Zora Neale HURSTON’s They Eyes Were Looking God chronicles Janie Crawford’s search for love, freedom, and independence through black womanhood in 20th-century America. Hurston opens the novel telling Nanny’s account. Hurston shows how black women struggled with power and resilience in the 19th and 20th century. Hurston’s novel Their Eyes were Watching God tells of Nanny and her struggle to protect Leafy. The story also shows how, despite these struggles, she finds strength in her vulnerability.

Hurston shows the idea that power is invulnerability first by alludeing to the historical, cultural, and social context of black women. After Janie has been reprimanded by Nanny for kissing a boy of the neighbourhood, Hurston starts to describe the black population, saying that they are “branches lacking roots”, including Nanny and other black women enslaved (Hurston 16). Hurston uses imagery to express two things. First, the phrase “branches sans roots” is a metaphor that black people lack a basis or foundation from which they can draw power or strength. Second, the American roots of black people are not there because most of them were expelled from their countries. Black people can be described as branches without roots. Their shared history of struggle and freedom for independence, humanity, and their common struggles are what connect them. Without any foundation, they cannot fulfill their dreams. This is how black people are inevitably thrown into insecurity by their race. This is important to highlight because it means they have “branches,” or their offspring, who can help them. Hurston shows us that Nanny, and other black people, can’t be “beaten…so low” and “robbed of their strength.” (16). Hurston’s portrayal of Nanny in this paragraph is one that demonstrates resilience. Nanny creates an image of a person who has been physically beaten but maintains their dignity and their will. Hurston repeats “Ah didn’t want” (16 four times in this paragraph to show how Nanny was able to use her determination and willpower to get a better situation for Leafy. Nanny’s mistress visits Nanny after her Master has gone to war. Nanny is seen lying in bed with baby Leafy by Hurston. Hurston, who is angry with the Mistress for not understanding “who Mistis” and begins hitting her. Nanny felt the Mistress give her the “last few licks”, but she didn’t feel the first couple as she was looking after Leafy (17 Hurston 17). Hurston’s alliteration of “last licks”, which Hurston uses to draw attention to Nanny’s strength and resilience, contrasts with Hurston’s simile about “burning like a fire”, is a great example of Hurston’s alliteration. Hurston’s use the simile “burning like fire” fleshes out Nanny’s physical and emotional pains after giving birth. Fire does not touch anything, so Nanny was not harmed by the mistress’ jealousy and anger. Nanny is now reminded that the Mistress is superior by this point.

Hurston states that Nanny didn’t show any symptoms of violence and said, “Ah wasn’t crying” (17). Hurston’s intentional and repeated repetition of “Ah wasn’t” shifts the control over Nanny. Nanny is choosing not to succumb to the Mistress’s weakness. This is her strength, despite the obvious vulnerability she displayed while lying on her back with Leafy. She instead has a cool demeanor and says “Ah isn’t nothing but [anN–]and a slave (17)” to the Mistress when she was asked about the baby’s whiteness. Hurston’s use language with “ain’t something” and the dictionary of “[N–-] and slave” is a clear reminder to readers and the Mistress that Nanny was not an object, but a human being. Nanny is, however, the one who has the Master’s child. Hurston is saying Nanny in her submissiveness that she is “nothing”, she is saying Nanny has everything. Nanny’s strength is found in this forced servitude and submissiveness. Hurston shows Nanny that she is not the promiscuous slave-woman black women were made to believe when they gave birth with mixed-raced kids. Hurston’s literary choices transcend Nanny’s story and show the resilience that black women have displayed in the face of adversity for their children’s futures.

Zora Nanny Hurston’s story in They Eyes Were watching God and her struggles is used by Hurston to depict the struggles of enslaved women of color. Hurston instead shows us that even in their submissiveness, there is still strength through their dedication to love and hope for better times.

The Idea Of Power In Vulnerability In Their Eyes Were Watching God


I am a 34-year-old educational blogger and student. I enjoy writing about education and sharing my insights and experiences with others. I hope to use this blog as a way to share my knowledge and help others learn more about the subjects that interest me.

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