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!!!

Performance Aspects of Chanted Railroad Sermons

After reading over the chapter “Train Travel and the Black Religious Imagination” from John M. Giggie’s book After redemption: Jim Crow and the transformation of African American religion in the Delta, 1875-1915, I was most interested in Giggie’s analysis of the chanted railroad sermons of the early twentieth century. After the widespread construction of railroads post-Civil War, Giggie writes that Black religious communities like the Delta Blacks began to see trains as “vehicle[s] of religious and racial deliverance” and incorporated train imagery into their religious traditions (53). This is apparent in the recording of Rev. J. M. Gates’ “Death’s Black Train is Coming,” as the train serves as the mode of transportation to get to heaven. Beyond just the song lyrics, Giggie provides insightful commentary on how the performance itself mimics the sounds and movements of a train–he points out how Gates uses his voice to replicate “the building acceleration of a train” before adopting “a steady chugging rhythm, like that of a train at moving at top speed” (51-52). Thus, the chanted railroad sermon uses a combination of audio cues in the lyrics and vocal performance to suggest the image of Death’s black train coming for the audience.

Giggie also wrote about this chanted railroad sermon, “Black Diamond Express to Hell.” I thought it was very similar to Zeke’s sermon in the film due to the focus on different stations throughout the train’s journey.

These elements of a chanted railroad sermon were also seen in the film Hallelujah, when Zeke performs a similar sermon. Zeke themes his sermon around a train’s journey, mentioning that the audience members are passengers and must get on the train at one of its stops, providing one set of audio cues. We also see that Zeke uses the performance techniques that Giggie found in “Death’s Black Train is Coming,” including the “steady rhythm” that builds up to suggest urgency at the end of his sermon. An additional technique that I noticed is that Zeke uses visual cues–including putting on a conductor’s hat and shuffling his feet along the stage–to add further to the train imagery in the sermon. It was really interesting to have a visual reference and see how preachers may have performed their own chanted railroad sermons, since we lose that aspect of the performance with audio recordings.

In the film, Zeke’s sermon performance was clearly effective–he convinces every member of the audience, including Chick, to join him on the train. I’m left wondering if Zeke’s portrayal of the conductor of the train leading to religious absolution could lead us to other conclusions about his character. Does he, like the train, lead others around him to better ways of life? Or is his position as the conductor leading others astray?