Race relations and labor in Sweat and Irons

To Willie Cole, the ironing board and iron have much more significant than being a simple household appliances. In Zora Hurston’s short story Sweat, Delia is a washerwoman working hard every day. The short story emphasizes the physical labor that Delia has to put in, in order to provide for her and her abusive husband Sykes. In Willie Cole’s artwork involving irons, he is also emphasizing the physical labor that washerwomen had to put in to support themselves. Cole’s iron project means a lot to him because he comes from a family of washerwoman. He knew how much sweat and blood goes into the work that his family, along with Delia in the story did. For Cole’s artwork, he needed to make the ironing boards look like they had been used by making scratches and dents in them. By naming the ironing boards after real people in his life, he is saying that they are beaten down as well from their hard work as washerwomen, just like the ironing boards. In the short story, Delia was beat down as well, both by her work and her husband.

When Willie Cole was talking about the slave ship that looked like an iron board, Cole connected domestic labor like the labor done by washwoman, to the long history of racism, slavery, and suffering in the United States. Although working as a washwoman gave Delia some power because she was able to make money and provide for herself without relying on a man to provide for her, it also made her relationship more complicated. Working for white people seemed to put extra tension on Delia and Sykes’ marriage. Sykes hated that Delia was working for white people and told her not to bring the white people’s clothes into their house.  He also left the house when Delia threatened to make him go to court with white people if he ever hit her again. When she came back that night after church, Delia made it seem like it was possible that the threat of white people could have really frightened Sykes and made him sorry for what he has done to her, though we soon learn this is not the case. Although they lived in an all-Black town, Eatonville Florida, race relations continue to be a theme in Sweat, similarly the history of racism is a theme in Willie Coles artwork.

Harvard exhibit reveals 'the spirit' within everyday objects – Harvard Gazette

The first picture is of the slave ship and the second picture is the flattened ironing board.

Delia’s “Domestic Shield” & connections to Willie Cole

After viewing Willie Cole’s artwork and discussing it this past week, I am most interested in looking at how the elements of domestic housework and strength/weaponry are connected in his work. Specifically, I believe Cole is making direct ties between the domestic housework historically done by women–in this case, Black women of the American South–and warrior-like qualities.

The “Beauties” prints of ironing boards are a clear example of this connection, as an inanimate object with the purpose of pressing & refreshing clean clothes is now presented as a dark, battered figure. The high contrast of black and white emphasizes the scars and marks on the ironing boards from the flattening process, making them appear to have gone through significant wear and tear. This idea connects to the women who worked on the same ironing boards in the past–Cole states that the boards are stand-ins for bodies, so we can imagine the figures of women in place of the boards, similarly worn down and toughened from strenuous work.

Three of Willie Cole's "Beauties" prints--flattened ironing boards with scratches and scrapes , printed in black and white.
Three of Willie Cole’s “Beauties” prints

Another collection of Cole’s art that present this connection are the “Domestic Shields.” These ironing boards have decorative patterns of iron prints on them in various neutral shades of brown/black. I found many similarities between the geometric patterns & color schemes of these Domestic Shields with the traditional Zulu shields, as seen in the comparison below.

Tying in Hurston’s short story “Sweat,” I think the “Domestic Shields” made from ironing boards and iron prints are interesting in conversation with Delia, who is characterized by both her constant work washing clothes as well as her perseverance in difficult situations. While Delia is belittled for doing domestic work every day, including the Sabbath, she is able to provide for herself independently because of the money she earns. Also, Delia only notices the snake because she is about to begin washing clothes on a Sunday night–she gets the last match from the box in order to get work done at night, and sees the snake once she opens her hamper. Her hardworking and clever spirit, in turn, functions the same as the above shield would in a battle.

On the contrary, Sykes is not so lucky when attacked by the snake. I would be interested to hear more thoughts or micro evidence about what Hurston is trying to say about men and women in this story, and how it could connect to the artwork of the ironing boards!!!

Sweat + Inspiration = Art

Willie Cole is an American visual artist, known particularly for his use of domestic objects to create inspiring works. Many of his better known works involve the use of an iron or ironing boards. Struck by the connection to black domestic workers and the similarities between the iron and the format of a slave ship, Cole let the art guide him to create tributes to the culture of the enslaved black people stolen from their homes and the women who labored in domestic work.

Willie Cole’s piece, “Man, Spirit, and Mask”

In the video, “Willie Cole’s Beauties and Bottles”, Cole discusses how the work ‘spoke’ to him, and told him that they were a representation of the women who labored and suffered in domestic work, much like Delia did in Hurston’s “Sweat”. The story describes how skinny she had become and how knotty her knuckles looked due to her slaving over her washing work. Cole Rogers, who assisted Willie Cole in the creation of the ironing board prints, talks about how they flattened the boards so they could be processed and printed properly, like Delia, who had been beaten down by Sykes for years before she lifted a hand to protect herself. Even as the story progresses, Sykes continues to torture her with the snake and by flaunting his affair in her face while she’s in town working hard to keep food on the table for them both. Cole’s ironing boards and Delia are mirror images of each other.


Announcements:  1.)If you were in the Willie Cole group on the blog, please post about him and his POSSIBLE relationship to Hurston on our blog by Wednesday (tomorrow) at 10 pm.  Add images or links to make your post interesting.  2.)If you were in the group that read the article about “Sweat” this weekend, please comment on at least two of the Willie Cole posts any time before coming to class on Thursday.  Feel free to use the knowledge that you gained from reading the “Sweat” article!!!! In fact, it’d be great if you actually quote from that article.  Can you???? 3.)If you’re in neither one of those groups, just read the blog!  No new reading or film viewing for Thursday.  3.)You’ll be assigned to peer review possible arguments about Hurston, Rev. J.M. Gates, Willie Cole, or King Vidor works soon and this last blog post will help! 


So Who’s the Gourd Vine?

The Article, “Worm Against the World”, highlights the importance of literature and language within Hurston’s novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine. While I previously paid attention to symbolism and metaphors as they relate to characterization, I had not yet paid attention to the actual importance of language and literature and the movement they created with John Person and Lucy.

Ciuba, speaks on how literature worked both as a force that pulled John and Lucy together as well as one that pushed them apart. Literature allowed John to project his future with Lucy; from first meeting Lucy at a school yard, to evolving from writing Lucy Potts to Lucy Pearson on the chimney, and attempting to pass notes to Lucy on her drawing board, Hurston showcases linguistic connection of these two characters. As their marriage progresses, Hurston plays with the dichotomy of literary internalization of both characters in the marriage. Ironically, something that once tied them together creates what Ciuba calls a “schism’ between them. While Lucy internalizes the teachings of the bible, seen by her references to education and Axe 26,(136) John’s lack of internalization of his teaching is evident by his constant succumbing to cheating and it eventually creates a chasm in their marriage. Hurston shows that despite John’s prospering’s through literature, symbolized through, jobs, schooling, preaching, and eventual mayor position, he is literarily inferior to Lucy because of his inability to incorporate the last step. Hurston brings into question the charisma and maleness in black leadership by exposing to the reader the dependency of John on Lucy for something he can not do. Lucy functions essentially as Johns gourd vine, by protecting him and acting as the brain behind John’s success, a dependency Hurston further emphasizes by highlighting the unraveling of John at the loss of Lucy. John stays unraveled until he comes under the shelter of Sally, who he references as a response to his “prayer for Lucy’s return” (200). The linguistic characterization highlighted by Ciuba made me more aware of how Hurston in many ways, comments on the expectations of black women in the background of black men’s success.

Language Is Powerful

Image of the word Inspire


Zora Neale Hurston shows the power that words can have throughout all of her works. Gary Cluba’s The Worm against the Word: The Hermeneutical Challenge in Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine explains some of these instances. By far the most interesting example I read was about the influence that Amy Crittenden’s, John’s mother, word has on John. His whole journey and therefore this novel was heavily influenced by her words. It was her language that swayed the way that John both acted towards and spoke to Ned. It was her words that encouraged John to cross the creek and shut down Ned every time his internalized racism showed. Although I believe that her words where strong it could be argued that it was the power that she had as a mother that caused it all to happen.

Lucy on the other hand represented a quiet authority. John does well in school to impress Lucy because she is the know all in school. They used that knowledge to further woo each other through love letters. Through his journey of winning Lucy over he also furthers himself in the work place. Later in life it is Lucy’s words that save John from destroying his life with his own reckless actions. Then even after her death John calls upon her wishing that she could still provide gentle guidance.

John Pearson as a Christ Figure

While not a central argument in the article “The Worm against the Word”, a snippet that immediately grabbed my attention and I think is compelling was the mention of John being regarded as a Christ figure to those who have analyzed the story (Ciuba 128). The article makes clear the connection between John and the biblical prophet of Jonah, showing the growth John made in his hermeneutical identity being torn down by his inadequate care and upholding of the metaphorical gourd (120). John as a prophet figure can also be seen somewhat literally as he takes responsibility of taking the word of God from the Bible and preaching it to the church community including many who cannot read the word for themselves, creating his mediation between heaven and earth (120). However, the profile of a Christ figure is one which opens up a new way to analyze his place in the story Hurston wishes to convey.

Adele Reinhartz’s article “Jesus and Christ-Figures” outlines mostly the characteristics of Christ figures in films, but contributes frameworks for these figures in general, which allowed this specific point in “The Worm Against the Word” to catch my attention. Reinhartz’s article discusses Christ figures which are characters who foil the life of Jesus and whose plot parallels the life, death, and sometimes resurrection. Furthermore these figures are split into redeemer figures and savior figures, the former which takes on human sinfulness resulting in suffering, and the latter which takes on Jesus’ saving mission to either individuals or mankind. The article clarifies that these two sub-figures are not mutually exclusive. I think that John in the plot has the intention to take on aspects of the savior figure, becoming a preacher and taking on God’s word to the community. However, Hurston’s develops his character as one who takes on human suffering in the direct and active sense, therefore bringing him suffering. As John is one who partakes in human sinfulness, it would be interesting to further analyze his potential role as a redeemer Christ figure. Reinhartz also lists eight major component’s of Christ figures in popular culture which scholars have collected and refined over time. These include: mysterious origins, charisma, commitment to justice, conflict with authorities, the providing of redemption, withdrawal to a deserted place, suffering, and post-death recognition. While each of these could be expanded in relation to John’s character and his potential role as a Christ figure, I think the most interesting would be “mysterious origins”, “charisma”, “suffering” and “conflict with authorities”.

The Power of Education and its Economic Impact

After reading “The Worm Against the Word” regarding Jonah’s Gourd Vine, what I found most compelling about the article was how reading and writing were treated as such valuable skills during that period. More specifically, they were used as a way for men to try and “woo” females and show them they are worthy of their attention. When reading the article, there is a powerful quote that reads “Since Lucy is the word of words for John, he fittingly woos her through both reading and writing. John studies his lessons to impress Lucy. And he is pleased to join her in a duet on the last night of school because it will demonstrate his mastery of the text” (123). Evident from this quote, it is clear John intends to try and show Lucy how intelligent he is and use it to his advantage. Although he does it as a way to make connections between Lucy and himself, John also knows that Lucy will be more attracted to him if he shows he is educated and destined for future success.

Seeing this trend in the article makes me draw comparisons to relationships seen in society nowadays. In my opinion, I believe people take the concept of education for granted and look at relationships mainly for physical attraction. Examples can be seen in present-day Hollywood where movies are centered around the physical aspects of relationships rather than traditional romance or love stories. I think that education should be valued now like it was in the article mainly because that is what creates a successful economy. Individuals who are motivated to work hard and achieve their full potential is what in the end will support a well-functioning society.

In conclusion, I found the idea of reading and writing to be the most compelling aspect of this article because it made me reflect on my life as well as the global population. The power of education is undisputed because it allows people to achieve what they want whether that is measured in monetary success or a steady relationship. People are attracted to individuals who work hard and want success, and seeing this trend in the novel is what pushes me to maximize my education to the highest level.

John’s Lack of Self Awareness and its Affect on his Life and Preaching

In the novel ‘Jonah’s Gourd Vine’ (Hurston, 1933), main character John believes that he is a good person, a man of G-d even, despite hurting many people around him. His first fault began when he married a young girl named Lucy, and promised to be faithful. Over time, he cheated on her with multiple other women, and through it all, Lucy stayed true to him and remained at John’s side until her early death. Even though this marriage was very flawed and Lucy was unhappy, John spent the rest of his life after her death lamenting their marriage and wishing she would come back to him. He even went as far as to compare his second wife, Hattie, to Lucy, saying: “What you doin in Miss Lucy’s shoes” (p. 144) and continuing to explain that he never loved her and wished they hadn’t married. He beat Hattie many times until she left him. In addition, after Hattie divorced him, John pursued another marriage with a woman named Sally who he vowed to be faithful to, however he broke this vow the day of his passing.

Throughout all his sins, John continued to believe he was a good person and went on to become a preacher mid-way through the novel. His sins did not end because of this. As explained by article ‘The Worm Against the Word” (Ciuba, 2000), John fails as a preacher for one main reason: “He fails to give an adequate interpretation of himself because he fails to give an adequate interpretation of ‘signs, symbols, and texts'”. He sees things that happen to him or around him as not his fault; he thinks he is cursed or that G-d has it out for him, and never takes accountability for his actions. He takes his anger out on others, and hurts many people, believing that they had it coming or that it was his right to hurt them for some reason that he has justified to himself.

“A Culture of Orality” in a Troubled Southern Society: Understanding Where John is Truly Leaving for in “Jonah’s Gourd Vine.”

As John makes is way to Alf Pearson’s plantation, he hears a sound which rattles his conscience, as the rumbling of a locomotive thunders by (Hurston, p.15). Astonished, by the “fiery-lunged monster, John tries to find words, but they allude him, “Ah lakted dat. It say something but Ah ain’t heered it” (Hurston, p. 16). Transfixed by the powerful train, John pledges to learn more, “Ahm comin’ yeah plenty mo’ times and den Ah tell yuh whut it say” (Hurston, p. 16). This seen serves as a frame for Professor Gary Ciuba’s argument in “The Worm Against the Word: The Hermeneutical Challenge in Hurston’s “Jonah’s Gourd Vine” (2000). In his article, Cuba argues that the process of John finding himself through oral and written traditions in African-American literature is based through the use of hermeneutics, as seen through his hermeneutical endeavor to understand his journey and experiences through writing and oral skills, even though he ultimately fails (Cuba, p. 120).

From a sociological perspective, hermeneutics is the process of understanding one’s pre-existing internal prejudices while interpreting literature. This technique for learning is used with biblical texts and ancient texts such as the works of Plato.

This form of understanding the self through, as Paul Ricoeur puts it, “signs, symbols and texts” in African-American literature is the central argument of Ciuba’s work, but I disagree with his interpretation of John crossing the river as a moment when “Nature’s own percussion sounds his full membership in the culture of orality, where speech is filled with power, and the cosmos is ‘an ongoing event with man at its center’ (One 73) (Ciuba, p. 120). I view the crossing of the creek in the lens of scholar’s Hazel Carby, Martyn Bone, and Riché Richardson who focus on the role of migration in Hurston’s work.I agree with Ciuba that John crossing the river is a significant event, but I do not believe that he is being introduced to the culture of orality, but rather a broader southern society with many faults. I believe that the stark contrast between John crossing the creek on pages 12 and 86 represent the faults in John’s life and Southern society that are evident in the work between these two events. How would you interpret John crossing the river on pages 12 and 86?