Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Themes and Colors
Gender Roles and Relations Theme Icon
Voice, Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
Desire, Love, and Independence Theme Icon
Power, Judgment, and Jealousy Theme Icon
Race and Racism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Their Eyes Were Watching God, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Race and Racism Theme Icon

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

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Race and Racism appears in each chapter of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Race and Racism Quotes in Their Eyes Were Watching God

Below you will find the important quotes in Their Eyes Were Watching God related to the theme of Race and Racism.
Chapter 2 Quotes

"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."

Related Characters: Nanny Crawford (speaker), Janie Crawford
Related Symbols: Mule
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

When Nanny catches sight of Janie kissing Johnny Taylor, she calls her in to the house and broaches the topic of marriage. Janie is a woman now, she explains, and she should therefore marry a "decent" suitor like Logan Killicks, rather than someone "trashy." Janie's resistance leads Nanny to describe their world's social hierarchy: white men at the top, black women at the bottom. 

Hurston here introduces the symbolic mule, which comes to stand for victimization, particularly that of many of the novel's black women. Again and again Janie pushes back against her fate, a life of thankless physical and emotional labor without freedom or joy. Logan Killicks, her first husband, even buys her a mule and Janie sees her own plight reflected in the animal. 

Not only does this section have symbolic value, but it also raises questions about Hurston's endless shifts between dialect and a more traditional narrative voice. In this way, Hurston puts the two styles on a single plane, proving to her contemporaneous readers that all dialects have equal literary merit. As they navigate this complicated text, one in which no register is ever stable, readers must remain engaged and attentive — authority, particularly in the novel's world, can reside within grammar and diction.

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Chapter 16 Quotes

"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'?"

Related Characters: Mrs. Turner (speaker)
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

Janie befriends the elderly Mrs. Turner, who reveals a deep-seated hatred for her "black kinfolks." She berates Janie for her marriage to a dark-skinned man and asserts that "black ones is holdin' us [herself and Janie] back."

This is a poignant scene, one of the first instances in which Janie is explicitly praised for her "Caucasian" good looks. Mrs. Turner makes no attempt to disguise her own prejudice, her unequivocal preference for lighter-skinned people (itself a result of internalized white racism, and an entire social system that praises whiteness over blackness). She even compares a black child to a "fly in buttermilk," implying that blackness is undesirable, unsanitary, and unnecessary.

And yet Mrs. Turner's description of "uh rusty black man" and woman "whoopin' and hollerin' and laughin'" cannot stir up any disgust in Janie because this ease and good humor and playfulness are exactly the things she loves about the Everglades. What Mrs. Turner finds repulsive and embarrassing, Janie finds warm and inviting. Hurston shows us that Mrs. Turner's hatred is a hatred for life itself, in all its "loud colors" and laughter.

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.

Related Characters: Mrs. Turner
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

Tea Cake asks Janie to shun Mrs. Turner, and yet the old woman is dogged and determined to spend time with someone she considers her superior. In this passage, Hurston's description of Mrs. Turner's relationship with Janie morphs into a more abstract discussion of divinity and worship.

Mrs. Turner can "forgive" Janie's deliberate snubs because she has put Janie on a sort of altar, giving her license to "dispense suffering without reason." Janie has become a god, even if a cruel one, in Mrs. Turner's eyes. But despite this interpretation of Hurston's analogy, this passage remains curious and unexpected, as the (usually discreet) omniscient narrator takes centerstage. The digression demands the reader's attention.

We might say that Hurston's novel is about power, race, sexuality, love, or bravery. But would we say that the book is also about "indiscriminate suffering?" Do all of the characters fit into the narrator's model, making sacrifices for a God who deals in "inconsistency and cruelty?"