From _Jonah’s Gourd Vine_ to “Sweat” (Reflecting on Hurston’s Works)

A)Maud, Ineitha, Mason, Lauren, Sam, Ty:  Please post here on the blog by Monday night at 10 pm after finishing Hurston’s novel and short story — and also reading/skimming the following article about Jonah’s Gourd Vine entitled “The Worm Against the Word.”  Your post only needs to be two paragraphs in length — though it can be slightly longer, if you want.  Choose to discuss ONE of the following five things in your post:  1.)The part(s) of the article you find most compelling, 2.)The part(s) of the article you find least convincing or hardest to understand, 3.)Anything you’d add to the article to make it even better, 4.)The main argument of the article, 5.)Things we’ve already said in class that relate to the article 

Link to “The Worm Against the Word” article: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2901188

B)Grace, BJ, Carly, Patrick, Eliza, Alyssa:  No need to post on the blog by Monday night at 10 pm but please do comment on two of your classmates’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine posts any time before coming to class on Tuesday.  Please be sure to also read the following very short article about visual artist Willie Cole and to watch the following 8 minute video about visual artist Willie Cole. By taking a few notes, be ready to tell us in class ONE way or more that you believe that his iron and ironing board artwork tangentially relates to Hurston’s story entitled “Sweat.”  

 

1.)A Short Article About Some of Visual Artist Willie Cole’s Work With Objects Like the Ironing Board:

Harvard exhibit reveals ‘the spirit’ within everyday objects

2.)An 8 Minute Video About Newark, NJ Visual Artist Willie Cole (who uses the iron and ironing board in his work!)

C)Everyone else in the class: No need to post on the blog by Monday night at 10 pm.  And no need to comment on the blog either!  Instead, just finish Hurston’s novel and read Hurston’s short story.  Then, read/skim the following article about Sweat” entitled “The God in the Snake…”  In your notebook or on your computer, take some notes about the following  so that you’re ready to speak when and if called upon in class: 1.)The part(s) of the article you find most compelling, 2.)The part(s) of the article you find least convincing or hardest to understand, 3.)Anything you’d add to the article to make it even better, 4.)The main argument of the article, 5.)Things we’ve already said in class that relate to the article 

Link to “The God in the Snake…” article — https://www.jstor.org/stable/26467997

King Vidor: Not the Right Man for the Job

The chapter titled “Taint What You Was, It’s What You Is Today” from Judith Weisenfeld’s book Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film gave me a lot of insight into King Vidor’s actual perspective and reason for directing this film. In my last blog post, I did critique King Vidor for attempting to profit off of African-American culture but I also gave him the benefit of the doubt in assuming that his ultimate goal was to represent African-American life authentically rather than through an overly white perspective. However, this chapter shows that Vidor’s inspiration for this film was actually more about him being “intrigued” by the “sincerity and fervor of their [black people’s] religious expression” as well as the “honest simplicity of their [black people’s] sexual drives”. Not only does King Vidor use language that shows how disconnected he is from actual black lives, he seems to think of black people as almost ‘simplistic’ or ‘childlike’ humans that cannot resist certain urges. Like my other classmates, I was also shocked by Vidor’s claim that he essentially felt he had the right to tell this story based on his own observations of southern black life. He seemed to have felt entitled to black stories simply because he had interacted with black people before, or at least more than other white people in Hollywood. If King Vidor was less entitled to other people’s stories and less self-congratulatory, it would be much easier to appreciate the small level of positive representation he gave to the black community.

Finally, I truly do question Vidor’s motives in regard to creating the film Hallelujah because at several points in the chapter, Vidor is quoted several times to have dismissed any connections between his film and civil rights campaigns of the time. Vidor would explain that he had no real intention of impacting American politics but also seemed to see himself as providing a great service to African-Americans by representing them in his film. He reassured both the movie studio and white viewers that such a “factual” representation of African-American life need not involve any statement for social change and even that he had not intended to make any sort of religious statement. It’s like King Vidor wanted to have his cake and eat it too: he wanted to be praised by black Americans for telling their story so “well” but also assured white Americans that he did not support equal rights for black Americans. I also appreciate how near the end of this chapter, Weisenfeld argues that the main theme of Hallelujah is problematic because it basically implies that black people’s character is irredeemable despite their best efforts to act in contrary ways (Zeke tries to be religious but inevitably gives in to sex). Also, specifically in regard to colorism, the film sexualizes and romanticizes the most light-skinned character in the film (Chick) as opposed to the darker Missy Rose. Overall, I think it is important to acknowledge that most of the brilliance of this film is thanks to the talented actors and actresses that ended up changing the film for the better based on their actual lived experiences. Although King Vidor had the privilege to make this film happen, he does not deserve any praise past that action, in my opinion. He was simply another white man in a long list of white people feeling more authorized than black people to tell stories of blackness.

A Brief History of King Vidor: The Self-titled Black Connoisseur

Judith Weinsfield’s chapter provides an in-depth analysis of nearly all the elements of King Vidor’s Hallelujah!. Weisenfeld illustrates how the film came about, how and why the cast was picked, musical choices and characterizations, themes, and reviews. Vidor was excited about directing a project with an all-black cast. He claimed to have extensive knowledge of black life. However, his knowledge was simply based on observations he made growing up in Texas. Vidor did not recognize his own lens of bias. Vidor did not recognize the talent of his black cast, he thought the cast was simply imitating their everyday life. “Vidor’s assessment of the actors as essentially untrained, naturally emotional and religious, and unselfconscious about their performances also stood in marked contrast to their biographies and to the coverage of their careers in much of the black press”(Weisenfeld, 27). Weisenfeld’s use of the word “fixed” encapsulates Vidor’s opinion on black life. Vidor believed blacks were one-dimensional “[their] racial nature and on racial psychology allowed little room for transformation or progress”(Weisenfeld, 26). 

A Religion of Chaos: On King Vidor's Hallelujah | by Tristan Ettleman |  Medium

Vidor’s experience led him to make a film filled with stereotypes, false misrepresentations and led to continued societal disrespect for black life. Vidor shies away from the potential of creating emotional connections with the audience and the characters. Instead, Vidor chooses to focus on “sexual desire, showing the characters as wildly overcome and animalistic in their passions” (Weisenfeld, 20).  Vidor chooses not to focus on an intimate spiritual connection, but the shortcomings of each character. Overall, the chapter details why white voices should not speak for black experiences.

 

Who Can Tell A Story?

“Taint What You Was, It’s What You is Today” chapter one by Weisenfeld goes into detail the production of the film “Hallelujah”. It covers Vidor’s ability, or inability, to capture the depiction of “real” black lives. It inevitably probed the question of who. Who can tell a story? Who can’t tell a story? Who is the story benefiting, if anybody? Who is held accountable for the outcome?

https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED480339.pdf#page=51

Who Can Tell a Story? Who Can’t?

“…Vidor insisted that he had created the story from his own observations of southern black life, and argued for its authenticity… Watched Negroes in the South… studied their music…” (Weisenfeld 20). In other words, Vidor suggested that he gave a true representation of Black people’s life style based solely on his observation. Yet, he did not live the life of those in question. Does that make his word invalid or not?

Typically when a person decide to write on the perspective of a group, that person(s) tend to complete an ethnography. They complete research, ask questions, live within the community they are exploring, etc. Ethnographic research give individuals the ability and validation to tell someone else’s story accurately. Although observation is a component of ethnography, it alone cannot accurately depict the lives of others. Vidor cannot, and did not, accurately depict the lives of African Americans based off his observations. His observations would have shown that Blacks were not happily picking cotton. It should have shown him that Black people were not looking for a white savior, more so social and physical injustices to end. He could not tell the story of African Americans properly, not because he was a White man who didn’t know what it was to be Black, but because he was a man who used stereotypes as facts.

Who Is the Story Benefiting?

Vidor showed representation of Blacks, but not in a helpful way. It was demeaning and stereotypical. Vidor’s film did not benefit anyone. Instead, it furthered and confirmed the stereotypes of Black people. Vidor stated that the film would not challenge the social structure in place (Weisenfeld). He had no intention of projecting “well established” Black people in the south. He was set on displaying what he thought was accurate (stereotypes) without further investigation.

Who Is Held Accountable?

I would argue African Americans were held accountable in the non-traditional sense. In other words, the stereotypes shown affected them directly. In 1929, no matter how well off a Black person could have been, society saw them as they did in the film “Hallelujah” ;to their knowledge, Vidor’s depiction was accurate and trustworthy. Black people paid the price of the film’s release. They were held accountable to actions that were supposed to, but failed to, represent them.

Tell My Story

Who Died and Made Him King?

Judith Weisenfeld’s chapter “’Taint What You Was, It’s What You is Today” describes the making of the film Hallelujah! and how director King Vidor shaped the film and drew connections between black religion and sexuality. I found this chapter very interesting, especially in how it laid out Vidor’s claims about the film’s authenticity. He discussed the film as if it were an ethnography and presented himself as the right person to create it because “he considered himself an authority on ‘the negro,’” and grew up in the South observing black life (20). Other details from the production, however, show how audacious this assertion is. For example, his assessment of the actors in the film as “essentially untrained, naturally emotional and religious” reveals his deep biases and lack of understanding about how the black people and the black press viewed the actors and their reputations (44). Similarly, I found Vidor’s reassurance that the film wasn’t intended to have political impacts or push for social change almost comically ridiculous because it both entirely ignores political and social movements in the community he claimed to know so much about and because his own social and political views are in the film. Furthermore, the fact that the film had a segregated premiere in it of itself is a social and political issue, whether he wanted to recognize it or not. Despite claiming authenticity, stories from behind the scenes help illuminate that Vidor’s control over the film and his choices resulted in a film that frequently depicts black people in the south from his viewpoint, rather than how said people actually viewed themselves.

One of the other things that stuck out to me was how much debate surrounded the film even at the time it came out, and how some of the controversy seems similar to debates about representation in Hollywood today. I particularly noticed the description of how the cast of Hallelujah! protested lines in the original script that included the n-word and other slurs and were eventually successful in getting it changed. This example again shows just how little King Vidor understood about the community he was supposedly authentically portraying. It also reminded me of stories I’ve read about how people of color or women in Hollywood have had to fight their directors in smaller ways to try and make their characters less stereotypical and portray them the way they feel is necessary. For example, in light of Chadwick Boseman’s death, I’ve seen this story going around online about how he had to fight Marvel to be allowed to use an African accent when filming Black Panther rather than a British or American accent.

The Symbolic Meaning Behind Trains

Chapter one of John M. Giggie’s “Train Travel and the Black Religious Imagination” helps the reader understand the double meaning behind trains in films like “Hallelujah” by King Vidor and songs like “Death’s Black Train Is Coming” by Reverend J.M. Gates.
Railroads and trains were a site to see in the 1890s and 1900s. The railroads symbolized economic opportunity for both blacks and whites, “It offered the chance to migrate to new areas of opportunity, proselytize and distribute religious literature in distant counties, and hope for better markets for goods, services, and employment.” Giggie states.

In Reverend J.M. Gates song “Death’s Black Train Is Coming” he makes a reference to a morning train, “If you want to get on the morning train, if you want to go home and live in peace, you better have your ticket in your hand, standing by the station.” When Reverend Gates talks about the “morning train” he is talking about the train that will take you to heaven if you have faith in God. Therefore, you need to be waiting at the station (praying, attending church), even if you don’t know whether or not the train will come (faith). The morning train is also a reference to the economic opportunity the railroads brought to the south. It also brought hope to many blacks for a better life. Same in how believing in God helped oppressed communities survive in harsh conditions.

Reverend Gates also mentions a black train in his song, that arrives at night, “O the little black train is comin’ get all your business right, you better set your house in order, for that train may be here tonight.” Since the morning train is the one to heaven, the black train that arrives at night is the one that will take you to hell. This also has another meaning.

Giggie also mentions how the railroad was maintained through a racial caste, “As railroad workers, blacks were restricted to the ranks of firemen, brakemen, porters, redcaps, waiters, and the crews that laid ties, performed real maintenance, and cleaned and repaired locomotives and boilers. They were barred from applying for the best-paying jobs… As passengers they routinely faced the threat of being harassed, bludgeoned, shot, or lynched because of their skin color.” While the morning train in Reverend J.M. Gates “Deaths Black Train Is Coming” is the train associated with economic opportunity and heaven, the black train is associated with hell and racial discrimination.

In the film “Hallelujah” by King Vidor, we also hear references to trains. We specifically hear one when Zeek is with his brother trading in their cotton for cash. Zeek manages to gather a group of sharecroppers around him while he sings. “We will be singing at the end of the road, the light will be shining at the end of the road.”

Trains offer hope to many blacks and whites because of the economic opportunity it provided (not so much for blacks). Same as how God as provided hope for many oppressed groups in society; that not matter how much you struggle, if you believe in god, there will be light shining at the end of the road.

King Vidor Ain’t It

The article, “‘’Taint What You Was, It’s What You Is Today’: Hallelujah and the Politics of Racial Authority,” is part of a larger book entitled Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949.  “‘Taint” is the first chapter of the book and covers the production and pre-production of the film we just watched for class, Hallelujah. The beginning of this chapter focuses on King Vidor and some of the choices he put into the film’s making. Let it be known that “the final product was largely the result of Vidor’s wishes and decisions, with a few significant exception of intervention from the studio and the censors” (20). Because of this, we can extrapolate that most decisions of the production were approved by him and can, thus, use the information to examine him.

King Vidor in a suit and hat

King Vidor notes his motivation for making the movie was “the sincerity and fervor of [black people’s] religious expression [and] the honest simplicity of their sexual drives” (20). This is not the only time that King Vidor equates black people with simplicity. He, “knowing the negro, [chose] a simple theme for ‘Hallelujah’” (21). I shouldn’t need to say so, but for the purposes of clarity I will shine a light on the problematic implications of this thought process. The two-dimensional qualities of the black character in the film, torn between vice and virtue, are sincerely how King Vidor views the race.

Furthermore, he considers himself an authority on the depiction of these people and had “created the story from his own observations of southern black life” (20). In fact, he had so much confidence in his ability that “aboard the ship returning to the United States he drew up a list for the studio elements ‘suitable for an all-Negro sound film’” (20).  In other words, he constructed his ideas before consulting any member of the race for ideas they may have.

Hallelujah cover

However, fret not. There was at least one black person working on this, besides the cast of course. King Vidor, himself, “selected the white screenwriter, Wanda Tuchlock, and Ransom Rideout, a black playwright and studio writer, added dialogue at the studio’s request” (21). Parsing the phrasing, it is a likely assumption that Rideout did not write all the dialogue. It seems like the real writer was Tuchlock and Rideout was just there to make some of the dialogue sound more “authentic”.

I could go on, but I make my entry from what I found in just the first couple of pages and the chapter goes on for 33. It was an interesting read and gave concrete facts to the vibes of problematic depiction I got from just watching the film the first time.

TEMPTATION AND REDEMPTION OF RELIGION (posted by Maya Middlebrooks)

“Death’s Black Train” captures the temptation and redemption of religion, Christianity to be specific. It is the idea that the inevitable is coming, death, and one should be “saved” before then. The author says, “a message from the high. You better set your house in order for you must surely die”. In other words, one must seek redemption from the Lord to be saved during death, to go to heaven. He then goes on to say, “your idle thoughts and wicked deeds will stop you at the judgement bar”. The judgement bar is the representation of judgement day when the Lord will decide if one shall go to heaven or hell. The thoughts and deeds are all of the tempting situations that happened in someone’s life that would prevent them from heaven if they do not seek redemption. He uses the metaphor of a train. He states repeatedly that the black train is coming, death.

 

[PHOTOGRAPH OF TWO RAILROAD TRACKS — AT A CROSSING/OVERLAPPING — SHOULD BE INSERTED HERE.]

 

This idea of a train is shown in God’s Trombones’ ‘Seven Negro Sermons Verse’. It starts off by reiterating that death is inevitable and if one believes in god and do right by him, then they shall enter the gates of heaven, they shall go home. Johnson, “the first black professor at New York University”(God’s Trombone), stated that the train sermon pictured both God and the devil running trains, one went to heaven and one went to hell. This further elaborate Rev J.M Gates sound, that if one chooses a road of temptation, they choose the train to hell, and if one chooses a road of redemption and saving, they choose a train to heaven.

Trains and Religion

The chapter, “Train Travel and the Black Religious Imagination” in the book After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta by John M. Giggie deals with Delta blacks and the relation/link with the railroad and what it represents. The chapter illustrates how the quick growth of the railroad was important to the Delta black communities as it had given progress economically for the communities and spoke numbers to racial segregation in the region. Forward with that, they then showed how truly important the growth of the railroad was to them; by incorporating it as a spiritual force that was combined with sensory aspects of life such as songs, lyrics, and sermons with heavy focus on railroads. Train depots and waiting platforms became a place for worship, the train became a designated form of travel for the organization of religious gatherings of churches and were used to spread news of important leaders and movements. Through this, the train and train travel became a strong image for African American freedom. 

Going back to the point of the train being used in sensory aspects of life, more specifically music, brings me to the song, “Death’s Black Train is Coming” performed by Rev. J.M. Gates. This song incorporated religion and focused on sins and redemption. He says, “While I sing I want every sinner in the house to come into your seat, and bow and accept prayer you need some prayer”, this line addresses sinners and is in the beginning of the song. This is foreshadowing towards the exploration of this theme throughout the song. He later says, “Get all your business right, You better set your house in order, For that train may be here tonight”, this is hinting towards the notion of reaching heaven but if you are to reach it you’re going to have to drop your sins and look forward towards a positive life. Finally he says, “If you want to get on the morning train, If you want to go home and live in peace, You better have your ticket in your hand”. This is the conclusion to the song, where he is referencing the end of life and the connection to religion and the spiritual. Finishing off with you have to have your stuff in order, you have to resolve/settle your sins, and you have to be ready to move forward.

King Vidor’s Hallelujah! Another Black Experience Told From a White Perspective: Pardon My Biased Breakdown Below 

As I was watching King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929), my initial reaction of intrigue quickly disintegrated into annoyance and finally confusion. In this short reaction, I will point out what I questioned about the film. Next, I will summarize how Dr. Jessica H. Howard’s article entitled Hallelujah!: Transformation in Film helped increase my understanding of the film especially in regard to the music. Finally, I will pose critical-thinking statements and questions about the notion of non-blacks telling black narratives.

The context of the film is extremely important to understand my frustrations with the film.. In the 1920’s African Americans, engaged in sharecropping, this technique allowed white landowners, many of whom were former slaveholders, to pay little to no money to their black workers. At the beginning of the film, black workers are shown happily picking cotton and singing with glee. Although the film emits white characters, this cotton-picking scene felt out of touch with reality. The character “Mammy” a sweet, caring grandmother, seemed to fit almost perfectly with the character by the same name.  A mammy was depicted as a “plump, black,  usually older, happy female slave. The film mixes themes of religion, sexual temptation, and music to reveal what I describe as a sad, musical comedy.

Dr. Howard eloquently describes how Hallelujah! had a tremendous “ impact on later folk musicals; it also initiated Hollywood’s interest in “negro religiosity.” Howard describes how Vidor created something unique in terms of audio ingenuity in film. The characters were synchronized with the music. Vidor used acapella to help the film transition in an authentic manner. Howard described how emotions of love, lust, sadness were effortlessly shared through song. The film presented a relatable dichotomy, sexual desire versus religious commitment; this was one of the reasons white audiences found the film relatable, Howard notes.

Howard also notes how Hallelujah! “exploited the use of black stereotypes and capitalized on the supposed natural connection of blacks with music (“their” music-spirituals, jazz), yet, in Altman’s words, “wherever folk elements were present they were used for their picturesque qualities rather than for their ability to engender a myth of the American past” (Howard, 450). Vidor along with writers like Wanda Tucock offered only an outside perspective about black religion, spirituality, and life. How valid are films without primary representation? The black experience in the 1920s was painful and religion doubled as a survival tactic and community togetherness. Is that reality accurately conveyed in the film?