James Cone’s most recent book The Cross And The Lynching Tree, have provided space for me to think about the role and importance of literary depictions of suffering in African-American life. The theme of suffering, however loud or subtle, has its place in African American literature. From slave narratives to Sonia Sanchez’s poetry, literary representations of black existential concerns have been crucial both intellectually and culturally in connecting past forms of trauma with present conditions of black life.
Although several literary forms have documented the historical and present mistreatment of blacks, I will focus on African-American novels. How might these novels be useful for considering and connecting the complex and yet varied experiences of a people wrestling with what Nathanael West called the “Paraphernalia of Suffering”- social alienation, degradation, and powerlessness to alter one’s circumstances.
The source of Janie’s emptiness and isolation in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God comes at the hands of her two husbands, and her grandmother who pushes her to marry for financial security. Her lack of identity, true love, and freedom sends Janie “tuh de horizon and back”. But Janie’s suffering and hardship is not an end in and of itself. She weathers the storm and even kills her third husband-Teacake not only to protect herself, but to articulate her freedom that is not inexorably linked to a man.
Meanwhile, Toni Morrison’s Beloved examines the physical, spiritual, and emotional suffering brought on by the institution of slavery. Sethe, not wanting her child to endure the horrors of slavery, shows her love by killing her daughter. While Janie killed Tea-Cake for her own good, Sethe does so out of love for someone else-her child. Furthermore, Sethe and several of the other characters can only find escape and freedom from suffering when they come and work together in a collective effort as opposed to an individual response.
Studied in conjunction with one another, the implications of suffering are similar but still distinct in their own ways. Whereas, Toni Morrison forces us to confront the dark past in American history collectively, Hurston challenges her audience to seek liberation for one’s self by any means necessary.