In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston describes a social hierarchy where the white male reigns and the black female exists metaphorically as the lowly mule. Victimized at the bottom of the hierarchy, the African American female lacks agency, or the ability to act independent of repressive societal influence. The black female endures continual oppression, even in a primarily African American community, because she embodies two marginalized identities; she exists not only as an African American, but also as a woman. Their Eyes Were Watching God illustrates the power of one woman’s voice in overcoming oppression and gaining agency. Seizing control of her voice allows the novel’s African American heroine, Janie, to break away from the predetermined mule identity that society and her grandmother impose upon her to subvert the male-dominated power structure. Through the lens of gender and race Janie may not advance much on the social hierarchy, although from an individual perspective she destabilizes societal limitations and seizes control of her identity, thus acquiring agency. Janie’s journey is ultimately successful, as she represents something much larger than herself; she leads the way for other African American women to seize the power of voice and take control of their identity.
Before discovering the power of her voice, Janie also permits society and, more specifically her grandmother, to sculpt her identity because she remains unaware of her own abilities. Critic Valerie Babb contends that in order for Janie to achieve agency, she must first learn to define herself instead of leaving this task to others, such as her Nanny (86). Babb argues that the importance of words lies in their ability to define an identity (85-86). Rather than allow her granddaughter to discover the words necessary for self articulation, Nanny oppresses Janie’s identity at an early age by limiting her role to racial and gender specific definitions:
Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as ah been able tuh find out…So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womanfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. (Hurston 14)
According to Nanny’s definition of identity, Janie exists as one more mule in the world that is confined to social boundaries. Nanny accepts this role without question and expects her granddaughter to also consent. Society saddles her with a subordinate, inferior role where she is expected to accept her place at the bottom of the hierarchy and carry the load of the world. This mule characterization crushes Janie’s identity, leaving her in the inferior, agency-less position of the black female.
While discussing the role of the black female, Alice Walker expands on Nanny’s explanation of identity:
“Black women are called, in the folklore that so aptly identifies one’s status in society, ‘the mule of the world,’ because we have been handed the burdens that everyone else – everyone else – refused to carry” (237).
The folklore Walker refers to references slavery, where “everyone else” took advantage of the black woman. Subject to the physical abuse of her white master, the rage and jealousy of her white mistress, and the frustration of her black male “equal,” the black female occupies the oppressed mule role.
The biggest difference between Janie and Nanny is that Nanny fails to question the limits of their horizon, leaving little room for voice to develop, whereas Janie continually pushes against the social restrictions that seek to regulate her identity. Other women in Janie’s inferior position, such as Nanny, accept their role with an understanding that social status remains fixed and unchangeable. Critic Lorraine Bethel agrees with Nanny’s view of social class and argues that African American women exist as victims of unalterable oppressive forces (182). And while Nanny and other black women of similar status accept an inferior societal position, Janie proves the black woman’s place in society is not unalterable. African American women in the novel place internal restrictions on their ability to gain agency through not even considering accessing their voice. Hurston challenges this social norm by demonstrating the power of voice in accessing agency.
 Many of Hurston’s contemporaries, including W.E.B. DuBois, Alain Locke, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright, criticized her work for stereotyping and oversimplifying black life. For more information see Stephen Spencer, “Racial Politics and the Literary Reception of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,” in Multiethnic Literature and Canon Debates, ed. Mary Jo Bona and Irma Maini, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006), 111-126.