Zora Neale Hurston
and the African American Odyssey

by Helen Lock

The Odyssey has always had a reverberating presence in African American arts: Romare Bearden, for instance, arguably the most important African American artist of the twentieth century, who began exhibiting in 1945, produced a series called The Odysseus Collages. In his foreword to the gallery’s catalogue, Calvin Tomkins describes the appropriateness of Bearden’s technique to his theme: collage is, he says, “[A]n act of necromancy, requiring cunning, grace, nerve, intelligence and luck (defined as the ability to take good advantage of chance—or the gods),” and Tomkins quotes psychologist Julian Jaynes’s description of Homer’s theme: “an odyssey toward subjective identity and its triumphant acknowledgment out of the hallucinatory enslavements of the past” (n.p.). (Jaynes had argued in Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind that ancient peoples did not access consciousness but had their behavior directed by auditory hallucinations interpreted as voice of king, chief, or gods.) Although Jaynes’s theories, then recent, proved to be very controversial, not least in the distinction he made between the psychologies reflected in the Odyssey and in the Iliad, the point made here about Homer’s theme as a journey toward freedom and autonomy, negotiating the snares of the numerous guises of enslavement, is apposite, reflecting as it does the experience of African Americans in the post-Reconstruction and Civil Rights eras, trying to avoid slipping back into the ensnarements of the past while struggling toward the self-determination of the future.

The reference to “enslavements” is also a reminder that Odysseus’s story belongs to the category of myth that might be termed the “undeserved curse.” Just as Oedipus struggles to escape the curse laid upon him because of his father’s misdeeds, and Canaan and his descendants suffer from the curse brought upon them because of his father Ham’s indiscretion—in legend, the reason for both the creation and the persecution of dark-skinned peoples—so, Odysseus is pursued by the curse of Poseidon, having blinded Poseidon’s son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, in retaliation for Polyphemus’s slaughter of two of Odysseus’s men. Although the Cyclops is the instigator, and commits the greater crime, Odysseus is the one afflicted with the curse that constantly intervenes to prevent him reaching a successful conclusion to his voyage—reinstatement of status and autonomy, and self-determination. In this respect, his travails reflect those of the descendants of Ham. What gives Odysseus’s struggle especial resonance in African American arts, however, unlike the story of Oedipus, is that despite all odds, Odysseus is ultimately successful in triumphing over the curse. He achieves this largely because of his personal characteristics: like all heroes he is brave, strong, and resourceful, but he is particularly characterized by his intellect, which the “wily” Odysseus uses in all sorts of ingenious ways. In other words, he is a trickster who outwits the opposition; his means may often be devious, even underhanded, but he is a winner.

Another aspect of the Odyssey that echoes in the literature of the period, and continues to resonate, was described by Toni Morrison in a 1976 interview. “The big scene is the traveling Ulysses scene, for black men. They are moving. . . . Perhaps it’s because they don’t have a land, they don’t have dominion. . . . [G]oing from town to town or place to place or looking out and over and beyond and changing and so on—that, it seems to me, is one of the monumental themes in black literature about men. . . . It’s the Ulysses theme, the leaving home. And then there’s no place that one settles “ (226). She explained that she did not mean this in the Joycean sense, or in the sense of the hero seeking his fortune, but in the sense of a curiosity about the world. “And in the process of finding, they are also making themselves” (226). Although, as she noted, “the fact that they would split in a minute” has often been described as a sociological failing of black men, for Morrison it was a delight. “[T]hey didn’t just let it happen” (227). This sounds gender-specific, but in Morrison’s eyes her female character Sula is a prime example: “she is a masculine character in that sense” (227). The character that enacts a trickster’s ever-changing role is no more bound by gender than by skin.

This mercurial quality, the ability to transform one’s world, to make and re-make one’s self, explains why the Roman equivalent of the trickster Hermes, Mercurius, was central to alchemical tradition in the form literally of quicksilver (mercury), but symbolically as the power of transformation. As such, he pervades the imagery of Renaissance drama, being connected, for example, to Lear’s Fool: “Comrade and fellow-spirit in suffering, or teasing goblin, which one is the Fool? He is, like Mercury, both: Mercurius versipellis [skin- or form-changing], the motley fool” (Nicholl 180). That Mercurius is characterized as form- or skin-changing emphasizes that the trickster is not an essentializing figure. To him or her, context is all: gender, class, race, all categories only have the meaning they acquire from their immediate context, and this includes the category of skin. The motley that the fool wears represents pied skin--an unstable, heterogeneous identity. For the trickster, however, unlike the fool or clown, lack of fixed identity is less an affliction than a liberation: it enables freedom of movement, resists proscription, and makes transformation possible. So, whatever else the trickster is, he or she is the figure who is not confined to one skin. Odysseus, after all, escapes from Polyphemus by causing the Cyclops to interpret a sheep’s skin as being Odysseus’s own.

Tricksters were figures intimately familiar to Zora Neale Hurston both as a writer and as an anthropologist, and appear repeatedly in her fiction, slipping back and forth across cultural, ethnic, and gender lines, in and out of their skins. Most of them are male, like most archetypal tricksters though, gender, like skin, takes its meaning here from its immediate context. In fact, the most fully developed of these characters is female: Janie, protagonist of Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is a novel encircled by sea imagery. It begins, “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon” (1), and it ends, “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” (193). Thus the narrative traces a circular journey back to the origin, described symbolically as a sea voyage—a common enough trope, of which the best-known or most pervasive archetype, in Western culture at least, would be Odysseus and his sea journey back home after the Trojan Wars, the subject of Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus the voyager, as much as the warrior of the Iliad, is constantly characterized as wily—he is a classic trickster, with all that figure’s amoral hallmarks, notably the refusal to be restricted by proscribed behavior from slipping back and forth across boundaries, be they moral, societal, or ontological.

Hurston makes clear that what she has described here at the beginning is the world as experienced by men, some of whose wishes come home while others drift out to sea, but women, she says, can manipulate their world much more fluidly, transforming reality at will: “Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly” (1). What the narrative is about to embark on is a different kind of journey, because “the beginning of this was a woman” (1). By this reckoning, women are more fitted to enact the proactive Odysseus role than the masculine version of this and other trickster archetypes, because from Hurston’s perspective women are not just more adaptable to circumstances, but make their own reality, while men react to the reality that is constructed for them. Thus the central character who leaves home, who is constantly moving and changing and never settling, is here a woman—not a woman who is a “masculine character,” as Morrison described her protagonist Sula, but a woman who illustrates the resistance of the trickster figure to gender roles, or to any other kind of constructed identity.

Hurston recasts the myth from the perspective of a character who is both Odysseus and Penelope, proactive and reactive. If one of the major themes of African American literature revolves around black men moving physically, another revolves around black women moving psychically, and both are finding themselves and making each other. Penelope in the myth was also a trickster, though a reactive one, waiting at home fending off unwanted suitors by continually undoing her weaving, postponing the moment of decision, and then setting impossible tasks for the suitors when that moment arrived. Her husband was meanwhile actively undertaking the adventures, trials, and tribulations of making his way home to Ithaca, where as a result of his initial disguise, he was assigned one of the impossible tasks: he and Penelope essentially tricked each other, until he was finally recognized by his scar (a skin marker). Thus in Their Eyes, we have a composite Odysseus/Penelope: a female protagonist undertakes her own voyage toward freedom, discarding a series of suitors until she reaches the point of self-actualization, transcending the need for suitors except as they are transformed into and by her own reality—Tea Cake, the last suitor, “could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking” (193). In the process, she transcends all distinctions of gender, race, class, or other over-determinations, becoming as truly beyond all forms of categorization as the original boundary-crossing, form- and skin-changing, specificity-eluding archetype.

Janie’s story begins at the end, with her return, and then circles back to pick up the thread again in her girlhood. A mixed-race child, she is characterized almost immediately as being neither of fixed identity nor even of fixed skin: she believes herself to be white until she sees a photograph and “couldn’t recognize dat dark chile as me” (9), until the white family on whose yard she lives make the identification for her. This is followed by the description of how “Us lived there havin’ fun” (9)—the child that she was at the time being oblivious to the more sinister implications of her living arrangements—until she goes to school and is teased by the other children for “livin’ in de white folks’ back-yard” (9). In other words, from the beginning it is emphasized that the meaning of even her own body is contingent, deriving significance from the context of her life and from the perspective of the perceiver. In this instance, the child Janie does not perceive the same significance that the reader is likely to, regarding the extent to which her identity has been constructed by others. The same can be seen in her comment on herself at the same period: “Dey all useter call me Alphabet ‘cause so many people had done named me different names” (9). This over-determination results in the lack of a single identity—yet the replacement of all these different names by “Alphabet” suggests the material for multiple potential identities.

The absence of a single racial identity is, in fact, also the catalyst for Janie’s journey of exploration and negotiation among multiple racial, gender, and class identities. The grandmother with whom she lives is horrified by Janie’s burgeoning sexuality, because of her own and Janie’s mother’s experiences at the hands of white men; the descriptions of Janie herself imply certain Caucasian features, notably her long straight hair, and thus also imply that as a mulatta she can expect similar or worse treatment herself. Nanny, the grandmother, warns her, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world” (14), invoking a crossbreed animal whose name is frequently, if arguably, taken to be the root of the word mulatto (from Spanish mulato, a small mule, although it has also been derived from an Arabic word). Subconsciously, then, she perceives the black woman’s role as being inherently composite or multiple, rather than singular or restrictive, but she casts this in negative terms. Nanny sees only absence in Janie’s racial identity: the image she chooses is that of a beast of burden who not only lacks personal autonomy, but is also sterile. As the only potential she envisions for Janie is negative, she seeks to contain it by marrying her off to a black farmer whose sole perceived advantage is that marriage to him will prevent Janie from crossing the threshold of the gatepost across which she was caught kissing a boy, and thus secure for her a theoretically-desirable singular racial and cultural identity, putting her as far as possible beyond the reach of the white men who will inevitably find her attractive. “’Tain’t Logan Killicks Ah wants you to have, baby, it’s protection” (15).

Thus Killicks becomes the first in a series of suitors variously bent on determining Janie’s identity in terms of their own. Each of them proves to be a trickster himself, a shapeshifter constantly on the move psychically, to keep Janie off balance and under control; but Janie’s skill at determining and actualizing her chosen shape of reality overmatches theirs, as one by one she outwits them. Killicks, first and least of them, transforms from an attentive if unattractive husband who talks to Janie in rhymes, to a master who wants her plowing his field, who buys a mule for her to use so that she herself can be used like a mule, conforming completely to his idea of the black woman’s role and losing all traces of “de white folks’ kitchen” (31), from the values and temptations of which he considers himself to have rescued her. Once she is safely married to him, his attitude undergoes a metamorphosis, becoming one of containment; like Nanny, he thinks Janie’s appropriate place, like that of all black women, is one where she is “protected” from life beyond the threshold. To Janie, this constitutes “accusing her of her mamma, her grandmama and her feelings” (32). Thus Killicks’ days as a suitor are numbered. He attempts in heavy-handed fashion to enforce a relationship with fixed and unchangeable boundaries: “Don’t you change too many words wid me dis mawnin’, Janie, do Ah’ll take and change ends wid yuh!” (31). But Janie is the wilier trickster—she slips the yoke, and change ends with him.

Under Killicks’ very nose, “[a] feeling of newness and change came over her” (32), thanks to the secret blandishments of her second suitor, Joe Starks. Although “he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees,” all qualities Killicks also lacked and which Janie needs as she continues a journey that includes exploration of her sexual identity, Starks does enable her initially to cast off the subservient identity that Killicks constructed for her. Starks “spoke for far horizon. He spoke for change and chance” (29). Even though memories of Nanny’s warnings make her anxious about crossing the threshold of Killicks’ farm, she finally slips away, untying and flinging aside her apron, to transform herself into her new identity as a “doll-baby” (29): the initially cosseted wife of Eatonville’s future mayor. It is not long, however, before the suitor who spoke for change and chance feels his position threatened by a woman who is also an agent of change; he thus transforms himself into an agent of fixity, limiting Janie’s sphere of movement by declaring, “She’s uh woman and her place is in de home” (43). She is the Mayor’s woman, specifically, so her place is not on the porch, participating in the banter and tall-tale-telling, the “mule-talk,” of lesser beings of a lower social class. The specific mule in question is one who was mistreated then freed, and around whose activities elaborate stories have been woven; Starks is adamant in keeping Janie from joining in articulating the possibilities open to a free mule, especially since he is told she is “uh born orator” (58). As in Nanny’s earlier comparison, he senses a connection between Janie and the mule both in racial and gender terms, and also—since he considers such tale-telling beneath her, as his wife—in terms of class. To him, even the desire to cross any of these boundaries is a subversion of the way he understands the world to operate.

Thus another suitor must be dismissed. This time Janie inverts the locus of gender power and uses it against him: Starks goes into a decline and dies after the humiliation of being told publicly, “When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life” (79). Not only has Janie “robbed him of his illusion of irresistible maleness,” she has “cast down his empty armor before men and they had laughed” (79). The lesser trickster’s trick is revealed as such, and its mechanism laid bare, so that the trick can never work again; the constructedness of gender identity does not survive its revelation as such. Janie, however, is constantly fluid and changing in her self-identity, and thus hers is the life that changes: in fact, she seems to change before Starks’s eyes, “[m]aking all that show of humbleness and scorning him all the time” (80). Even as he dies, she tells him, “You changes everything but nothing don’t change you” (86)—in his rigidity, he has tried to adapt the rest of the world to meet his own specifications, but only succeeded in seeing his dreams “mocked to death by Time” (1)—and by Janie.

Janie herself “bask[s] in freedom” (93), then resumes the voyage, being enticed away from Eatonville in pursuit of her third suitor, Tea Cake, who is very nearly her match. He is a charming, attractive, and artful shapeshifter who almost immediately belies the sweetness of his name by stealing Janie’s money. He makes reparations, then beats her to prove his manhood to a neighboring family, makes reparations again—but ends by losing not just his manhood but his entire humanity and then his life to rabies, shifting at the end into bestial form, like an archetypal trickster. By this time, they are living in the Everglades, where Janie has worked alongside Tea Cake on “the muck,” picking beans—although underlying this apparent equality of roles is Tea Cake’s desire to keep Janie within the boundaries he controls—and have survived a hurricane, in the aftermath of which he is bitten by a rabid dog that is menacing Janie. The shift is not long in coming: “Janie saw a changing look come in his face. Tea Cake was gone. Something else was looking out” (181). In the ensuing showdown between pistol and rifle, however, Janie proves the wilier, and later tells her story in court so as to construct it in the jury’s eyes as “a great act of mercy” rather than the “cold-blooded murder” with which she is charged (188). A dispute about how this story should be interpreted continues outside the courtroom among Janie and Tea Cake’s black friends—specifically, it is a dispute about the meaning of skin, and its role in determining Janie’s fate. “[Y]ou know dem white mens wuzn’t gointuh do nothin’ tuh no woman dat look lak her” some of them argue (189). But again, the meaning of her skin is contingent. Do they think the white men in question find her innocent because she is half white and has Caucasian characteristics, symbolized by her hair—because she is on their side of the boundary? Or because she is also half black, the beautiful “tragic mulatto” of more recent mythology, rumored to be a siren to white men partly for the very reason that she lives beyond the boundary? Or because of the nature of her skin’s interaction with other skins? “She didn’t kill no white man, did she” (189). Their focus is not on the nature of the death itself, but on pinning down the specific meaning of the skins involved.

From their perspective, Nanny’s “de nigger woman is de mule uh de world” has become “uh white man and uh nigger woman is de freest thing on earth” (189). Unlike Nanny, they perceive—ambivalently—only positive potential for Janie in her manipulation of both race and gender. For Janie herself, it is her ambiguous relationship to her own skin, and the different ways in which it is viewed contextually by others, that ultimately enables her to evade the last of the suitors and return home, having “been tuh de horizon and back” (191). She has negotiated the hazards that beset her, out-tricking the tricksters, and returned with the recognition that “Love is lak de sea . . . [I]t takes its shape from the shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore” (191). Thus her voyage ends with liberation from the shapeshifters into her own determination of the shape of love: she chooses to remember only the charming aspect of Tea Cake, “Tea Cake with the sun for a shawl,” who is now given existence only through her, “until she herself had finished feeling and thinking” (193). She transcends the need for interaction with his (or anyone’s) physical existence: for women, as the story said at the beginning, “[t]he dream is the truth” (1).

The world to which she returns is the one the reader meets near the beginning of the book before circling back to hear Janie’s story from childhood, and it is the same world she left: one that regards her as a disruptive outsider because of her shifting identities, and that tries unsuccessfully to pin her within its ontological confines. The community—specifically, that of Eatonville, which functions like a Greek chorus—awaits her in judgement on the porch. Inevitably, she fails to meet their standards in terms of complying with their definitions of gender (“Can’t she find no dress to put on?”), age (“What dat ole forty year ole ‘oman doin’ wid her hair swingin’ down her back lak some young gal?”), class (“[W]hy she don’t stay in her class?” [2]), and underlying all these questions, race (their bafflement that that if she is a “mule of the world,” she is a free mule and not the beast of burden they had all assumed a mule must inevitably be). In every possible system of categorization, Janie resists their value system like the archetypal amoral trickster: here morality itself takes significance only from context. “She de one been doin’ wrong,” says one townswoman. “You mean, you mad ‘cause she didn’t stop and tell us all her business,” says Phoeby, Janie’s best friend (3).

This contingency, though only Janie and Phoeby recognize it as such, is itself a function of skin. The community “had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human” (1). They interpret this kind of power as the ability to become “lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment” (1). When freed from oppression, their instinctive response is to become oppressors. But not least because this would entail adopting a stable identity, tricksters refuse to oppress or be oppressed, so Janie is inevitably an outsider, whatever the camp—just as both Odysseus and Penelope evaded calls to sit in judgment, and resisted the judgment of others. Thus unlike the rest of her community, Janie claims the freedom to inhabit simultaneously different skins of her choosing, racial and otherwise, based solely on personal contingency: for example, she enacts different gender roles simultaneously, both Penelope and Odysseus; she is not necessarily the age she appears to be; she slips easily from one class to another, from being the Mayor’s wife to working on “the muck;” at different times, she is first lady of a black township and championed by the white legal system. It is not so much that she is a composite of all these roles--she transcends boundaries and categorization altogether by refusing to acknowledge their existence. She points out with reference to the people of Eatonville that “Dem meatskins is got tuh rattle tuh make out they’s alive” (192): tied to the essentialism of their physical skins, the community can only remind themselves of their own differentiation from “[m]ules and other brutes” by asserting themselves in empty and meaningless ways. Janie’s way, on the other hand, is to take hold of meaning, and manipulate it to do her bidding.

Janie and her suitors were not the first tricksters to appear in Hurston’s fiction—John in Jonah’s Gourd Vine, for example, is an unstable character constantly trying to trick his wife and others into believing in his fidelity, while Moses, the “two headed man” (280) of Moses, Man of the Mountain, is a hoodoo man trying to outwit the fickle Israelites (and suspected of being a trickster by the Egyptians), sometimes in conflict with Miriam, the “two-headed woman with power” (171). Hurston’s depiction of Moses’ wife, Zipporah, also echoes one of another pair of mutual tricksters who feature in African American literature even more widely than Odysseus and Penelope: the description of Zipporah’s arrival in Moses’ camp in queenly regalia is very reminiscent of literary accounts of the Queen of Sheba, and the Israelites immediately take exception to her because of her skin: “She’s too dark to be around here” (298). (The traditional “dark and comely” Queen of Sheba tested Solomon through tricky questions devised to reveal the depth of his wisdom, while he played tricks on her in order to check the veracity of her identity, which was ultimately verified, as in Odysseus’ case, by a skin-marker—she has a hairy leg and a cloven foot. As soon as Solomon identifies her, her foot becomes normal.)

Similar ideas are found throughout Hurston’s fiction, including her short stories, but it is in Their Eyes Were Watching God that she most fully explores the possibilities of this culturally pervasive figure to elude, conflate, and transcend predetermined roles of gender, race, and class. That she does so using a trickster—or series of tricksters—modeled on the possibilities suggested by the Odysseus archetype is a choice with multiple cultural implications. Odysseus is known to us through the oral poetry of Homer, and as Mary Jane Lupton—who also notes the similarities between The Odyssey and Hurston’s novel—points out, Their Eyes is both “a symbolic work, a novel rich in myth and metaphor” and “a record of Black language and Black talking” (48), a reference to Hurston’s celebrated conflation of standard English and the vernacular, and of first- and third-person narrative, into what Henry Louis Gates calls a “speakerly text” (170 ff.), and Hurston’s narrator calls “[w]ords walking without masters” (2). Hurston’s approach was designed to outwit the Scylla and Charybdis that other African American writers struggled in vain to elude: the Scylla of black vernacular prose that was felt by some to convey the unwarranted impression that African Americans were uneducated, and the Charybdis of formal literary English, which denied the spirit of the culture the literature was intended to celebrate. Thus, the whole novel adopts what Gerald Vizenor was later to call “trickster discourse” (2 ff.), and does so in a way that emphasizes the stature of oral narrative as the bedrock of a culture’s literature. And the specific use of Odysseus and Penelope as the tricksters in question incorporates all the pressing themes of African American literature discussed above: out of the story of these tricksters grow the stories of the adventurer, the wanderer, the searcher after autonomy, the evader of snares, the unjustly persecuted, the shrewd schemer, the brave survivor, the transformer of fortunes.

Works Cited

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism. New York: OUP, 1988. Print.

Harper, Michael S., and Robert B. Stepto. Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979. Print.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Jonah’s Gourd Vine. 1934. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990. Print.

---. Moses, Man of the Mountain. 1939. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1984. Print.

---. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990. Print.

Jaynes, Julian. Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. 1976. New York: Mariner, 2000. Print.

Lupton, Mary Jane. “Zora Neale Hurston and the Survival of the Female.” Southern Literary Journal 15.1 (Fall 1982): 45-54. Print.

Morrison, Toni. Interview by Robert B. Stepto. “Conversation with Toni Morrison.” In Harper and Stepto, 213-229. Print.

Nicholl, Charles. The Chemical Theatre. 1980. New York: Akadine, 1997. Print.

Tomkins, Calvin. “Romare Bearden.” Introduction. Cordier and Ekstrom catalogue, The Odysseus Collages. Rpt. in Harper and Stepto, n.p. Print.

Vizenor, Gerald. “Trickster Discourse.” Wicazo Sa Review. 5.1 (Spring 1989): 2-7. Print.

Helen Lock received her B.A. from the University of Liverpool, and her Ph.D from the University of Virginia.  She is Professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, where she teaches and writes on American, African American, and multicultural literature. Her article Transformations of the Trickster, first published here, is required reading for many university courses.