When I was a much younger man I read a book which changed the way I perceived books, hell, the way I perceived life!
When I started getting into black literature, on a voluntary basis that is (before then it was mostly required reading and thus a chore) I read my way through “Invisible Man” “Native Son” “If he hollers let him go” “The Color Purple” “The autobiography of Malcolm X” “For Colored Girls…” “Roots” and hundreds of others before I ran soulfirst into Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their eyes were watching god!”
Upon my first reading (I’m presently at about my 10th or so) what stood out most for me was her profound ability to convey the natural design of all creatures through prose so sensual you almost want to lick the page, and so esoteric you swear she’s getting her information from the source of all information. Flowers and insects make love, animals congregate, joke, tease and mourn, much like humans — minus our moral constraints, our guilt — and even the humans in her story joined in in the great dance, this time-honored ritual as syncopated as a waltz.
The great Lake Okeechobee, however, was another story. As much as you were enchanted by her other descriptions of nature, you were terrified by her take on Okeechobee. It became a “monstropolous beast” full of divine intent. As the migrant agricultural workers of Belle Glade who refused to follow the native Americans, and animals, and the warnings, obstinately waited in the darkness of night for a hurricane to come and go about its business, you wanted to scream “run!!!” and at the same time you wanted nature to be faced and deprived. As that life-giving lake that made this areas’ soil the riches for miles around, turned into a mercenary for god, you, the reader, were giving front row tickets to this micro-armageddon through Zora’s mastery of words.
It was after reading this story that I began to assess everything found in nature as having a soul, of sorts. And, initially, and for some time to follow, I also acquired what I believed to be a distrust of nature due to its indiscriminate blood-lust, its propensity to turn from lovely to lethal in a moment’s time. Zora coined the word monstropolous (though I’ve never seen it used outside of this story) to describe this merciless power at its worst.
As a child, I played with grasshoppers and praying mantis. I made friends with animals, tried to take in stray cats and approached stray dogs. I jumped into muddy rivers. I collected rocks and grew string beans and tomatoes in my backyard. Nature was embraced, beloved. But, Zora rocked my world, that first reading, and I could no longer bear nature. Not after what she’d done to Janie and Tea Cake (the two lovers in her novel)…uh uh. Unforgivable. She became a witch, an unpredictable, untrustworthy bitch.
Zora had set me up for consummate and virtually immutable comprehension of this power by first serving up a love story so natural, improbable and yet somehow inevitable that you, as the reader, are prepared to forsake all relationships until you can experience it; that any love short of Janie’s and Tea Cake’s is merely a facsimile, an obvious attempt to sell the reader a bill of goods. This affair was purity incarnate, painfully pure, in the way a lion taking over a pride by killing its leader and running off its male cubs (to their probable deaths) is only doing what comes natural, playing his role in the grand monstropolous design. In the way even that same beautiful, pitiless beast, taking his royal ease lapping cool water at a river’s bank, can in the blink of an eye become a ferocious crocodile’s feline mignon.
“I brought you in this world, and I’ll take you out,” I could hear nature chiding throughout the book in a harrowing dispassionate voice.
From that time on, any wickedness in the world, I rarely attributed to some evil malignant force. Nature became my scapegoat. Blame humans if you want to, but most of the time we are only doing what comes naturally to us…not to be confused with normal. Normal is a judgement, a conception. Natural is the unmitigated truth, an act of God, if you will.
I was reminded of this feeling last night as I sat and watched the film, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” at the brink of or in the throes of tears the entire time for a number of reasons, ranging from the explicable to the inexplicable. And, for perhaps the first time since I first read “Their eyes…” I felt that the fear at the foundation of the superficial fears I feed on to motivate myself and navigate through this world had been acknowledged.
Here was a film that invited me to places, to states of awareness, of being, I thought I’d never want to go: uneducated, impoverished, ignorant, and looking this monstropolous beast right in the face everyday, sleeping in its lap as a way of life –a whole society built around it, a belief system, damn near a religion — and celebrating it!
And at the eye of this storm of humanity is a little girl that makes you feel ridiculous for your weakness yet at the same time very much aware of your power, the necessity of pursuing the life we deny ourselves, the manner in which we destroy ourselves
“We’s who the earth is for,” says one of the bravest characters I’ve ever seen in a film. She goes by the name of Hushpuppy. And when you hear this little 6-year-old say this, knowing she has so much to learn while at the same time being keenly aware that, at that tender age, she has seen as much as you have and perhaps a great deal more, you are humbled. And more than that you also want to share in her declaration of being who the earth is for. If only you had the courage and spirit of a child, a fearlessness not borne out of ignorance, you learn, but derived from this same nature you’ve come to fear. Love is at her back as she faces down the monstropolous and you know as she knows that she will not lose, because ultimately we are all in this together, we are the monstropolous beasts, every creature in nature, big and small.
”Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub” she tells us. And with those words she restored my faith in the beauty of the human experience…
I won’t include any spoilers for I think everyone should see this movie. I believe this is one of those stories that can bring the world a little closer to an understanding we all stand to benefit from. That we are not as different as our cultures suggests. That our commonalities, regardless of race, class or even age, far outnumber our differences.
I will say this, though: This is what film should be! I can’t imagine how this was made. I can’t see any script, any acting, any directing, any budget, any tampering…I didn’t see/feel any manipulation, any agenda, any unnatural involvement whatever. like an invisible someone was granted full access to a parallel realm south of ours. And implanted cameras in the souls of the lives of a handful of extraordinary humans … It teeters on being too overwhelming, like when you hear some sci-fi flick alien, speaking of humans, saying, “They are not ready.”
I pray we are ready for Hushpuppy… for she is a monstropolous beast if ever there were one.
Thanks to Zora and Hushpuppy, I am.