- Vodou Imagery, African-American Tradition and Cultural Transformation in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937 while in Haiti collecting folklore on Vodou. 1 A year later, she published Tell My Horse, which documents the findings from that expedition. While the history of these publications suggests that, for Hurston, folklore and fiction converge in Haiti, few critics have adequately explored that juncture. Most acknowledge Hurston’s interest in Haitian Vodou, but their analyses of the impact of this belief system on her work frequently do not extend beyond perfunctory glosses. A notable exception is Ellease Southerland’s essay, “The Influence of Voodoo on the Fiction of Zora Neale Hurston,” published in the 1979 collection, Sturdy Black Bridges. Southerland’s article makes an important contribution to readings of Hurston’s integration of folklore and fiction. The essay discusses the appearance and significance of various “voodoo” signs, symbols and rituals in Hurston’s fiction; and more specific to this paper, it identifies the use of Vodou symbolism in Their Eyes Were Watching God very early in the history of the novel’s criticism. But Southerland does not cite her sources for certain voodoo rituals, or for the significance of various numbers and colors which appear repeatedly in Hurston’s fiction. Her analysis therefore seems based on anecdotal evidence and it ignores the cultural distinctions amongst Haitian, Louisiana and other kinds of voodoo and hoodoo. These aspects of the essay contribute to the failure, or refusal, of succeeding generations of literary critics to further examine the cultural influences that Southerland found in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Some—although certainly not all—critics have categorized Hurston’s study and incorporation of Vodou as an intriguing curiosity, perhaps considering it to fall within the purview of anthropology and not literature. Reading the novel within such narrow parameters, however, has resulted in a general inability on the part of Hurston’s readers to identify the extent to which her use of Vodou ethnography in her literature enables her exploration of female empowerment and African-American cultural identity.
In this paper, I focus specifically on Hurston’s use of Haitian Vodou imagery in Their Eyes Were Watching God, and I argue that the folklore enables her confrontation of various kinds of social and personal transformation. Her use of Vodou imagery enables her to analyze the relationship among migration, culture and identity that lies [End Page 157] at the heart of the African Diaspora. In contrast to those critics who read Hurston’s use of folk culture, such as Vodou, as a sign of nostalgia, I view it as her means of comprehending transformation. Within traditional cultural forms lies a structure which encourages and enables dynamic change. Therefore, Hurston’s reluctance to abandon African-American tradition does not signal a rejection of modernity; rather, it becomes a vehicle for her to acknowledge modernity.
I concern myself here specifically with Vodou because Their Eyes Were Watching God alludes to similarities between the protagonist, Janie Killicks Starks Wood, and the Vodou goddess, Ezili. Janie’s physical appearance, her romantic relationships and her interactions with the Eatonville community mirror in a multitude of ways the characteristics of that spirit (lwa). These allusions are so embedded into the foundation of the narrative that they are virtually invisible, compelling us to ask what it was about Hurston’s experiences in Haiti that compelled her to relate Vodou to her characters. Perhaps her instincts as a folklorist and writer led her to a cultural experience in which the self-expression of a displaced people comes to the fore. Perhaps because she was raised in the self-contained all-black community of Eatonville, Florida, she looked to a belief system that addressed black people’s capacity for self-determination. Hurston found in Haitian Vodou a syncretic cultural production that spoke to both of those interests and more. Her anthropological research revealed that the ways in which Haitian people worked out their political, social and psychic conditions in the spiritual plane resonated with the concerns and experiences of African Americans in the United States. Because the Vodou...