Despite its references to race, racism is not the central theme of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Instead, Hurston weaves race and racism into the society and culture in which Janie lives, but chooses to focus more on Janie's life experiences as a human being than as a black woman. In some ways, by not exclusively or predominantly focusing on race, the novel can portray race and racism in the American South in the early 20th century with great complexity.
Janie's unusual and beautiful appearance as a fair-skinned (¼ white) black woman living in the black American South sparks attention from the various communities she encounters throughout the novel, some of which are marked by racist attitudes. For instance, the character of Mrs. Turner presents a highly complicated instance of racism, as Mrs. Turner is a black woman who is nonetheless extremely racist against blacks, particularly darker-skinned blacks.
Mrs. Turner scorns Janie's relationship with Tea Cake and repeatedly begs Janie to date her light-skinned brother. Given her identity as a black woman, Mrs. Turner's racism against blacks indicates that race is not a marker of real difference. Those who espouse superiority of one kind over another can find any pretext, any trait, to base those assertions on. Racism in the novel can be understood, then, as a set of rather ridiculous prejudices that exist in society, not a universal or stable system based on truth, which in turn makes its brutal effects (such as slavery in general and the rape of Nanny and its aftermath), particularly devastating.
Race and Racism ThemeTracker
Race and Racism Quotes in Their Eyes Were Watching God
"Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it's some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don't know nothin' but what we see…De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see."
"Tain't de poorness, it's de color and de features. Who want any lil ole black baby layin' up in de baby buggy lookin' lak uh fly in buttermilk? Who wants to be mixed up wid uh rusty black man, and uh black woman goin' down de street in all dem loud colors, and whoopin' and hollerin' and laughin' over nothin'?"
It was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity as all good worshippers do from theirs. All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.