Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This is the story of the mighty Janie Starks and her path to adulthood, womanhood, and personhood. Janie is raised by her grandmother in Florida with predominantly white peers after Janie's mother disappears. Her lineage is poisoned by toxic white rapes, from generations in slavery to the post-slavery-but-not-post-oppression era. Janie's grandmother, Nanny, wants a better life for Janie. With this hope in mind, Nanny marries Janie off to Logan Killicks, a financially stable (if boring, old, and lifeless - I mean, are we being too picky?) black landowner. Janie is sixteen years old.
After Janie realizes that her marriage to Logan does not include or require the presence of love, she leaves him for Joe (Jody) Starks, a peripatetic man with big dreams. Jody promises to take Janie to Eatonville, famous for being a 'colored-only' town and the first of its kind. Jody becomes mayor of Eatonville, and greatly enhances its prosperity, but his investment in Eatonville negatively affects his relationship with Janie. At first seen as a partner, Janie soon becomes a punching bag, both literally and metaphorically. Jody eventually falls sick and dies while he and Janie are at odds (namely because she had the audacity to call him on his behavior - how dare she!) and Janie becomes a prosperous widow.
Janie has a hot minute to enjoy being a wealthy, unattached woman, but the moment soon ends as eligible men in the area attempt to win her favor. Janie is uninterested in any of these suitors, but is smitten with the dapper, suave, and deeply lovable Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods when he rolls into town. She and Tea Cake have a dalliance which quickly evolves into a more serious affection. Tea Cake is a bit unpredictable, but he and Janie fall hard for each other and they tie the knot. They head to the Everglades (or 'the muck', as Hurston calls it) and work as fieldhands there and live quite happily for some time. Their happiness is violently interrupted by a hurricane and ensuing flood. They emerge from the flood intact, but Tea Cake's battle with a rabid dog (he was protecting Janie from the dog in the flood - also, no one realized the dog was rabid - whoops!) eventually turns him mad. Janie frantically tries to get Tea Cake the medicine he needs, but it is too late, and, out of his mind and in a delusional rage, Tea Cake takes aim at Janie with their pistol. When it becomes clear Tea Cake means to kill her, Janie shoots him with a rifle out of self-defense. An uncomfortable trial ensues, replete with an all-white jury and a congregation of distrustful friends from the muck who think Janie is lying because they adored Tea Cake. After being cleared by the jury, Janie returns to Eatonville to recount her tale to her friend and start the next chapter of her life.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
Sometimes I read a book on this list quickly. Like a stroke of lightning, I zoom from start to finish and itch to start my blog. With a few books, I've lumbered along at a snail's pace because the content is either terribly erudite or rich and layered, too pleasant to race. But there's a third category of reading - books that are so intense, so powerful, and so crucial to the core of who we are as humans, that I have to read them slowly, often in stops and starts, and over the course of what can be weeks or months.
This is one of those books.
If you haven't read Their Eyes Were Watching God, stop reading, put the kibosh on your plans for the day, go to the library or bookstore, and get this book.
Half of what arrested me was the beauty and heft of this work; half was the state of our world.
Trayvon Martin (Sanford, Florida)
Eric Garner (New York City)
Michael Brown (Ferguson, Missouri)
Tamir Rice (Cleveland, Ohio)
Freddie Gray (Baltimore, Maryland)
Alton Sterling (Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
Philando Castile (Falcon Heights, Minnesota)
Do you know these names? Do you know their stories?
Where do we put these feelings? What should the victims' families do with their rage and their grief? How do we, as a nation built on the backs and bodies of black slaves, own the repercussions? How do we initiate new cycles of anti-racism and anti-oppression? How do we, how can we heal?
I don't know the answer.
Initially, I grappled with this book and savored its immensity because I was also watching Lemonade over and over, Beyoncé's visual album/film. If you are still reading this blog because you've already read Their Eyes Were Watching God (or because you've chosen to ignore my advice and will read it later, PINKY Swear), allow me to politely dictate that you watch Lemonade after you finish reading. It is a stunning work of cinematography, poetry, lyricism, musical brilliance, emotional rawness, and the racial and gendered underpinnings of being a black woman in today's United States.
Without further ado, I will share my thoughts on this spectacular novel. In case you hadn't already realized, this post will be substantial, so kick back, grab some coffee or tea and snacks, and dig in.
How did you learn what color you are?
Janie explains how she came to know she was black (and therefore different):
"Ah was wid dem white chillun so much till Ah didn’t know Ah wuzn’t white till Ah was round six years old...When we looked at de picture and everybody got pointed out there wasn’t nobody left except a real dark little girl with long hair standing by Eleanor. Dat’s where Ah wuz s’posed to be, but Ah couldn’t recognize dat dark chile as me. So Ah ast, ‘where is me? Ah don’t see me.’
Everybody laughed, even Mr. Washburn. Miss Nellie, de Mama of de chillun who come back home after her husband dead, she pointed to de dark one and said, ‘Dat’s you, Alphabet, don’t you know yo’ ownself?’
Dey all useter call me Alphabet ’cause so many people had done named me different names. Ah looked at de picture a long time and seen it was mah dress and mah hair so Ah said:
“‘Aw, aw! Ah’m colored!’
Den dey all laughed real hard.
But before Ah seen de picture Ah thought Ah wuz just like de rest." Her race is so visible to others, but invisible to her as a child. She doesn't stand out to herself, but society ostracizes her as soon as she can realize her blackness. I was blown away by this moment.
In a world of Barack Obamas, Donald Trumps, and Mike Pences...
Nanny, explaining to Janie her thoughts on being a 'colored' woman:
"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. So de white man throw down de load and tell de n* man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De n* woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see." This line speaks to a major theme in the book - the idea that not only has the black man been oppressed by whites, but black women have in turn been oppressed (loved also, but oppressed) by black men. There's a powerful line in Lemonade from Malcolm X - "The most disrespected person in America is the black woman."
"Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfill my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do. Dat’s one of de hold-backs of slavery. But nothing can’t stop you from wishin’. You can’t beat nobody down so low till you can rob ’em of they will...Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin’ on high, but they wasn’t no pulpit for me." I think this novel is Zora's great sermon, and I will make sure her pulpit is pristine and prepared for many years to come.
A Brief History of Janie's Husbands:
(1) The Logan Dillicks Era:
-- "The house was absent of flavor. But anyhow Janie went on inside to wait for love to begin." I love this line. Janie is hopeful that maybe love will just appear or grow, and that this marriage doesn't have to be without affection. Optimistic little teenage Janie!
-- Janie, to Nanny, after a few months of marriage: ’Cause you told me Ah mus gointer love him, and, and Ah don’t. Maybe if somebody was to tell me how, Ah could do it.”
“You come heah wid yo’ mouf full uh foolishness on uh busy day. Heah you got uh prop tuh lean on all yo’ bawn days, and big protection, and everybody got tuh tip dey hat tuh you and call you Mis’ Killicks, and you come worryin’ me ’bout love.”
“But Nanny, Ah wants to want him sometimes. Ah don’t want him to do all de wantin’. Have you ever felt that love was a privilege that didn't belong to you? I was struck by the intergenerational conflict - for Nanny, love was never even on the table; for Janie, she has garnered enough personhood and womanhood to want to strive for it.
-- On waiting out the marriage: "So Janie waited a bloom time, and a green time and an orange time. But when the pollen again gilded the sun and sifted down on the world she began to stand around the gate and expect things." I love the magic of this line.
-- "She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie's first dream was dead, so she became a woman." What a way to mature.
(2) The Jody Starks era:
-- "He was a cityfied, stylish dressed man with his hat set at an angle that didn't belong in these parts. He whistled, mopped his face, and walked like he knew where he was going. He spoke for change and chance." Janie is attracted to how different Jody is from Logan, and the fact that he behaves with a confidence generally foreign to black men at the time.
-- Things start to sour when Jody puffs himself up and stuffs Janie down:
"And now we'll listen tuh uh few words uh encouragement from Mrs. Mayor Starks."
Jody - "Thank yuh fuh yo' compliments, but mah wife don't know nothin' 'bout no speech-makin'. Ah never married her for nothin' lak dat. She's uh woman and her place is in de home.'
Jane made her face laugh after a short pause, but it wasn't too easy. She had never thought of making a speech, and didn't know if she cared to make one at all. It must have been the way Joe spoke out without giving her a chance to say anything one way or another that took the bloom off of things." I think Janie would have made a LOVELY speech. Thanks for SQUASHING her, Jody.
-- Janie, on Jody making her tie her hair up: "This business of the head-rag irked her endlessly. But Jody was set on it. Her hair was NOT going to show in the store. It didn't seem sensible at all. That was because Joe never told Janie how jealous he was. He never told her how often he had seen the other men figuratively wallowing in it as she went about things in the store. She was in the store for him to look at, not those others." The idea of possession, and its tie to oppression, of the black man over the black woman, was something I really struggled with. As a woman, I don't appreciate the way that women are treated, and while I understand that some of it is a mark of the time, and still-evolving gender equality, it still made me ragey. That being said, I also grappled with the idea of being a black man in a generation just after slavery. You're essentially second-lowest on the totem pole (black women being the lowest) and as a man, you want to assert not only your manhood, but your personhood. How does this manifest? It's no excuse, but it gave me pause.
-- On the first time Jody hits Janie: "She wasn’t petal-open anymore with him. She was twenty-four and seven years married when she knew. She found that out one day when he slapped her face in the kitchen. It happened over one of those dinners that chasten all women sometimes. They plan and they fix and they do, and then some kitchen-dwelling fiend slips a scorchy, soggy, tasteless mess into their pots and pans. Janie was a good cook, and Joe had looked forward to his dinner as a refuge from other things. So when the bread didn’t rise, and the fish wasn’t quite done at the bone, and the rice was scorched, he slapped Janie until she had a ringing sound in her ears and told her about her brains before he stalked on back to the store." Ooh, this made me so mad.
"Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. In a way she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further. She had no more blossomy openings dusting pollen over her man, neither any glistening young fruit where the petals used to be."
-- Janie, when she finally tells Jody how she feels about their marriage: "Listen, Jody, you ain’t de Jody ah run off down de road wid. You’se whut’s left after he died. Ah run off tuh keep house wid you in uh wonderful way. But you wasn’t satisfied wid me de way Ah was. Naw! Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for yours in me.”
"All dis bowin' down, all dis obedience under yo' voice - dat ain't whut Ah rushed off down de road tuh find out about you." I love this. How many times have you felt crowded out? Did you speak up?
(2.5) The time after Jody's death and between men:
-- "Before she slept that night she burnt up every one of her head rags and went about the house next morning with her hair in one thick braid swinging well below her waist." Yassss, kweeeeeen.
-- "Janie found out very soon that her widowhood and property was a great challenge in South Florida."
-- “Uh woman by herself is uh pitiful thing, God never meant ’em tuh try tuh stand by theirselves."
-- "She was just basking in freedom for the most part without the need for thought."
This section reminded me of the early parts of Lemonade, where Beyoncé asserts her beautiful and glorious independence, and the fact that she doesn't require a man to be magnificent.
(3) The Tea Cake era:
"Good evenin', Mis' Starks', he said with a sly grin as if they had a good joke together. She was in favor of the story that was making him laugh before she even heard it." I love the way Tea Cake enters the story. He has such a specific warmth about him.
Checkers -- after marrying two men who place her sturdily in the home and refuse to lift her up by teaching her things, Tea Cake comes around:
Tea Cake, to Janie: 'How about playin' you some checkers? You looks hard tuh beat.'
Janie: 'Ah is, ' cause Ah can't play uh lick.'
Tea Cake: 'You don't cherish de game, then?'
Janie: 'Yes, Ah do, and then agin Ah don't know whether Ah do or not, 'cause nobody ain't never showed me how.'
Tea Cake: 'Dis is de last day for dat excuse.'
He set it up and began to show her and she found herself glowing inside. Somebody wanted her to play. Somebody thought it natural for her to play. That was even nice." Janie playing checkers with Tea Cake was one of my favorite moments in the book. It's not a skill to lord over her, it's a joy to be shared!
Tea Cake, on being so named:
Janie: “Now ain’t you somethin’! Mr. er—er—You never did tell me whut yo’ name wuz.'
Tea Cake: 'Ah sho didn’t. Wuzn’t expectin’ fuh it to be needed. De name mah mama gimme is Vergible Woods. Dey calls me Tea Cake for short.'
Janie: 'Tea Cake! So you sweet as all dat?' She laughed and he gave her a little cut-eye look to get her meaning.
Tea Cake: 'Ah may be guilty. You better try me and see.' Adorbsable. I love how playful Janie is with Tea Cake, even though he's significantly younger and at this point she's expected to be a sort of regal widow. Who do you know that's sweet as all that? ;)
Pound cake, lemonade, night fishing
Janie and Tea Cake have these lovely, intimate, mystical first dates:
"It was so crazy digging worms by lamp light and setting out for Lake Sabelia after midnight that she felt like a child breaking rules. That’s what made Janie like it. They caught two or three and got home just before day. Then she had to smuggle Tea Cake out by the back gate and that made it seem like some great secret she was keeping from the town."
“Ah’ll clean ’em, you fry ’em and let’s eat,” he said with the assurance of not being refused. They went out into the kitchen and fixed up the hot fish and corn muffins and ate. Then Tea Cake went to the piano without so much as asking and began playing blues and singing, and throwing grins over his shoulder. The sounds lulled Janie to soft slumber and she woke up with Tea Cake combing her hair and scratching the dandruff from her scalp. It made her more comfortable and drowsy.
I love these moments, and they reminded me of when the Master and Margarita eat potatoes in the rain: "During the Maytime storms, when streams of water gushed noisily past the blurred windows, threatening to flood their last refuge, the lovers would light the stove and bake potatoes. The potatoes steamed, and their charred skins blackened their fingers. There was laughter in the basement, and in the garden the trees would shed broken twigs and white clusters of flowers after the rain." I would like someone to go nightfishing with, and to eat fried fish and charred potatoes and scratch my head. Do you have that someone? Should we look together?
Tea Cake lifting Janie up:
I love that Tea Cake celebrates Janie, and teaches her to celebrate herself again;
Tea Cake: “Umph! umph! umph! Ah betcha you don’t never go tuh de lookin’ glass and enjoy yo’ eyes yo’self. You lets other folks git all de enjoyment out of ’em ’thout takin’ in any of it yo’self.” Go take a gander in the looking glass and enjoy yourself. Do it right this minute. I insist!
He also teaches her awesome skills (like nunchuck skills, bowhunting skills, JK). He teaches her to shoot hawks, how to drive, and even how to hunt alligators! After he works for a time and she keeps house, he misses her too much, so they work together, and then they share the cooking and cleaning.
Tea Cake, to Janie - "You'se something tuh make uh man forgit tuh git old and forgit tuh die." I love this line.
A few Janie-isms packed with truth:
"Dey gointuh make 'miration 'cause mah love didn't work lak they love, if dey ever had any. Then you must tell 'em dat love ain't somethin' lak uh grindstone dat's de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore.'
"It's uh known fact, Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo' papa and yo' mama and nobody else can't tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody's got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves."
- Time makes everything old so the kissing, young darkness became a monstropolous old thing while Janie talked. I love this word of Zora's - monstropolous.
- There are years that ask questions and years that answer. Which kind of year has this been for you? An asking or an answering one?
- The women got together the sweets and the men looked after the meats. I know this is outdated in terms of gender equality and all, but I loved the rhythm of the line.
- She sent her face to Joe’s funeral, and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world. I'm not sure if there's a literary term for this, but it feels a little like zeugma. ;)
- On the hurricane - "The monstropolous beast had left its bed."
"Havoc was there with her mouth wide open."
- From now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything. Doesn't that sound simply delightful?
-- "It's bad bein' strange n*s wid white folks. Everybody is aginst yuh." To be clear, this was published in 1937. Is it any more safe to be a strange black person among white folks today?
-- Who was it didn't know about the love between Tea Cake and Janie? I think Tea Cake and Janie are on my list of all-time favorite literary couples.
-- Have some sympathy fuh me. Put me down easy, Janie, Ah’m a cracked plate.” Clearly this one was the winner. It's a line Nanny says to Janie, referencing the hardships she's faced in her life.
I want to leave you with two lines that stood out to me.
"There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought. Nanny entered this infinity of conscious pain." I think we as a nation are in this infinity of conscious pain. I believe we have the power (and the responsibility) to find a way to walk through it to a new national future. How might be uncertain, but onwards we must go.
And this one:
"But Ah’m uh woman every inch of me, and Ah know it." I will never know what is like to be a person of color in America, or, more specifically, to be a woman of color. That being said, I look to my dear Bryn Mawr alumna friends, and my sister's bicycle-riding fish, and I know that every day I celebrate my womanhood, and what it means to my identity.
I wish for you all a Sunday filled with reflection, but also joy, and moments of healing love. Onwards to Snow Child I go.