During February, LEO is featuring commentaries from community members in conjunction with the Louisville Free Public Library’s Big Read of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” For more information, visit www.lfpl.org
“Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” —Janie Crawford in “Their Eyes Were Watching God”
As a teacher of students in the Jefferson County Public School system and at the University of Louisville, I delight in the privilege to interact daily with the strong spirits of hundreds of young women who have been broken, enslaved and taught obedience and social constraint preserved by both of those institutions. They are independent, articulate young women who are as unforgettable as Janie Crawford, the main character in Zora Neale Hurston’s book “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
Since 1998, when I first started teaching at Iroquois High School, my own identity as a black woman emerged even more powerfully after being loved and befriended by young women whose own mothers, girls I had grown up with, had chatted so hatefully about me on their porches when I walked down the dirt road of graduate school. What I continue to find in the young women I teach is the confrontation and desire to be relieved from the intraracial self-loathing, powerlessness and silence that shackled me in my teenage years.
I observe, day after day, year after year, as my black female students poetically balance their truths with the struggles they face to own their power within predominantly white institutions, places the girls’ truths are rarely affirmed and are least likely to be represented.
Like Janie, my girls must press forward in their quest for identity through the jagged vines of social pressure, the next set of statistics and suggested vaccines, and mighty white academia without cuffing themselves to regret, fear and dehumanization via invisibility.
Hurston offered Janie to us as a reminder that though we may be talked about on the racist, sexist and patriarchal front porches of this land, and though we may be told to tie up our hair and not speak what we know in our hearts, strong black women are anything but fiction!
Over here at the “Dirty I,” the girls and I stroke through the towns of our captivity, through the hedges of our issues being hidden and our truths unspoken, and we move past the dirt to emerge as a whole and complete “I,” where we learn, among other things, “how tuh live fuh ourselves.”
Aletha Fields is a writer, an English teacher at Iroquois High School, a lecturer at the University of Louisville and co-coordinator of the Fairness Campaign. Contact her at [email protected]