Janie Crawford, the central character in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a woman "search[ing] for her authentic self " (Danticat ix). As presented in the novel, Janie is consistently described in terms of, and associated with, images of her long, falling hair. Hurston's use of recurring references to Janie's hair represents what I will refer to as the trope of the falling hair, which offers a tropic (turning or changing) meaning that "effects a conspicuous change in what we [readers] take to be its [Janie's hair] standard meaning" (Abrams 64). Used thus, the trope of the falling hair establishes Janie's cultural identity, a term which critic Homi K. Bhabha defines as the "pre-given ethnic or cultural traits set in the fixed tablet of tradition" (2). Hurston's hair imagery is an expression of race and gender, as ethnic difference, which "from the minority perspective, is a complex, on-going negotiation" that takes place in the space between pre-given categories and "domains of difference" (2). Hurston, in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, writes that "no matter where two sets of people come together, there are bound to be some in-betweens" (171), and this is the space critic Naomi Pabst refers to as the site in which Hurston explores "her own simultaneous blackness and mixedness" (182). The interstitial location of the domains of difference between black and white culture is thus the site of Janie's negotiation of her own cultural identity as symbolized by Hurston's use of the trope of the falling hair.
Hair as Proxy
In her essay "Hair Piece," critic Paulette M. Caldwell views hair as "a proxy for legitimacy," stating that:Hairstyle choices are an important mode of self-expression. For blacks, and particularly for black women, such choices also reflect the search for a survival mechanism in a culture where social, political, and economic choices of racialized individuals and groups are conditioned by the extent to which their physical characteristics ... approximate those of the dominant racial group. (383)
Caldwell suggests that hair as expression of identity results from negotiating between two domains of difference: black culture with its emphasis on "natural" hair and the dominant racial group of white culture with its emphasis on "straight" or "straightened" hair.
In the opening pages of the novel, Hurston's first presentation of Janie draws attention to Janie's straight hair through the introduction of the trope of the falling hair. First, Janie is described by the porch sitters (the townspeople of Eatonville, Florida): "What dat ole forty year ole 'oman doin' wid her hair swingin' down her back lak some young gal?"(2). Hurston's authorial voice then provides the following expanded description: "The men noticed ... the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume" (2). Janie's hair is both visually stereotypical of non-African women ("swinging to her waist") and symbolic of her confident self-expression ("like a plume") of the identity she has forged while she was away from Eatonville....
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