anyone’s mule, women who believed that there was joy and pleasure and sweetness to be had from this life and were relentless in their search for it. They are both women I aspire to be.

Another reading of Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel has left me eternally grateful for her own relentless truth telling. She has, yet again, brought me closer to myself. Closer to a self I was almost a century ago in Columbus, Mississippi who snuck away from the well and ran from home in search of that pear tree. Today, I am still searching, as I believe all black women are and should be.

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How Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ Took Us Home

“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.

How to Get Away with Murder, S02E15

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.

Read More Here: How Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ Took Us Home

Valentine’s Day Lit: The Realest Fictitious Love Stories Ever

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Tis the season for loooove, and what better way to get into the spirit than reading a great love story! I recently wrote a piece for QuirkyBrownLove about my favorite couples in literature. From Their Eyes Were Watching God to Tar Baby and Quicksand these stories reject the old Cinderella narrative and tap into love’s nuances. They serve as perfect reminders for why we dedicate an entire day for celebrating love!

Head on over to QuirkyBrownLove to read about my favorite fictitious couples!

Dear Zora

Zora

I remember the first time I was confronted with your work. It was 10th grade in my suburban high school. My English teacher assigned Their Eyes Were Watching God and I’ll never forget those few weeks with that text. I’m almost ashamed of my old self and how I cringed at the vernacular you wrote in and how quick I was to reject this story as being unworthy of respect let alone analysis, but something kept me turning the page. It wasn’t until I finally finished that I sat in silence. It was a silent reverence, an adoration, an apology because at the time I had yet to read something so powerful, so honest, so visceral. You spoke to the me who only appeared at the kitchen table, at the beauty shop, at home far away from my predominately-white school. You held a mirror up to me and it reflected not the image I hoped to project to the world, but the true person I was outside of the double-dutch game of double-consciousness. It was alarming, it was uncomfortable, it was liberating.

You resurfaced again when I expressed my fear of not being able to be a writer because of my race and gender. My 12th grade teacher referenced you and your pride in your culture and gender. From that moment on my love and obsession for you grew. What a maverick you were, how fearless you were. 

Thank you for working, despite the criticism, and traveling the diaspora in order to preserve a piece of culture for young people like me who approach with reluctance and even shame from our own Eurocentric nurturing. You taught me to write from the soul and with passion. You taught me to never tuck in my vulnerabilities and flaws, but to let them hang loose and to be proud of where I come from. You taught me that my story is legitimate, worthy of respect and analysis. 

Happy Birthday and thank you for living out loud and writing it all down. 

Xoxo

– Stephanie