We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,– This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth myriad subtleties.
–Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask”
Although relatively unknown today, in the first part of the century one of the United States’ best known personalities was the writer Fannie Hurst. She authored eighteen novels and over ninety short stories; twenty-nine HoIlywood films were based upon her work (Bran&arte 276). Moreover, she was a well-known liberal, active particularly in organizations working for racial equality.(n1) In 1933, Hurst published one of her most famous novels, Imitation of Life, which immediately became a bestseller. Within a year of its publication, it was adapted for the screen by Universal Studios and was soon the subject of an intense debate by a biting assessment of the novels and the racism by Sterling Brown in the pages of Opportunity. Although rarely seen by contemporary audiences, the influence of that lingers; its imprint, for example, on both plot and character, can be discerned in the 1984 hit Places in the Heart and, somewhat less overtly, in the award-winning play and film Driving Miss Daisy.(n2) In 1959, Imitation of Life was remade by Douglas Sirk and earned Universal more money than any of its prior pictures; that picture’s critical reputation has grown steadily, and the 1959 Imitation frequently plays revival houses. While Hurst’s Imitation of Life and the two films based upon it have not achieved “classic” status on a par with such fixtures as Gone With the Wind or Casablanca, they have made a significant impact upon both African-American and Anglo-American culture. In this essay, I will trace some of the responses to Imitation of Life that appear, with varying degrees of subtlety, in three works of African-American literature: “Limitations of Life,” Their Eyes Were Watching God, and The Bluest Eye.
Hurst’s novel opens with its central figure, a sheltered and unworldly seventeen-year-old white woman named Bea, attending her beloved mother’s funeral. With her mother dead, Bea must assume the domestic responsibilities for the household, which consists of her father and a boarder, Mr. B. Pullman. When she turns eighteen, Pullman, with the aid of Bea’s father, arranges for Bea to marry him. Within months of the marriage, Bea is pregnant, her father has suffered an incapacitating stroke, and Mr. Pullman is killed in an accident. In order to support her family, Bea enters the male business world, taking over Mr. Pullman’s sideline of selling maple syrup to Atlantic City hotels. Soon Bea hires Delilah, an “enormously buxom figure of a woman with a round Black moon face that shone above an Alps of bosom,” (91) as a live-in domestic. Delilah comes with her young daughter Peola, whom she describes as “the purfectest white nigger baby dat God ever dropped down in de lap of a Black woman from Virginia” (92). Delilah is a wondrous cook, and she soon is making maple syrup candies for Bea to sell. Next, Bea has set up a restaurant specializing in Delilah’s delicious coffee and waffles, with Delilah as the presiding cook. Bea soon becomes a millionaire, reigning over a chain of “B. Pullman” restaurants; Delilah remains her devoted servant and never expresses any personal desire, except a hankering for an elaborate funeral.
Tragedy, however, intervenes for both Bea and Delilah. For years, Bea had devoted all of her time to her business and was unable to develop an intimate relationship with her daughter Jessie; she also remained, romantically and sexually, utterly unfulfilled. Once Bea does fall in love with a man, the eight-years-younger Frank Flake, it is only to lose him in the last few pages of the novel to her teenaged daughter. Paralleling these limitations in Bea’s personal life is the conflict between the dark-skinned Delilah and her light-skinned daughter. Peola, from earliest childhood, has tried to pass for white and disavowed and expressed disdain for her race; she ultimately opts to sterilize herself, marry a white man, move to Bolivia, and sever all ties to her mother and her former life. Delilah dies soon after this heartbreaking rupture.
The 1934 version of Imitation of Life remains fairly true to the novel, though we do not meet Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert) until she is already widowed and trying to support her young daughter by selling maple syrup. In the midst of a harried morning, a Black woman (Louise Beavers), having mistakenly read an address, comes to her back door in quest of a lob as a live-in domestic. Bea protests that she has not advertised for a maid nor can she afford one. Delilah offers to work for no money as long as Bea will give room and board to herself and her daughter Peola (Fred) Washington). Soon, Delilah begins to cook up some of the most wonderful pancakes imaginable, based, she says, on a secret family recipe. In no time at all, Delilah gladly yields up the traditional secret, and Bea opens a pancake restaurant. Unlike the novel, however, Bea becomes wealthy only after she decides to package the pancake flour, using the name and image of Delilah on the box. The situation between Delilah and Peola develops without much deviation from the novel. Conflict mars the relationship between the two from Poela’s earliest years; faced with her daughter’s discontent, Delilah continually urges Christian acceptance: “Meet your cross halfway…. Say, `Lord, I bow my head.’ He made you black, honey. Don’t be telling Him His business.” As in the novel, Peola chooses to pass permanently and to sever all ties with her mother and former life, but there is no mention of sterilization or any impending marriage to a white man. Moreover, at Delilah’s grandiose funeral, Peola returns to throw herself upon her mother’s coffin, castigating herself for causing her mother’s death.
Imitation of Life was, as film historian Donald Bogle writes, “the first important `Black film’ of the 1930s.” Through its “humanization of the Negro servant” and its presentation of Black roles beyond the standard comic foils and fools, the picture reflected the “new social consciousness” brought about by “Roosevelt’s election, the New Deal, the growing liberalism of the country, and the Depression itself” (57). Thomas Cripps sums up the significance of the film by noting that:
The picture offered abundant signs that depression attitudes were producing changes. Universal’s decision to produce it, the astonishing pre-science of white magazines, the enthusiasm of white audiences who found it “gripping and powerful,” Its “surprisingly” large grosses everywhere . . . and the predictable splash in Negro neighborhoods, where it created a “sensation,” added up to a minor revolution in moviegoers’ tastes. (302-03)
One measure of the impact of the film on Black audiences can be found in slang: In her 1942 “Glossary of Harlem Slang,” Zora Neale Hurston lists peola as a term meaning “a very white Negro girl” (94) and, as Lawrence Reddick reports, peola “became for a time a widely used term in Negro conversation” (11-12). Reddick further notes that, while white liberals generally applauded the picture and hailed it as a progressive step forward in racial attitudes, editorials “in the Negro press were rather unanimous in their praise of Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington as actresses, but they expressed annoyance and disgust at many scenes” (11). One such scene occurs early on, when Bea offers Delilah a twenty-percent share of the pancake flour profits. She and her business manager Elmer (Ned Sparks) are seated at a table and ask Delilah to sign the appropriate form. Looking worried and curved into subservience, Delilah stands before them insisting: “I ain’t gonna do it, Miss Bea. I ain’t gonna do it.” Bea is perplexed; she explains that now Delilah will be able to have her own car and home, but, Delilah, unbelievably, interprets this to mean that Bea is conspiring to send her away. “Oh honey chile, please don’t send me away. Don’t do that to me.” She grows ever more morose, finally begging Bea to “let me and Peola stay the same as we been doing. I’s your cook and I wants to stay your cook.” Bea asks Delilah if there isn’t something she wants for herself, Delilah expresses a wish only for a grand funeral when she dies. After a number of such exchanges, Bea, teary and all aglow at such expressions of loyalty and humility, agrees and exclaims, Oh Delilah, you’re hopeless. Elmer then laconically observes, “Once a pancake, always a pancake.”
Outraged by both the and the novel, Sterling Brown subtitled his 1935 Opportunity review of the novel and film “Once a Pancake.” His tone is scornful and his conclusions firm:
Those who have seen the pleasure will recognize the differences in plot. The characterization and ideas, however, are little changed. Delilah, “vast monument of a woman” “her huge smile the glowing heart of a furnace,” is essentially the same with her passion for rubbing “dem white little dead beat feet,” the inebriation of her language, too designly picturesque, her unintelligible character, now infantile, now mature, now cataloging folk beliefs of the Southern Negro, and now cracking contemporary witticisms…. Delilah’s visions of going to glory recur In the book. To the reviewer they are not true folk-eloquence. “I’m paying lodge-dues an’ I’m savin’ mah own pennies to be sent home and delivered to de glory of de Lawd wid plumes and trumpets blowin’ louder den rhubarb would make growin’.” Delilah Is completely Black, and therefore contented: “Lovers of de Lad an’ willing servers is my race, filled with de blessings of humility”. . “Glory be to Gawd, I’s glad I’s one of his Black chillun,’cause, sho’ as heaven, his heart will bleed fust wid pity and wid mercy for his lowdown ones.’ Peola, near white, but with “not a half moon to her finger nails. Is unhappy. “It’s de white horses dat’s wild, a’swimmin’ in de blood of mah child…. I wants to drown dem white horses plungin’ in mah baby’s blood.. Can one reader be forgiven, If during such passages, there runs Into his mind some-thing unmistakably like a wild horse laugh? (87)
Judging both the novel and the film to be equally offensive, Brown writes: “It requires no searching analysis to see in Imitation of Life the old stereotype of the contented Mammy, and the tragic mulatto; and the ancient ideas about the mixture of the races” (88).
Outraged by the review, Hurst wrote immediately in response, despairing that a “thinking Negro” could express so limited a view. She finds Brown’s concerns to be both “petty” and “carping” and chastises him for neglecting to realize “the important social value of this picture… [, for] it practically inaugurates into the important medium of the motion-picture a consideration of the Negro as part of the social pattern of American life.” She concludes, “The attitude is ungrateful, but what is much more important, it is also unintelligent” (Letter 121). In his response, Brown does not waver, but strengthens his critique, arguing that both Delilah and Peola are stereotypic fixtures that “contribute to Anglo-Saxon esteem. It is not easy to see any `social value’ in perpetuating these stock characters.” He also further satirically acknowledges “this degree of unintelligence: . . . I cannot imagine what in the world I have to be grateful for, either to Universal Pictures or to Miss Hurst” (Letter 122).
Readers’ response to the Hurst-Brown dispute was tremendous, and within a few months the editors of Opportunity announced that they felt compelled to close the debate, for “it would have been impossible to publish all of the letters pro and con which fairly inundated the editorial offices” (231). The debate was so furious, in part, because of Fannie Hurst’s reputation as a political liberal and a “friend of the Negro.” As one respondent, Thomas Fortune Fletcher, wrote: “Fannie Hurst has for a number of years encouraged and aided the young Negro artist; she has helped some of them realize life-long ambitions. I am grateful to Miss Hurst for this . . .” (153). It was just this type of activity that involved Hurst in the Harlem Renaissance and led to her acquaintanceship with Langston Hughes and friendship with Zora Neale Hurston. Although Hurston and Hughes were to praise Hurst to her face for Imitation of Life, both, in their writing, with differing shades of subtlety, firmly rescinded that praise.
Pancake-a humble humble of Negro.
–Hurston, “Glossary of Harlem Slang” (94)
When the pancake eater voiced that much repeated expression, “Once a pancake, always a pancake,” he did so with complete deliberation and an unmistakable, emphatic double-meaning. My mind went back to the days when grandmother used to tell us stories of life on the plantation. When her master was displeased with something the slaves had or had not done, he would say to them, “You darkies will always be darkies.” Now, whether pancakes or darkies, the meaning is the same.
–Hazel Washington (185)
The 1934 film version of Imitation Life changed the novel’s waffles to pancakes: This may well have been a deliberate ploy to take advantage of the double meaning of pancake, as well as to evoke the “Aunt Jemima” imagery, which first appeared on U.S. pancake products in 1889. As previously noted, the “once a pancake” scene in the film made a strong impression on African-American audiences and aroused much negative comment. Taking advantage of the notoriety of this scene, Langston Hughes used it as the centerpiece of his short, satirical 1938 play “Limitations of Life.”
The setting of the play is “Harlem. Right now.” The action takes place in a “luxurious living room. Swell couch and footstool. At right, electric stove, griddle, pancake turner, box of pancake flour (only Aunt Jemima’s picture is white)….” The three characters, all of whose names play upon the actors of Imitation of Life, are Audette Aubert (Claudette Colbert), “pretty blond maid”; Mammy Weavers (Louise Beavers), “a colored lady, in trailing evening gown, with tiara and large Metropolitan Opera program, speaking perfect English with Oxford accent”; and Ed Starks (Ned Sparks), “a sleek-headed jigaboo in evening clothes” (657). All the ridiculous roles are reversed. Audette, “looking up like a faithful dog,” specializes in rubbing Mammy Weaver’s feet, expresses supreme satisfaction with her servile lot in life, desires only a grand funeral when she dies, and insists on making pancakes for her mistress and her boyfriend. Mammy Weavers is properly condescending, telling Audette she likes white people because they remind her of her “dear old New England mammy.” She also solicitously inquires after the whereabouts of Audette’s daughter, “little Riola.” Audette answers, “Lawd, Mammy Weavers, ma little daughter’s trying so hard to be colored. She just loves Harlem. She’s lyin’ out in de backyard in de sun all day long tannin’ herself, ever day . . …” (656). The skit ends with a broad swipe at the “pancake” scene:
Mammy: Darling, maybe you d like a day off? Audette (flipping a pancake): Not even a day off, Mammy Weavers! Ah wouldn’t know what to do with it. (exits,head down) Ed (throwing up his hands): Once a pancake, always a pancake! (picks up Jemima box with white auntie on it, and shakes his head). (658)
According to Arnold Rampersad, this satirical skit, produced by the Harlem Suitcase Theatre, was “a great hit–at least with the blacks in the audience, who howled throughout Limitations of Life’ at seeing a Black society lady return home from the opera to the ministrations of her shuffling white maid. Most whites were less amused” (365).
There is obviously no subtlety in Hughes’s satirical response to Imitation of Life, yet, surprisingly, one year before he wrote it, Hughes wrote to Hurst praising the 1934 film. In a letter asking her to attend the Second International Writers Congress in Defense of Culture in Spain, Hughes took the opportunity to tell Hurst, “As a Negro, I’m especially grateful to you for bringing to the screen in your IMITATION OF LIFE the first serious treatment of the Negro problem in America.” Here, Hughes uses the very language of Hurst’s indignant letter to Sterling Brown in order to flatter her. His attitude is certainly paradoxical, and I asked his biographer, Arnold Rampersad, for his thoughts. Rampersad suggested that in the 1937 letter Hughes might have had a dual purpose: trying to please Hurst in an effort to draw her to closer to radicalism and, at the same time, mollifying her and soliciting her friendship. (Hurst had blurbed Hughes’s books in the past.) He added that, perhaps because Hurst did not come to the Congress, or possibly because Hughes himself was radicalized further by his experiences in Spain, he returned to write the clearly “ungrateful” “Limitations of Life.”
The contradictions in Hughes’s attitudes toward Imitation of Life are fairly evident, yet, despite his private letter to Hurst, in his published work, Hughes is utterly unambiguous. Zora Neale Hurston also praised Imitation of Life in her correspondence with Hurst, who was both her sponsor and friend. Nevertheless, as I will argue here, her writing extensively, and with powerful subtlety, “answers” Imitation of Life and acts as a corrective to its racist beliefs and stereotypes.
“Doan” leave me baby. Doan’ pass from me, baby. Even If I ain’t never had you, doan’leave me….”
“You’re good. All my life I’ll carry the memory of it locked up in my silence. But let But let me pass–Mammy–“
“Mammy! She called me Mamma–I’s In her blood-she cain’t help It.–Honey-chile, come to your mammy–“
–Delilah and Peola (Hurst, Imitation of Life 300)
Mammy–a term of insult. Never used in any other way by Negroes.
–Hurston, “Glossary of Harlem Slang” (94)
In 1925, Hurst, a contest judge for the National Urban League’s Opportunity awards, met Hurston, a prize winner. Hurst hired Hurston as her personal secretary, but within a year the job had switched to chauffeur and general companion and the two women shared a home and traveled together for over a year. Fannie Hurst, among others, was important connection for Zora Neale Hurston, providing her with an introduction to white literary society as well as to publishers and sponsors. Although their relationship, as Gay Wilentz points out, “was free of some of the more devastating aspects of the benefactor relationship” (27), its parameters definitely were dictated by the social hierarchies of class and race.(n3) For example, in their correspondence Hurst on addresses Hurst as “Miss Hurst” or “Fannie Hurst,” whereas Hurst addresses her as “Zora.” Due to her dependency upon Hurst (sometimes financial, though primarily social), Hurston may have felt obliged to laud her work. As Alice Walker notes, Hurston, opting for the survival of her work and her peoples cultural heritage, was dependent upon white sponsors and usually was unable “to pay back her debts with anything but words” (xvii).
In the following letter (Durham, North Carolina, 6 February 1940), Hurston praises Imitation of Life:
You have a grand set of admirers In this part of the world because of “Imitation of Life.” So It seems that Sterling Brown Is not in the majority. Ha tells people that he wants to riddle me, and otherwise defiate me[,] because he says that I stand convicted of having furnished you with the material of “Imitation.” I let it stand without contradiction because I feel he does me honor. In so saying, he pays you an unconscious tribute because he is admitting the truth of the work. What he and his kind resent is lust that. It is too accurate to be comfortable, but I see through him very clearly. He is Jealous to pieces because I have out-stripped him so far. So he adds the two things up and hates me like poison. Not that I care a tinkers.
Some of Hurston’s praise for Imitation of Life seems grounded in her antipathy for Brown and desire to confound him. She acknowledges and denies his accusation regarding her contribution to Imitation of Life, though still flattering Hurst for her authentic portrayals.
It is, of course, conceivable that Fannie Hurst did receive the basic inspiration for her story of the shared lives of a Black and white woman from her own experience of employing and sharing a house with Zora Neale Hurston. Yet how qualitatively different the story might have been had Hurst discarded her tragic mulatta and Aunt Jemima stereotypes and modeled a character on the brilliant, funny, irreverent, and self-confident Hurston. Alice Walker has written, “Zora’s early work shows she grew up pitying whites because the ones she saw lacked `light’ and soul. It is impossible to imagine Zora envying anyone (except tongue-in cheek), and, least of all, a white person for being white. Which is, after all, if one is Black, a clear and present calamity of the mind” (xiii). There certainly is nothing of Hurston in the pathetic Peola, who declares, “`I’m as white under my skin as I am on top…. If your skin is white like mine and your soul is white like mine, there is no point in needless suffering'” (297-98). Equally, there is nothing of Hurston in the degraded Delilah, who mouths, “`Lovers of de Lawd and willin’ servers is mah race, filled wid the blessin’s of humility-a singin’, happy, God-lovin, servin’ race dat I loves an is proud of'” (298). Yet, although Zora Neale Hurston assures Fannie Hurst that her work was “true,” her own definition of mammy, published just two years later in her 1942 “Glossary of Harlem Slang,” unmistakably acknowledges some serious inauthenticity in at least part of Imitation of Life. I spoke to Hurston critic Karla Holloway regarding this contradiction, asking for her interpretation of Huston’s motivations. Holloway noted that Hurston, unable to express opinions openly which might offend her sponsors, frequently adopted a mask in relation to them. Yet, as Holloway adds, through her writing, Hurston, with all of her estimable powers, could and did tell the truth; her writing became for Hurston a means to “dissolve the mask.”(n4)
Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was published four years after Imitation of Life, and it is here that the mask drops fully. After reading Imitation of Life and Their Eyes Were Watching God in succession, I became convinced that in some ways Hurston had constructed a story that deliberately challenged, reversed, and responded to some of the racist and sexist themes and characterizations in Imitation of Life. While Hurst Hurst’s is supposed to be a representative of “the folk,” she is isolated utterly from her community (we never even see her with an African-American other than Paella). In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston authentically used folk images and speech and “emphasized the insular folk community as the setting for her work. (Christian, Black Women 60). Moreover, striking and evocative parallels exist between Hurst’s Bea Pullman and Hurston’s Janie Crawford, as well as between Janie and Peola.
Both novels begin with a teenaged girl who is soon to be subjected to an arranged marriage that leaves her sexually unfulfilled. Both marriages end quickly: Mr. Pullman conveniently dies, whereas Janie willfully runs away from Logan Killicks. Each heroine moves toward a life of continually greater material satisfaction; yet, while Bea gets quite obsessed with her business, Janie is indifferent to the lure of possessions. Bea Pullman at thirty-eight falls madly in love with a thirty-year-old man, Frank Flake, and pursues him; yet, she feels herself to be old and leathery. Something not young was reaching out for youth” (310). Flake is embarrassed by her affections and directs his desire toward her eighteen-year-old daughter. Bea watches her beloved marry her daughter, gives up her home to the newlyweds, and exiles herself to Europe. In the last moment of the novel, she recalls seeing them together: “They were so young, standing there . . . so right . . .” (352, ellipses in original). In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie at forty is pursued by a most desirable man, Tea Cake, who is about twelve years younger than she. Their age difference at first worries Janie, but she finds that it is utterly immaterial to Tea Cake–“`Things lak dat got uh whole lot tuh do wid convenience, but it ain’t got nothin’ tuh do wid love'” (160). They marry and experience great love and pleasure.
At the end of Imitation of Life, Bea is alone and her sense of self is forever marred by the thought of her rejection, a “humiliation in hot and heaping coals” (347); “that thought, like a hangnail against peace, was to continue to prick and torment” (349). In contrast, Janie, by the close of her story, is also alone, but is a woman in full possession of her self. Even though she must kill Tea Cake after he has been bitten by a rabid dog, Janie returns to her home and is at one with her soul: “She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes. She called in her soul to come and see” (286).
Further correspondences between the two novels can be found. The two structuring stereotypes in Imitation of Life are the tragic mulatta (Peola) and the mammy (Delilah). In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston mocks and transcends these racist caricatures through her creation of the two fully imagined characters Janie and Nanny. The tragic mulatta was an early fixture in nineteenth-century fiction and, particularly in the first part of this century, was a familiar character in novels by both Black and white authors — with, however, significantly different political implications in the various portrayals. Judith Berzon notes:
The figure of the tragic mulatto . . . is the most frequently encountered stereotype in mulatto fiction. This figure is usually a product of the white man’s [sic] imagination and often expresses his [sic] deepest (usually unspoken) fantasies about the largest marginal group in our society: specifically, his [sic] assumption that the mixed blood yearns to be white and Is doomed to unhappiness and despair because of this impossible dream. . . . While Black novelists have employed the stereotype in order to gain sympathy from white readers for their “black” characters, the tragic mulatto character is much more likely to appear in white-authored mulatto fiction. (99)
The typical tragic mulatto formula centers upon a beautiful woman, whose touch of racial “impurity” proves catastrophic, usually due to her desire for a white lover. Much of this literature, as Nancy Tischler writes, depicts a “civil war” waging in the mind and body of the mulatta between her Black (savage, sexual) blood and her white (intelligent, refined, beautiful) blood (97). Imitation of Life does deviate from this model somewhat in that Peola’s future is not described. Delilah, to be sure, predicts only doom and damnation for her passing daughter, but the reader is left ignorant of Peola’s ultimate fate. Hurst does, however, have Delilah mouth the racist ideology of the “clash of blood” waging within the mulatta; she continually describes Peola as being at the mercy of the plunging “white horses” in her blood. Finally, both film versions of Imitatfon of Life thoroughly humble the Peola figure, putting the final seal on the stereotype: After the mother dies, the daughter bursts in at her funeral, weeping and on her knees, castigating herself for causing her mother’s death.
The character of Janie Crawford (with her “coffee and cream complexion” and long black hair) is, like Peola, a mulatta, but while Peola is “a mulatta who feels her soul to be white, Janie is a mulatta who sees herself as part of the folk” (Christian, Black Women 59) and loves her race. Indeed, Janie is favorably contrasted to the despicable mulatta Mrs. Turner, whose “disfavorite subject was Negroes” (208) and who blatantly worships all things white. There is no internal “clash of blood” in Hurston’s story; as Janie tells Mrs. Turner, “`We’se uh mingled people and all of us got black kinfolks as well as yeller kinfolks'”(210). As Hurston paints it, Mrs. Turners white-biased features, of which she is immensely proud, are as hideous as her beliefs, and Hurston s narrative (counterpointing Hurst’s) eloquently bespeaks the ugliness of Peola’s desire to be white. While Peola chooses to marry a white man and deny her race, Janie joyously marries a very black man who is so beautiful “he was a glance from God” (161).
As many African-American commentators have noted, despite the lack of integrity in the character, African-American audiences still identify with Peola, not Delilah.5 Although her rebellion is utterly misdirected (she simply wants to join the white caste, not overthrow the racial caste system), she nevertheless embodies whatever subversive energy there is in the story. Delilah, on the other hand, is presented as the consummate “jemima,” what Bogle calls the “tom blessed with religion”–one of the “socially acceptable Good Negro characters…. [however] chased, harassed, hounded, flogged, enslaved, and insulted, they keep the faith, n’er turn against their white masses, and remain hearty, submissive, stoic, generous, selfless, and oh-so-very-kind” (3). Delilah is thoroughly content with her racial place (seeing it as the will of God) and works vigorously to constrain Peola to keep within that same second-class place. When Peola comes from Seattle to confront her mother and “Missy Bea,” asking them to agree to allow her to pass, a terrible scene ensues. Delilah had always said of her daughter, “`Lawd have mercy on mah chile’s soul, Miss Bea!! She cain’t pass. Nobody cain’t pass. God’s watchin’. God’s watchin’ for to cotch her”(225). Now she wails and moans, claiming “`Gawd don’t want His rivers to mix'” and “`Black wimmin who pass, pass into damnation.'” Peola begs her mother to “`release me-let me go-my way'”(299). But Delilah, unable to let go in her heart, soon dies.
Like Peola, Janie has been raised by a traditional woman who seeks to realize some of her dreams through the younger woman; like Peola, Janie ultimately dislikes and rejects that woman. But Hurston’s portrayal of Nanny incisively counters and defuses the stereotype of the blindly smothering “mammy.” Nanny is utterly unlike Delilah in that she is conscious and resentful of both racial and sexual oppression: “`So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule up de world so fur as Ah can see'” (29). Nanny was raped by her white master and then brutally hounded by his wife. Her daughter, Janie’s mother, was raped by a local schoolteacher. Nanny wanted to “`preach a great sermon about colored women sittin’ on high, but they wasn’t no pulpit for me'” (32); she avows that her purpose in controlling Janie is so “`de menfolks white or black'” won’t be able to make a “`spit cup outa you'” (37). Of course, Nanny, without meaning to, assures precisely that, by forcing Janie into marriage with Logan Killicks. Later, Janie realizes that
she hated her grandmother and had hidden it from herself all these years under a cloak of plty…. 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 granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. She hated the old woman who had twisted her so in the name of love. (137-38)
Peola, too, has revulsion for the woman who raised her. Delilah has attempted to hold Peola to her in the name of an overpowering and relentless mother love, and one can understand how the daughter in all three versions) would strain to escape her. But Peola’s distaste for her mother also stems from hatred of her color, “an aversion that was stronger than she was” (299). Janie, of course, harbors no such misbegotten aversion. She simply chooses to live her own life, her own way: “`Ah done lived Grandmas way, now Ah means Tah live mine'” (171).
One contributing aspect of Their Eyes Were Watching God’s consummate genius, then, is the way in which it weaves so subtle and complete a retort to the blundering, bestselling, and influential Imitation of Life. In vivid contrast to Imitation of Life, Their Eyes Were Watching God is an assertion of racial and sexual pride, and freedom and self-love for women, regardless of oppressive attitudes regarding race, sex, and age. The sexism that condones Flake’s rejection of a woman eight years older so that he can marry a woman twelve years his junior is vividly reversed in Tea Cake and Janie’s passionate love. The characterization of Janie demolishes the stereotype of the tragic mulatta yearning to be white, while that of Mrs. Turner leaches that same type of any and all sympathy. Moreover, in her multi-dimensional portrait of Nanny, Hurston gives an unyielding though sympathetic portrait of a woman “borned in slavery time” (172), and releases that woman from the stereotypic box of the jemima/mammy that so totally immured Delilah.
Hughes and Hurston both wrote their “answers” to Imitation of Life in the 1930s. A few decades later, still another response was to come from the incomparable Toni Morrison in her first novel, The Bluest Eye.
“I Just moved here. My name is Maureen Peal. What’s yours?”
“Pecola? Wasn’t that the name of the girl in Imitation of Life?”
“I don’t know. What is that?”
“The picture show, you know. Where this mulatto girl hates her mother ’cause she is black and ugly but then cries at the funeral. It was real sad. Everybody cries in it. Claudette Colbert too.”
“Oh.” Pecola’s voice was no more than a sigh.
“Anyway, her name was Pecola too. She was so pretty. When it comes back, I m going to see it again. My mother has seen it four times.”
–The Bluest Eye (56-57)
Pecola Breedlove is a poor Black girl who is seen as the “ugliest of the ugly” (Christian, Black Women 140) by her mother and by her community. Too dark to even think of passing, Pecola instead desperately craves blue eyes: “A little black girl yearns for the blue eyes of a little white girl, and the horror at the heart of her yearning is exceeded only by the evil of fulfillment” (Morrison 158). In The Bluest Eye, Morrison offers Pecola as an unimpeachable witness against the very system that caused peola to become a household word.
In the scene quoted above, Pecola is beset by a group of boys who surround her, mocking, “Black e mo Black e mo Ya daddy sleeps nekked” (55). Two sisters, Frieda and Claudia MacTeer, come to her rescue. That day, by chance, they are accompanied by Maureen Peel, “a high-yellow dream child with long brown hair braided into two Iynch ropes that hung down her back” (52). At first, Maureen seems friendly to Pecola, but that friendliness is a guise so that she can quiz Pecola about sex. When the facade of niceness slips, Maureen herself become the tormentor, yelling at the three darker girls before running off: “I arn cuter And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos” (61).
A principal theme of The Bluest Eye is its condemnation of the racist culture’s worship of white standards of beauty, particularly as these are force-fed to African-Americans through popular images-dolls, billboards, product trademarks, and Hollywood movies. Imitation of Life is indicted explicitly as a film that traffics in such images. Maureen Peal and her mother have seen it-again and again. Reading on in The Bluest Eye, we find out that Pecola’s mother Pauline surely has seen Imitation of Life as well, for Pauline obsessively goes to the movies. There, Pauline “learned all there was to love and all there was to hate” and “was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen” (97). Pauline, obviously, had named her daughter (somewhat crookedly) after Peola; as Barbara Christian observes, Pecola’s name is an inversion of Peola, “the mulatta who hates her black mother in the movie Imitatlon of life” (Black Feminist 58). Significantly both “Pauline” and “Peal” also are variations of “Peola.” However superficially different, all three lives are ordered and destroyed by the same scale of racist “loves” and “hates.” the scene described above, we hear no more of the mulatta Maureen Peal. Countering stereotypic tradition, it is the darker Pecola, raped and impregnated by her father, who emerges as the principal tragic figure; at the story’s end, she has descended into madness, sure that she finally has acquired blue eyes.
Yet her mother is also tragic. Through her creation of janie Crawford, Hurston exposed the absurdity behind the weeping mask of the tragic mulatta; and in her portrait of the lost artist the broken-hearted and spirited Pauline-Morrison reveals the horror behind the smiling mask of the “ideal” domestic worker. Pauline, like Delilah, is a Southern, country woman, uprooted and living in the urban North, severed from her nurturing community. By nature, Pauline is an artist. As a girl, “whatever portable plurality she found, she organized into neat lines, according to their size, shape, and gradations of color…. She missed-without knowing what she missed-paints and crayons” 189). Denied artistic expression, married to a man whose spirit has been comparably twisted by racism, living in poverty, Pauline’s “lovely beginning” comes to a dead end. Her “dreams die”(88). She loses her connection with her community and with nature, and brokenly seeks beauty in the cinema or in a white household which mirrors that world. Pauline works as a domestic for the Fisher family and becomes “what is known as an ideal servant, for such a role filled practically all her needs…. Here she could arrange things, clean things, line things up in neat rows…. Here she found beauty, order, cleanliness, and praise. Mr. Fisher said, `I would rather sell her blueberry cobblers than real estate'” (100-01).
Of course, that is precisely what Bea Pullman, the heroine/exploiter of Imitation of Life, does to make her millions. She first packages and sells “Delilah’s Hearts,” a maple-syrup candy that Delilah invented, and then becomes immensely wealthy hawking Delilah’s waffles and coffee. Bead uses Delilah as her cook in her initial restaurant and realizes, when she is going to start a chain of the establishments, that she had to be able to duplicate: “the genius of that certain quality which had got itself born into the first B. Pullman: Delilah’s savory coffee, Delilah’s hot waffles, Delilah’s Hearts, Delilah’s smiles . . . the little pampering something that came so readily from Delilah” (152). Delilah is clearly the founding and elemental ingredient in the success in which she so blatantly does not share. While Bead soars to the top of white society, Delilah remains her selfless and devoted domestic.
When Delilah first came to work for Bea, she assiduously made it clear that Bea and her daughter Jessie always took precedence over herself and Peola:
In every matter of precedence . . . was the priority of seas child most punctiliously observed. The duet of thelr howling might bring her running intuitively to her own, but the switch was without hesitancy to the white child, every labor of service adhering rigidly to that order.(100)
Reporting on her day, Delilah tells Bea: “`Did mah white chile quit bawlin’ ’til I tote her, mah wash a-boilin’, every inch of dis mawnin’ in mah arms?? Did mah black chile make her maw so spankin’ mad she spanked her li’l’ backside?'” 1100). There is no criticism of this blatant injustice in the narrative; rather, Bea describes it fondly as “the naughty, kindly, and limitless capacity of this Delilah for rubbing in the salve of unctuousness…. Oh, Delilah! Darling rogue” (100-01). Told from the perspective of Miss Bea, this is just one more quality that makes Delilah such an “ideal servant.” Nowhere do we get the point of view of the shunned and abused Peola; nowhere does Hurst acknowledge that Delilah’s actions stem from profound alienation and are extremely injurious.
In The Bluest Eye, we view a parallel behavior, but this time from the horrified perspective of Claudia MacTeer. Like Delilah, Pauline scrupulously favors the white child for whom she is “mammy.” Yet, in The Bluest Eye we know this mandated favoritism not as a “salve,” but as a wounding. One day the MacTeer sisters come to the house where Pauline works. Pecola is there, waiting to pick up some laundry. Pauline (whom her daughter calls “Mrs. Breedlove”) leaves the girls alone in the kitchen for a moment, where they are tempted by a freshly baked pie. The white child enters and nervously calls for “folly” to come to her. Pecola impulsively reaches out to touch the hot pie, but it falls, scalding her legs:
. . . the burn must have been painful, for she cried out and began hopping about just as Mrs. Breedlove entered with a tightly packed laundry bag. In one gallop she was on Pecola, and with the back of her hand knocked her to the floor. Pecola slid In the pie juice, one leg folding under her. Mrs. Breedlove yanked her up by the arm, slapped her again, and In a voice thin with anger, abused Pecola directly and Frieda and me by implication….
The little girl In pink started to cry. Mrs. Breedlove turned to her. “Hush, baby, hush. Come here.” . . . we stepped hurriedly out the door. As Pecola put the laundry bag In the wagon, we could hear Mrs. Breedlove hushing and soothing the tears of the little pink-and-yellow girl. (86-87)
Here and elsewhere, The Bluest Eye radically shifts the perspective, revealing the atrocities behind the niceties of Imitation of Life. With Pauline and Pecola serving as parallels to Delilah and Peola, Morrison indicts Imitation of Life, and the culture it represents, for the promulgation of racist beliefs and for its participation in the decimation of Black female spirit and sanity.
All three of the responses to Hurst discussed above–with myriad subtleties–shred stereotypic masks and topple the dominant point of view. The satiric reversal of Hughes’s “Limitations of Life” sends Imitations of Life boomeranging right back to Fannie Hurst and reclaims an African-American perspective on its outrageous stereotypes and situations. While the references in “Limitations” are overt, in Their Eyes Were Watching God they are far more subtextual and form only one strand in that novel’s genius. Ironically, Zora Neale Hurston, during her life, was overshadowed by Fannie Hurst and frequently was recognized more for her association with the famous author than for her own work.(n6) Although racism may have elevated Hurst over Hurston during their lifetimes and constrained Hurston from being able to speak her mind openly, Their Eyes Were Watching God assures Hurston the last word.
Toni Morrison, of course, was never under any obligation to “like.” Imitation of Life her response textured into The Bluest Eye is a pure distillation of rage against a novel and film that pitched such a murderous message. In one memorable scene in the 1934 film version of Imitation of Life, Peola stands before a mirror and demands of Delilah, “Look at me. Am I not white? Isn’t that a white girl there?” By the end of The Bluest Eye, Pecola too peers into her mirror, demanding that her “friend” (a figment of her maddened mind) confirm what she sees–a “white girl”; that is, a girl with blue eyes. Merging with Peola’s vision, Pecola has passed only into insanity; for her, as the narrator tells us, “it’s much, much, much too late” (160).
In Specifying: Black Women writing the American Experience, Susan Willis discusses “specifying” the African-American art of name-calling, as well as the fact that specifying frequently “is circumscribed, held in check, by the larger system of domination” (313. To illustrate this, she cites a story from one of Hurston’s informants in Mules and Men. Two slaves are talking and one tells the other that “Ole Massa made me so mad yestiddy fall Ah give ‘im a good cussin’ out. Man, Ah called ‘im everything wid uh handle on it”(83). When the second man also is harassed by the master, he decides that he too will cuss him out. But he gets whipped in response. When he goes back to his friend to complain, the friend is aghast that he had cussed Ole Massa out to his face: “Ah thought you had mo’ sense than cat. When Ah cussed Ole Massa he wuz settin’on de front porch an’ Ah wuz down at de big gate'” (83-84). Willis comments,
Hurston’s project Is analogous to cussing out the master. But because her medium Is the narrative, rather than oral language. she can’t take refuge down at the gate and do her cussing out In private. Instead, she must do her “specifying” In the form of a book Ole Massa can hold In his hands and read on his very own porch. (31)
Their Eyes Were Watching God, “Limitations of Life,” and The Bluest Eye are just such books, specifying Fannie Hurst.
(n1) see Donaldson. Also, there Is a box of correspondence filed as “Negro Matters” at the Fannie Hurst Collection In the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. A record of Hurts’s work In various Organizations (including the NAACP and the Urban League), these documents give clear testimony that she was extremely well known as a liberal. supporting racial equality, and that she lent her time and name to many such Organizations, conferences, and political actions. For example, on February 14, 1946, John H. Johnson, editor and publisher of Negro Digest, wrote to Hurst, asking her to contribute an article to the journal’s series “If I Were a Negro.” He stated, “We here at NEGRO DIGEST know that you belong among the allies of the Negro In his efforts to attain equality under American democracy. Your frank and outspoken expressions and actions In the past merit the thanks of every American Negro.” Ironically, Hurst’s subsequent article reveals the same reliance on racist stereotypes as her fiction (see Hurst, “The Sure Way”). Relatedly, a call for the 16 March 1947 conference “Free expression In the American Arts,” which Hurst helped to sponsor under the banner of the National Negro Conference, decries “the battered hat of Uncle Remus, the toothy smile of Aunt Jemima and the ‘lovable’ bowing and scrapping–these are counterparts In the entertainment field of the openly violent program of the Ku Klux Klan.” Apparently, the fact that Hurst’s Imitation of Life Prominently featured such an “Aunt jemima.” character was strategically ignored-by both Hurst and the organizers.
(n2) See Caputi and Vann, Vann and Caputi.
(n3) For commentary on the Hurston-Hurst relationship, see Wilentz, and Burke.
(n4) conversation, August 1989. See also Holloway, and Holloway and Demetrakopoulos.
(n5) See Bogle 59-60. &e also Johnson.
(n6) For example, a Black woman writing a thesis on “Negro Women Leaders In Florida” found out about Hurston only through her correspondence with Fannie Hurst. In her 6 February 1940 letter to Hurst, Hurston also complains about that “fathead,” adding that she is “often struck by the fact, how many Negroes are more Impressed with the fact that I was your secretary than all the other things I’ve done.”
Berzon, Judith R. Neither White nor Black: The Mulatto Character In American Fiction. New York: New York UP, 1978.
Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. New York: Bantam, 1973.
Brandimarte, Cynthia Ann. “Fannie Hurst: A Missouri Girl Makes Good.” Missoui Historical Review 81 (Apr. 1987): 275-95.
Brown, Sterling A. “Imitation of Life: Once a Pancake.” Opportunity 13 (Mar. 1935): 87-88.
—–. Letter. Opportunity 13 (Apr. 1935): 121-22.
Burke, Virginia M. “zora Neale Hurston and Fannie Hurst as They Saw Each Other.” CLA Journal 20 (June 1977): 435-47.
Caputi, Jane, and Helene Vann. “Questions of Race and Place: Comparative Racism in Imitation of Life and Places in the Heart.” Cineaste 15.4 (1987): 16-21.
Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon, 1985.
—–. Black Women Novelist: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport: Greenwood, 1980.
Cripps, Thomas. Slow Fade to Black: The Negro In American Film 1900-1942. New York: Oxford UP, 1977.
Donaldson, Alice. “Fannie Hurst: Critic and Reformer.” MMLA Forum on Fannie Hurst. St. Louis, Nov. 1985.
Editorial. Opportunity 13 (Aug. 1935): 231.
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Holloway, Karla, and Stephanie Demetrakopoulos. New Dimensions of Spirituality: A Biracial and Bicultural Reading of the Novels of Toni Morrison. New York: Greenwood, 1987.
Hughes, Langston. Letter to Fannie Hurst. 13 July 1937. Fannie Hurst Collection. Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, U of Texas at Austin.
——. “Limitations of Life.” Black Theatre U.S.A. Ed. James Hatch and Ted Shine. New York: Free, 1974. 655-57.
Hurst, Fannle. Imitation of Life. Cleveland: World, 1933.
—–. Letter. Opportunity 13 (Apr. 1935): 121.
—–. “The Sure Way to Equality.” Negro Digest 4 (June 1946): 27-28.
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—–. Letter to Fannle Hurst. 6 Feb. 1940. Fannle Hurst Collection. Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, U of Texas at Austin.
—–. Mules and Men. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978.
—–. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1978.
Johnson, Albert. “Beige, Brown, or Black.” Patterson. 36-43.
Morrison Toni. The Bluest Eye. 1970. New York: Pocket, 1972.
Patterson, Lindsay, ed. Black Films and Film Makers: A Comprehensive Anthology from Stereotype to Superhero. New York: Dodd, 1975.
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Vann, Helene, and Jane Caputi. “Driving Miss Daisy: A New Song of the South” Journal of Popular Films and Television 18.2 (1990): 80-82.
Walker, Alice. “Zora Neale Hurston-A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View.” Zora Neale Hurston. A Literary Biography. By Robert Hemenway. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1977. xi-xvii.
Washington, Hazel. “Imitations: Life, Color and Pancakes.” Opportunity 13 (June 1935): 185.
Wilentz, Cay. “White Patron and Black Artist: The Correspondence of Fannie Hurst and Zora Neale Hurston.” Library Chronicle of the University of Texas at Austin 35 (1986): 20-43.
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By Jane Caputi
Jane Caputi is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico and the author of The Age of Sex Crime, a feminist analysis of serial sex murder. Professor Caputi would like to thank Helene Vann for Introducing her to the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem “We Wear the Mask” and Langston Hughes’s “Limitations of Life,” as well as for countless Illuminating conversations. She thanks Barbara Christian for reading and discussing this essay with her and offering insight and guides for further research. She also thanks Karla Holloway and Gay Wilentz for encouraging her work and Susan Koppelman for inciting her Interest in Fannie Hurst. The research In this paper would not have been possible without the Fannie Hurst Collection in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
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