Last night, casually spending my Saturday evening reading The Sexual Politics of Meat in between episodes of Bake Off: Masterclass, I felt the brilliance of Carol Adams once more as she connected ecofeminism to power through literature. She highlighted an excerpt from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God about Jody (the partner of protagonist Janie) deciding to free their old, overworked mule due to the conscious influence of Janie.
As the “man” and person who ultimately had the power to choose liberation for this mule, Jody receives praise for the decision, although Janie understands her role in the process and, due to her status as a muted woman whose voice is figuratively and literally unheard, she is only partially credited for one of the most profound passages of the book:
Janie stood still while they all comments. When it was all done she stood in front of Joe and said, “Jody, dat wuz uh might fine thing fuh you tuh do. ‘Tain’t everybody would have thought of it, ‘cause it ain’t no everyday thought. Freein’ dat mule makes uh mighty big man outa you. Something like George Washington and Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln, he had de whole United States tuh rule so he freed de Negroes. You got uh town so you freed uh mule. You have tuh have power tuh free things and dat makes you lak uh king uh something.”
Hambo said, “Yo’ wife is uh born orator, Starks. Us never knowed dat befo’. She put jus’ de right words tuh our thoughts.” (6.60-61)
In just a few sentences, Janie names so much:
First, she names the power Jody has to oppress or liberate this mule. Through an ecofeminist lens, this power is important because human animals will almost always choose to oppress a non-human animal due to its vulnerability, lack of retaliation, and detached perception as a once-living being (as Adams says, most people never have an interaction with an animal until it’s dead, breaded, and fried on their dinner plate).
Second, she names the honor of being specifically a man who chooses liberation. We know the entire world ticks to the patriarchy’s clock. The current Netflix documentary The Mask You Live In does an excellent job of showing the oppressive forces even within the patriarchy–the ultimate “boys club” making men think that they lose power and status by using their own power to liberate others. That Jody chose liberation is huge, and Janie reminds him that he’s a “mighty big man” for that choice. More men and the people who love them need to equate healthy masculinity with liberation.
Third, she likens Jody’s choice to liberate with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Yes, we can debate the intention and motivation for Washington and Lincoln’s choice to liberate the people they did–and we can also acknowledge they oppressed as much as they liberated–but liberation did occur under their watch regardless. I am sure Hurston did not pick Washington and Lincoln because they were the best examples of liberators in history; I am sure it was because they represented the most institutionalized, positionally powerful men who made a choice to counter the patriarchy despite heavy criticism. I love her equation: Lincoln ran the country, so he freed the slaves. You live in this town, so you can free a mule. This is what sphere of influence looks like.
Fourth, she likens Jody’s power to that of a king, which is absolutely true. Who else but a king could make an unpopular decision and get away with it? In the novel, Jody holds not only male power and relationship power, but also positional power–he gets to do what he wants. You have the power to free things. Interesting that she doesn’t compare this power to God. A king is human–a king is real–a king can do something right here, right now.
However, not to be overlooked is town member Hambo’s recognition of Janie’s ability to say just the right thing. Janie’s public speaking had been seen as more of a weakness than strength at that point in the story, and this speaks to the power of the silenced parallel between Janie’s gendered oppression and the mule’s species-based oppression. In The Sexual Politics of Meat, Adams sees both the symbolic and spiritual elements of this parallel and how it works to take double-oppressed creatures and double-liberate them:
This empowerment may arise from recognizing the fused oppression of women and mules — silenced and overworked. As her grandmother told here: “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” Lorraine Bethel, interpreting this passage’s meaning, explains: “Throughout the remainder of the novel we observe Janie’s struggle against conforming to this definition of the Black woman.” When Janie is concerned about the fate of a real mule, she herself could be seen as the absent referent in an oppressive structure. To Janie, challenging the fate of the domesticated, objectified beings follows upon her grandmother’s insights; Janie is defying “her status as a mule of the world” simultaneously with challenging the mule’s status.” …
“It ain’t no everyday thought” to think about those beings who become our absent referents; these thoughts are muted. Janie’s is a female voice muted in a male world; this is how we need to consider vegetarian protests.
Indeed, this is how we need to consider all protests. While we can fill in the blank with a slew of oppressed populations, here, today, it is only appropriate to connect Zora’s beautiful writing to the horrific Charlottesville riots and the emergence of Nazi culture in the United States, 2017 (?) (!) (?) Fill in the blanks: The black community’s voice is a black voice muted in a white world; this is how we need to consider Black Lives Matter protests. This is how we need to consider counter-protests to white supremacist gatherings.
Many of us take turns playing the role of the mule and then switch and play the role of Jody. It’s one of the most complex, yet simple truths within social justice and change: if we hold an oppressed identity, our mule head might be on the chopping block depending on who our Jody is, and one day we will be the Jody that can save or kill. What will we do when we have the privilege of being Jody? Is that time right now? And sometimes we’re like Janie: a witness to someone else’s complete domination, speaking up for it and leveraging contextual and situational privilege with the recognition that, one day, we’ll need a Janie to convince a Jody to save us.
Donald Trump is just about the worst Jody there could be. Janie’s mentioning of Washington and Lincoln, two former presidents, made me pathetically and sadly laugh out loud even at the thought that we could once believe our president would use their power to free things. Trump loves his status as king. His boys club–while its members are constantly in flux–chooses to not see the mules of the world. For them, liberation is not merely “not an everyday thought”; it’s never a thought.
The default leadership philosophy is patriarchy. If it wasn’t, Janie wouldn’t have to thank and celebrate Jody’s choice to not kill an animal.
The default leadership philosophy is patriarchy. If it wasn’t, our president wouldn’t be openly supporting white supremacy.
The default leadership philosophy is patriarchy. If it wasn’t, then freedom and liberation would mean more than money.
If you haven’t realized this is all connected yet, take a look below: