Janie is raised by her grandmother Nanny, and never met her mother or father. Janie and Nanny live in the backyard guesthouse of the Washburns, a white couple in the neighborhood. Growing up in such close proximity to a white family, Janie mistakenly thinks that she is white until she's shown a photograph of herself.
The absence of Janie's mother and father and the presence of Nanny as her surrogate parent emphasize that these unusual childhood circumstances must have shaped Janie's identity – regarding her sense of self, family, and race in particular.
The kids at Janie's predominantly black school pick on her because of her light skin and absent parents. To provide Janie with a greater sense of stability in her life, Nanny eventually buys a small plot of land, which Janie specifically describes as having a gate at its front.
The black students practice a kind of racism against Janie because she's different. Nanny seeks to give Janie a more secure social footing by gaining material independence—leaving the Washburn's and buying her own home.
Janie receives her first kiss from Johnny Taylor over that gate when she is sixteen. The day of the kiss, Janie spends the day under a blossoming pear tree in Nanny's yard. Janie is moved by the fertility of the tree, finding its shift from winter dryness to springtime suppleness inexplicable and exciting. She is stimulated by the feeling that the natural world around her is breathing with life – that the blossoming tree experiences an "ecstatic shiver" and the blossoms are "creaming…and frothing with delight." After this highly sexualized description of the tree, Janie thinks to herself "So this was a marriage!" Wrapped up in the atmosphere of spring, Janie experiences a sexual awakening and kisses Johnny Taylor.
Janie's experience under the blossoming pear tree in spring marks her own "blossoming" as a sexually mature woman, now ready to kiss and be kissed by men such as Johnny Taylor. References to the pear tree resurface throughout the novel in order to allude to Janie's preoccupation with sexual desire. It is important to note that in her adolescent innocence, Janie intuitively equates sexual desire with marriage—sex with love and love with marriage—an idea that affects her decision-making later in the novel.
Nanny notices Janie and Johnny kiss from inside the house, and quickly arranges for Janie to marry Logan Killicks, a rich, middle-aged local farmer. Nanny explains that she doesn't want to see Janie distracted by youthful sexual excitement, and instead envisions for her granddaughter a life of financial security alongside a well-established husband like Logan. Nanny further explains that black women are the mules of the world, and she doesn't want such a low place in society for her granddaughter.
Nanny sees sexual desire as dangerous, not wonderful. She sees it as something that threatens Janie's independence and financial well-being. Her comment about black women being mules of the world shows that she believes that the only way for a black woman to be independent is through financial security. But given Janie's belief that sexual desire=marriage, Nanny's practical-minded decision for Janie to marry the older, wealthy Logan is bound to be unfulfilling for Janie.
When Janie protests against marrying Logan, Nanny defends her decision by describing her own difficult past. Nanny was born into slavery and during the Civil War was raped by her master. As a result of that rape, she gave birth to Leafy, a half-black woman with fair skin and gray eyes. The wife of Nanny's master picked up on the fact that her husband must be Leafy's father and, furious, planned to have Nanny brutally whipped and for Leafy to be sold away as soon as the baby turned a month old. Luckily, Nanny was able to escape with Leafy into the southern marshland, where they hid until the Civil War came to an end.
Nanny's brutal past as a slave gives the references to race in the novel more power and significance, as Nanny's past is of course also part of Janie's own identity and personal history. Nanny's story illuminates the reason for Janie's light-skin and thus indirectly explains one underlying reason for Janie's issues regarding self-image and race. The story also illustrates why Nanny emphasizes financial security as crucial for a black woman.
Nanny explains that she initially dreamed of providing a better life for Leafy, but those dreams were dashed when Leafy was then raped by her schoolteacher, who impregnated her with Janie. After Leafy gave birth to Janie, she started to drink every night and then fled to try to escape what had happened, leaving Nanny and Janie behind at the Washburns. Then Nanny shifted her hopes for a better life to Janie.
Nanny's traumatic past explains why she has so forcefully protected Janie. Yet at the same time Nanny's explanation foreshadows the unfortunate truth that Janie's marriage to Logan must inevitably sour, as it's not based on Janie's own sexual desire. The prospect of marrying Logan does not give her any feeling of excitement like the pear tree, because it is merely the product of Nanny's own hopes and dreams for her, not Janie's own hopes and dreams for herself. Janie, at this point, is under Nanny's control, even if it is a loving control.