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Langston Hughes criticized Hurston for not dealing with racial issues. But she does, to some extent. Ironically, one of the most racist characters in the novel is Mrs. Turner, who is black herself. Mrs. Turner tries to turn Janie away from Tea Cake because he is too dark for the light-skinned Janie. Hurston shows how even African Americans can exhibit racism toward each other.
I agree with a number of items in the posts, particularly those items noted by copelmat. I'd like to add at least three details in the novel that haven't been addressed yet that, to me, strongly point to Hurston's interest in examining racist attitudes indirectly in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God:
1. Janie is singled out for her light skin, yes, but she's singled out even more for her straight hair. Many of the characters in the novel react to her hair: the black women are often jealous and/or hateful, and the black men are often strongly attracted. The focus on straight hair and light skin is tied to white ideals of beauty, ideals that drove many black women in the early part of the 20th century to attempt to bleach their skin and straighten their hair through any number of cosmetic products.
2. White men, on horseback and with rifles, "enlist" Tea Cake to help bury the dead after the hurricane and flood. The dead white people get coffins, if I recall correctly, and the dead black people do not.
3. Joe Starks recreates the hierarchical structure of the slave plantation when he establishes the all-black town. He occupies the white "big house" and sets himself up more as Master than as Mayor.
Overall, the novel treats racism in ways that are mostly subtle, but subtle treatment seems to me to be a very effective strategy.
While Hurston's novel does not address racism as later "social protest" novels by writers such as James Baldwin did in the 1960s, the setting places the narrative in a time of such division between races. However, rather than addressing the relations between races, Ms. Hurston addresses the interrelationships of African-Americans. For instance, in the section in which Janie has married the mayor of an all African-American town, there is yet conflict: Some are envious of the mayor and the mayor is extremely possessive and jealous of Janie. To keep other men from being attracted to her, he insists that she cover her hair and dress plainly and not socialize with the men in front of the store. Her spirit repressed by his possessiveness and his insults in Chapter 7 when he belittles her before customers, is again despondent. Her independent spirit must be free; she begins to daydream as she has done when married to her first husband.
After Joe's death, Janie realizes that she has been living "under a cloak" and begins to discover her sense of self which is the main theme of "Their Eyes Were Watching God." In Chapter 9 the image of the horizon is used to symbolize (Oprah's movie has Janie in the water looking at the sky) the expanse of life. Janie reflects that Nanny took this horizon and "pinched it into such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it around her neck tight enough to chokde her." Janie wants more.
Yes, racism exists throughout the book.
We see it in Chapter 2 when Janie relates her story of growing up on a plantations surrounded by white children, unsure of her own identity for years.
We see it in the reactions of the people of Eatonville to Janie's lighter complexion.
We see it in the Everglades in the diner scene that Tea Cake and friends destroy in protest to the comments of the diner owner and his wife.
We see it in the courtroom scene at the very end of the novel in the descriptions of the white judges's and lawyers' attitudes toward the African Americans who fill the gallery.
While Their Eyes Were Watching God is not a treatise on racism, it is an accurate reflection of the time and it certainly was a time when the lines between blacks and whites were clearly drawn. The posts above outline some clear examples from the novel, and I'll add the conflict Joe and Janie had when they first arrived in Eatonville (okay, so it was mostly Joe who had the conflict). He saw all the stereotypes in these people: lazy, dependent, unthinking, unmotivated, backbiting, and gossipy. In contrast, Joe saw himself more as a white man: motivated, forward-thinking, educated, and eloquent. This, of course, is nothing but a stereotype.
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