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By Mark Anthony Neal

Wednesday, June 2, 2010.

Vergible Wood, aka Tea Cake, is one of the most endearing Black male characters in African-American literature. Tea Cake was the third husband of Janie, the heroine of Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) Readers identify with Tea Cake, in part because he was an everyday man—willing to put in a hard day’s work, playful, thoughtful and at times tender with Janie. I suppose there are many who saw a little of Tea Cake in their Black fathers and may even see Tea Cake in the working class men who struggle in contemporary Black America. I’d like to argue though that there was much more to Tea Cake—that perhaps Tea Cake was a metaphor, a Black folk hero really, for an imagined Black feminist manhood.

In the introduction to the volume
Traps: African-American Men on Gender and Sexuality, co-editor Rudolph Byrd (with Beverly Guy Sheftall), identifies High John de Conqueror, a black folklore hero, as a model for Black masculinity. Specifically Byrd is drawn to Zora Neale Hurston’s conceptualization of High John De Conquer, originally published in 1943 and collected in the book The Sanctified Church (1981). According to Byrd, High John serves as an “example of courage, hope, the regenerative powers of song, love and the spirit…a powerful figure who symbolizes the potentialities of Black people and the potentialities of a liberated and liberating Black masculinity.” (5)

As Hurston describes him, “Old John, High John could beat the unbeatable. He was top-superior to the whole mess of sorrow. He could beat it all, and what made it so cool, finish it off with a laugh…Distance and the impossible had no power over High John de Conquer.” (70) High John was a mythical figure—“there is no established picture of what sort of looking-man this High John de Conquer was”—“who done teached the black folks so they knowed a hundred years ahead of time that freedom was coming.”

The importance of a figure like High John de Conqueror resides in the belief, as Byrd writes, that “it is out of this rich field of Black expression that we have fashioned not only a theory of African American literary tradition (signifying) as well as a theory of Black feminism (womanism), but also many of the art forms and life-sustaining traditions of African-American culture.” (3)

Byrd’s use of folklore to highlight the contemporary crisis of black masculinity—“a progressive mode of Black masculinity is needed to counter what is nothing less than the new species of slavery that shackles so many of us”—raises the question of what other folk heroes might be recovered in the service of creating progressive models of Black masculinity. Perhaps such a figure exists—again in the work of Zora Neale Hurston—with the character of Tea Cake, a twenty-something, working-class, happy-go lucky Black man, whose literary presence takes into account the realities of working class life for many Black men.

Janie meets Tea Cake after the death of her second husband Jody Starks, a local businessman in Eatonville, Fl, who left her with a relative fortune for a Black woman in the early 20th century. Tea Cake literally drifts into Janie’s general store (left to her by her dead husband) and immediately becomes a curiosity to her despite their age difference: Janie is in her early 40s and Tea Cake is in his mid-20s. Janie and Teacake’s love affair—and how bold of Hurston capture such (Black) passion and eroticism in the 1930s—becomes a town controversy, less because of their age difference and more so because of Tea Cake’s stature, or rather, lack of social standing.

Most of Janie’s friends and acquaintances dismissed Tea Cake as little more than an interloper, desiring access to Janie’s money (“Dat long-legged Tea cake ain’t got doodley squat”). But Janie saw beyond Tea Cake’s youth, lack of money and cavalier attitude (perhaps best captured by his gambling addiction or hustle, depending on your vantage), in large part because of Tea Cake’s ability to be attentive—not simply in the way that one is attentive to someone that they are attracted to—but attentive to the womanist reality that was Janie’s life. To that point there’s a simply lovely passage in the novel where Janie wakes from a nap as Tea Cake combs her hair and she ask “Whut good do combin’ mah hair do you?” and Tea Cake responds “It’s mine too…it feels jus’ lak underneath uh dove’s wing next to mah face” (103)

Tea Cake’s desire to touch Janie’s hair is in stark contrast to Janie’s second husband, Jody Starks, who saw his wife as little more than a paragon to his performance of Black Middle Class respectability. Despite her higher quality of life with Starks—relative few African-American women had the luxury of not working in the early 20th century—Janie was constrained and limited, by the gender conventions of the day. Though Tea Cake held very traditional ideas about gender—his occasional hitting of Janie is more than troubling, though Janie regularly met his force with her own, as was tragically the case at the end of the novel—his views were fluid and malleable. Tea Cake engaged Janie in activities that many deemed male pursuits such as hunting, fishing and playing checkers on the porch. It was during their first meeting that Tea Cake sat with Janie across the checker board as she quipped “De men folks treasures de game round heah. Ah just ain’t never learnt how.” (95)

Tea Cake’s desire to take Janie hunting with him represented his own ambivalences about the rigid gender roles of the era. As Hurston writes, Janie “got to be a better shot than Tea Cake. They’d go out any late afternoon and come back loaded down with game” highlighting how the couple shared some of the domestic labor. (131)

It is perhaps easy to read Tea Cake’s willingness to grant Janie access to masculine spaces as a gesture towards the realization of feminist possibilities for Black women in the post World War I period. Tea Cake’s desire to cultivate meaningful intimate public and private spaces for he and Janie to share—this is ultimately what the hunting and fishing trips were about—was often undermined by his natural instinct (a product of the era that produced him) to protect Janie. The level of Tea Cake’s commitment to perform a traditional Black masculinity seemed tethered to his financial stability; when he was working the fields and making money gambling and hosting parties at the jook, he pressed Janie to stay at home and “rest.” Nevertheless Tea Cake reads as progressive in opposition to traditional gender politics within Black communities and institutions and the larger society during the era.

In her essay “Feminist Fantasies: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Howard University Professor Jennifer Jordan writes, “Ultimately, Janie’s quest for excitement and pleasure in the Florida Everglades does not lead to an independent, self-fulfilled womanhood. She never learns to shape her destiny by making her own choices…she is dependent upon [Tea Cake] for those things she craves—adventure, play, and erotic love.” (Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 1988) Readers never get the opportunity to find out how Janie and Tea Cake’s relationship would develop as Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog late in the novel (as he tries to save Janie from drowning) and was well on his way to dying from the affliction, when Janie shoots him in an act of self-defense.

The rabid dog becomes a useful metaphor for the challenges of realizing a progressive Black manhood, in light of the realities of anti-Black racism, poverty and white supremacy. But, as Jordan argues, “Tea Cake’s death allows Janie to hold on to her paradise and to dream of a perfect love. She can choose to remember the passion and the good times rather than sickness, death, the return of racism.” (110) In this regard, Tea Cake exist as a literal fantasy of the possibilities—unrealized in Hurston’s novel—of a Black Feminist Manhood.

As a folk hero, Tea Cake was a product of Hurston’s imagination (and the communities that produced her) and ultimately shaped by the gender dynamics of the era that produced Their Eyes Were Watching God. There was simply no language to describe the potential of a Black Feminist Manhood in the social and political world that Hurston and many Black writers navigated at the time. Indeed Hurston, who died in 1960, might not have been able to imagine the generations of Black Feminists (Womanists) who came after her like
Audre Lorde, Alice Walker and the women who comprised the Combahee River Collective. Certainly she could have never imagined Black male feminist such as Gary L. Lemons, Kevin Powell, David Ikard, Michael Awkward, Byron Hurt, Quentin Walcott and Eric Darnell Pritchard.

Hurston’s gestures towards a progressive Black gender politics, in concert with the lack of available language for her to fully represent a Black feminist manhood, makes the character of Tea Cake a useful vessel for us to dare imagine or dream what that Black feminist manhood might look like today. Critical to having Tea Cake serve this role is understanding that his allusions to a Black feminist manhood were unnamed and unspoken—there was no Black feminist discourse (in the way that we’ve recognized that discourse since the late 1960s) that Tea Cake or Hurston could have claimed.

Thus Tea Cake’s Black feminist manhood is organic and implicit, not unlike the everyday Black feminist behavior that Aaronette White examines in her new edited volume African Americans Doing Feminism: Putting Theory into Everyday Practice (2010). A professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, White writes in the book’s introduction about a feminism that is “practical” and “recognizes that there is an imbalance of power between men and women in our society and acts publicly and privately in ways to correct that imbalance.” (1). As White further queries, “How can we make feminism work in our lives?”

Tea Cake would have never called himself a feminist, but Tea Cake embodied the possibilities of a Black feminist manhood, one that time and maturity might have allowed him to fully embrace. Tea Cake clearly didn’t look the part, but how many Tea Cakes are walking the streets of our communities today, who would never call themselves feminist and might not even know how the word has meaning to their own lives, but in their everyday practices—from parenting, supporting the women in their lives and community involvement—gesture towards a Black Feminist Manhood?

Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books on music and popular culture, including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy, which will be published in 2011 by New York University Press, and The TNI-Mixtape which will be available on-line for free download later this year. Neal is a Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University.

He blogs at New Black Man

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