The Difficult Journey of a Black Woman
By: Becky Turley
Becky Turley TURLEY 1
April 29th 2010
The Difficult Journey of a Black Woman
One could only imagine what a young black woman went through in the
early nineteen twenties. In Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston,
the character Janie struggles each day and suppresses her feeling unconsciously.
The novel is about a young black female that is raised in the early nineteen
hundreds by her grandmother in a mostly white town. Janie is an American girl
that does not realize that she is black until later she sees a photo of herself. The
novel tells a story about Janie and of her three successive husbands and what each
meant to her and how they were involved in her struggles with personal freedom.
Each husband offered Janie something different but yet she mostly yearned for true
love. The love that Janie achieves is a means of escaping from the things she
doesn’t want to remember and of the dullness and dread that she feels.
One of the first lines in the novel is “Ships at a distance have every mans
wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on
the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the watcher turns his eyes on
resignation, his dreams mocked to death by time” (Hurston, 1). In this novel Janie
is the watcher. Janie thinks of God as being the all powerful but not part of the
master plan. Janie believes God made nature and nature is responsible for the rest
of the things that happen. Sometimes what you want stops right in front of you and
other times you have to fight for it and then again you may never get it. According
to Roger Rosenblatt, “The images of the sea which express a certain serenity at the
end of Their Eyes Were Watching God are used to express a longing, specifically
Janie’s in the first lines of the book”(Modern Critical Views, 31).
Zora Neale Hurston expresses the philosophy of “striving to become white”.
She does so in a time when race was a major issue. She portrays a mostly black
society with a changing political message and does so without mentioning the
white population but on one or two occasions. In addition to doing so in such an
intriguing way she also does it without attacking the white population. Hurston
also focuses on the working class African Americans and the culture and beliefs of
the working class and also she does not focus only on the money but on the fact
that they enjoyed what they did each day.
During the novel Janie is the opposite of what most black characters tend to
be. She is light haired and fair skinned and was raised as white folks were. Janie
was born in Florida and raised by her grandmother. Her life was calm until her
teens when she begins her attraction with boys. Her granny interferes with this and
introduces her to an older man with money, land and a “sense of “security”. Nanny
believed that” de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as ah been able tuh find
out” (Hurston, 14). This quote is and example of social hierarchy based on race
and gender. While the fact blacks were often put down and discriminated against
by white men is common knowledge, Nanny points out that black women are even
more victimized than any. She feels as though women are the weaker sex and
during this time they were. Women had it bad, especially black women. Janie
eventually marries Logan, the older man with all the security but cannot fall in love
with him after attempting to do so.
Janie later runs into Jody aka Joe, a fast talking, ambitious man on his way
to start his own black community with plans on making a fortune. His ambition
intrigues her and she leaves her husband and runs away with him. He is a very
persuasive man and believed that Jody had no business sitting on the porch
gossiping with the other black folks. He keeps her isolated and eventually she
becomes unhappy with him. He later becomes mayor of this town and he starts
treating Janie like property. This shatters her image of him and her marriage
crumbles. Several times while being with Jody he mistreated and disrespected her,
yet she stayed at his side.
Later Jody becomes ill and dies. When Jody dies it is a turning point in
Janie’s life. She sits afterwards at his deathbed and mourns and thinks to herself to
that mourning should last no longer than the grief. Janie then becomes the town
widow until teacake comes along.
Teacake is one of a kind to Janie and she finds true love and happiness with
him. After getting rabies trying to rescue Janie from the big hurricane, he becomes
delirious and Janie is forced to shoot him in self defense. Janie then returns to the
town she and teacake started their life in. Janie attempts to shake the idea of being
“white” throughout the novel but only succeeds after Teacake comes along.
Teacake allows Janie to experience the world around her. He allows her to sit on
the porch swing gossiping while eating taters. He exposes her to his other African
American friends and allows her to feel a sense of proudness and togetherness with
them. Teacake takes great pride in being able to provide for his woman especially
since she has led such a privileged life. Although Janie never seems conflicted
about living a poor life with Tea Cake, she kind of has to agree to abide by what he
provides or damage the pride of the man she loves. Janie feels more like part of
the black community than she has eve felt when she meets Teacake and his friends.
Hurston uses Janie’s feelings of unity with her race to emphasize the message of
pride and togetherness.
While her last husband Joe was wealthy and smart, he shut her up in a big
house with everything she wanted but could not enjoy. He provided for her
everything except happiness and exposure to others of her kind. He isolated her
from the world and mistreated her in his last days. He did not allow her to shake
the feeling of being “white”. Teacake did not have wealth but he provided
exposure and happiness most of the time she spent with him. True love is what
Janie has yearned for since living with Nanny. Janie’s ability to fall in love is rare
even if the love ended in tragedy.
Janie’s life was like a journey through many different lifestyles and
communities including the thriving African American culture. This novel
expresses the life of a black woman that one cannot possible imagine unless they
go through it themselves. Hurston however did an excellent job portraying the life
of a black woman in these times but many critique her and will continue to do so.
According to Harold Bloom “Hurston was both a mythologist and a vitalist, and
her self image is reflected in Janie’s heroism” (Bloom’s notes, 10)
In Critical Perspectives Past and Present, Richard Wright expresses “Miss
Hurston can write, but her prose is cloaked in the facile sensuality that has dogged
negro expression since the days of Phyllis Wheatley and her dialogues manage to
catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk mind in their pure simplicity,
but that’s as far as it goes”(Gates 17). Hurston’s characters are desperately trying
to say something. What they are saying depends on the reader and their beliefs
about culture, life and living in these times. Hurston succeeds in her message about
politics and does so without attacking the white people and is able to gain the
respect of most readers, may they be black or white or of other ethnicity. She
exhibits the striving society of the black people and does so respectfully. Carol
Batkar expresses her opinion on the novel as a “context for the sexual politics of
earlier writers, critics and historians that have turned to the discourses of the black
women's club movement, which had its origins in the ant lynching campaign, and
the classic blues, sung and written in large part by African American women”
(Batker 1). Hurston’s truthfulness and way of writing without disrespecting other
races showed how amazing of a writer she is. Not many writers would be able to
do this in a way that would not put other races and beliefs to shame.
1) Bloom, Harold ed. “Bloom’s Notes” Chelsea House, Broomall, PA 1999
2) Bloom, Harold ed. “Modern Critical Views” Chelsea House, Broomall, PA
3) Gates, Henry L, & Appiah, K.A, “Zora Neale Hurston Critical Perspectives
and Present and Past “Amistad Press New York, NY, 1993
4) Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. JB Lippincott, New
York, NY 1937
5) Locke, Alain. “Untitled review of Their Eyes Were Watching God”.
Opportunity (1 June 1938).
Gates, Jr. New York: Amistad, 1993. 18.
Carol Batker, African American Review Summer, 1998