While holding a lot of references to race, racism is not the main focus of Zora Hurston when coming up with her book, Their Eyes Were Watching God. However, it is important to witness the various ways in which the American South viewed black women in the early 20th century. Janie Starks, a black woman who interacts with different communities while living in the American South, is seen to draw a lot of attention that can be defined to have a racial attitude towards her. Janie's interaction with the communities in the American South brings a lot of aspects to the picture where race and racism is concerned.
First, black people are seen to practice racism amongst themselves. It becomes evident that Janie was facing discrimination from other black children at school owing to the lighter tone of her skin. Moreover, Mrs. Turner openly tried to convince Janie to meet up with her brother quoting their ability to bring forth light-skinned children. Mrs. Turner depicts the ideology that black children are not adored as much as children with fairer skin color. She comes out to define black men as "rusty" while black women are down to "laughin' over nothin'" as they walk down the streets (141). The absurdity of this situation is that Mrs. Turner is a black woman who adores people with fairer skin color. She categorically brings out the fact that she does not view poverty as the drawback to the black race, but the color and the features (Hurston 141). She fancies people with fairer skin shades so much that she is ready to admit they are superior in nature. Mrs. Turner acts an important role in manifesting the ways in which black people practice racism on other black people. Second, race affected the way of living of people. Nanny Crawford tried her best to give Janie a good environment to strive in. However, the mere observation that Janie's skin color had a lighter shade than other black children made her a target to be picked on while in the predominantly black school. Additionally, her long black hair, a manifestation of the white heritage in her blood, also drew a lot of jealousy from the women who viewed her beauty with a good share of envy. The absence of her parents during her childhood years aggravated the situation even more as it created more grounds in which Janie got harasses at school (Hurston 9). Nanny Crawford was pushed to look for a piece of land elsewhere where she could settle in a bid to continue providing care, security and material independence to Janie. As a matter of fact, Janie's identity revolved around the idea that people viewed her differently because of her race, and her skin color in particular.
Third, race determined the roles different people played in society. Nanny Crawford narrates her ordeal under slavery that saw her get pregnant with Leafy. Nanny Crawford was born into slavery where she was a subordinate to her white masters. During the Civil War, she was raped by the master, bringing forth Leafy. The wife to the master planned to have Leafy sold while Nanny Crawford received physical punishment. It was so lucky of Nanny Crawford to get an opportunity to run from her masters until the war ended. In this light, it becomes evident that race was the determining factor when discerning between masters and slaves. Black women were the most disadvantaged as they failed to see through their "dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do" (16). Slaves were also subjected to punishment without regard to justice and fairness as is the case between Nanny Crawford and the master who impregnated her. Ideally, slaves were there to be seen and not to be heard by their masters.
Fourth, corpses were treated differently depending on race. While in Palm Beach, Janie and Tea Cake found themselves surrounded by dead bodies and destroyed homes with no rooftops. Two white men with rifles approached them and demanded that Tea Cake enlists to help in carrying out mass burials. In a practice of fairness, both black and white men were forced to help with the burial process (Hurston 170). The striking difference arose when the bodies were being buried. Tea Cake was part of a small army that was tasked with identifying the skin color of the dead bodies to determine whether they were white or black. White corpses were put in coffins made out of pine while black corpses were laid bare in a hole in a show that illustrated a high level of disrespect for the departed. It is rather disturbing that Headquarters had taken an initiative of "makin' coffins fuh all de white folks" only (171). It was also demeaning to use black men to bury other black people in such a manner that is depicted in the text, as it further emphasizes the factor of the superiority of one race over the other. This raises the concern of why skin color should be attributed as the only criteria for paying respect to the dead.
Fifth, social status was determined by race and not the respect one garnered from others. Generally, white people acted as masters while black people were slaves. The African Americans faced a lot of challenges and hardships in their daily lives that made them look inferior to the whites. The many challenges and hardships facing the black community gave Janie the depiction that she was a tree with the leaves showing the good and bad, or the sufferings and tribulations, of the African American community (Hurston 8). On the other hand, the author failed to show the suffering of the white people during the same period in which the African American community was suffering. Therefore, the white people come out as a strong race that is able to withstand a lot of the challenges that are on their way. By contrast, the white people are seen to be of a higher social status when compared to the suffering African Americans.
Lastly, white men were seen as an embodiment of authority and power over black men. Nanny Crawford pointed out that "de white man is de ruler of everything" (14). Having been born into slavery, Nanny Crawford had the first-hand experience of what it feels like to be a slave. She witnessed the rule of the white man over black people that made her conclude that the white man had control of the land, while black men could only practice the same rule in some place way off in the ocean. In another instance, Tea Cake faced a case where he was being ordered to stop running or be shot at by white men from the army. Tea Cake had developed concerns over the worries that Janie had been subjected to when he was taken to help the army in the burying of the dead (Hurston 171). Acting on cue, he made an attempt to get to Janie as soon as he could, a move that saw him putting his life to risk as the white man had authority to shoot and kill black people. This is a depiction of slavery, and by extension, the authority of the white man over the black people.
In conclusion, race and racism played a major role in shaping the society of the early 20th century. Race was an important card that was dealt when determining the roles that individuals played towards the society. Burying of corpses was also seen to be another activity of showing how much respect is accorded to the departed members of the community with different skin color. The black community was also left to be subordinated to the white people who were seen as the epitome of authority and rule of law. However, the current society offers opportunities to people of different races indiscriminately. Reading from the thoughts of Zora Hurston, one can fully appreciate the great strides that humanity has made to achieve equality in the fight against racism.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Perennial Classics, 1998.
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