These lines come from the opening of Zora Neale Hurston's seminal work, Their Eyes Were Watching God in which she often examines the repression of the blacks who live in bitterness, fear, or foolish dreams. With the lines quoted, Hurston depicts the residents of Janie Crawford's home town who have spent lives working for someone else, whose hope has died in bitterness or desperation. Working during the day at jobs that are back-breaking, unfulfilling, servile, and trivial, their spirits have been reduced to that of "mules and brutes."
When they come out onto their porches in the evening, a time which belongs to them alone rather than to their bosses, the residents of the town "become lords of sounds and lesser things." Yet, at the same time, there are subject to their brute bitterness as Janie Crawford walks into town after years of having been away.Then "they made burning statements with questions and killing tools out of laughs" from their revived jealousy of the beautiful Janie.