How Does Society Tell Us We Fit In?
“It is, in the end, the saving of the lives that we writers are about.” Alice Walker means that there is a sort of spiritual connection between writers and the characters they portray in their literary work. The live saving agenda on the part of the writer is because he/she cares. Simply, the writer cares because he knows that the life they save is their own.
The kind of salvation that Alice Walker is speaking about is that of liberation from racial and sexist oppression through artistic works of writing. She chooses Janie Crawford, a woman in Zora Neale Hurston’s book, ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’, as her model. Janie Zora depicts Janie as an ambitious go-getter who refuses to cow down to societal constrains which relegated women to the background. She remains assertive throughout her life and relishes her freedom in full as opposed to her counterpart Mme Pontellier, a character in Kate Chopin’s book, who gives in to the societal demands finally giving up by taking her own life.
Alice Walker credits Zora Neale Hurston for inspiring her to complete a story inspired by her mother’s life during the Depression, “the Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff” which later on in 1974, came to be mentioned by a renowned short story collector as being one of the best short stories of that period. Walker is keen to note that it was only through Zora’s collection of folklore that her story was written with a trusted black authenticity. If this collection had been lost, she would never have completed her mother’s story successfully. Walker found in Zora a model that had already cleared the way through which she would later walk.
The availability of art such as Zora’s collection of folklore from the 1920’s is another type of salvation that Walker is talking about. The ability to collect and preserve art not only ensures that the material is safeguarded for future generations, but also that there is preservation of the original practices which are continued from generation to generation.
The social messages and narratives that people come into contact with go a long way in impacting on the kinds of identity constructions these people formulate of themselves. Messages suggesting superiority of the white race and inferiority of the black race have flooded the content we as the audience read, view and listen to. Toni Morrison stated that the type of literature which was readily accepted by the society during that time was both sexist and racist. She therefore set out to create her own model and become her own artist. An author called Puckett wondered in his book whether “The Negro” had a grain that was large enough. Walker salutes Zona for having guts enough to go around in public, measuring the size of black men’s heads just to prove that whatever sizes their heads were and no matter whatever social status they belonged to, blacks had enough mental capacity to get through life just as the whites did. Such derogatory messages as that of Puckett that contained undertones of black inferiority not only enhanced white supremacy but also had an impact on how blacks viewed themselves.
Sexism is also a common theme that underlies most of the messages conveyed in books, films and other media. Women were portrayed as being of an inferior status as compared to their male counterparts and have certain stereotypic labels that society has put on them. Walker brings out some of this aspects when she gives an account of Mme Pontellier who opted to take her own life after being overwhelmed by the societal pressures. She further brings to light women’s subordinate position in the society in her poem. She refuses to fit in this position and praises Janie Crawford for not giving in to such standards. Walker says, “A woman, unless she submits, is neither a mule nor a queen though like a mule she may suffer and like a queen pace the floor.” The social messages influenced people’s perceptions of women and also influenced how women perceived themselves.