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Racism In ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’

2747 words (11 pages) Essay in English Literature

11/05/17 English Literature Reference this

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The problem of racism is one of the central themes in the American literature. Remarkably, the problem of racism has persisted since the time of slavery and slave trade, when black slaves were treated as mere commodities and whites felt their superiority. The racism emerged and evolved in the course of time. Nevertheless, the antagonism between the whites and the blacks in the US persisted that naturally affected the American literature, which mirrored social problems and complex social, interracial relationships. In this respect, it is particularly noteworthy to refer to such books as “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Z.N. Hurston and “If He Hollers Let Him Go” by C. Himes, which reveal the full extent to which racism was deep-routed in the consciousness of Americans both whites and African Americans. Both novels focus on the problem of racism in the American society, although Hurston focuses on the depiction of racism in regard to African Americans women, whereas Himes stresses the problem of racism in regard to African American men, but both authors reveal successfully that the problem of racism affected both genders and all social classes and groups within the American society.

On analyzing both novels, it is important to lay emphasis on the fact that they both focus on the problem of racism and complicated racial relationships. At the same time, both novels reveal clearly the full extent to which racism affected the life of American people. In this regard, African Americans were traditionally inferior to white Americans, to the extent that they were treated as mere commodities, as if they were a sort of inferior race, which can never be equal to whites. At this point, Hurston goes probably too far because she often tends to associate African American girls and women with mules, who are serving to men. For instance, when the described African Americans she reveals the fact that they were deprived of any rights and liberties and they could not stand for their rights and interest. Instead, they had to obey to the whites without any attempt to rebel. For instance, Hurston uses metaphor and allegory to describe African Americans and to reveal their status in the American society dominated by the whites: “These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.” (Hurston, 2). Obviously, the author tends to attributes such qualities as obedience and helplessness, which are the characteristics of such animals as mules, to African Americans. In spite of the fact that the author associates African Americans with “mules and other brutes”, she still stresses that they are not totally deprived of human dignity. In stark contrast, they are still eager to fill that they are human and they are equal to whites and other people because as soon as the setting changes and their “blackness” is not seen anymore, they feel comfortable and aware of their human dignity. They change as if by magic from speechless mules into noble humans.

At this point, the novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is similar to “If He Hollers Let Him Go” by Himes. To put it more precisely, the main character of “If He Hollers Let Him Go”, Bob Jones, who is an African American, counts for his successful career development because many African Americans have succeeded and started to receive high wages and get promotion. In such a situation, readers can trace a considerable evolution that occurs to the main character as he changes his attitude to other people and to himself above all. At first, the main character seems to be an ordinary African American, who got used to be an inferior man to whites. He got used to obey and it is obvious that he would never change his lifestyle and his behavior, if he had not got an opportunity to take a different position in his workplace. To put it more precisely, he grew up with the belief that whites are superior to blacks because they are masters and rulers of the world, whereas African Americans always performed low-qualified jobs. However, as soon as Bob sees that African Americans can get the promotion and get higher position in their workplace, he starts working harder and does his best to improve his position in the company. In such a way, Bob changes as change African Americans in the book “Their Eyes Were Watching God”.

At the same time, the aforementioned changes occur at two levels: interior and exterior. At the exterior level, characters described by both authors change when their blackness is not seen, when they are treated as average people but not as blacks. At the inferior level, the characters change and feel their human dignity when they see that they can be equal to whites and when they can succeed in spite of the fact being black.

The life of the main characters of the main book reveals the full controversy of the life of African Americans in the US. Their life was full of hardships and challenges. On the other hand, sometimes they were happy and they know what goodness and good life looks like. In this respect, it is possible to refer to the description of the main character of “Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Hurston: “Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.” (Hurston, 8). It is worth mentioning the fact that Hurston uses the metaphor again comparing the life of people to the tree, which has different branches. In this regard, the novel written by Himes is less rich stylistically but, instead, the laconic and accurate language makes the description of hardships of African Americans, their expectations and failures, extremely realistic and heart-touching. In such a way, Hurston uses metaphors, allegory and other stylistic devices to depict vividly the life of African Americans, whereas Himes focuses on the realism of the depiction, avoiding unnecessary deviations from the narration of his story. Nevertheless, it is important to lay emphasis on the fact that the main characters of both novels have experienced both hardships and happiness but the hardships dominate apparently in their life. Remarkably, both characters, Janie and Bob, have hopes and expectations; they combine dawns and dooms in the branches of trees of their lives.

Janie is conscious of the fact of her inferiority. She grew up with the idea of being inferior but in the course of her life she struggles against the prejudices and stereotypes to debunk the myth that African Americans are inferior to the whites. She is conscious of the superior attitude of the whites to African Americans: “You know, honey, us colored folks is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways. You in particular. 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… Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin” on high, but they wasn’t no pulpit for me.” (Hurston, 15). Obviously, Janie can rely on herself only. She does not know her ancestry but, nonetheless, she is ready to start her life anew and, what is more she wants to succeed in her life. Similarly to Janie, Bob has little idea of his ancestry. Nevertheless, he believes that he can succeed in his career development and he counts for promotion because he works hard and his expectations are just.

Unlike Bob, Janie does not count for her professional career as the means to improve her position. Instead, she relies heavily on marriage as the tool to gain a better social standing: “Ah wants things sweet wid mah marriage lak when you sit under a pear tree and think. Ah…” (Hurston, 23). Janie had great expectations and hopes associated with her successful marriage: “Janie pulled back a long time because he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon. He spoke for change and chance.” (Hurston, 28). In this regard, she seems to be a bit idealistic as well as Bob is, when he counts for his promotion.

On the other hand, Janie proves to be more pragmatic and she is going to act for sure and she wants to marry successfully: “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.” (Hurston, 40-41). Eventually, Janie marries successfully and she is happy. She gets money and the man she likes. In contrast to Janie, Bob does not have such an opportunity to succeed in marriage. Instead, he relies entirely on his labor and hard work but he fails because he is outpaced by a white rival. In such a situation, he understands that whiteness is still important and prior to professional qualities of individuals. He grows desperate after he loses an opportunity to get a promotion: “I began wondering when white people started getting white – or rather, when they started losing it….I liked those two white kids; they were white, but as my aunt Fanny used to say they couldn’t help it.” (Himes, 118). The concept of whiteness becomes crucial for him because, as he expected to get promotion, he had started to become white but he failed eventually.

The concept of whiteness depicted by Himes can be traced in the novel written by Hurston: “Take for instance that new house of his. It had two stories with porches, with bannisters and such things. The rest ofthe town looked like servants’ quarters surrounding the “big house.” And different from everybody else in the town he put off moving in until it had been painted, in and out. And look at the way he painted it – a gloaty, sparkly white.” (Hurston, 44). Big houses and posh lifestyle are associated with the life of white people and this life is not attainable for blacks. Instead, the author repeatedly associates African Americans with animals to show their inferiority to the whites: “Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don’t think none theirselves.” (Hurston, 67).

Nevertheless, Janie proves to be able to change her life and overcome existing biases and stereotypes: “Janie did what she had never done before, that is, thrust herself into the conversation.” (Hurston, 70). In such a way, Janie does take action to change her life even if her actions contradict to existing social norms. Similarly, Bob challenges social norms as he strives to get promotion. However, unlike Janie, who succeeds in her efforts, Bob fails but his failure is a sort of a norm.

Janie knows that she has to act by herself to change her life for better: “When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life.” (Hurston, 75). At the same time, Janie enjoys to violate existing social norms and standards: “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.” (Hurston, 98).

In such a context, it seems to be quite natural that she succeeds. Remarkably, her success seems to be as natural as the failure of Bob. By the end of the novel, Janie is happy with Teac Cake: “[Tea Cake] looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom – a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God.” (Hurston, 101). In contrast, Bob is devastated by his failure to get the promotion he used to count for.

On the other hand, the life of Janie is still far from perfect because, in spite of positive changes in her life, she still remains an African American, who is subject to violence and offence: “Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss.” (Hurston, 140). In such a situation, when Janie, as an African American woman, is deprived of any rights she can count for nothing but God: “They huddled closer and stared at the door. They just didn’t use another part of their bodies, and they didn’t look at anything but the door. The time was past for asking the white folks what to look for through that door. Six eyes were questioning God.” (Hurston, 150). In such a situation, the death of Teac Cake seems to be a kind of liberation of Janie: “Once upon uh time, Ah never “spected nothin”, Tea Cake, but bein’ dead from standin’ still and tryin’ tuh laugh. But you come “long and made somethin” outa me. So Ah’m thankful fuh anything we come through together.” (Hurston, 158). In case of Bob, he would never get such liberation because he has to work hard to maintain his family and he has no hopes for a better life because he cannot become a white.

Nevertheless, Janie has quite controversial feelings in regard to her oppressor because Tea Cake is an oppressor but, on the other hand, she is happy with him: “Janie held his head tightly to her breast and wept and thanked him wordlessly for giving her the chance for loving service. She had to hug him tight for soon he would be gone, and she had to tell him for the last time. Then the grief of outer darkness descended.” (Hurston, 175).

In spite of all hardships, Janie is still happy by the end of the novel: “So Ah’m back home agin and Ah’m satisfied tuh be heah. Ah done been tuh de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons.” (Hurston, 182). In contrast, Bob’s life becomes the total failure. At the same time, both novels show that the main characters are bound to racism. Moreover, it is obvious that both characters could be happier if they were whites. No wonder, Bob stresses the importance of whiteness and how it affects the life of people.

No wonder, Janie becomes happy only when she stays alone and wins the trial, in which white women supported her that proved to be the most important factor that allowed her to win the trial. In fact, the trail is a sort of recognition of Janie and her inclusion into the white community. In such a way, whiteness becomes the source of peace and happiness in the life of Janie: “Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.” (Hurston, 184). In this regard, Bob failed to become a “white”, which he expected to do through his promotion.

Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is important to lay emphasis on the fact that both novels “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Hurston and “If He Hollers Let Him Go” by Himes show that racism affects the life of African Americans consistently. Moreover, racism deprives African Americans of huge opportunities to succeed in their professional and personal life. They suffer from inferiority and permanent oppression from the part of the whites. As a result, the whiteness becomes a desirable goal the main characters want to achieve. However, as the matter of fact, the whiteness makes people worse as Bob, the main character of “If He Hollers Let Him Go” concludes. Therefore, as long as racism persists, the inequality and oppression of the minority are inevitable.

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