Picture this: a little bee pollinates a pear tree in the heavy haze of a Floridian summer during the early 1900s, a little girl watches and decides love is the foundation of marriage. Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is a beautiful tale of the life of Janie Crawford, a mixed-race girl at the turn of the century, which follows her emotional growth with delicacy and dignity through the protagonist’s three marriages to very different men. She explores relationships and their respective dynamics with a sense of broad understanding, from Logan Killicks, the older farmer who is emotionally stifled for whom Janie fulfils a domestic roll, to her last husband Tea Cake, a man who loves her with all the heart and life he has and offers a fulfilled and healthy marriage.
But between two men, sandwiched almost like an open secret, Hurston tackles a subject so different from love, so far removed and detached, yet one that hides behind its façade. It is insidious, but it is domestic abuse. Joe Starks comes to Janie in her youth, charming and silver-tongued, the perfect distraction for a bored young woman looking for love: thus they elope.
“From now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything. A bee for her bloom.” – Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
He is handsome, he is ambitious and later on in Eatonville he becomes powerful as the mayor of the first all-black city in Florida – it seems only natural that she would be in love with him? But Hurston writes the abusive cycle with an omniscient understanding of victim-abuser dynamics. It starts quietly. First, it’s “the way Joe spoke out without giving her a chance to say anything one way or another that took the bloom off of things”, her idea of love being deflowered until he begins striking her, violently, supressing her and pushing her into the corner of the Eatonville general store. He plays on her insecurities. His emotional imprisonment manifests itself physically when he orders his wife to cover her hair, a symbol of her sensuality and black womanhood, “she was in the store for him to look at, not the others” yet he always seems to be “longing for peace on his own terms”. His own terms – the abuser’s manipulative influence forces the once care-free, vivacious Janie into total submission and for a while it seems hopeless.
Janie is only freed of Jody at his death wherein she confronts him, freeing herself of his baggage as he passes away. But Hurston is kind to her character – there are no remnants of her decades-long subjugation when she meets Tea Cake in her personality (not that there always are with victims of abuse which is why it is so pervasive), and moreover she gets to live. Earlier this year, BBC Three released Murdered by My Boyfriend directed by Paul Andrew Williams, a true story about a mixed-race seventeen year old girl who fell for a charming young man. The film is powerfully moving and demands your attention; in particular this scene which in the most morbid sense perfectly encapsulates domestic abuse, the attention to detail and accuracy in the cut of “Ashley’s” screaming mouth in contrast with her soft reply so raw in its depiction of a victim’s internal struggle. And then, like Starks, “Reece” plays on her insecurities, in this case her weight to distract from his own flaws. Unlike Janie, “Ashley” and 228 other women throughout the time-span of the film did not get to live to see their Tea Cake, and even if they do live they are often plagued with mental health problems which linger until the end of their lives.
More than this, though, it horrified me: the narrative in Their Eyes Were Watching God is still relevant today. This same story is repeating itself and has been repeating itself for generations now, for what reason? Nobody talks to girls about relationship abuse. Nobody tells us what it looks like, nobody shows us its secret emotional and financial face as opposed to the mark of a black eye and tear-stains (equally important to notice, but this is sort of like finding a cancer in its terminal stages in too many cases as highlighted in Murdered by My Boyfriend). In fact, they do the opposite. They glamourize abuse. Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight have attracted worldwide attention despite the fact that both heroes are explicitly abusive, even if not in a violently physical way, and one can only wonder what effect this has on young girls who will no doubt be conditioned to find these dangerous traits alluring – it’s terrifying.
But moreover, it’s no coincidence I chose to compare these two women of colour’s stories. Although we are at no more or less risk of being subjected to domestic violence, there are cultural factors that stop us from reporting this or rape or sexual assault. The scale of the recent Rotherham grooming issue shook the United Kingdom, but it was a huge mistake on the media’s part to focus mostly on white girls’ ordeals. Girls from the South Asian community are less likely to report sexual abuse, domestic violence or rape due to cultural pressures of maintaining family honour and status as a virgin. In terms of Black women, since both are Black narratives, there seems to be a pressure to maintain solidarity with male counterparts in the face of racism, and too often this means many Black women stay with their partners and the assumption of the “strong Black woman” stereotype means fewer victims report these instances. Women of colour in general are less likely to be taken seriously by the legal system than white women when it comes to reporting instances of rape due to institutionalised racism.
In the UK, 2 women are killed every week by a current or former male partner. Even that statistic is thought to be conservative. Emotional abuse is not considered a crime. The UK prosecutes more women for “false accusations” of rape than any other northern European country, and it frightens victims into silence, for fear of being put in jail in case they’re deluding themselves, which abusers often tell them.
This has not been an easy topic to write about but nonetheless it deeply troubles me, that in an era of supposed sexual liberation and information, young women are still left in the dark about what a dangerous partner looks like. Instead, we’re sold them in packages, and left to deal with the consequences ourselves, and for women of colour this all too often condemns us to a physical or mental doom. We need to change the way we look at these issues in our communities, we need to educate young girls on all aspects of an unhealthy relationship, not just the physical side. This is something I was never taught about in school – why? We had plenty of lessons on how to write a CV but none on how to protect ourselves against something that will end up effecting a third of us.
Start a revolution. Teach your daughters what abuse looks like but more importantly, teach your sons not to be abusive. Teach them before they turn 10. Make it clear to your friends when you get a bad feeling about one of their partners, make them as safe as possible. Make women of colour feel safe in their admissions. Talk to families, talk to parents, destroy taboos. Ensure that they are given proper psychiatric attention, proper healthcare post-incident, real counselling.
Do not let there be another Ashley, make Hurston’s illustrations of the abusive cycle a thing of the past, bury it, destroy rape culture, destroy the cult of silence, bring down the structures and stereotypes which desensitize authority to our pain and our struggles.
Do not let another story of another girl killed by another partner be turned into another film in 50 years time. Instead, picture this: a little bee pollinates a pear tree, and a little girl decides that love is never lethal.