Originating as early as 1760 (Campbell), the traditional American slave narrative was characterized by a journey from oppression to freedom, or more acutely, literal travel from the deep Antebellum south to the liberal minded Northern states. However, “…the attainment of freedom is signaled not simply by reaching the free states, but by renaming oneself and dedicating one’s future to antislavery activism,” (Andrews).  Often including a preface to emphasize and affirm authenticity, the narratives pooled nature imagery, biblical allusions and spirituality, as well as severe emotional and physical abuse including but not limited to: lynching, domestic violence, rape and molestation. In their earliest period, slave narratives were written by sympathetic white witnesses, some slave owners, others not and later evolved into personal accounts direct from ex-slaves. Exemplified in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, more clearly than in some of the others, poignant internal struggles and the wrath of the mistress were to an extent more detrimental than the physical torment. Crude insinuations and whisperings from the master, verbally abusive rants from the mistress and the sexual acts themselves shattered childhood innocence but never the chance and hope of the victim to overcome her strife (Jacobs).

Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God differs from the slave narrative and has more of a kinship with the attributes of the Harlem Renaissance, but is most precise in genre when the two are combined. The Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro Movement incorporated “…Africa as a source of race pride, black American heroes or heroines are apotheosized, political propaganda is considered essential, the black folk tradition is affirmed and candid self-revelation is on display… the urbanity of the New Negro and joy of discovering both the variety and unity of the black people,” (Patton and Honey). The core component is Janie’s position as an independent woman; the Harlem Renaissance recognized gender oppression and because of this, nature is often an allusion or extended metaphor for a feminist subtext and commentary on sexuality, a symbol of liberation from both man and slavery.

Janie feels more alive underneath the pear tree, while both the slave narrative and Renaissance encompass nature her sexuality is directly linked to these images: “She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was marriage,” (Hurston 11). The sensual personification of the bee fertilizing the flower is symbolic of Janie’s sexual awakening and shortly after this she kisses Johnny Taylor and is forced to wed a man she doesn’t love, Logan.

As the title suggests, relationship with God through biblical allusions, such as “Somewhere up there beyond blue ethers bosom sat He. Was He noticing what was going on around here? He must be because He knew everything. Did He mean to do this think to Tea Cake and her?” (Hurston 178) as was common in slave narratives. Slaves would turn to God to find internal salvation from their situation through confession and prayer. Here Janie expresses a belief in God but doesn’t pretend to understand or agree with His divine decisions.

Perhaps the most evident revision of the slave narrative can be viewed through the mother-daughter bond or lack thereof. Janie’s grandmother and mother have both highlight the usual roles of the slave-master relationship. Her grandmother was a sexual plaything of her master, resulting in the birth of Janie’s mother and Janie’s mother herself was raped by her school teacher, producing Janie. This was a reoccurring theme in slave narratives that Hurston battles through Janie, for she comes to choose her husbands and never has a master. Also, Hurston is writing from the point of view of a black woman whereas most slave narratives were originally written by white masters.


Works Cited

  • Campbell, . “The Slave Narrative.” Washington State University. WSU, Web. 10 Oct 2009. <http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/slave.htm.>
  • Andrews, William L. “North American Slave Narratives.” Documenting the American South. 6 Oct 2009. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Web. 10 Oct 2009. <http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/intro.html. >
  • Jacobs, Harriet. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” eNotes.com. 05 Oct 2009. eNotes, Web. 10 Oct 2009. <http://www.enotes.com/incidents-life-slave-girl-text/.>
  • Revisioning the Harlem Renaissance- Venetria K. Patton and Maureen Honey from Considering Literary and Social Movements
  • Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 35th . New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1998. Print.
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