I was honestly frustrated when I began reading Their Eyes Were Watching God. We begin right in the middle of things, with out any real explanation of characters or events. What’s more, there is apparently some sort of scandal involving the women everyone’s talking about and some man referred to as Tea Cake, and, it seems the wealthy husband of this woman recently died? If all that wasn’t enough to leave you wondering, the dialogue adds another element of confusion. Although after a few pages of reading aloud, having to actually say what I saw written gave me a pretty good idea of what the ‘dialect heavy’ words were supposed to be.
With that in mind, I tried to center in on a theme, but I got the impression I wouldn’t really understand what Hurston was trying to say, until I actually finish the book, so I settled for looking for connections to texts we’ve read. I was reminded of Johnston’s narrator in Autobiography when Janie recounts the story of how she first learned she was not white, but ‘colored’ (9.) While it was sort of a cute story, it also gave the impression that Janie’s parents were light skinned, or that she was the product of a bi-racial relationship. Additionally, we know that Janie grew up around the white family her grandmother worked for. As the chapter progresses we learn Janie’s grandmother has a very definite idea of what it means to be respectable, and wants to protect her granddaughter from the abuse her daughter suffered, by insuring that Janie marries young (15-20.)
However, the relationship between Janie and her first husband, Mr. Killicks, seems fraught with class tension, although not in an economic sense. Killicks seems to be rather wealthy, with sixty acres of land, yet he is a farmer, and more than once alludes that Janie is so spoiled being not used to hard work, that she acts as if she were white (30.) Similarly, her relationship with Joe seems to begin because he appreciates ‘gender divisions of labor’ and wants to provide for Janie in the manor he feels a woman should be provided for (29.) It feels as if these relationship are a reference to passing, although Janie, nor the men in her life, actually try to pass for white, which reminds me of the way the more ‘elite’ characters in Passing (even those who do not pass) are more aware of the social standing they hold in their small community, than the larger plight of the working class African American.
I think this theme of class/social distinction is particularly evident when Joe becomes the mayor of the experimental solely African American town. The other members of the town, especially the men begin to feel that they are being ordered around by him, yet they feel indebted to the money and infrastructure he has brought to the town (47.) Likewise, it seems even Janie resents the fact that she is being turned into to some sort of trophy wife, once again unable to find the love and understanding she was looking for. It even makes me wonder if Joe sought a relationship with Janie because she was light skinned, and he equated this with the chance to be the ‘big voice’ in a community of other African Americans (46.) Thus, although I’m not sure I have an accurate interpretation of the comment by Hicks on page 39, I certainly think it alludes to the theme of the book, and maybe what ultimately happens to Joe, Janie, and the town.
“Us Colored Focous is to envious of one ‘nother. Dat how come us don’t git no further than us do. Us talks about the white man keep’in us down! Shucks! He don’t have tuh. Us keeps our own selves down.”