Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937) is a novel that covers the life of Janie Crawford during her three marriages from the age of sixteen to her late thirties/early forties. Janie discovers the meaning of love at the age of sixteen among the pear tree blossoms, and spends the course of her life seeking it on her terms, going against the self-deprecating female trope we see today about “finding love” in films, novels, and shallow gossip columns. To me, Janie is a great symbol of black femininity and the resilience of black women.
There are literary critics who acknowledge that Janie is actually a mixed race woman when they appreciate how she isn’t another “tragic mulatto.” However, I believe Janie’s multiraciality isn’t discussed as often because of how sensitive the topic of how mixed race children came to be during that time: rape. Janie’s grandmother explains how she was raped by her white slave owner and gave birth to Janie’s mother, who had Janie due to the violent act of rape as well. Another reason I believe multiraciality isn’t discussed as often is due to how light-skinned privilege can bring upon an air of arrogance some light skinned black women have. We see that in the character Mrs. Turner, who believes that people like she and Janie should be their own group and not associate with dark skinned, monoracial black people.
While being able to acknowledge the negative history that comes with those components of the novel, I believe there is still a way to appreciate the positive portrayals of mixed race identity. When I first read the novel in high school, a lot of her experiences helped me reflect on myself, as someone who identifies as mixed race. Not only can I personally view Janie as a symbol of multiracial female resiliency, but I think others can too.
Janie’s multiracial resilience can be first seen in the mule. Throughout, mules are a form of property, and the uses of mules are often correlated with the use of women as property, particularly owned by men, and why that’s a problem. When Janie’s second husband, Joe Starks, and his male friends poke fun Matt’s mule for its frailty, Janie is hurt for the mule, and believes they should all be ashamed of themselves. Mules are animals that are offspring of a male donkey and a female horse, two different species creating a whole mix of a new form of species. The use of the mule can symbolize how mixed race women are viewed as property, especially as pretty trophies to show around, as Joe does that to Janie for the first part of their marriage, or as frail things to prod upon, as Janie is often hit by Joe during the latter part of their marriage. The use of the mule can show the reader how to respond to the forms of oppression mixed women may face.
One of the main examples that stood out to me in regards to viewing the novel as mixed race literature was Janie’s hair journey. Janie Crawford has such long, dark hair, the reader can see throughout the course of the novel how she’s grown in taking pride in caring for it. During her second marriage with Joe Starks, he forces her to tie her hair back in a kerchief so that other men wouldn’t flirt with her. When Joe died, the first thing she did was let her hair down from the kerchief to appreciate its length. During her third marriage with Vergible Woods, famously known as Tea Cake, he soothes her by scratching her scalp and feeling through her hair. It represents earning trust when black women and mixed race women allow their significant others to touch their hair, so I thought reading that was sweet. She continues putting it in different styles and combing it different ways since Tea Cake talked about how he loved it hanging down, a huge contrast from her last husbands, who didn’t want her to embrace her beauty and femininity.
Finally, it crumbles the double standard of men being allowed to have younger romantic partners, whereas women are negatively referred to as “cougars” for having younger romantic partners. Black women have been stereotypically portrayed as sexually aggressive Jezebels, and mixed race women have been stereotypically portrayed as deadly femme fatales. Breaking those stereotypes by giving Janie a younger husband and having neither of them wanting to get married out of deceit, but out of love, is such a plus for this novel, especially for its time! Moreover, the reason why it makes sense for Janie to have a younger husband is, well, Tea Cake says it best when talking to Janie:
“God made it so you spent yo’ ole age first wid somebody else, and saved up yo’ young girl days to spend wid me.”
Janie was forced by her grandmother to grow up quickly by marrying the first husband she picked out for her, Logan Killicks, and she had to defend herself throughout her years of marriage to Joe. To see her live out her teenage epiphany of what love should be is the pique of this novel’s greatness.
Their Eyes Were Watching God still deserves its title as one of the greats in black literature. I believe it to be one of the greats in mixed race literature, and has a right to be considered as a member of the genre as well after reading it again.
If you don’t believe me, check it out for yourself – a layered novel such as this one deserves discussion.