A character in Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Nanny is protagonist Janie Crawford's grandmother. A domestic servant who was born a slave, Nanny has raised and sheltered her granddaughter. When sixteen-year-old Janie begins to consider her own dreams and desires, Nanny interposes a different vision. She compels Janie to marry an older man, Logan Killicks, whose sixty acres and a mule constitute his eligibility. For Nanny the marriage represents an opportunity for Janie to sit on the pedestal reserved for southern white women, far above the drudgery that has characterized Nanny's life and made the black woman “de mule uh de world.”But by denying Janie the right to follow her dreams, Nanny inhibits her quest for selfhood.
Nanny's history explains her flawed vision. As a slave, Nanny was impregnated by her master. In freedom her best efforts fail to protect her daughter. Using the metaphor of the pulpit, the devoutly Christian Nanny speaks of lost possibilities: “Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin's on high, but they wasn't no pulpit for me.” She has saved the text for Janie, who, as long as Nanny lives, cannot resist her commands.
Physically ravaged by age, oppressed, and impoverished, Nanny derives her power from her ability to manipulate African American expressive codes. Even without a pulpit, Nanny is a powerful preacher whose metaphors fuse the biblical and the domestic in arresting ways. She is an accomplished storyteller and skilled slave narrator as well.[See also Tea Cake.]
Cheryl A. Wall