In Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, what connection can we see between Janie's gender and race through the motif of her hair?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Their Eyes Were Watching God, one stereotype Zora Neale Hurston wants to put an end to concerns the inferiority of the African-American race, a stereotype that also makes African Americans look very vulnerable. As a woman, Janie has a double vulnerability because women are treated as just as inferior as African Americans and are, therefore, just as vulnerable. More importantly, not only is Janie a woman, she's also an exceptionally beautiful and desirable woman, something that Hurston captures through the motif of Janie's long, thick hair and curvy figure. Janie's beauty makes her even more vulnerable than the average woman. Yet Hurston strives to disprove Janie's vulnerability. Throughout the novel, though it takes her a long time and though she must undergo many hardships and abuses, Janie throws off the stereotype of vulnerability by finding her own independence.

The theme concerning the vulnerability of women, particularly evident in the cases of African-American women, is first expressed in the very first chapter through the thoughts of Janie's grandmother, called Nanny Crawford. Nanny has observed Janie grow into a beautiful woman and, when she sees Janie kissing Johnny Taylor, a man Nanny considers to be "trashy," she fears for Janie's protection. She knows very well that Janie is in danger of being mistreated, especially sexually mistreated. But more than that, as an ex-slave, Nanny has witnessed African-American women being even more oppressed than African-American men. Nanny uses an extended metaphor to explain the oppression commonly endured by African-American women:

... So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he hav to, but he don't tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. (Ch. 1)

Since Nanny fears for Janie's safety, she wants her to marry Logan Killick, a very successful farmer, as quickly as possible, a marriage Nanny sees as being able to provide Janie with "protection." However, once married, Janie does not feel as secure and protected in the marriage as she would wish to feel and leaves Logan for another man, a man who also turns out to be abusive. In her third marriage to Tea Cake, she finds true happiness, but even Tea Cake becomes abusive. When Janie returns to her hometown Eatonville, she returns ultimately defeated but happy--she is happy because she has found her true self and experienced the world. In experiencing the world and surviving the experience, she has proven that she is actually not weak and vulnerable; she is strong.

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