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Calypso MagnoliaThe Crosscurrents of Caribbean and Southern Literature$

John Wharton Lowe

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781469628882

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469628882.001.0001

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A Proper Order of Attention

A Proper Order of Attention

McKay and Hurston Honor the Hardy Peasant

(p.198) 5 A Proper Order of Attention
Calypso Magnolia

John Wharton Lowe

University of North Carolina Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter draws attention to the ways in which folk culture and folklore have found differing but also similar registers among the writers of the U.S. South and the Caribbean. Chief examples are found in the Jamaican Claude McKay’s novel Banana Bottom, and a subsequent Florida-based novel it almost certainly influenced, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Reading both as examples of female bildungsromans, this discussion concentrates on Bakhtin’s notions of the “testing” of key figures, carnivalization, and folk dialogics. Special attention is paid to the ways in which colonial culture on the island and Jim Crow imperatives in Florida had contrasting, but often similar effects. Gender, sexuality, and color distinctions within the races receive detailed examination as well. The relation of man/woman to nature is limned; the tropical sublime registers in terms of the awesome and terrible as hurricanes create havoc in both texts, but also clear the ground for new social constructions and human relations. McKay and Hurston’s poetics feature largely here as dynamic generators of narrative power. Actual events in Jamaica and Florida are configured, as well as Hurston’s research in the Caribbean (including Jamaica), and the fact that she wrote Their Eyes in Haiti.

Keywords:   “peasant” culture, folklore, Jamaica, color prejudice

In the 1930s, Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor codified a new black aesthetic in response to colonial oppression, which we now call “negritude.” Their valorization of “peasant” culture, after centuries of its scornful dismissal, became the basis of decolonization and took many differing forms across the black diaspora. These two writers were inspired, in part, by one of the greatest examples of their principles, the existing work of the Jamaican Claude McKay (1890–1948). After limning his native Jamaica’s pastoral beauty in some juvenile poems, his subsequent wanderings took him to colleges in Alabama and Kansas, to the artistic and sexual ferment of the Harlem Renaissance, and then to Europe, where he was swept up by both the avant-garde and the communists, eventually traveling to Russia and enjoying the largesse of various white patrons as he variously drank and wrote his way around the Old World. Eventually, however, he would settle in Morocco, whose tropical setting brought back memories—and new perceptions—of his native island.

In the United States, while McKay was touring and working in Europe, Zora Neale Hurston was enjoying herself as a literary and social doyenne of the Harlem Renaissance, while pursuing a graduate degree in anthropology at Columbia University. Like McKay in his later life, her experiences away from her native Florida and her new understanding of social constructions made her reflect on the culture that produced her and on the rich repositories of folklore that were its crowning glory. This chapter demonstrates how these two superb writers each recast their perceptions of the “hardy peasant” culture that produced them, resulting in two masterworks that reflect Afro-Caribbean culture, Banana Bottom (1933) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Finally, I suggest that Hurston’s reading of McKay’s novel inspired and influenced the writing of Their Eyes, as she began to better understand the profoundly Caribbean aspects of her Florida and its people.

Claude McKay was a very serious artist who immediately saw dramatic possibilities in the new mixed worlds of color he was experiencing, first in (p.199) New York, and then in Paris, Marseilles, and Tangier, where many Africans and people of African descent had started immigrating from the French colonies around the world. His enduring classics, Home to Harlem (1926) and Banjo (1929), throb with the energies of new black communities in Manhattan and Marseilles, respectively. The latter book, however, is far more political and introduces colonial issues into the racial conversation McKay had started in New York about color biases, within the race and without as well. These works were strengthened by McKay’s parallel nonfiction writing and his poetic endeavors, as well as his extensive relationships with modernist writers of all races and backgrounds. Both of his first two novels, however, are highly picaresque and therefore very masculine in point of view and in terms of action. Moreover, neither Harlem nor black Marseilles had the kind of rootedness and history necessary for an in-depth study of communal tradition and culture—which is not to say that these novels do not contain a multitude of rich scenes, complex ideas, and brilliant use of an innovative black modernism. In his final novel, Banana Bottom (1933), set in Jamaica, McKay was imagining, after his cosmopolitan experiences in newly created black metropolitan clusters, the “warm … fraternity of olden days.” McKay was also aware, at this point, of the work of his Harlem colleagues, such as Zora Neale Hurston, Eric Walrond, Langston Hughes, and Sterling Brown, who had made magnificent poems, plays, and fictions from the materials of black peasant cultures of the U.S. South and the Caribbean.

Accordingly, toward the end of his life, McKay, disabused of the false promises of Western political parties and movements and living a pastoral, even agricultural, life in Morocco, cast his thoughts back to his native Jamaica and the rural folk whose values he had never really forgotten.1 Like Hurston, whom he resembled in a surprising number of ways, he now was equipped with new lens of perception that made him see his origins in a more penetrating and poetic way. Just before writing his Jamaican novel, he had written and published Gingertown (1932), which featured several charming short stories set in Jamaica, including “The Agriculture Show,” a richly detailed tale about a local festival, a visit from the governor, and the complications of color hierarchies, most of it told from the perspective of a young boy. Busha Glengly and his family play key roles, and this patriarch and his son appear in Banana Bottom as well. The story “Crazy Mary” details how a schoolmaster is accused of raping his young student Freshy, while another tale, “The Strange Burial of Sue,” contains forbidden affairs, communal gossip, and religious thematics. Writing these Jamaican short stories planted the seeds for the novel in McKay’s mind.

(p.200) Generally ignored by U.S. and European critics, Banana Bottom has from its inception been seen as a classic of Caribbean literature. But I will argue here that it almost certainly inspired other “peasant” novels by U.S. Southern writers, and it has other strong parallels in the works of subsequent circumCaribbean writers as well, including Hurston, DuBose Heyward, and Jacques Roumain.2 Their Eyes Were Watching God has many parallels with McKay’s last novel, and it is entirely possible, indeed likely, that Hurston had read this work as part of her preparation for her research in Jamaica. I will be more interested, however, in demonstrating how her experiences in the Caribbean led her to see connections between her own culture in Florida and that of the islands, particularly in terms of the African heritage common to both and the interplay of multiethnic peoples in both realms. My analysis will cover white and black religious traditions of the two areas, gender conceptions, economic models, the legacy of slavery, agricultural practices, and the methodology McKay and Hurston develop to present what they both call “peasant” life. Further: as Banana Bottom was written after McKay’s extensive interactions with U.S., French, Russian, Moroccan, and African diasporic cultures (particularly in Marseilles), it inevitably involves a much more searching and comparative method of analysis than any he might have employed had he never left Jamaica. His political activity gave him a new appreciation of his islanders, as both “proletariat figures” and heroic creators of a dazzling culture. His time in the U.S. South and his agricultural studies also gave him a new sense of the plantation history and new agricultural potential of the South of the South. Similarly, Their Eyes was written not only through the lens of Hurston’s Caribbean experiences (which included extended stays in New Orleans, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Haiti), but also through what she called the “spy-glass” of anthropology, following her graduate work at Columbia, her field research under the direction of Franz Boas, and her extensive intellectual encounters with writers, professors, musicians, and immigrants in Washington, Baltimore, New York, coastal South Carolina, and her native Florida. Her new understanding of the myriad aspects of her own peasant culture influenced and deepened her appreciation of the Caribbean world that was both similar to and different from Florida.

Another critic who has examined these novels in tandem (if briefly) is Hazel Carby, whose influential reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God has inspired a number of like-minded critics to severely chastise Hurston for sins of omission, rather than of commission. Carby, a Marxist critic who favors ideologically driven, urban-centered texts that aim for social change, (p.201) accuses both McKay and Hurston of “romanticizing” the folk by creating “utopian” peasant communities.3 In fact, neither McKay nor Hurston are depicting “utopias” in their fiction. While they appreciate the beauty of the natural environment, the expressive richness of black folk culture, and the productive husbandry of the land, they do not hesitate to reveal the envious backbiting, anti-intellectualism, religious bias, color prejudice, and vicious gossiping of the “peasants,” or the amorous betrayals, neglect of progeny, and acts of violence and bestiality. Further, the people are devastated by unwise mono-crop husbandry, hurricanes, droughts, and floods, and although McKay does not include an earthquake, Kingston was almost totally destroyed in 1907 by a forceful set of tremors. Carby raises, however, some crucial points about the depiction of folk culture, and we will return to her observations in what follows.

Hurston had done extensive field work in Jamaica and wrote Their Eyes in Haiti when she was recovering from an intense but doomed love affair with a very dark man much like both Jubban and Tea Cake. Her surroundings at the time surely led her to emphasize the tropical nature of her novel’s Florida setting and to valorize more than ever the common folk of the town, whom she now understood as masters of deeply meaningful folk culture that had extensive links to the Caribbean. Both she and McKay made a conscious effort to pay homage to the achievement of black folk speech, employing a form of dialect that was pungent and expressive but never demeaning. Further, they demonstrate how powerfully this kind of language is based in the natural, tropical world the characters inhabit, thereby illustrating many of the principles of language Emerson laid down in his seminal essay “Nature.”

Hurston’s background as the daughter of John Hurston, a popular Eatonville minister who also served for a time as mayor of the all-black town, is well known. Living in an eight-room house with seven siblings, Hurston was encouraged by her mother to read and dream, and when she later studied in famous Eastern schools, she never tried to “get above her raisings.” On the contrary, most of her fiction brought her hometown and its surroundings to joyous life, as she paid homage to the rich folk culture of central Florida and to its African heritage. In her autobiography, Hurston provides a portrait of Eatonville’s early origins, which are remarkably Caribbean: “This had been dark and bloody country since the mid-1700’s. … Spanish, French, English, Indian, and American blood had been bountifully shed.” And she describes the Maroon communities the Seminoles and Negroes created in the swamps, so like those of the Caribbean (Dust Tracks, 1942, 12).

McKay also grew up in virtually all-black surroundings, in a remote village (p.202) in the central hills of Jamaica. He was born in 1890, just one year before Hurston. His father bragged about descent from the Ashantis in Africa and told Anancy tales to his children. Like Hurston’s father, he was quite religious and served as an elder in the church but refused to participate in Obeah rituals (Ramesh and Rani 2006, 14–15).

The plot of Banana Bottom was inspired by McKay family history. Claude received a solid education, one modeled on British culture. His brother Uriah was a schoolteacher with access to a good library, and he encouraged his brother to steep himself in the British classics and to write mimetic verse, such as his early and stilted poem “Old England.” Young Claude took pride in speaking correct English and became the protégé of an expatriated Englishman, Walter Jekyll, an unusual man who deeply admired Jamaican folk culture, which he collected and published. He encouraged McKay, particularly in the writing of dialect poetry, and this led to the publication of young Claude’s two collections, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads (both 1912). The latter collection drew on his angry memories of serving as a colonial policeman in Kingston and Spanish Town. Jekyll became the model for Squire Gensir in Banana Bottom.

Hurston read McKay’s Harlem Renaissance work, and her comments on his nonfiction indicate she felt a sense of kinship with him. Reviewing his Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940), she said that McKay “knows what is really happening among the folks. … He fixes a well-traveled eye on the situation and thus achieves proportion. … He has spoken out about those things Negroes utter only when they are breast to breast, but by tradition are forbidden to break a breath about when white ears are present. The book is as frank and open as twelve o’clock noon. For that reason it will not find favor among the large class of Negroes who plump for window-dressing for whites. Yet it is valuable to both races” (“Review,” 1941, 95–96). McKay consistently refers to his people as “peasants.” His patron Walter Jekyll wrote in his preface to McKay’s Songs of Jamaica that the poet is a “Jamaican peasant of pure black blood” (1912, 9). One of McKay’s first published dialect poems, “Peasants’ Way o’ Thinkin” (published in Daily Gleaner in January 1912), uses a folk persona to argue not only for help for the poor, but respect for their ideas (Wayne Cooper 1987, 50). In his posthumously published memoir, My Green Hills of Jamaica (1979), he notes, “My youth in Jamaica was not unhappy. In our village we were poor enough but very proud peasants. We had plenty to eat. We had enough to wear, a roof against the rain, and beautiful spreading trees to shade us. … Alligator pears and mangoes grew stoutly on the brink of the banks. … They fell on the road (p.203) and anybody could pick them up” (3–4).4 His sense of peasant culture had been strongly reinforced through his trip to Russia and his absorbed reading of Russian writers, particularly Tolstoy and the “peasant” poet Sergei Yesinin (Long Way, 1937, 88–97). In Banjo, the Haitian intellectual Ray (in many ways a fictional avatar of McKay) declares, “You’re a lost crowd, you educated Negroes and you will only find yourself in the roots of your own people. … Turn your back on all these tiresome clever European novels and read about Russian peasants, the story and struggle of their lowly, patient, hard-driven life. … Be interested in native African dialects and though you don’t understand, be humble before their simple beauty instead of despising them” (201). George Lamming claimed that the Caribbean novel is usually concerned with the poor “and has served as a way of restoring these lives—this world of men and women from down below—to a proper order of attention; to make their reality the supreme concern of the total society” (Castle, 1953, xxxvii). Many classic texts of the literature of the U.S. South and the Caribbean have shared this impulse, especially during the Depression, with books like Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (1932), Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934), Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1935), John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children (1938). These classics of 1930s literature galvanized a nation around the struggles of the suddenly representative peasant cultures of both rural hovels and urban slums. Depression-era writers sought to foreground the dignity and strength of the poor. Hurston and McKay, while endorsing these aims, also wanted to highlight the creativity and exuberance of peasants, especially as they shape their mother wit into subversive weapons against oppression.

In her paradigmatic study, Southscapes (2011), Thadious Davis lays out a new definition of what has until now been seen as a forcibly segregated, and therefore carceral, black community, the one that preceded the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s. Her study points out the myriad ways in which African Americans created a vital communal, social, economic, and creative culture in “black space,” despite the strictures of Jim Crow (Davis, 79).

Robert Stepto, in laying out the principle of his study of cultural ascent and immersion narratives in African American culture (1979), ties ascent to literacy, which in the slave narrative is linked to the seminal journey north. McKay and Hurston certainly attained literacy in their own “peasant” communities, but they achieved a higher education after leaving Jamaica and Florida, respectively, in “journeys north,” through institutions of higher learning, life experiences, and contacts with scholars, intellectuals, and artists (p.204) (particularly in New York, and later for McKay, Paris and Marseilles). Both, however, knew they had learned much from peasant culture before their departures. Each had a deep dedication to what Hurston called “the Negro furthest down” and strove to meet and understand common people within the race wherever they were, be it in Port-au-Prince or Marseilles. Most important, they yoked the two concepts of ascent and immersion in their principal characters, Bita and Janie, suggesting that a fully integrated person must be anchored in the “soil” of folk culture, so that the “flower” of full expression—and of course this includes the Western-influenced aesthetic production of the individual authors as well—could emerge as a hybrid, complete, manifestation of healthy, conjoined, racial culture.

Stepto bases his theory in part on Victor Turner’s famous formulation of communitas, which Turner uses to describe relations between people jointly undergoing ritual transition. Yet, as Turner also pointed out, “communitas does not merge identities; it liberates them from conformity to general norms” (cited in Stepto 1979, 69). Stepto’s theory also involves the concept of genius loci, employing Geoffrey Hartman’s sense of how “local integrities” or “imagery of the tribe are given bounding outlines” through special spaces, “even though as expressions of spirit of place they depict place (ritual grounds), and as expression of ‘race-spirit’ or ‘race-message’ (W. E. B. Du Bois’s terms) they provide the currency of exchange, as it were within the realm of communitas” (Stepto 1979, 70).

Thus Eatonville, the “Muck,” and Banana Bottom emerge in these two texts as symbolic geography, marked by the agricultural life of the inhabitants, their “peasant” culture, and their interaction with the flora and fauna, the weather, and the changing seasons. Above all, however, Hurston’s evocation of Florida makes it akin to the Caribbean; in both spaces, people of African descent are in the majority and African-derived culture predominates in the popular imagination. Still, both McKay and Hurston dramatize key moments of conflict with dominant white cultures, particularly in terms of Jamaica’s colonial structures of oppression and the rigged social and juridical systems of the U.S. South.

Woolson’s description of the Florida peninsula as a finger pointing south connects Hurston’s genius loci with McKay’s, and the marked Caribbean quality of Hurston’s novel underlines that connection. Further, both novels point to the strong influence of the local climate and its growing seasons and the close connection between the people and the land the climate controls. Finally, both narratives conclude with a devastating hurricane, one that changes the parameters of both the main characters and the communities (p.205) they inhabit, while laying bare racial inequality and capitalist manipulation. As such, catastrophe “clears the ground” for new, sustaining rituals, which begin in death but lead to rebirth. This motif fits with Kenneth Ramchand’s accurate appraisal of the novel and its central action: “[Bita] gradually strips away what is irrelevant in her English upbringing. … [She] is the first achieved West Indian heroine and Banana Bottom is the first classic of West Indian prose” (1983, 259). As we shall see, Tea Cake’s death and the erasure of the community on the muck lead to Janie’s reintegration—in new terms—with her home genius loci of Eatonville, through the interweaving of her story with the imaginations of her neighbors. Tea Cake’s bundled seeds, which Janie brings with her, are signifiers of the fertilizing effect of his and Janie’s story. McKay uses the hurricane and its aftermath to similar affect. It brings about the death of Jordan Plant and Mr. and Mrs. Craig and the need for new plantings in the community, which is symbolized by the grafting of the “flower” of Bita onto the “root” of the black peasant, Jubban, leading to the rebirth of her father in the naming of their son after him.

Robert Stepto importantly notes that Hurston’s novel is “quite likely the only truly coherent narrative of both ascent and immersion, primarily because her effort to create a particular kind of questing heroine liberates her from the task (the compulsion, perhaps) of revoicing many of the traditional tropes of ascent and immersion” (1979, 164). Of course many of these (although Stepto does not say this) involve issues of masculine identity, as predicated by the slave narrative. I will claim here that Banana Bottom (which has always been—perhaps rightly so—categorized as a Caribbean novel) also functions as both ascent and immersion narrative, in quite similar ways.

McKay, Hurston, and Tropical Founts of Identity

Claude McKay has been best known recently for his angry, stirring poetry and his seminal novel, Home to Harlem (1926), which offers a vibrant sense of the multiple layers of the cultural matrix of the New Negro’s beehive in New York. More recently, Paul Gilroy, Jeff Karem, and others have directed our gaze across the Atlantic to Marseilles, the setting of McKay’s very different narrative of the black diaspora, Banjo. McKay’s third novel, Banana Bottom completes the triangle of the Black Atlantic with the story of Jamaica’s Bita Plant, a transnational heroine who comes home to her island roots after seven years of education in Britain.5 The novel has been neglected in favor of McKay’s other works, but the issues I have raised thus far should amply (p.206) indicate why I believe this text deserves a place in any discussion of the affinities between Southern African American and Afro-Caribbean writing.

McKay’s novel begins in the small town of Jubilee, pictured throughout the novel as a refuge from the incursions of the colonial world of the bigger cities such as Kingston. Bita Plant, seated at the piano, has brought culture—literacy and Western musical training—to Jubilee back from her education in England. She returns to a communal “lovefeast” that resembles gatherings in Hurston’s Eatonville, accompanying—and thus participating in—the performance of the “Coloured Choristers.” Bita has always had music in her life, for her father, Jordan, was a renowned fiddler in his youth, and McKay takes pains to show us how music, both European and Afro-Caribbean, permeates every aspect of Jamaican social and religious culture.

Because Bita has spent those seven years (the traditional stint of bondage in the Bible) in England, without any contact with her native culture, the reader perhaps expects someone who will put on airs. But despite the fact that she wears a “princess” gown—aligning her with British royalty—she knows she is at last among “her own folk.” At first, this would seem to include the white Reverend Malcolm and Priscilla Craig, who “had taken Bita like a child of their own” when she was “a hoyden,” “improved” her, and then sent her to England.6 There are signs of resistance to the colonizing program of the Craigs from the start, however, even among this refined group. The Coloured Choristers, led by the appropriately named soprano Belle Black, are “in no way intimidated by Bita’s years of higher and foreign culture. Indeed they were united in testing it” (2), but Bita can keep up with the frantic tempo that Belle sets. “Bita had passed their test,” an “exam” that asks whether Bita’s fancy education has made her unable to “play” (in every sense) with them, and at their pace. This idea of testing dominates the novel, as Bita, and also the other key characters, are “tested” by a variety of differing measures.

Bakhtin has identified “testing” of this sort as one of the most fundamental organizing concepts in the novel, which radically distinguishes it from the epic, where any concept of doubt regarding the hero is “unthinkable.” He uses the German term Prüfungsroman to signify this testing aspect. Usually the heroism or fidelity of the central character goes under trial (Dialogics, 1981, 388). In the above scene, we have a relatively benign example of this syndrome, but there are many other such “testings” in the novel, of Bita, of the Craigs, and of Jubban. But, significantly, in this first example, it is the assembled folk who test and then approve.

McKay brings a shocking and sexual revelation into this polite gathering, (p.207) for while Bita is kissing and being kissed, he informs the reader that she is “a girl with a past. … She had been raped by Crazy Bow Adair” (2). We remember here that in Their Eyes, Janie’s mother, Leafy, and Janie herself are products of rape. McKay’s description of the rape of Bita, rendered in a short flashback, is quite ambiguous, in that she teases and embraces Crazy Bow passionately as they romp in the wood: “She clambered upon him again and began kissing his face. Crazy Bow tried to push her off. But Bita hugged and clung to him passionately. Crazy Bow was blinded by temptation and lost control of himself and the deed was done” (10). McKay uses this flashback—and others related to it—to point to the ways in which peasant culture can be negative. Jordan Plant, Bita’s father, would have liked to have hushed up her rape, probably because he knows the details and because he cares about her reputation, but gossiping women spread the story far and wide and Crazy Bow must go to the asylum. Later, jealous peasant women look back at Bita’s rape as a kind of fortunate fall, and McKay even has some of them wish that they had been raped in her place, for it led to her being “lifted up” by the Craigs through her privileged English education and her later “adoption” by the couple as part of the work of their mission.

Just after the rape, the villagers compose a cruel but creative ditty (one of many communal creations in the book), which they sing as “a toothsome tale,” for they are jealous of Jordan’s success:

  • You may wrap her up in silk,
  • You may trim her up with gold,
  • And the prince may come after
  • To ask for your daughter,
  • But Crazy Bow was first. (14)

The association of “silk” and “gold” here refers to Jordan’s prosperity and to the foolishness of trying to shield juicy truth from the folk, what Hurston, in a sense of both admiration and approbation, called “mouth-almighty.” There are many other incidents in the novel of the envious, “basket-of-crabs” syndrome among the Antilleans, which is identical to that in the U.S. South: if one crab tries to escape from the fisherman’s basket, the others, jealous, reach up and pull it back. Hurston’s envious villagers of Eatonville welcome Janie’s apparent “fall” as she returns to the hamlet alone, in mud-stained overalls. In Banana Bottom, the “toothsome” tale of Bita’s fall spreads through the vicious gossip of Sister Phibby, who habitually “stirs the pot” of local mischief by spreading tales of “ruint” women and scandalized men.

This part of Bita’s history affords McKay an opportunity to offer an alternative (p.208) to the white “adoption” of the Craigs, for Crazy Bow is a third-generation descendant of a Scotsman who married a “Negress” (McKay does not give her a name) and then launched a program of providing land for black Jamaicans, and not just for his own huge flock of descendants. McKay comments: “The Highlander’s blood has flowed down into a dark-brown stream deep sunk into the soil. His children’s children are hardy peasants. Some are reliable artisans” (3).

Here McKay sets up a model of another kind of “adoption,” namely that of blood. This Scotsman felt no abhorrence of blackness, unlike the British, who rarely intermarried with subject peoples in any Anglo colony, although, as McKay will demonstrate, they did have black mistresses and sired many of the mulattoes who came to dominate Jamaican second-tier culture. Indeed, the Scotsman’s wife was “one of the blackest of them” (2). Jordan and his neighbors live on the high ground of Banana Bottom, which in many ways resembles Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville. It was established by old Adair but became a virtually all-black, peasant enclave, just as Eatonville did in Florida. Banana Bottom, McKay tells us, is “among the first of independent expatriate—Negro villages” (9), and Eatonville was the first all-black incorporated town in Florida.

Jordan’s family stands in contrast to the white missionaries, the Craigs, but they become linked to the black community through their apparently autistic and mute only child, Patou (the patois word for screech-owl).7 Patou’s presence in the novel operates on several levels; first, the Craigs, for all their refinement, have produced a child whose perceived animal-like nature places him on the lowest rung of island life, despite his whiteness; further, Mrs. Craig chooses Bita over Herald Day as a candidate for “adoption,” for she cannot bear the idea of supplanting her own son with another, a visible sign of rejection. Finally, when a dazed and confused Mrs. Craig, viewing a local exhibit of African art, has a delirious vision of being surrounded by whirling black masks (199, 202), Patou’s face becomes one of them, before she, too, lapsing into mobile fantasy, joins in frantic dancing. The dream would seem to indicate that Mrs. Craig understands, through the agency of the child she has produced, that the “primitive” is in her too, and that the chaos it symbolizes—the whirling, mad dancing—has been in her body, which may be proven by the gestural but incoherent physicality of her natural/unnatural son. And indeed, earlier, quite consciously viewing the real masks in the missionary hall, she had been troubled by the thought that “they seemed to take on a forbidden actuality and potency, as if they were immortal. … She discerned something of their spirit in the decadent (p.209) practices of the Obi-worshipers. … Those objects were unholy. … There was much more behind their exhibition than they thought. The objects were so positively real. Surely they possessed some elemental force. … She was troubled to think that they might have their origin in some genuine belief … that the night-wrapped creatures of Africa might also have had there in the dim jungles their own vision of life” (198). The dream itself offers a fine example of what Suzanne Césaire claimed about Surrealism, that it was “a state of mind … the domain of the strange, the marvelous and the fantastic … the metamorphoses and the inversion of the world under the sign of hallucination and madness,” which she prophesied would “supply the rising people with a punch from its very depths” (cited in Kelley, 2000, 16).

The Craigs are skewered, however, from the beginning by the acid-tongued narrator, who describes Bita as “the transplanted African peasant girl that they had transformed from a brown wildling into a decorous cultivated young lady.” This description maintains the “plant” imagery and constitutes the Europeans as the “husbandrymen” of the colonial “garden,” as Bita is “one precious flowering of a great work” (11). The Craigs are aware of their link to the generations of white missionaries who had come to the islands to preach to “the Quasheees. To bring to the jungle creatures Light” (12).

This ecological imagery is also seen in the name “Plant.” The name strongly roots both Bita and Jordan in the native flora and fauna, which play an important role in the development of the novel. The “dark-brown stream” of Jamaican culture was the original nourishment for Bita, and she has been hungry for its sustaining energies, we find, the whole time she was in England. A sensitivity to actual plants and flowers operates symbolically in the novel, for Jubban, while hunting, spies a rare and lovely flower growing in the armpit of a tree. He does not remove it, as he knows that the botanically inclined Englishman, Squire Gensir, Bita’s intellectual white patron, will be interested in it, and that the latter likes to collect specimens himself, as “the villagers were careless doing it” (171). The local population sees nothing special in a lovely plant, or for that matter, in Bita Plant. Both Jubban and the Squire do appreciate the marvelous and rare. However, Jubban’s deferral to the Squire’s usual wish that others not pick the flower results in it not being collected, as the Squire is unable to locate it. This small episode has much to do with the overarching symbolism of the novel and with the colonial impulse. As we have seen, the Craigs think of Bita as the “precious flowering” of their great work, which stands for the overall project of British colonialism. Squire Gensir, while ostensibly far superior to the Craigs, also (p.210) emerges from this episode and elsewhere as the face of colonialism, for his appreciation of the merits of the island and its people’s culture is based on superiority; they, the peasants, are too ignorant to appreciate it. But Jubban saw and correctly identified the flower. There is no question about the identity of the source for Squire Gensir (whose name must be a satiric shorthand for a triple redundancy, Squire Gentleman Sir). He is based on Walter Jekyll (1849–1929), a well-off Englishman who had come to Jamaica to escape the rapid industrialization of England and Europe. Like Gensir, he relished black Jamaican culture and language and urged McKay—who spoke perfect English—to write poems in dialect. McKay wrote eloquently of the effect Jekyll had on him in his autobiography.8 It is worth noting here that Squire Gensir and Bita (and for that matter, their models, Jekyll and McKay himself), are in effect mirror images, in that each of them represent what J. Michael Dash has termed “hybrid personalities … whose legitimacy is equal to that of the native inhabitant” (1998, 101).

The Craigs and their brethren fit into what McKay calls a “species of white humanity” (4). This group recoils in horror from the racial mixing that the island’s emancipation supposedly produced, and yet they favor light-skinned blacks such as Crazy Bow (before his incarceration), whose wunderkind musical abilities, on the piano, the fiddle, the banjo, and the guitar, link him to Bita. But, despite these musical abilities, his light skin would seem to dictate a bureaucratic post, “one of the little polite places that were always the plums of the lighter-skinned coloured people” (4), and he is sent to a private school. Learning the piano and the fiddle, however, like the artist in Plato’s theories, carries him into madness, as he seemingly communes with the gods of music, leading him to Dionysian bouts of playing and drinking orange wine at the rambunctious “tea meetings” that dominate the social life of poorer and darker blacks on the island, and which provide a constant setting for the novel, a realm of “testing” where we and the white characters strain to see how well Bita meets the temptations of sensuous peasant culture.

The locals have very different standards, however, because of their colonization and their “backwoods” mentality. When whites feel moved to label Crazy Bow’s talents according to Western ideas, they call him a “coloured Paganini,” but “the peasants laughed at the idea of greatness in him. Greatness could not exist in the backwoods. … To them and to all the islanders greatness was a foreign thing” (8). They are much more accepting of Bita’s elevation, as she has indeed become a “foreign thing.”

(p.211) Repeatedly, in the first section of the novel, McKay refers to the “peasants” and makes us care for their feelings and opinions far more than those of the Craigs, who are missionaries but also colonists, as they seek to change the people into model Brits. Further, the use of the term “backwoods” perhaps reflects McKay’s time in America, when he would have seen the sharp distinction between not just urban and rural blacks, but also between small-city citizens and folk who live in agricultural communities, in the “backwoods.” Certainly, in Hurston’s novels and stories, even the citizens of tiny Eatonville feel themselves superior to the “country” folk who live in Polk County, working in the “backwoods” sawmill and turpentine camps. This thematic of “backwoods” figures largely in other writers of the South and the Caribbean, such as Mark Twain, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Erna Brodber, and Derek Walcott.

McKay, like Hearn, carefully provides the math of color caste on the island, since it will be a repeated refrain throughout the narrative. Three-fourths are descendants of slaves and are dark; one-fifth is light brown, because of white blood. The rest are white, East Indian, or Chinese—yet admixtures are common. Later, he discusses the ways in which all these communities are drained by immigration outward. Jordan Plant had four brothers, but three left to work on the Panama Canal and the fourth joined the army. Only Jordan, “rooted in the soil,” does well.

The Panama Canal was a jealously fought-over project, in terms both of its location (Panama, Nicaragua, or Mexico) and its control (the Vanderbilts, filibusters, or the United States). It was yet another locus for drawing together the various peoples of the Caribbean. As Bita proudly points out to the Craigs, who bitterly resent the drain of outstanding peasants, “they make more money there … eight times more gain. … They say the construction is a mighty work and the black labour the best down there, especially the Jamaicans and Haitians” (35), an early indication of her respect for black industry and black men.9

McKay’s use of the term “hardy peasants,” his indication of their vital contribution to the building of the Panama Canal, and the myriad other passages that show what he means by that term could well be a tip of his hat, not only to Tolstoy, but also to Thomas Hardy (1840–1928), whose sympathetic and compelling portraits of British peasants in works such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) suggested the potential of contrast between peasants and upper-class British. Like Hardy, who lovingly depicts mundane (p.212) activities such as the shearing of the sheep in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), McKay provides a similar tableau when Bita takes part in the harvesting of the pimento crop, a scene that comes alive through radiant natural description.

The minor characters provide much of the color and “peasant” wisdom of the book. Another of Bita’s suitors, Hopping Dick, dancer and dandy, is the son of the wily horse trader Amos Delgado. His girlfriend, Belle Black, may sing in the choir, but she is looked down on, as her father, Nias, won’t marry her mother or become a church member, nor will she. Significantly, Nias is an expert drummer, aligning him with African heritage, and both he and his daughter frequent the “ungodly” tea meetings. Hopping Dick is roundly disliked by the Craigs’ servant Rosyanna, who considers him “a grogshop customer, a horse-gambler and a notorious feminine heart-breaker” (43). But she also is offended when he tells Bita not to carry heavy loads herself, like “big-foot country gals,” as she (Rosyanna) is both big and barefooted. Here McKay offers two excellent examples of both resistance to and acceptance of colonizing standards. Rosyanna objects to Hopping Dick’s attention to Bita because he is “low-down,” not up to white standards of quality, unlike the prissy Herald Day. Yet her country identity objects to his put down of her from the viewpoint of precisely the same set of authorities—white standards of propriety. Local color is also rendered through food and the peasant market where exotic fare is sold. But the market is also the community’s crossroads where all come together in convivial discourse while simultaneously engaging in commerce. Both the crossroads and the market are favored sites for the African orisha Esu-Eleggua, whose propitiation is a sine qua non for any ritual—in this case Bita’s drawn-out “immersion/baptism” in folk culture.10 The market draws out the poet in McKay:

Broad warm faces of all colours between brown and black, sweating comfortably, freely in gay calico clothes, the full hum of their broad broken speech mounting and falling in strong waves under the sheer outdoor sun. Bita mingled in the crowd, responsive to the feeling, the colour, the smell, the swell and press of it. It gave her the sensation of a reservoir of familiar kindred humanity into which she had descended for baptism. She had never had that big moving feeling as a girl when she visited the native market. And she thought that if she had never gone abroad for a period so long, from which she had become accustomed to viewing her native life in perspective, she might never had had that experience. (40)

(p.213) The trope of “baptism” annuls the “false birth” that is the fantasy of the Craigs, who think they have “baptized” Bita into the white world as their adopted child, and shows that Bita has in fact been only prepared for the real baptism here, which so closely echoes the theory of immersion and ascent put forward by Stepto in his seminal study, Behind the Veil. These perceptions of Bita in the market also closely parallel Hurston’s remarks after returning to Eatonville from her years in the North to gather folklore for her Ph.D. degree in anthropology at Columbia. She had always known the traditions of her native South, but her training at Barnard and Columbia had given her both distance from her culture, and therefore perspective, and new lens through which to see it. As she put it, it had previously been too close to her, which had earlier fit her “like a tight chemise. I couldn’t see it for wearing it” (Mules, 1935, 3).

The scene at the market identifies island produce with the natives, and this finds extension in Bita’s first meal back home, which firmly indicates the Afro-Caribbean nature of this “backwoods” culture: “Thick Congo-pea soup, seasoned with salted beef and scallion … stewed goat meat, the sauce high-coloured with annatoo, and … an assortment of native vegetables, the yellow and flowery afou yam, bourbon-pink cocoes and fine mashed choo-chos. It was pure native cooking” (53). The emphasis on “purity” rather aligns McKay (at least in this novel) with Delany, who similarly validated “pure” African blood and traditions in Blake.

Banana Bottom, a kind of saving remnant of “pure” peasant culture, replicates an irony in Toni Morrison’s Sula, where the black neighborhood of “The Bottom” is actually high up over the white town. We “ascend” with Bita when she is called home to care for her Aunt Nommy, who is ill. Jordan Plant’s substantial six-room home is situated in a flower garden “full of heavy-scented hot-country flowers growing untidily thick together, bell-flowers and bluebells, the night jasmine and the creeping jasmine … the running bramble, crotons of many colours, the climbing sweet-william trailing its tiny but strong vermilion bloom along the veranda, and the exquisitely speckled tania flowers and the delicate variegated painted-ladies” (50–51). This passage, one of many we could point out in the novel as replicating Walt Whitman’s addiction to providing lists of plants, animals, and people, makes Banana Bottom a kind of Eden, and indeed Bita has crossed over to Jordan, her father, while ascending, to use the word so key to Stepto’s formula, and also immersing herself in folk culture.

These inventories can also, as with Janie’s pear tree in Their Eyes, take on a highly sexual aspect: “The bellflowers were lovely cream-white and (p.214) the coffee roses had spread all over the place. In the breadkind garden there was the old akee tree … full of fruit, the vermilion husks opening to view the deep-cream lobes and shiny black seeds” (58), a description that summons up images of Georgia O’Keefe’s highly suggestive paintings of flowers and shells. Compare Hurston’s famous portrait of sexual awakening in Their Eyes: “She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. 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 a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid” (24). The ability of peasant folk like Jubban and Janie to read sublime aspects of nature underscores their unsuspected sensibilities, suggesting the sustaining power of a proper relation to nature.

Man, of course, is part of nature as well, and both McKay and Hurston configure the human body with fruits of nature. In a magnificent scene, Bita undresses at home and looks at her body in the mirror: “She caressed her breasts like maturing pomegranates, her skin firm and smooth like the sheath of a blossoming banana, her luxuriant hair, close-curling like thick fibrous roots, gazed at her own warm-brown eyes. … ‘Only a nigger gal!’ Ah, but she was proud of being a Negro girl. And no sneer, no sarcasm, no banal ridicule of a ridiculous world could destroy her confidence and pride in herself and make her feel ashamed of that fine body that was the temple of her high spirit. For she knew that she was a worthy human being. She knew that she was beautiful” (266). This scene echoes the sentiment, if not the details, of the scene in Their Eyes when Tea Cake has Janie look in the mirror to admire her beauty. He too, like Jubban, is a man of the people and is black. Even earlier, however, when Jody dies, Janie remembers: “Years ago, she had told her girl self to wait for her in the looking glass. It had been a long time since she had remembered. Perhaps she’d better look. She went over to the dresser and looked hard at her skin and features. The young girl was gone, but a handsome woman had taken her place. She tore off the kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair. The weight, the length, the glory was there” (135). The use of strongly local natural imagery to describe Bita’s beauty is a tactic Hurston also uses in describing Janie’s body as she comes back to Eatonville after Tea Cake’s death: “The men noticed her firm buttocks like she had grape fruits in her hip pockets; the great rope (p.215) of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume; then her pugnacious breasts trying to bore holes in her shirt” (11).11

McKay, however, takes the relationship between man and surrounding nature and extends it to the entire community. The congregation of the rural church, acting out what Hurston called the “Negro will to adorn,” brings nature’s bounty inside; the church sports “arches of plaited palm fronds, roses and hibiscus, marigolds and buttonflowers, long bamboo branches … banana suckers … ropes of running ferns,” appropriate decorations for a Caribbean ceremony that includes a recitation:

  • Sow the seeds of children’s love
  • So that they may grow
  • Flowering plants that God above
  • Blesseth here below
  • Scatter flowers for children’s day,
  • Flowers so pure and bright
  • That along life’s pathway they
  • E’er may be our light. (61)

This is countered, however, when we learn that the prize books given to these same children are all European in origin, be it the Grimm brothers, Hans Christian Anderson, or Bible tales. “Tales of all children, except Negro children, for little black and brown readers” (61), hardly the right kind of literary “flowers” to guide them. Similarly, during the Harvest Festival post office ritual, little notes are passed; however, the tradition seems British, since the color references are to “blue eyes,” an “ivory hand,” and “golden hair.” As McKay mockingly states, “Miss Chocolate Lips shrilled with unfeigned delight over “I adore your cherry lips.” Such moments remind us that even in upland black pockets of the island, colonial-imposed mimicry prevails. A more positive example of this is found in the big Independence Day picnic, which is significantly held on Tabletop, the plateau at the top of the mountain, where African drumming is conducted as celebrants march up to the cricket field, a fusion of the colonized and the colonizer, but also a distillation of productive and proud peasant hybridity. Again, the location and the occasion illustrate perfectly Bita’s continuing experience of ascent and immersion.

Tack Tally, recently returned from Panama in flamboyant garb and loaded with jewelry, is deemed a “hurry-come-up,” “a have-nothing who had risen to be a have-something, but also one of bad reputation,” a male-negative to Bita’s female-positive. Significantly, when Tack, ruing the fact that he cannot (p.216) approach Bita, rehearses the Crazy Bow story, Jubban, Jordan’s driver, a strapping, velvety black man, defends her, beating him, later stating—and again significantly, in dialect, “Teach him to keep am mongoose mout’ offen folkses bettarn him” (70). As this is the man who will eventually marry Bita, it is important that he is closely aligned with her father, defends feminine virtue, and speaks the pithy dialect of the people Bita so loves. Further, his massive strength and dark good looks identify him, as we eventually realize, as a strong counterpart to his chief rival, the stiff, smarmy, and very British Herald Newton Day.

Near the end of the novel, it is Jubban who takes Bita home after her “vision” and fall at a revival, which causes her to see him as “a responsible person in the family” (252). The fact that his gentle ways with animals have led to a medal from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals underlines his keen understanding of a farmer’s necessary respect for animals, but it also suggests the tenderness Bita is looking for in a partner, as a balance for masculine strength. Finally, this seemingly small detail is a telling contrast to Herald Day’s bestiality (he falls from grace after having intercourse with a goat).

McKay rather insists on Jubban’s color and its beauty. Years before the scene above, when Bita first moves to Banana Bottom to care for ailing Aunt Nommy, she becomes “conscious of the existence of her father’s drayman for the first time, remarked his frank, broad, blue-black and solid jaws, and thought that it was all right for her father to have confidence in him” (115). It is significant that this is just after we have been informed of her sexual interest in Hopping Dick, a ne’er-do-well, and her physical repugnance for her fiancé, Herald. This embrace of a “blue-black” man on Bita and McKay’s part challenges the color prejudice within the race that Frantz Fanon noted. Indeed, he declared, “The number of sayings, proverbs, petty rules of conduct that govern the choice of a lover in the Antilles is astounding. It is always essential to avoid falling back into the pit of niggerhood, and every woman in the Antilles, whether in a casual flirtation or in a serious affair, is determined to select the least black of the men” (Fanon 1967, 47). Reversing this, McKay and Bita valorize and aestheticize Jubban’s color, especially in the scene late in the novel at a tea meeting, when he wins the right to kiss the queen, Bita, who thinks: “His skin possessed a velvety indigo-black tone like an eggplant [another natural description of beauty] and that among all the men gathered there at that tea-meeting he was the most appealing” (279).

This issue of color at first threatens to send Bita into Herald’s arms. After she agrees to marry him, she thinks, “What could a cultivated Negro girl (p.217) from the country hope for better than a parson. … If she had happened to be born a light-brown or yellow girl, she might, with her training, easily get away with a man of a similar complexion—a local functionary. … But she was in the black and dark-brown group and there were no prospects of her breaking into the intimate social circles of the smart light-brown and yellow groups” (101), a bitter commentary stemming from McKay’s own ostracism because of color in Jamaica, sentiments similar to those examined in Wallace Thurman’s acidic novel centering on a dark oppressed heroine, The Blacker the Berry (1929). It is to McKay’s credit that he shows Bita looking at all sides of the question of color, especially in terms of her own place and chances of positioning within its hierarchies. Yet, when challenged by Herald, she exclaims: “Let me tell you right now that a white person is just like any other human being to me. I thank God that although I was brought up and educated among white people, I have never wanted to be anything but myself. I take pride in being coloured and different, just as an intelligent white person does in being white. I can’t imagine anything more tragic than people torturing themselves to be different from their natural unchangeable selves” (169). This aligns Bita with Hurston, who once proclaimed, “I am not tragically colored. … I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal. … No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife” (“How it Feels,” 1979, 153).

Color, however, is only one aspect of race. It is at a tea meeting that the thematic of dance is introduced, a key concept of both the Harlem Renaissance and the gestural language of Southern African American and Caribbean literature. Bita, who had learned Western dance forms in London, now significantly joins a “grand altogether breakdown”: she “danced as she had never danced since she was a girl … wiggling and swaying and sliding along, the memories of her tomboyish girlhood rushing sparkling over her like water cascading over one bathing upon a hot summer’s day … forgetting herself … dancing down the barrier between high breeding and common pleasures under her light stamping feet until she was one with the crowd” (84). This passage is the heart of the novel, and it employs the abundant water imagery McKay favors. Here the “baptism” becomes the more natural island phenomenon of standing under a waterfall, with the refreshment of reviving memory. Further, McKay tells us, “the crowd rejoiced to see her dance,” indicating reciprocal union.

In another scene involving water and memory, evoking Melville’s assertion that meditation and water are wedded forever, Bita, after seeing nude (p.218) pubescent boys swimming and discussing their pubic hair, takes a dip herself in a sequestered pool. “She turned on her back to enjoy the water cooling on her breasts. … How delicious was the feeling of floating! To feel that one can suspend oneself upon a yawning depth and drift, drifting in perfect confidence without the slightest intruding thought of danger” (117). While this scene leads to other consequences, it also centrally figures the “immersion” thematic of the narrative. Just before she slips into the water, Bita muses on her village: “All of her body was tingling sweet with affectionate feeling for the place.” Once in the water, she idly sorts through European memories, including one of a white boy she had liked. But her assurance of “confidence” is misplaced, for the rogue Tack Tally has watched her, just as she watched the boys, and has stolen her clothes. Wrapping herself in ferns, she pursues him, a Caribbean Eve, calling him an “ugly monkey! I’ll have you arrested” (118). Here, as elsewhere in the novel, McKay sets up the possibility of another rape, or at least of Bita’s seduction, but it never happens. Instead, he plays the scene as a comic signification on Eden, and has Bita, who is very black herself, use a racial epithet that was heard often in Harlem, where Caribbean immigrants like McKay and Eric Walrond were called “monkey chasers.”

Significantly, echoing the multivalent implications of the novel, the Plant family is multihued itself, like the culture it expresses. Jordan and Bita are black, his wife, Aunt Nommy, is “cocoa-plant” brown, while her son from her first marriage, Barnaby (Bab), is “banana”-colored. Consistently, McKay delights in using positive natural referents when describing the colors of his characters, a pattern he had used earlier in the worlds of color he limned in his Harlem and Marseilles novels, and he embraces the full spectrum without qualification.

Any consideration of McKay and Hurston must take into account their associations with the concept of “primitivism,” which meant something quite different during the Harlem Renaissance—particularly among black artists—than it does today. A pairing of these two novels offers an opportunity to consider black/white divides on the issue, for both McKay and Hurston were supported by white patrons who were keenly interested in the “cult of the primitive.” McKay himself saw nothing wrong with the term, nor did Hurston. Speaking of the mistaken idea that his character Jake in Home to Harlem was an alter ego, McKay lamented, “I couldn’t indulge in such self-flattery as to claim Jake … as a portrait of myself. My damned white education has robbed me of much of the primitive vitality, the pure (p.219) stamina, the simple un-swaggering strength of the Jakes of the Negro race” (Long Way, 1937, 229).

We should remember that Jake, who reappears in Banjo, hails from the Southern United States, and McKay’s portrait of him utilizes everything he had learned about black Southerners from his time in Alabama, but also, and primarily, from the black Southern immigrants to Harlem, who added so much folklore, dialect, and down-home humor to the discourse of the Age of the New Negro. Two of McKay’s constant companions in his New York base during this period (1917–19), “Mr. Morris” and Manda, taught him much about the black South, as did the people he met in the cabarets and clubs: “It was not until I was forced down among the rough body of the great serving class of Negroes that I got to know my Aframerica.” McKay, however, found a contrast between the “spontaneous … loose freedom” of these new friends and “the definite peasant patterns by which I had been raised” (cited in Wayne Cooper 1987, 87), which accounts for his admiration of the “purity” and “vitality” of figures like Jake. McKay’s 1940 Harlem: Negro Metropolis draws several lines of connection between Southern and West Indian blacks but also notes differences. Cults and mystic chapels were run by both Southern conjurors and West Indian Obeah practitioners, and they had much in common. Immigrants from the South routinely played the numbers game, which was controlled for a time by a Cuban black named Messolino. However, McKay notes that West Indians were frequently resented for their overly serious demeanor, their boasting about (largely fictional) better conditions in the island, and their (to McKay) rather absurd loyalty to the mother country that was oppressing them. The great coming together of the two groups, however, was in Garveyism. Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) was from Jamaica, and his elaborate back-to-Africa plans (replete with a steamship line, a new black religion, and a hierarchy of nobility) united Southern and Caribbean blacks (Harlem, 75, 108, 132–34, 150ff.).12 Garvey was a part of the cult of the primitive in Harlem, and his romantic presentation of Africa to the masses had correspondences in the poetry of McKay, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and many other writers of the Harlem Renaissance.13

The primitive was also, in some ways, a label for the ordinary folk of Florida and Jamaica, whose lives McKay and Hurston reverently recorded through a presentation of the quotidian aspects of African American and Afro-Caribbean life. McKay, responding to criticisms of Home to Harlem, complained about “not a line of critical encouragement for the exploitation (p.220) of the homely things—of Maudy’s wash tub, Aunt Jemima’s white folks, Miss Ann’s old clothes for work and wages, George’s Yessah-boss, dining care and Pullman services, barber and shoe shine shops, chittling and corn-pone joints—all the lowly things that go into the formation of the Aframerican soil into the formation of the Aframerican society, still has its roots” (Wayne Cooper 1973, 133). In Banana Bottom, however, he would vastly expand the inventory of items such as this, with greater effect, as he knew that culture far better than that of the rural South, which he alludes to in the passage quoted. Hurston, of course, knew both that world and the Caribbean.

McKay’s early role in the Harlem Renaissance and his friendships with black and white modernists would have made him conversant with the various interpretations of the “primitive” and of the fear such concepts could evoke in whites, in terms both of its manifestations in blacks and the suspicion that such dangerous concepts could be contagious; even worse, could contact with the “primitive” bring out hidden elements of it in one’s own atavistic past?

In Banana Bottom, Squire Gensir comes across as a positive influence on Bita and as someone who believes in a rather pure definition of “primitivism.” Bita herself criticizes his severely simple two-room “hut”: “it’s so primitive,” to which he replies that “primitive living was more complex than his visitor imagined. That it was the art of knowing how to eliminate the non-essentials that militate against plastic living and preventing accumulations, valuable or worthless” (120). Significantly, this is not an utterance by Squire Gensir but a summary of what he said to Bita by the author, and it clearly proceeds more from a reaction to Eurocentric excess than to African-inspired aesthetics. Editing, which is the real thrust here, is quite opposed, in fact, to what Hurston has called the African impulse toward “adornment,” as even a cursory glance at African court aesthetics would reveal. Gensir’s perspective, in fact, has more to do with European interpretations of African art—such as that of the sculptor Brancusi—than with anything specifically African. His appreciation of Caribbean music, however, is more to the point, as is his feeling that “some of our famous European fables have their origin in Africa. Even the mumbo-jumbo of the Obeahmen fascinates me. … Obeah is only a form of primitive superstition. As Christianity is a form of civilized superstition” (124). This declaration fits Franz Boas’s concept of cultural relativism and is a good example of how the term “primitive” did not necessarily mean something negative to McKay and Hurston, who were in basic agreement with the forward-thinking sociologists and anthropologists of the time.

(p.221) It should also be noted, however, that Squire Gensir’s conversations with Bita reveal quite a few points of difference between them, and that, although they both learn from and enjoy each other’s company, Bita’s final choices in the novel are hers. Gensir may act as a catalyst, but he is hardly the controlling puppet master some suggest. The key statement he makes might be: “Obeah is part of your folklore, like your Anancy tales and your digging jammas. And your folklore is the spiritual link between you and your ancestral origin. … My mind is richer because I know your folklore. I am sure you believe the fables of la Fontaine and of Aesop fine and literary and the Anancy stories common and vulgar. Yet many of the Anancy stories are superior” (125). Elsewhere, he notes a close resemblance between a Jamaican folk song and a piece by Mozart.14

Both Gensir and McKay seem to share, as Hurston certainly did, Franz Boas’s refutation of the common assumption that primitive peoples lacked complexity. In his authoritative study The Mind of Primitive Man (1916), which Hurston, and perhaps McKay too, had read, Boas showed conclusively that “primitive cultures” were and are, in fact, often more complex than contemporary Western societies in some ways, particularly in regard to music, religion, and regulated social custom. As noted, the Squire delights in the Anancy tales, which like the comic and satirical ditties the folk in this novel create, use humor to deal with complicated situations, but also to bring the distant object close, in order to examine and “test” it. Through these devices, which initially seem cruel, the community eventually embraces Bita.

In connection with Gensir’s remarks about religion and superstition, we remember that Delany’s Blake has a very similar reaction to conjure, an American counterpart to Obeah. While he respects the sustaining elements of it, he ultimately feels it is superstition. The difference, however, lies in the fact that despite his criticism of Protestant Christianity as whites practiced it, Delany did believe in that faith, unlike Gensir and, until his late life conversion to Catholicism, McKay. This becomes manifest in Ma Legge and Yoni’s visit to the cave of the Obeahman Wumbe. His rituals and trappings are described respectfully, but his advice about a rival—which implicates Bita—reveals the falsity of his authority, as does his exorbitant fee of two pounds, which is Yoni’s salary for two months.

Perhaps one of the reasons that McKay withholds any satirical treatment here is that this scene prepares us for a tragedy that follows, although it is set in motion comically. The gossip Sister Phibby spies Tack being admitted by Yoni to the church annex where she works. “‘Ah ketcham!’ she ejaculated to herself. ‘So dat’s what. Jes’ a twat like any udder in de fox grass wid all (p.222) har preening and primping an’ fanning har ’long de road like a high lady. Widouten shame fer de mission and de school!’” (143). Her exposure of Yoni brings down the wrath of Pa Legge upon Tack, who responds to the old man’s rage by choking him.15 Although Pa dies of a heart attack, Tack thinks he has killed him and flees, and all assume he has gone back to Panama. Wumbe, on his way to his cave, sees a white vulture, a sure sign of disaster; he then finds Tack’s body swinging from a tree in front of the cave, a suicide’s rebuke to the conjuror whose Obeah seemingly failed him.

This seemingly tangential story has many uses, for Yoni’s path could have been Bita’s, who is similarly “tested” many times, and once by Tack, whose sexual allure does not escape her, despite her overall contempt for him. And her stronger appreciation of the other dandy, Hopping Dick, offers another dangerous parallel. Moreover, Tack, like Bita, has gone away from Jamaica, earning an “education,” although that of a sporting man in Panama. Yet temptations, superstitions, and false forms of masculine codes doom him.

Tack’s irreverence and disruptive nature—acquired in foreign parts—relate him to his name, for the 1760 slave revolt known as Tacky’s Rebellion was one of the legendary events in Jamaican history. Tacky was one of the warlike Coromantee people of West Africa and became an overseer after being enslaved in Jamaica. Working with Obeahmen, he and his followers united many slaves and instigated a revolt on Easter Sunday. The Obeahmen prophesied that the powder they dispensed would protect the combatants. The revolt was crushed, but over 400 blacks and 60 whites were killed. To refute the Obeah prophecy, whites hung an Obeahman, with his ornaments of teeth, bones, and feathers. Edward Long reported that Tacky was supposed to be able to catch all the bullets fired at him in his hand, and that he would then fling them back at the whites (1774, 451–52). Yet Tacky was shot, and his head was severed and placed on display. His surviving men committed suicide in a cave near what is now known as Tacky’s Falls.16 It is easy to see many of these details in the scenes involving the Obeahman and Tack, especially when the latter finds Tack hanging outside his cave. The text reads, “Convinced that he had murdered Pap Legge, Tack remembered that he had recently paid Wumbe well to protect him from Evil,” perhaps a conscious parallel to the false promises of the Obeahmen during Tacky’s Rebellion. The local minister preaches a great sermon against Obeah after Tack’s body is found at the cave, claiming, “The continent we came from is cursed and abandoned of God because of magic. We brought along the curse with us from over there. It is sapping our strength [and making] for disunity,” but we quickly see his real motive: “The Obeah is robbing the churches. … The (p.223) preachers can hardly make a living. … Throw the jungle out of your hearts and forget Africa” (153–55). This echoes the shrewd observations of Squire Gensir, in that one “superstition” seeks to weed out another, but more from a sense of self-interest than from faith.

The “test” of Tack takes a new form later when Bita begins to be interested in the book’s other dandy, Hopping Dick. Mrs. Craig’s refusal to let Bita join him at a party initiates the clear realization in her that she has always been Mrs. Craig’s “pet experiment,” and that she now has a “natural opposition” to her white mother. The word “natural” is not used lightly; in a rush of perception, she and we see that “the profession of religion left her indifferent … this religion that had been imposed upon and planted in her young mind. She became contemptuous of everything—the plan of her education, and the way of existence at the mission, and her eye wandering to the photograph of her English college over her bed, she suddenly took and ripped it from its frame, tore the thing up and trampled the pieces under her feet” (212). This scene needs to be read with some care. It initially suggests that Bita rejects her entire experience in England. Yet we know she has come to appreciate literature, music, and any number of other subjects she studied there. These interests continue after she marries Jubban and settles down amid “peasant” culture. This scene reflects her suddenly full perception of the colonizing educational project, and the costs of such a program, in terms of her personal identity and her relation to her original culture.

Bita’s recognition here constitutes a preamble to the rather comic and final break with Mrs. Craig. Told by the latter she is to have no more contact with Hopping Dick, Bita finds a dance tune in her head: “Just going to do the thing I want / No Matter who don’t like it.” This leads her to impishly remark to Mrs. Craig, “I like Mr. Delgado. Like him much more than I ever did Herald Day. After all he is a biped and not a quadruped” (219). This overt reference to Herald’s bestiality—and thus a naked reference to perverted sexuality—proves to be the final straw for the repressed Mrs. Craig, and Bita goes back to Banana Bottom for good.

Their Eyes Were Watching God builds to a climax with the onset of a terrible hurricane. McKay, however, who eventually employs this catastrophe, precedes it with a three-year drought, reversing the watery image. Earlier, telling of a Scotsman who sired a large multiracial family, McKay describes the enriching union of blood through water imagery—a stream. Here, the terrible drought provides an obverse portrait of this generative act. This catastrophe creates havoc for farmers because they have been led by colonizing U.S. fruit companies to place their confidence entirely in bananas, while (p.224) wiser figures such as Bita’s “peasant” father, Jordan, have maintained a better balance of crops, which sustains them during the drought.17 This section of the novel, like many others, is strongly reliant on biblical mythology, suggesting the wisdom of Joseph in Egypt. And, indeed, the rule of the British is put forward here as a kind of captivity. In this respect, we would do well to reconsider the popular “pastoral” notion of the novel, in several ways. As Edward Said has remarked, imperialism, an act of geographical violence, creates a loss of locality for the native, who must then somehow restore it, if only through the imagination (1993, 78). Predatory, colonial patterns of agriculture have indeed annulled the character of Jamaica. Jordan and Jubban have an antidote to this, partly through their protected and relatively isolated acres, but also in their adherence to their shrewd “peasant” knowledge of the land and its uses.

Upland Banana Bottom is less affected by the drought than other areas, but everyone seems to see the aridity as punishment for sin. A great revival takes place, led by a small white man who has previously failed in business enterprises. In describing these failures, McKay issues a critique of American trade patterns; local attempts to set up businesses have failed because American firms underprice them, selling goods in the islands for less than in the United States. Things are going badly in other ways too. Bita’s cousin Bab, who had studied to be a civil servant, is undone by a switch from test results to selections made by sitting officials. Although some of them are black, they have light wives and children and refuse to hire dark Jamaicans, despite high scores. Worse is the hypocritical reason one gives: the dark peasants were “clever enough to pass the examination. Civil Service candidates … should come from respectable and refined homes” (235), an utterance at odds with the speaker’s own origins in dire poverty.18 A related economic issue is the importation of workers from India, “coolies,” who take work away from blacks through cheaper wages, leading to more emigration of the island’s young. Similarly, Chinese shopkeepers are said to offer shoddy goods in order to undercut local rivals. Here, and in many other moments in the narrative, McKay reveals a serious interest in the rupturing modernist economics that is transforming the island, belying Carby’s claim that this is a romantic, utopian fable.19 The thematic of tests and testing continues on multiple levels. Jubban comes to Bita’s rescue when Tack Tally is tormenting her, and then again when she falls down helpless during a revival. His third and final test (the number echoes that of the traditional trials of the hero) comes when Arthur, the bastard mulatto son of a rich white planter, assaults and insults her: “You ought to feel proud a gen’man (p.225) like me want fer kiss you when youse only a black girl” (262). Bita’s dislike had already been evident before the attack, as she mused on his voice and dialect, “so different from the peasants’ way of speech; their brief concise phrases, words dark and yielding as the soil and green as the grass wet with dew, pliant as supple-jacks and juicy as mangoes, sifted and moulded to give expression to simple Negro tongue” (262), sentiments that McKay originally received from Walter Jekyll, but then made his own, in glowing, poetic passages such as this. Though he is never mentioned in this reverie, Jubban, who is, we find, nearby, speaks this very tongue, and he uses it—not in poetry, but in an indictment—as he protects Bita. Rejecting Arthur’s labeling of him as a “jigger-foot drayman,” he declares, “Mi feets em cleaner than you’ mouth. … You t’ink ah ’fraid a you ’causen youse a son of a bacra? Ise a drayman but a man all de same an’ it wi’ tek a bigger one than you to lick mi black bottom wid a supple-jack,” and knocks off the planter’s white helmet. McKay, perhaps overstressing the point, tells us that “the white helmet … rested upon the head of busha and planter like a halo of protection. Under it slave-owners and slave-drivers had goaded the black herds to toil. … In spite of changing times they still remained the lords of the tropics” (264). Saved by a blue-black man she is growing to love, Bita tells Jubban, “I loathed his touching me, the slimy white hog” (265).

Before Bita chooses Jubban, however, McKay creates a powerfully moving scene. Bita’s rapist, the crazy and now aging Crazy Bow, joins her, with her consent, in concert practice, first brilliantly playing Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, and then several spirituals. “He made the people weep, recreating again the spirit of the ancient martyrdom that still haunted the crumbled stones and rusted iron of many a West Indian plantation.” Soon afterward, however, the Craigs’ disabled child, Patou, irritates him, and he tries to strangle him, which leads to his reincarceration and death in a straitjacket (258). Crazy Bow represents a Jamaican variant of the myth of Philoctetes, whose magic bow is his only if he endures his painful wound. McKay interbraids this with Plato’s concept of the artist, who becomes mad by soaring up in creative frenzy into the firmament, mingling with the gods. He must be banned from the Republic, and so it is with Crazy Bow. Yet his place in the book is to demonstrate an affinity between the two cultures, for his mastery of both Western and Afro-Caribbean musical forms—and the tangled nature they play in his madness—offers a kind of commentary on yet another possible route that Bita has not taken, and perhaps a commentary too, on McKay’s tortured identity, which by this point in his life had taken many twists and turns.20 In a deadly hurricane, Jordan Plant dies in the arms of (p.226) Malcolm Craig as they are trapped in a flooded river. Devastated, Mrs. Craig succumbs to a stroke only days later.21

But the storm has also cleared the ground for new crops and broken the drought, while watering seedlings. Similarly, the death of the patriarch sets the stage for Jubban replacing Jordan. Bita remembers her father’s many kindnesses to his beloved child, especially after she was raped: “How strange and terrible her father’s face had been, yet he had been so kind and more fatherly than ever to her. A fine father. And she had loved him deeply with a love rooted in respect. All the men that she really respected had something of his character: Malcolm Craig, Squire Gensir, Jubban” (288). In a strange but fitting denouement to the deaths, Bita and Jubban make love in the wagon that bears her dead father’s body home: “Her conscience fortified her with a conviction of the approval of his spirit” (289).

Just as Jubban has profited by Jordan’s “rooting” and “planting” of Bita, he now helps sell the varied produce to hungry people, crops that Jordan raised instead of bananas. Jordan and Jubban offer a restoration of native agricultural patterns, which help reclaim the local. Aimé Césaire wrote of how colonial masters’ focus on cotton, coca, or mostly banana cultivation, or of foreign grapevines or olive groves, came at the expense of “natural economies that have been disrupted—harmonious and viable economies adapted to the indigenous population—about food crops destroyed, malnutrition permanently introduced, agricultural development oriented solely toward the benefit of the metropolitan counties; about the looting of products, the looting of raw materials” (43). This outrage is seen as partially corrected through the marriage of Bita with Jubban, whose expanded lands and wise husbandry may help restore these viable economies.

As in The Free Flag of Cuba and Blake, the novel concludes with a double wedding, as Yoni and Hopping Dick also unite. The effect of this resembles instances in Shakespeare’s comedies where a “noble” and a “peasant” couple wed. As is often the case, the “peasant” groom is a comic figure; Hopping Dick cracks jokes repeatedly.22 The feasting concludes with the grooms spirited away to be made drunk. Hopping Dick obliges, but Jubban comes home early. Later that night, he and Bita are awakened by a serenade from the people: “That was Teacher Fearon’s gift, Bita thought. How beautiful it was, that low singing below her window just before dawn! Oh, it made her happy. Those singing voices were the most beautiful gift of all” (306).

This could have been the end of the novel, and a fine one. But McKay has (p.227) more in mind. Squire Gensir returns to England to tend to his sister, but dies there himself. We learn he has left his house, piano, and 500 pounds to Bita. Seated at the piano, she cannot play, but she can reflect:

This man was the first to enter into the simple life of the island Negroes and proclaim significance and beauty in their transplanted African folk tales and in the words and music of their native dialect songs. … He had found artistry where others saw nothing, because he believed that wherever the imprints of nature and humanity were found, there also were the seeds of creative life, and that above the dreary levels of existence everywhere there were always the radiant, the mysterious, the wonderful, the strange great moments whose magic may be caught by any clairvoyant mind and turned into magical form for the joy of man. (310)

The final scenes take place years later, when Jubban and Bita have settled down to steady life with their son, Jordan. “They had adjusted themselves well to each other. The testing-time was over”—the final example of the testing theme that has dominated the book. “Her music, her reading, her thinking were the flowers of her intelligence and he the root in the earth upon which she was grafted, both nourished by the same soil” (313). Bita understands that Jubban accepts and is proud of her education, and that it is equivalent, in many ways, to the “natural” wisdom he has acquired as a farmer. Indeed, K. Chellappan has suggested that this union emblemizes the real “dualism” in the novel, which is that of man and nature, rather than the one identified by many critics as British/native (1992, 37). However, nature wears many faces in this novel, as in Their Eyes—characters die through floods in both novels, and hurricane winds destroy crops and homes. Sexual urges often seem merely bestial—literally so with Herald Day—and sometimes lead to tragedy. Just as in farming, proper checks and balances—weeding, if you will—are necessary in a moral cultivation of one’s “garden.” Bita is several times endangered by sexual temptation, and in a scene at her nuptials where she has to control a runaway horse, we see an apt metaphor for the duality of control/liberty.

In a seemingly minor but significant part of Their Eyes, the front porch wags Sam Watson and Lige Mosely debate what keeps people from touching a hot stove—“caution” or “nature.” Lige declares, “Caution is de greatest thing in de world. If it wasn’t for caution—.” But Sam interrupts him, claiming, “Show me somethin’ dat caution ever made! Look whut nature took and done. Nature got so high in uh black hen she got tuh lay uh white egg. Now (p.228) you tell me, how come, whut got intuh man dat he got to tuh have hair round his mouth? Nature!” (103).

Bita and Janie both employ “caution” but ultimately trust “nature.” Pheoby warns Janie against marrying Tea Cake: “You’se takin’ uh awful chance,” to which Janie replies, “Dis ain’t no business proposition, and no race after property and titles. Dis is uh love game” (171), a remark that builds on her earlier pronouncement, “Ah always did want tuh git round uh whole heap, but Jody wouldn’t ’low me tuh. … Ah’d sit dere wid de walls creepin’ up on me and squeezin’ all de life outa me. Pheoby, dese educated women got uh heap of things to sit down and consider. Somebody done tole ’em what to set down for. Nobody ain’t told poor me, so sittin’ still worries me. Ah wants tuh utilize mahself all over” (169). These pronouncements fit Bita and her eventual choice of Jubban precisely, except that McKay rewards her choice with economic prosperity too, as Jubban’s wise husbandry, coupled with the inheritance Bita receives from her black and white patriarchs (surely symbolic of both her spiritual and her cultural inheritance from Jordan and Gensir) leads to not only her family’s prosperity, but to that of the community as well, through their example.

All these scenes demonstrate that employing a simple “Western/native” dichotomy plays havoc with the subtle nuances of the two novels’ concerns. As J. Michael Dash has suggested, resistance of Caribbean writers to Western imperialism—particularly that of the United States in the early twentieth century—led to foundationalist narratives that presented cultural authenticity “as identical with physical terrain,” one “outside of global modernity.” Thus we had a renewed interest in “hinterlands … peasantry … and indigenous values as a means of healing the national psyche and fostering a renewed sense of place. The ‘peasant novel’ thus became the vehicle for rethinking the national ‘terroir’ in the face of the centralizing, alienating thrust of the occupation” (2008, 33).23

Kotti Sree Ramesh and Kandula Nrupa Rani have observed that the usual practice of viewing the conflict between Bita and the Craigs as a black/white binary discounts the former’s Caribbean identity, which is hybrid, even before her “adoption” and British education. The body of the book, which presents many examples of the highly polyglot nature of both the islander’s ethnic identities and the overall, multilayered culture, should mitigate against such a reductive conception of the novel’s organization and purposes. As Ramesh and Rani argue, by reading the novel against the backdrop of Jamaican colonization, we can better conceptualize the dynamic, fluid, and hybrid aspect of both Bita and the culture(s) she epitomizes. As Bita (p.229) moves through various avatars of the factors that have shaped and continue to shape her, she constantly performs “translations” of cultures, thereby creating a kind of “third space” of perception and being (2006, 158–68).24

I have elsewhere written in some detail about the comic aspects of Their Eyes (Lowe 1994), and the same approach could be employed here with Banana Bottom, which in many ways is also comedic and ends with a marriage, the traditional ending of comedies. I have been more concerned, however, with tracing out the confluences—but also the differences—between Southern and Caribbean cultures and, particularly in this pairing of texts, between two varieties of the black diaspora. Still, the vexed issue of Bita’s only marriage and Janie’s last marriage deserves consideration. As noted earlier in this discussion, several critics have severely criticized Bita’s marriage to Jubban. One wonders exactly what Bita should or could have done instead. The role of women in Britain in 1933—white women—was hardly expansive, and Bita has no desire to settle there in any case. What, precisely, would these critics have her do? She could presumably teach, as McKay’s brother did, but women were never afforded higher positions at this time in Jamaica educational circles, and positions were often dependent on color—and Bita is dark. Because she inherits land and property from both her father and Squire Gensir, her “dowry” enables Jubban, the chosen heir of her father, to replicate his mentor’s achievements and expand them, by utilizing time-proven methods of agriculture, rather than the mistaken ideas taken from outside “experts” that have ruined the other peasants. As in Their Eyes, his “seeds,” like Tea Cake’s, are meant to nourish and inspire the people to resist colonial patterns of dependency.

Florida at this time was experiencing its own modernization, which Hurston would document in much greater detail in her last novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948). Orange orchards, expanding and modernizing fishing fleets, the real estate boom, sawmill and turpentine camps, and the advent of immigrants from Cuba, the Azores, the Bahamas, the Caribbean, and elsewhere made for a hybrid population similar to the polyglot composition of the Northern cities, whose poverty and troubled racial relations, Carby seems to think, should have been Hurston’s focus. As Konzett asserts, “In the end, Their Eyes emphasizes the cross-cultural and transnational characteristics of Florida, demonstrating that modern social, demographic, and cultural changes occur differently in various regions across the United States” (2002, 89).

A better way to approach this pairing of McKay’s and Hurston’s novels might be to accept them on their own terms. The fact that Banana Bottom (p.230) focuses on emotion, folk culture, and interpersonal relationships of all kinds hardly categorizes it as “romantic.” Yet many of the critics who have condemned the book use this term very loosely to damn a text that concerns the folk—a focus that is presumably unacceptable, unless the folk are in overt rebellion, thus becoming a “proletariat.” Frantz Fanon, however, was concerned not just with revolution, but with the day-to-day operations of racism and color prejudice within the race, and with methods of conquering the self-hatred that the whites had instilled in Antilleans. Repeatedly, he turns to Césaire, who in his poetry and theory embraced the common man: “Do you understand? Césaire has come down [a form of Stepto’s immersion]. He is ready to see what is happening at the very depths, and how he can go up [ascent in Stepto’s terms]. He is ripe for the dawn. But he does not leave the black man down there. He lifts him to his own shoulders and raises him to the clouds” (1967, 197).

Yet we are concerned here, mainly, with a black woman, one who chooses marriage and motherhood over a career in a white-dominated colonial society. Many critics have read this as Bita’s “fall,” and not in the positive sense of “immersion.” Michael North, in a cursory reading of Banana Bottom (which is a prelude to his more intense interest in McKay’s early poetry), has claimed that the novel reflects McKay’s final tribute to Walter Jekyll, in that the latter’s fictional counterpart Gensir guides Bita as she seemingly chooses between “dialect, tea meetings, obeah, and sex, on the one hand, and standard English, hymn singing, Scotch Presbyterianism, and loveless marriage on the other.” North goes on to assert that both these poles, however, are defined by the British, and that McKay did not see that it was a trap, “a false dichotomy between rigid, life-denying Scotch Presbyterianism and free-life-affirming Jamaican paganism. … Both sides were actually defined by the English, and it was false because it posed England as culture against Jamaica as nature” (1994, 102). This wrong-headed reading denies agency to both McKay and Bita and assumes there can be no middle ground, no hybrid identity, which the details of the novel contradict. There is no indication at the end of the novel that Bita is rejecting her education and the insights it has afforded her, or that she is lost in a “primitive” world through her marriage to Jubban. Indeed, it seems evident that, like Hurston, her exposure to Eurocentric culture has helped her to fully appreciate her own. North’s reading actually endorses a European myth—namely that Bita turns out to be a Pygmalion-type construct after all—the only difference being that her shaper has been Gensir rather than the Craigs. Similarly, Belinda Edmondson insists that Bita lacks agency at the end of the novel, for she has simply (p.231) followed a path dictated by Squire Gensir (1999, 73). Rhonda Cobham, by contrast, sees Bita as erased by the combined actions of the Squire and Jubban (1979, 71, 75). Reading the facts of the novel through a circumCaribbean lens, as we have seen, indicates otherwise; the key role Jubban and Bita play in the community at the conclusion of the novel should guide us toward insights not dissimilar from those of Trinh T. Minh-ha, as she considers the role of women in agricultural Africa, which McKay clearly sees as similar to that of women in rural black Jamaica: “The notion of woman not as sexed individual but as home, of etiquette as communal survival, the idea of attributing woman’s oppression to the advent of a monetary economy … a gendered life-style[,] implies that non-interchangeable men and women work together for the survival of their community. The contrary may be said of life under the regime of industrial economics” (1989, 108).

McKay, in his sketch “Boyhood in Jamaica,” asserted, “The people of Jamaica were like an exotic garden planted by God. And today I see them as something more. I see them as a rising people, and sometimes I think that the negroes amongst them will give leadership to the negroes of the world in the great struggle that lies ahead” (145). As one example of McKay’s assertion, we might ponder the ways in which the concluding focus on agricultural production goes to the heart of the contemporary colonialism McKay was critiquing. The imposition of mono-crop farming by foreign corporations like the United Fruit Company intersected with the cultivation of small individual plots by local farmers. As Erna Brodber has stated, the administration of the island “still lay in the hands of the larger plantation interests. … The plot’s expansion to include a new generation depended on the willingness of the large landowners to sell. How to engineer this increased space was a constant question for young blacks, who saw making a living from own account farming as the way to independence from the plantations” (1887, 147). Jordan Plant, and Jubban and Bita after him, seem to be models for precisely the kind of leadership McKay called for in the “great struggle” that lay ahead.

The Caribbean Connections of Their Eyes Were Watching God

There are multiple ways in which Banana Bottom and Their Eyes Were Watching God reflect each other, and while it is likely that Hurston knew Banana Bottom, which appeared four years before Their Eyes, the similarities would seem to come out of the common cultural configurations of the communities involved, which have both been fashioned away from, but in response to, (p.232) colonial governments in tropical surroundings. A key distinction here is the parallel infection in both cultures of what Wilson Harris calls “philistinism.” Indeed, he asserts that Caribbean literature exists “against a background of a philistine middle-class establishment. Philistinism is a much more complex state of mind than one first thinks and possesses unique elements in the Caribbean. It is also the natural persona humanity wears in a dangerous world, it is a way of playing safe, it is a way of taking no risks. Philistinism appears in unlikely guises, in sophisticated lies, sophisticated laughter and debunkings of mental image or creativity. The denial of profound exile, the refusal to perceive its own dismembered psychical world, is basic to Caribbean philistinism. It has led to a body of education which describes, feasts upon, rather than participates in, the activity of knowledge” (1983, 122). This issue lies at the heart of both Banana Bottom and Their Eyes Were Watching God and is presented as a mainstay of racial stereotyping in the U.S. South (in both black and white communities) and as a prop of colonial domination in Jamaica. Philistinism rears its head with the Craigs, Herald Newton Day, Phibby, and many other characters in McKay’s narrative. Many members of the Eatonville community, such as those who want Janie to marry the undertaker from Winter Park after Jody dies, display these values as well, but the key exponents of philistinism are surely Jody himself, his minion Hezekiah, and the pompous and color-struck Mrs. Turner, who urges Janie to leave Tea Cake for her more proper and lighter-skinned brother. Both McKay and Hurston situate peasant culture as the antidote for vulgar middle-class aspirations, which they indicate is part of social mimicry of white society in each case.

Hurston wrote Their Eyes after her years of research in the Caribbean, which resulted in two books of anthropology/folklore: Mules and Men (1934), which considers the black folk culture of the U.S. South, and Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1938). As Hurston discovered, Jamaicans, colonized by the English, naturally read texts from the United States, including books of folklore such as Joel Chandler Harris’s Nights with Uncle Remus, which had much in common with Jamaican Anancy tales. McKay’s mentor, Walter Jekyll, had collected and published these tales. In Tell My Horse, Hurston replicated the method of folklore collection she had employed when writing Mules and Men, focusing once again on dialect, African religious influences, and African-inspired tales, legends, dances, jokes, and mythic historical memories. Through a nonfictional account of Hurston’s several anthropological trips to the Caribbean, Tell My Horse constitutes one of the most arresting examples in all of Southern literature of the (p.233) dramatic influence of the “indigo sea” on a Southern writer, who in this case was also a woman of color. Based on research Hurston did in the islands in 1936 and 1937, the book is inextricably bound up with her two greatest novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), which was actually written in Haiti, and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), wherein the biblical prophet is presented as the greatest hoodoo conjurer in history.25

Hurston claimed that Miami was “a polyglot of Caribbean and South American culture… with more than 30,000 Bahamians with their songs, dances, and stories, and instrumentation … Haitian songs, dances, instrumentation, and celebrations,” while the area from Key West to Palm Beach had “Bahamian and Cuban elements in abundance” (1999, 66). Hurston, we remember, did not think the “primitive” was to be despised; so when she says that Bahamian folk culture is “more savage,” she sees it as more authentic. According to her, “The Bahamian and the West Indian Negro generally, has had much less contact with the white man than the American Negro. As a result, speech, music, dancing, and other modes of expression are infinitely nearer the African. Thus the seeker finds valuable elements long lost to the American Negro.” She goes on to say that American Negroes were not allowed to stay in tribal groupings, whereas that was not the case in the West Indies, where owners were often absent. She claims one can easily identify the tribal origins of many Bahamian tunes. And this has had an enriching effect in the American South: “Nightly in Palm Beach, Fort Pierce, Miami, Key West, and other cities of the Florida east coast the hot drumheads throb and the African-Bahamian folk arts seep into the soil of America” (1938, 91).26

The most striking thing about Tell My Horse is its respectful exploration and delineation of voodoo, or vodoun. Hurston, an initiated hoodoo priestess but also a Columbia-trained anthropologist, was the ideal investigator of this neo-African religion. Clearly, she saw many links between the hoodoo of the American South and vodoun. Her description of the main loas (gods), the rituals that attend them, and, above all, the way these gods inhabit people—the way they “ride their horses,” to use the vernacular—makes for a fascinating and illuminating study.

Hurston’s observations in Jamaica also center on race. The system there privileges mulattoes, and all of them seem to want to be British. “There is a frantic stampede white-ward to escape from Jamaica’s black mass. … One must remember that Jamaica has slavery in her past and it takes many generations for the slave derivatives to get over their awe for the master-kind. Then there is the colonial attitude. Add to that the Negro’s natural aptitude for imitation and you have Jamaica” (6). She is amused by the generations (p.234) of illegitimate black children who pride themselves on their illustrious white ancestors and considers it all from a Southern perspective: “It is as if one stepped back to the days of slavery or the generation immediately after surrender when Negroes had little else to boast of except a left-hand kinship with the master, and the privileges that usually went with it of being house servants instead of field hands.” However, the idea of emulating whites has a fatal flaw—black folk keep having children! “This is the weak place in the scheme. The blacks keep on being black and reminding folk where mulattoes come from, thus conjuring up tragic-comic dramas that bedevil security of the Jamaican mixed bloods” (7). Hurston elaborates on this by reporting on a banquet given in Jamaica to honor the president of Atlanta University, John Hope, who was, she states, “quite white in appearance.” “All went well until John Hope was called upon to respond to a toast. He began his reply with, ‘We negroes—.’ Several people [mulattoes] all but collapsed. … If a man as white as that called himself a negro, what about them” (8).

This entire first chapter of Tell My Horse, in fact, is called the “Rooster’s Egg,” because of Hurston’s amusement over the celebration of white fathers and the banishment of black mothers. “You hear about ‘My father this and my father that … my father who was English, you know.’ … You get the impression that these virile Englishmen do not require women to reproduce. They just come out to Jamaica, scratch out a nest and lay eggs that hatch into ‘pink’ Jamaicans” (8–9). The critique in many Southern African American texts of those within the community who are “color-struck” makes this Jamaican syndrome familiar. Clearly, scenes such as these suggested diasporic points of convergence for Hurston, who had dealt with this issue herself in many texts based on Southern culture, including a play entitled Color Struck (1926) and in the famous Mrs. Turner episode in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).

As these remarks suggest, in Tell My Horse, Hurston once again uses humor to drive her narrative along. However, her comic pronouncements often foreground serious, even reverent subjects. Her trip to the Maroon settlement at Accompong is accomplished on a pop-eyed mule, whose duel with Hurston occasions much mirth. But once at Accompong she intones: “I could feel the dead generations crowding me. Here was the oldest settlement of freedmen in the Western world … men who had thrown off the hands of slavery by their own courage and ingenuity. … I could not help remembering that a whole civilization and the mightiest nation on earth had grown up on the mainland since the first runaway slave had taken refuge in these mountains. They were here before the Pilgrims landed” (22), a wry displacement (p.235) of the myth of the Puritan origins of the American self, but also an attempt to rupture the artificial chronological and geographical boundaries of the Americas. Even more than McKay, Hurston seemed to comprehend what Jacque Stephen Alexis has called “zonal cultures,” which spill over artificial boundaries: “One must wonder in the face of this confluence of national cultures in zones, if we are not witnessing in today’s world the beginning of the creation of zonal cultures which, at a higher level, would dominate national cultures” (translated and cited in Dash, 1998, 95).

Throughout her visits, Hurston draws parallels between cultural phenomena. “First we talked about things that are generally talked about in Jamaica. Brother Anansi, the Spider, that great cultural hero of West Africa who is personated in Haiti by Ti Malice and in the United States by Brer Rabbit” (25).27 Hurston points out the folk one would not find in the South too, such as the “Hindoos,” who prepare the curried goat she eats at a feast and the ethnic Chinese who are invited guests. In perhaps the most intriguing and titillating passages, Hurston investigates the old women who instruct young brides and mistresses-to-be in the art of love, including proper positions, muscular control, and the like. The “balm bath” is given to “remove everything mental, spiritual and physical that might work against a happy mating” (19). It is fascinating to note that the African American writer Frank Yerby includes a bath and a massage just like this in his celebrated Louisiana novel, The Foxes of Harrow (1946), where Odalie, the previously frigid Creole wife of Stephen Harrow, seeks instruction from hoodoo women in order to win her husband back from his quadroon mistress, and just such a bath rouses her desire and enables her to triumph. The old woman Caleen thinks, as she massages Odalie, “So we give bride in marriage in the dark hills of San Domingo. And she go to her man no green girl. … Never from her own mind, could maitresse change. But I change her, me, by Dambala, by the Virgin, by all the saints!” (224). By reading Hurston and Yerby together, we see the boundary-crossing “zonal culture” of African folklore, a process especially evident in Louisiana, which acquired many slaves from the more Afrocentric Caribbean.

Everywhere Hurston goes, it seems, she finds the world invested with spirits. There are taboos against all sorts of actions, rules for most activities, all based on the rule of the duppies, or spirits. The affinity of Afro-Caribbeans with black Southerners is signaled in many places, but strikingly here, as the details of a Jamaican funeral—which seemingly is designed mainly to ward off duppies (ghosts)—echoes in complexity the details of both Lucy Pearson’s and Lucy Hurston’s death rituals in, respectively, the (p.236) novel based on her parents’ marriage, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, and Dust Tracks on a Road, her autobiography. As Hurston had already written Jonah (1934) but would compose Dust Tracks (1942) after her Caribbean experiences, she may have thought about these similarities as she wrote her autobiography.

Hurston carefully explains that the duppy/ghost in Jamaica is more feared than ghosts in Florida; more often, however, as in her other collections of folklore, she steps aside to let folk who get together around her communally tell often comic and sometimes terrifying tales of duppies they have known. As she listens, she does so as part of a diasporic community, but also as an alien from the mainland who represents the reader. When the tellers employ Jamaican terms, Hurston simply translates them with parentheses: “We talked … of dumb cane and of bissy (Kola nut) as an antidote” (30). Thus she is both inside and outside, a participant in the exchange and yet also a novice, but presumably, after her research concludes, a translator and a guide. Here her text implicitly argues the case for greater expertise in hemispheric languages and for texts that present differing languages—even if only word by word—side by side.

In yet another overlap of folklore, Hurston reports that Jamaicans believe that some early Africans brought to the island flew back to Africa—any African then could fly if they had never eaten salt. The myth of slaves flying back to Africa was told in the American South too, and Toni Morrison makes central use of it in Song of Solomon (1977). Mention should be made here of another link between the two women writers. Hurston makes fun of herself as she submits to the rigors of a five-day wild boar hunt with the Maroons. This part of the book delineates the culture of one of the most important prerevolutionary groups that continued to exist up to Hurston’s time—the bands of runaways who mounted armed resistance to the slave owners from jungle/swamp hideaways, figures we initially saw in this book in Delany’s Blake, and much more extensively in All Souls’ Rising. The Maroons have always functioned as mythic sources of narrative, and Morrison employs them as such in her Caribbean novel, Tar Baby (1981). Hurston heard about the Caribbean long before her visits to the islands. Her native Florida was drawing more and more immigrants, whose stories, legends, and jokes were contributing in important ways to that state’s folklore. Further, during her time in New York City, thousands of immigrants from the Caribbean worked and partied side by side with recent arrivals from the U.S. South. Accordingly, characters called “monkey chasers” appeared in Harlem Renaissance novels and stories, particularly when the writer himself or herself was from the Caribbean, as were Claude McKay and Eric Walrond. As noted earlier, the (p.237) islands made their first appearance in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones (1920). This primitivist play’s West Indian island often resembles Africa more than the Caribbean. Jones’s superstitious fear of the beating tom-toms and the jungle echo the stereotypes associated with Southern blacks in Plantation School writing.28 McKay and Walrond, however, created more authentic characters for their Harlem tales and helped to spread awareness of the dramatic potential for Caribbean material among Southern writers such as Hurston, Benjamin Brawley, and James Weldon Johnson. The latter, from Jacksonville, had already written eloquently about the Cuban community in his hometown and was proud of his Haitian and Bahamian forebears.

Hurston’s Caribbean-inspired Their Eyes Were Watching God opens precisely as Banana Bottom does, with a heroine returning to her former community, changed by her education in another culture. The novels are quite different, however, in the nature of these “other” worlds. Bita’s education has been formal, Western, and British and has not involved a man, while Janie’s has come “down on the muck” with migrant workers, Indians, and the “Negro furthest down,” all supervised by her Orpheus-like younger and darker husband, Virgible “Tea Cake” Woods. At the same time, however, I would not want to conflate the people on Hurston’s “muck” and those in Banana Bottom. J. Michael Dash has pointed out how negritude in its political applications in the 1950s tended to argue a kind of black universalism that transcended national and geographical boundaries, annulling distinctions that are in fact vital to mining local resources and traditions (1978, 77). The same kind of caution is in order here. Further, as we have seen, at one point Bita rejects the falsity of her time in England (but not the education she received).29 While Hurston does not choose to give Janie an equivalent formal education, the many years of her marriage to the pompous philistine Jody Starks offers something of an equivalent; her return to the folk with Tea Cake is similar to Bita’s return to Banana Bottom and, ultimately, her marriage to Jubban. Glissant has warned of the ways in which Western “education” can lead to the “disequilibrium” of the elite, and then to the subjugated overall community’s passive surrender of its “potential development, its real culture. … A close scrutiny of this dispossession is one way of fighting against collective self-destruction” (1989, 11–12). Both Banana Bottom and Their Eyes offer a telling example of this kind of necessary “close scrutiny.” Their Eyes differs in important ways from Banana Bottom, too, in that the latter has no “close scrutiny” of painful memories of slavery. Nanny tells her granddaughter Janie the story of her own rape by her master and of her mistress’s brutal slapping of her after Nanny gives birth to a gray-eyed (p.238) blond baby. Her flight to the swamp echoes that of the Maroons who were in the South and also the Caribbean.30 “Ah knowed de place was full uh moccasins and other bitin’ snakes, but Ah was more skeered uh whut was behind me” (35), but soon Sherman’s army comes with news of her liberation. Significantly, Nanny lived near Savannah, so she was close to the sea and the great port that trafficked with the Caribbean. Her relocation to west Florida is not specified as to location but could be near or in another coastal city like Pensacola. Nanny’s “Maroon” history may indicate a link with the Caribbean, for Nanny was a famous militant Jamaica Maroon and Obeah woman (McCarthy 2007, 76).31

When Janie cannot love Logan Killicks, the husband Nanny selected for her, Nanny accuses her granddaughter of wanting “some dressed up dude dat got to look at de sole of his shoe everytime he cross de street tuh see whether he got enough leather dere tuh mak it across. You can buy and sell such as dem wid what you got” (42), a description that could easily apply to either Tack Tally or Hopping Dick in Banana Bottom. What differentiates Janie from Logan is a lack of wonder on his part, a missing appreciation of the natural: “Janie waited a bloom time, and a green time and an orange time. … She knew things that nobody had ever told her. For instance, the words of the trees and the wind. She often spoke to falling seeds and said, ‘Ah hope you fall on soft ground.’… She knew the world was a stallion rolling in the blue pasture of ether,” all of this a language unknown to Logan. Bita Plant similarly reads nature this way, and so does Jubban, which in many ways accounts for their mutual attraction, and later in Their Eyes, Tea Cake will show he “knows things” like this too, as his name, “Virgible Woods,” signifies.

Jody Starks buys 200 acres of land from the white folks to sell to other blacks who move to Eatonville, the all-black town that echoes the composition of Banana Bottom. The original settlement, however, was donated by the white Captain Eaton, just as Banana Bottom had been founded by the “Crazy” Scotsman Adair in the eighteenth century, whose many mulatto children settled next to other blacks who were attracted by the small plots Adair sold.32

Gossip and envy play a large part in the communities of both books. As Pheoby says of the “mouth almighty” neighbors’ condemnation of Janie, “An envious heart makes a treacherous ear. They done ‘heard’ ’bout you just what they hope done happened” (16), and we remember that the old gossip Sister Phibby thinks Bita’s rape by Crazy Bow was “a good thing, done early” (15), as Bita had been pampered by her relatively wealthy father and (p.239) thus could be accused of acting “womanish.” As Pheoby says of Eatonville’s gossips, “So long as they get a name to gnaw on they don’t care whose it is, and what about, ’specially if they can make it sound like evil” (17). And as Coker of Eatonville states, “Us colored folks is too envious of one ’nother. Dat’s how come us don’t git no further than us do. Us talks about de white man keepin’ us down! Shucks! He don’t have tuh. Us keeps our own selves down” (63), a sentiment obviously shared on occasion by McKay. As noted earlier, in both the South and the Caribbean, this syndrome is explained by the “basket of crabs” reference. Any crab that tries to climb out is pulled in by its fellows.

We noted the economic aspects of McKay’s text, where white and black approaches to appropriate agricultural and business practices receive much attention. We should remember that Jody is an entrepreneur and politician par excellence, making a bundle right away on real estate and then prospering as store owner and mayor. Part of his success comes from image, in that he tells Janie to “dress up and stand in the store. … She must look on herself as the bell-cow, the other women were the gang” (66). On this occasion Jody provides treats for the crowd and is subsequently elected mayor. Like most successful politicians and salesmen, Jody is a “man of words,” a concept also valued in the African Caribbean. By contrast, the bumpkin Tony Taylor’s speech honoring Janie and Jody’s arrival in the community is mocked because his tribute lacks eloquence. Jody also understands promotion and spectacle and arranges a festival to celebrate his erection of a streetlight, replete with a three-pig barbecue and a weeklong ritual display of the light before its erection. Brazenly, he appropriates biblical references to sanction his symbolic blasphemy—for he is “God” proclaiming “let there be light.” But he actually says, “Dis evenin’ we’se all assembled heah tuh light uh lamp. Dis occasion is something for us all tuh remember tuh our dyin’ day. De first street lamp in uh colored town … let it shine, let it shine, let it shine [an obvious echo of the spiritual, “This Little Light of Mine,” which Jody has similarly transformed from communal inspiration to a selfishly individual assertion of power].” “Brother Davis, lead us in a word uh prayer” (73). In Freudian terms, the erection of the lamp on the “straightest” cypress pole from the swamp signifies his own rampant, phallic power, but he cleverly makes the people feel it as a communal achievement, one sanctioned by God himself. Further, the cooption of the holy man to his charade demonstrates how the “peasants” can be dominated through religious methods, just as the Craigs do in Jubilee.

Small details relate how the town echoes the Caribbean. Jody drives (p.240) Henry Pitts out of town after Henry pilfers a load of cane from his employer Jody’s field, causing a debate among the men. Sim Jones, after checking to make sure Jody can’t hear him, complains, “Colored folks oughtn’t tuh be so hard on one ’nother,” offering a communal argument, to which Sam Watson, the sage of Jody’s store porch and Pheoby’s husband replies, “Let colored folks learn to work for what dey git lak everybody else” (77–78). But it seems the real complaint is about Jody’s manner: “All he do is big-belly round and tell other folks what tuh do. He loves obedience out of everybody under de sound of his voice,” and Oscar Scott complains, “You feel a switch in his hand when he’s talkin’ to yuh. … Dat chastising’ feelin’ he totes sorter gives yuh de protolapsis uh de curinary linin’.” The discussion escalates into metaphor, as Jeff Bruce chimes in, “He’s uh whirlwind among breezes,” to which Sam responds, “Speakin’ of winds, he’s de wind and we’se de grass. We bend which ever way he blows … but a dat us needs him. De town wouldn’t be nothin’ if it wasn’t for him. He can’t help bein’ sorta bossy. Some folks needs thrones, and ruling-chairs and crowns tuh make they influence felt. He don’t. He’s got uh throne in de seat of his pants” (78).

This sequence deserves scrutiny on several levels. As a study of folk linguistics, it reveals the riches of the local vernacular and the way in which common discussion can escalate into a kind of creative verbal dueling (hence the introduction of metaphor). Further, the largely comic exchange masks a quite serious discussion of racial and communal leadership and the problems it inevitably raises, particularly when the leader in question seems to be mimicking white values, or “showin’ off his learnin’,” as Hicks terms it, something the character Herald Day does repeatedly in McKay’s text.

Eatonville’s envy of Starks here echoes Banana Bottom’s envy of Jordan Plant, but the grudging acknowledgment of the Florida town’s need for Joe—and of his learning—also parallels the love/hate relationship Banana Bottom seems to have for Bita. It also seems time for us to examine Joe Starks more closely. Early treatments of the novel have rightly concentrated on Janie and her attempts to establish agency and voice. An unfortunate aspect of this kind of reading, however, has been to increasingly demonize Janie’s three husbands, especially Jody. While I am among the majority that found much to dislike about the recent movie that was made of Their Eyes, I did think that it offered a more balanced portrait of Jody, who does, in fact, make a positive difference in many ways in the life of Eatonville, and for that matter, in the life of Janie, although ultimately, as many have noted, he becomes a patriarchal tyrant. A useful new treatment of all three (p.241) husbands comes from Trudier Harris, who sees many of the positive aspects I have been mentioning here (2011, passim).

A link with Banana Bottom appears in the episodes dealing with Matt Bonner’s mule. The men use the raw-boned animal as the butt of jokes, many of them implicating his hapless owner, but eventually they turn to physically tormenting the old animal, which moves Janie: “A little war of defense for helpless things was going on inside her. People ought to have some regard for helpless things. She wanted to fight about it” (90), and she is pleased when Jody buys the mule and sets him to graze and fatten in front of the store, as a sign of his largesse. She tells him, in front of the other men, that the deed “makes u mighty big man outa you. Somethin like George Washington and Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln, he had de whole United States tuh rule so he freed de Negroes. You got uh town so you freed uh mule. You have tuh have power tuh free things and dat makes you lak uh king uh something” (92). This constitutes her “maiden speech” on the porch, which causes Hambo to marvel, “Yo’ wife is uh born orator, Starks. Us never knowed dat befo’. She put jus’ de right words tuh our thoughts.” Significantly, Jody does not object, as he has before, to Janie’s speech, as it praises him. However, the irony lies in the fact that while he will free the mule, he won’t free Janie, who labors in the store under his stern directives.

The link with Bita’s story is through Jubban, whose tenderness is signaled to Bita by his loving care of his animals, which eventually earns him a citation from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And, indeed, we initially see his kindness in a scene in which Jubban is grooming mules, “vigorously and yet so lovingly that the brutes were as gentle and docile as sheep under his hand. … Only Jubban could pick the ticks from under Mayfly’s tail and groom her there. Any other person who wanted to do that had to rope up Mayfly’s hind legs. … [He] had a way of coaxing and taming mules and horses and making them work willingly. … A colt broken in by him would turn out a better worker” (252).33

Jody forbids Janie to attend the mule’s funeral, where he preaches a mock elegy over the dead animal that adds to his reputation among the villagers. This is consistent with his treatment of Janie over their decades-long union. She is to be the “bell cow,” and is too good, as “Mrs. Mayor,” to be associated with folk culture of any type. Even her hair must be hidden from view, and she is virtually silenced in the store, even as she has sales contact with everyone in town. Her stance here, a kind of black “trophy wife,” has much in common with Bita Plant in terms of her relation with the Craigs. As (p.242) their educated, properly dressed (as we have seen, in drab colors), agent at the mission, she is a sign of their good works, a useful commodity for religious—and thus social—domination. They forbid her to go to tea meetings or any other kind of peasant entertainment, even though she was taught to dance in England.

We noted McKay’s mixed attitude toward Obeah. The conjurer Wumbe is mocked as an imposter, yet Squire Gensir says the ancestral/African religion should be respected. Hurston, we remember, was an initiated hoodoo priestess, wrote respectfully about vodoun in Tell My Horse, and proclaimed that the Western world had “a nerve” to speak disdainfully of African-derived religions as mere superstition. Still, when Jody gets sick—likely of cancer—and refuses to eat Janie’s cooking, we learn that he and others in the town think that Janie has hired the local conjure man to “fix” him. Joe himself, in fact, has consulted this “faker,” whom Janie calls a “trashy nigger dat calls hisself uh two-headed doctor” and “a multiplied cock-roach” (127–28), a description that could easily apply to Wumbe.

A number of critics34 have noticed strong connections between the characters of Their Eyes and the West African loas. Maria Smith, in particular, has made a strong case that Hurston relies on vodoun mythic models for the novel. Employing postcolonial, anthropological, theological, and literary theory and convincing analyses of transatlantic forms of ritual and vernacular culture, she suggests that Janie’s pear tree (following Maya Deren’s reading of the Haitian loas) is a form of the loa racine, “roots without end,” a preferred avenue of divine approach. In light of Bita Plant’s name and the symbolism of leaves and grafting associated with her “rootedness” in Jubban, this suggestion becomes doubly intriguing. Janie is related to Erzulie, the goddess of love, but also, because of her ability to “split” herself into inside and outside, to Esu-Elegba, the trickster. Tea Cake, after his death, rises to the stature of ancestor, while the trajectory of the narrative is equated to a vodoun initiatory rite (Smith 2007, 19–55).

My own work suggests that Hurston’s religious sensibility was syncretic rather than focused in vodoun, and that her overarching interest is in the retention of African traditions in general, including religious forms such as vodoun and Santería. Her circumCaribbean recastings of black Southern life can also take on a satiric edge, which often happens in African religions as well. The comic mule’s funeral has a human parallel with the magnificent funerals Janie provides for both Jody and Tea Cake. The former’s rites are “the finest thing Orange County had ever seen with Negro eyes.” The fancy cars, “the gold and red and purple, the gloat and glamor of the secret orders (p.243) … the Elks band … with a dominant drum rhythm. … The Little Emperor of the cross-roads was leaving Orange County as he had come—with the out-stretched hand of power” (136). The “Emperor” tag both mocks and praises Jody and suggests both Emperor Jones and Emperor Garvey (as do the references to the lodges). But above all, “emperor of the cross-roads” conjures up Esu-Elegba, the trickster, whose guile and cunning was always apparent in Jody, who undeniably used it to further himself, yes, but also the community. Finally, the “out-stretched hand” reference reminds us yet again of the biblical passage so central in Delany’s Blake: “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God” (Psalms 68:31). Tea Cake’s funeral, however, is associated with Egypt, another mythical black culture, for he is consistently termed the “son of Evening Sun [Osiris].” Through Janie’s expensive outlay for his funeral, he “rode like a Pharaoh to his tomb,” accompanied by a band, as in circumCaribbean New Orleans funerals, which Hurston had studied.35 These rites placate the community, which originally thought she had killed him so as to join Mrs. Turner’s brother.

Jody’s death causes Janie to reexamine the pattern of her life, and she finds she hates her grandmother for marrying her off to Logan Killicks: “Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon … and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her grand-daughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. … She [Janie] had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. But she had been set in the market-place to sell” (138). Similarly, Bita’s proposed marriage to the priggish Herald Day (forestalled only by his perverted affair with a nanny goat) had been set up by Priscilla Craig, whose subsequent objections to Bita’s keeping company with Hopping Dick underline the many ways in which she has restricted her over the years: “It would be impossible for her to stay when she felt not only resentment, but a natural opposition against Mrs. Craig. A latent hostility would make her always want to do anything of which Mrs. Craig disapproved. …. To Mrs. Craig, a woman whose attitude of life was alien to hers, and not to her parents, she owed the entire shaping of her career” (211, my emphasis). Of course the difference is that as Mrs. Craig’s “pet experiment,” Bita becomes the colonial subject par excellence; however, both Nanny and Mrs. Craig value “respectability” and social position over love and “natural” affinity.36

If Bita had married Herald Newton Day, they would have been false models for the community, in that they would be pillars of the colonial establishment—puppets (p.244) for the administrative authority that demands allegiance to the cultural heritage of the “mother country” thousands of miles away. But Janie, married to Jody, propped up as a fancy-dressed icon on the porch of Jody’s blindingly white “big house” store, occupies just that kind of false and, indeed, colonializing function, as her union with Jody mimics what he understands is the proper “white” presentation and operation of power and prestige. If she had married the proper undertaker from Sanford, as many wanted her to, her position as trophy wife would have been repeated.

The townspeople of Hurston’s Eatonville, used to the role Jody assigned to Janie, take a dim view of her romance with Tea Cake: “Why she don’t stay in her class?” (10). This is precisely what many in Banana Bottom eventually ask about Bita when she considers, first, Hopping Dick and then Jubban.37 Hurston, herself, however, always felt an affinity for those that McKay called “hardy peasants.” As she declared in her autobiography, “These poets of the swinging blade! The brief, but infinitely graceful, dance of body and axe-head as it lifts over the head in a fluid arc, dances in air, and rushes down to bite into the tree, all in beauty. … Sweating black bodies, muscled like Gods” (1942, 179).

Tea Cake, like Jubban, is presented as a very dark and handsome man. Janie, as narrator, comments on his “full, purple lips” the first time he enters the store, and later, as he teaches her to play checkers, she appreciatively notices “those full, lazy eyes with the lashes curling sharply away like drawn scimitars. The lean, over-padded shoulders and narrow waist. Even nice!” (146). These images expand, as do Bita’s of Jubban’s, until Janie admits to herself, “He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom—a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God” (161).38 Janie’s Jody-wannabee storekeeper, the teenage Hezekiah, warns her against Tea Cake: “Ain’t got doodly squat. He ain’t got no business makin’ hissef familiar wid nobody lak you” (156). Yet Tea Cake does have something—joy in life and many “natural” abilities. He is an expert fisherman and a fine blues pianist—presumably self-taught. An expert gambler, he makes Janie’s $200 of honeymoon money turn a handsome profit in Jacksonville. As Sally Ann Ferguson has shown us, Tea Cake is a positive form of the “badman” figure in African American folk culture. He is also, as his skill with a piano, a guitar, and his voice demonstrate, a black Orpheus whose music, humor, and creative mischief makes him a favorite with everyone he meets. In this sense, he is quite different from Jubban, whose quiet demeanor is a good match (p.245) for the untalkative Bita. Yet both men are heroic, in their strength, their dedicated love for their women, and their ability to fight—physically and morally—for their family and their people. Like Jubban, Tea Cake is “tested” several times, by Janie and by us as readers. His three disappearances, during courtship and honeymoon, prove nerve-racking, but the rewards each time—the car, the gambling money, the new guitar—offer the semiotics of our faith rewarded. He is also an expert hunter and teaches Janie to become a marksman, which of course sets up her tragic but necessary shooting of Tea Cake at novel’s end.

As noted, both Jubban and Tea Cake are very dark. The near-white Mrs. Turner urges Janie to leave Tea Cake and “class up” with “light” people, like her and her available light-skinned brother. Her diatribe against “black” black folk is a litany of racist clichés: “Who want any lil ole black baby layin’ up in de baby buggy lookin’ lak uh fly in buttermilk? Who wants to be mixed up wid uh rusty black man, and uh black woman goin’ down de street in all dem loud colors, and whoopin’ and hollerin’ and laughin’ over nothin’?” (211). Mrs. Turner even hates Booker T. Washington (one of Hurston’s personal heroes, and, at one point, before he read Du Bois, McKay’s): “All he ever done was cut de monkey for white folks. So dey pomped him up. But you know whut de ole folks say ‘de higher de monkey climbs de mo’ he show his behind’ so dat’s de way it wuz. … He didn’t do nothin’ but hold us back—talkin’ ’bout work when de race ain’t never done nothin’ else. He wuz uh enemy tuh us, dat’s whut. He wuz uh white folks’ nigger” (212). We find multiple ironies here: Mrs. Turner may be almost white, but her diatribe resonates with folk expressions turned inside out, and, clearly, if anyone is a “white folks’ nigger,” she’s it. Also, Washington led in agricultural research, which he felt would facilitate black independence, a thematic, as we have seen, in the concluding chapters of Banana Bottom.

The two-room house the Woods happily inhabit on the Muck echoes the simple two rooms of Squire Gensir in Banana Bottom, and small as it is, their home becomes the center of the community, just as Jubban and Bita’s does at the conclusion of McKay’s novel. The muck, we learn, is a Caribbean world, with Bahamian drummers providing its rhythm and dances. Janie and Tea Cake become friends with the “Saws” and attend their fire dances. They also talk to the Indians, who are leaving the Muck after seeing signs a hurricane is coming. Soon the native animals—rabbits, possums, rattlesnakes—begin an exodus as well, and then deer, panthers, and buzzards. The buzzard is an important mythical bird in African culture, as the earlier surreal funeral of the mule indicated. Here, Janie/Hurston builds the exodus of animals (p.246) to a climax that ends with them: “A thousand buzzards held a flying meet and then went above the clouds and stayed” (230). “Palm and banana trees began that long distance talk with rain” (230), lyrical language that emphasizes the circumCaribbean flora, fauna, and weather.

Many critics have commented on Tea Cake’s failure to pay attention to the warning of the Indians and the animals, but the Bahamians have even more extensive experience with the storms; one of them, Lias, stops by to say he’s leaving. He speaks a markedly different dialect and is more attune to the signs: “Man, muck is too low and dat big lake is liable tuh bust. … De Indians gahn east, man. It’s dangerous. … If Ah never see you no mo’ on earth, Ah’ll meet you in Africa,” a Caribbean-diasporic expression and warning. But not all the Bahamians leave. Motor Boat stays behind. His name reminds us of a lack, for there is no boat for an escape.

The parallels between the disasters in both these texts and the terrible recent reality of the destruction of New Orleans are chilling. In Hurston’s account, just as in New Orleans in 2005, some people do not trust the warnings and stay behind:”The people felt uncomfortable but safe because there were the seawalls to chain the senseless monster [the Lake] in his bed” (234). Ignored warnings, an exploding lake, failed levees. Tea Cake, impressed to bury bodies in Palm Beach, becomes our guide to the destruction, describing bodies as “dead with fighting faces and eyes flung wide open in wonder. Death had found them watching, trying to see beyond seeing” (252), another echo of the title, which seems to question how God can do such things to man.

The hurricane clearly echoes the one in Banana Bottom, and, indeed, the fictional depictions were likely based on the same storm, the great Lake Okeechobee hurricane of September 6 to September 20, 1928, which caused over 2,500 deaths. It is still the second-deadliest natural disaster to hit the United States, after the Galveston hurricane of 1900, which killed at least 6,000. There were major hurricanes in 1933 as well, but McKay had already completed his novel at that point, as it appeared that year. Both Hurston and McKay, as circumCaribbean people, had been through many hurricanes before, including one Hurston experienced while in the Bahamas in 1929 and one in Haiti while writing Their Eyes.39 As anyone who has experienced such a storm knows, it tests the abilities of everyone in its path. In both novels, the storms replicate the “testing” of the hero/heroine of the earlier narrative but also provide a challenge to the wider communities of which they are a part. Hurricanes are literally a “clearing of the ground,” and although sublimely terrible and often deadly, they ironically create conditions (p.247) for change, renewal, and resurrection. In both novels, deaths mark the end but also a beginning, especially in Banana Bottom, where Jubban and Bita make love for the first time in the wagon hauling her dead father’s body. Janie, returning to Eatonville after burying Tea Cake, brings his symbolically regenerative seeds with her; the story she tells, which will enrich the community as Pheobe and her husband Sam retell it, is an equivalent. Janie leaves us as she ecstatically climbs the stairs, grateful for memories of her life with Tea Cake. He seems to be dancing in the air above her, summoning her to a new stage in her life.

In these two stunning novels, McKay and Hurston sought to preserve folk wisdom that had seemingly been lost in modern, technological cultures, a thematic that echoed throughout the Harlem Renaissance after perhaps the quintessential statement in Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), which both McKay and Hurston revered. Yet they reject the “swan song” intent of Toomer. They see their “hardy peasants” not only enduring, but prevailing, and marching on to new destinies. High literary culture of Western modernism had no use for the “peasant” novels I have highlighted and honored here, and therefore helped contribute to global imperialism. Colonial powers understand all too well that local narratives, if designed for liberation, are inimical to imperial objectives. For these reasons, in virtually every colonized area, local narratives have been either blocked or manipulated by the dominant power. Aiming for an authentic and empowering local narrative, McKay, Hurston, Roumain, Heyward, and many other writers of the circumCaribbean strove mightily to amplify the voices of the folk, whose counter-narratives made their transnational novels effective foils in a battle against cultural erasure.


(1.) For an account of McKay’s connection of rural Morocco with his native Jamaica, see Wayne Cooper’s biography, Claude McKay (1987, 273–90). Cooper does not, however, provide a detailed reading of Banana Bottom.

(2.) The valorization of the folk as the font of culture has recently returned to the fore in the work of Bakhtin; however, this kind of impetus has many venerable antecedents. Montaigne, for instance, declared, “The least contemptible class of people seems to me to be those who, through their simplicity, occupy the lowest rank, and they seem to show greater regularity in their relations. The morals and the talk of peasants I find commonly more obedient to the prescriptions of true philosophy than are those of our philosophers. The common people are wiser, because they are as wise as they need be” (“Of Presumption,” 1957, 501). In all these respects, it is fascinating to compare Banana Bottom and Their Eyes Were Watching God with two other “peasant” novels that appeared shortly after Their Eyes, DuBose Heyward’s Star Spangled Virgin (1939) and Jacques Roumain’s Masters of the Dew (1944).

(3.) For similar readings, see Barbara Griffin, who condemns the novel for its “patriarchal layers” and McKay’s “misty-eyed evocations of the old days of paternalistic (p.367) coziness.” She complains that Bita’s actions “do little to change the economic inequities heavily based on the rigid class structure of the island,” and that she winds up in a “circumscribed existence” that “reduces her intellect into a commodity of personal enhancement and merges her identity with that of her husband’s”—here Jubban is said to be (without any evidence at all) a man “whose entrenched routine rustic life and sociopolitical apathy in no way threaten the colonial subtext of the narrative. … With him Bita will be subdued and isolated” (1999, 504–6). While there are many problems with this reading, the principal one is that the potential patriarchs here—Jordan, Squire Gensir, and Jubban—all work actively to foster Bita’s agency and are hardly part of white colonial paternalism.

(4.) Similarly, in her autobiography, Hurston makes it clear that the tropical bounty of the land also contributed to her family’s well-being. Surrounded by flowering plants, they also had “plenty of orange, grapefruit, tangerine, guavas and other fruits in our yard. We had a five-acre garden with things to eat growing in it, and so we were never hungry. We had chicken on the table often; home-cured meat, and all the eggs we wanted. … There was plenty of fish in the lakes” (Dust Tracks, 1942, 26–27).

(5.) Bita’s seven-year “exile” echoes that of McKay, whose parents sent him at the age of six to live with his brother near Montego Bay, where he was subjected to a strict English education. He eventually became absorbed with his brother’s philosophical books, as Bita does in the library of her white patron, Squire Gensir. Earlier, his sister had also been sent away for study and had returned home a very fashionable young lady, making people say that “she was too ‘highly-educated’ for a village man,” which is also said of Bita (My Green Hills, passim).

(6.) The British missionaries, the Craigs, constitute a perfect example of Frantz Fanon’s description of white religion’s role in colonization: “The Church in the colonies is the white people’s Church, the foreigner’s Church. She does not call the native to God’s ways but to the ways of the white man, of the master, of the oppressor” (1963, 42).

(7.) He corresponds to Earl, Arvay Henson’s challenged son in Hurston’s last novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), and may well have been that character’s inspiration.

(8.) Josh Gosciak (2006) has given the fullest account of McKay’s relationship with Jekyll, who was the brother of the famous horticulturist Gertrude Jekyll (1843–1932). She encouraged her brother’s interest in Caribbean flora and fauna. Walter’s veiled homosexuality may have been McKay’s gateway to his own bisexuality. Unaccountably, Gosciak makes almost no mention of Banana Bottom, or Jekyll’s alter ego there, Squire Gensir. For another view of this relationship, see Cobham (1992, passim).

(9.) Despite the initial resistance of the Jamaican government to the recruitment of their citizens for work on the canal, only Barbadians exceeded the number of Jamaicans in the canal workforce. Many Jamaicans were skilled workers, serving as teachers, policemen, and artisans. The canal builders naturally preferred English-speaking workers. For a full discussion of Jamaicans in the isthmus workforce, see Greene (2009, especially 65, 128–29, 148–49, 341–42).

(p.368) (10.) For detailed descriptions of Esu’s role in cultures of Africa and its diaspora, see Gates (1988) and Euba (1989).

(11.) Bita’s and Janie’s scenes before the mirror echo Delany’s pride in being a black man. Frederick Douglass famously said of him, “I thank God for making me a man simply; but Delany always thanks him for making him a black man” (Levine 1997, 6).

(12.) Garvey’s “court” and the elaborate costumes worn by him and his followers inspired Eugene O’Neill’s depiction of Emperor Brutus Jones’s court.

(13.) Although Garvey had not gone to Africa when he founded his “empire,” he had done extensive research on African culture in London before World War I. Langston Hughes had actually been to Africa, if briefly, as a merchant seaman. For a detailed examination of Garvey’s legacy and his role in Pan-Africanism, see Stein (1986).

(14.) Walter Jekyll was an important anthologist of the Anancy stories, which have many parallels with trickster tales of the Old U. S. Southwest. For a comparison of the traditions, see my essay “Anancy’s Web” (2013).

(15.) This episode, like many others in the novel, came from an incident in McKay’s hometown of Sunny Ville, where Edwin Thatcher is discovered hiding under the bed of Edith and is pulled out by his leg—thus, Yoni’s last name, Legge, in the book is a signification on an actual event (My Green Hills, 51).

(16.) Although McKay was most probably thinking of the 1760 revolt, there was another one in 1736 on Antigua, led by the slave Court, aka Tacky. Like many of the insurrection leaders of the period, including Jamaica’s figure of the same name, Antigua’s Tacky was a Coromantee. The carefully planned and extensive revolt he led in Antigua almost came to fruition and, as in the later insurrection in Jamaica, was laid out in conjunction with Obeahmen, including two named Caesar and Quawcoo. The latter was also a Coromantee, and court records specify the elaborate rituals that were employed (Gaspar 1978, 322), which in several ways are similar to the ones that McKay ascribes to Wumbe.

(17.) Banana production in Jamaica in the late nineteenth century was led by the Boston Fruit Company, which merged with Minor Keith’s Latin American and Caribbean operations in 1899 to become the United Fruit Company. The extensive range of the operation meant that hurricane damage, as reflected in McKay’s novel, could be offset by production in a neighboring island/country. The banana industry has always been dominated by Northern capital, as the complex system of production, speedy overseas shipment, and ripening procedures demanded a unified and well-financed operation. A labor-intensive crop, bananas quickly became a natural replacement for sugar production, which declined in value with the rise of the beet-sugar industry in Europe. For a full analysis of the complex interplay between this banana production and colonial and postcolonial operations, see Wiley (2008).

(18.) Winston James (1998) draws attention to this passage in the novel and relates it to general anger in the population against legislators who, in effect, operated against their own people in order to benefit their own light-skinned children. McKay and his brother, U. Theo McKay, knew many such “traitors.” James also cites Garvey’s 1913 heated opposition to the policy and that of the venerable, passionate, and darkskinned (p.369) Rev. E. Ethelred Brown, who denounced this very policy in Harlem before the Jamaican Progressive League in 1936.

(19.) For a detailed examination of the economic structures and arguments in the novel, see David Nicholl’s excellent essay (1999).

(20.) Derek Walcott, musing on many of these issues, includes a character based on Philoctetes in his epic poem, Omeros.

(21.) The hurricane section drew heavily on McKay’s own experiences. He relates how “a fierce hurricane would sweep everything before it … destroying the best crops of bananas. … The aftermath was sheer misery … the villages were faced with starvation. Somehow I recall that we always used to pull through” (My Green Hills, 3). Further, the death of the two friends, as Jordan struggles to save Malcolm, recalls the swimming death of the young married couple in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920), a book McKay admired. Similarly, Hurston had experienced the terrible 1928 hurricane that lifted Lake Okeechobee over its banks, killing thousands, and she had also been through another terrible hurricane in the Bahamas in 1929, which she described in her autobiography.

(22.) In opera, this pattern finds a notable example in the pairing of Tamino/Pamina (the “nobles”) and the bird-catcher Papagano/Papagena in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

(23.) As Dash demonstrates, the key text of this type was Jacques Roumain’s Governeurs de la rosée (1944), known in English translation as Masters of the Dew. The novel’s hero, Manuel, returns to Haiti after participating in collective revolt in Cuba. Roumain, like Hurston and McKay before him, was strongly influenced by anthropologists and folklorists such as Jean Price-Mars, Melville Herskovits, and Alfred Métraux, whose investigations of African survivalisms—especially in the religious practices of vodoun—brought about a new respect for the complexities of diasporic culture among the intelligentsia. Roumain limns a folk culture in times of stress—a terrible drought—but also describes patterns of migration, the onslaughts of finance capitalism from abroad, and “the emergence of new diasporic revolutionary identities” (Dash 2008, 38).

(24.) This issue has continued to surface in Caribbean literary studies, particularly in responses to the patrician—and very Western—attitudes of the esteemed Jamaican writer John Hearne. The argument for and against any one strand of culture in the region, however, was eloquently countered by the writer Sylvia Wynter: “To insist as we have hitherto done on any one part—i.e. the European—to the total exclusion of any or all of the others, is to humiliate and exile a part of ourselves. … To understand West Indian history, we must turn to the history of Africa, Asia, of the indigenous peoples of the American continent, [and of] Europe” (cited in Nettleford 1979, 67).

(25.) For a compelling recent reading of Moses as a circumCaribbean work, see Sam Vásquez’s Humor in the Caribbean Literary Canon (2012).

(26.) In “Folklore and Music,” Hurston would further state, “Also in Florida are the Cuban-African and the Bahamian-African folk tales. It is interesting to note that the same Brer Rabbit tales of the American Negro are told by these islanders. One also (p.370) finds the identical tales in Haiti and the British West Indies. … The wide distribution denotes a common origin in West Africa” (1995, 891–92), and, one notes, the net of connections the African diaspora draped over the circumCaribbean.

(27.) It seems likely that Hurston’s original knowledge of the Anancy stories came from a reading of Walter Jekyll, who indeed may have been brought to her attention by McKay. Certainly Franz Boas knew this important resource. Her collection work in Jamaica, however, brought the stories into a more dynamic and immediate dimension.

(28.) When Hollywood offered to make his play into a film, O’Neill turned to the white Charleston writer DuBose Heyward, who had had success writing about black Southern characters. His novel Porgy (1928) became a Broadway play, which O’Neill admired; it later became the basis for George Gershwin’s celebrated opera, Porgy and Bess. Heyward’s screenplay for The Emperor Jones (1930) melds in a new first half, mainly set in the U. S. South, which situates Jones as a gospel-singing, womanizing, but profoundly Southern black, who knows both folklore and subversive modes of signifying. The two halves of the film thus constitute an early example of a modernist text that compares the South and the Caribbean, drawing lines of both connection and contrast. See my article on the screenplay in Philological Quarterly (2011).

(29.) Hurston’s time in Harlem was also the era of the aforementioned back-to-Africa black nationalist Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association. His retinue included talented writers such as Wilfred Domingo, who edited Garvey’s Negro World. Although there were few writers of the time who took Garvey seriously (McKay had nothing but scorn for his fellow Jamaican), his movement increased awareness of Caribbean people and culture and helped expand the sense of the diaspora that was so prominent in Alain Locke’s monumental edited volume, The New Negro (1925).

(30.) Hurston had made it a point to study the historic maroon community of Apopong in Jamaica in Tell My Horse (1938).

(31.) Nanny, the maroon heroine, plays a key role in Michelle Cliff’s Jamaica novel, Abeng (1984).

(32.) The acquisition of land, rather than empty consumerism, is repeatedly put forward by McKay as a wise strategy for peasant investment. Jordan carefully adds to his acreage, and after his death, Bita and Jubban buy adjoining plots with the money she is willed by Squire Gensir.

(33.) This episode should be kept in mind in regard to the economic argument of the book, in which McKay makes it plain that “peasant” wisdom can also lead to financial benefits.

(34.) In addition to Smith, see Southerland (1979), Pavlić (2004), Lowe (1998), and especially Cartwright (2013), who offers the most extended reading of African religious references in the novel. His discussion appears in a different form in Jennings’s edited volume on Their Eyes Were Watching God and Haiti (2013).

(35.) For two views of Tea Cake’s presentation through Eastern mythology, see Lowe (1994, 195–96) and Pondrom (1986, passim).

(36.) On the other hand, Nanny’s poignant and wrenching memories of her travails (p.371) during slavery and afterward with Janie’s wayward mother, Leafy, never seem to move Janie, whose lack of education and thus sense of history limits her to a certain extent. It is time for us to wonder if Hurston agreed with Janie’s assessment of Nanny and her story; after all, Hurston created it. On a related note, to my mind, one of the several egregious mistakes in the recent film of Their Eyes Were Watching God was the omission of Nanny’s speech, which reduced her to a cipher, a double shame since she was portrayed by the magnificent actress Ruby Dee.

(37.) Hurston’s account of Janie’s teenage years similarly has her briefly enamored, after romantic reveries, with a Hopping Dick–type figure: “Through pollinated air she saw a glorious being coming up the road. In her former blindness she had known him as shiftless Johnny Taylor, tall and lean. That was before the golden dust of pollen had be-glamored his rags and her eyes” (25).

(38.) Apparently, Tea Cake was based on what Hurston called “the real love affair of my life,” with a son of West Indian parents, a graduate of City College who was working on his master’s degree at Columbia, who had very little money. He had “nothing to offer but what it takes—a bright soul, a fine mind in a fine body, and courage” (Dust Tracks, [1942], 1984, 255). But after he receives his degree, she gets a Guggenheim and sails off for Jamaica, the first leg of two years in the Caribbean, where she writes Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), in an effort “to embalm all the tenderness of my passion for him” (260). In light of this model, it is interesting that Tea Cake, like Jubban, has no apparent formal education.

(39.) As she recorded in her autobiography, “I lived through that terrible five-day hurricane of 1929. It was horrible in its intensity and duration. I saw dead people washing around on the streets when it was over. You could smell the stench from dead animals as well. More than three hundred houses were blown down in the city of Nassau alone” (Dust Tracts, [1942], 1984, 203).