Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Janie, You're Looking Awfully Pale Today

Something I found extremely interesting about Their Eyes Were Watching God was the role of race throughout the plot. Although racism does not immediately seem like an important driving force through the novel, I believe that it is race that essentially shapes Janie journey throughout the novel.

We are all aware that Janie has white heritage. Although it is never specified in the novel, at the very least Janie is a quarter caucasian if not more. What I found interesting about this fact is that Janie is perhaps one of the only characters in the novel that seems to be unaware of or impartial to her white blood. In fact, one of the only times that Janie makes a note regarding her skin color is in the very beginning of chapter 2. In chapter 2, Janie discusses her early childhood, before any mention of love and its implications surface in the novel. This is Janie at her purest and most innocent, and what does she mention first? Janie reveals that as a child, she was raised around white folks. "Mah grandma raised me. Mah grandma and de white folks she worked wid... Ah was wid dem white chillun so much till Ah didn't know Ah wazn't white till Ah was round six years old" pg 8. I found this statement interesting because it reveals an important quality in Janie's character: Janie does not see color in people. As a child, Janie needed to be told that she was black. Janie's "color" blindness reveals a central reason as to why racism is rarely discussed openly in the novel. It is because to Janie, racism is not a ubiquitous presence in life.
Unfortunately, racism is actually an unescapable problem in black society. And everyone knows this except for her.

Thus race becomes an invisible force through Janie's life. It guides how others perceive her, how others treat her, and even (unknowingly) her own actions. What is unique about Janie's situation is that Janie is not simply a black woman, or a white woman. She is a mixture of both. Thus Janie cannot completely assimilate into black society, because she will always have physical qualities that her peers detest and simultaneously envy. Thus Janie will always be an outsider. Her white qualities, such as her hair, both attract her black companions because they are features that are reminescent of white superiority but also repel other black peers because they are qualities that ultimately condemn them to inferior status. This is completely inconvenient to Janie, considering that one of her only true wishes in life was to be accepted as part of the rest of her husbands' friends and townsfolk. This position in society also propels Janie's central conflict of finding true love. She cannot possibly find true love when all her suitors are attracted to her for her white features. This is the reason why Logan Killicks wanted to marry Janie-he liked her hair. This is the reason why Jody Starks married Janie- he liked her hair. Janie's quest for love becomes clouded with false suitors interested in her for the wrong reasons.

These sentiments about Janie become painfully clear with the inclusion of Mrs. Turner in the novel. Mrs. Turner also has mixed blood, but on the other hand, she is well aware of this fact and the implications it means for her in black society. She realizes that she is more white than other blacks and thus she concludes, she is superior to other blacks. But this rule works both ways. Janie is clearly even more white than Mrs Turner and therefore according to Mrs. Turner's belief, even more superior than even Mrs. Turner herself. Janie realizes Mrs. Turner's belief and describes it in chapter 16. "Insesate cruelty to those you can whip, and groveling submission to those you can't... Mrs. Turner, like all other believers had built an altar to the unattainable- Caucasian characteristics for all... Behind her crude words was a belief that somehow she and others through worship could attain her paradise- a heaven of straighthaired, thin-lipped, high nose boned white seraphs." pg. 145. This comment on Mrs. Turner's beliefs is representative of all those who looked upon Janie. Within Janie lied an unattainable treasure: Caucasion features. They worshipped Janie for the reason of her looks and at the same time cast her above all others, never to be accepted as one of them. After all she was a goddess. And all true goddess must demand homage.

Lastly I feel like Janie's skin color impacts the one of the climaxes of the novel: Janie's trial. In Janie's trial, she is being convicted for killing Tea Cake. Typical of the time period, she has an all white jury with black spectators in a segregated balcony- a To Kill a Mockingbird-esque situation. I thought that Janie's white blood truly became impacted the juries verdict. In most court cases during the time period, white jurors would find all black criminals guiltly. Surprisingly the white jury votes in favor of Janie. Why? Because they see her caucasian characteristics. Ironically in Janie's trial, it is the whites who are sympathetic to Janie's case and the blacks who want her convicted. Once again Janie's mixed blood prevents her from assimilating with the black community. If she had been truly black, she would have been convicted like any other black man or woman.

There's more but I honestly don't think I can go on like this. Maybe I'll add stuff later. *dies from fatigue*
p.s. The picture is of actor Robert Downey Jr. in the movie Tropic Thunder. His character is supposedly a black guy, but since Downey is white, he still looks undeniably like a white guy. Kind of like Janie..... only in male form. Add some long silky hair, overalls, and "pockets that look like they have grapefruits in them" and you got you're girl.

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