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Reading Claude McKay’s Banana Bottom and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God together provides multiple topics to discuss in relation to the two novels. Recently, I wrote about how McKay counters western ideals of beauty within his novel, and today I want to briefly look at how Hurston does the same thing with Janie and with Mrs. Turner.
From the first pages when Janie returns to Eatonville, Hurston upends ideals of western beauty. The men stare at her and save “with the mind what they lost with the eye” as Janie walks past them. The men stare at “her firm buttocks . . . the great rope of black hair . . . [and] her pugnacious breasts.” This description presents Janie as a woman of about forty who is beautiful and who turns men’s heads when she passes by them.
The focus on Janie’s beauty continues throughout the novel, and countless men chase after her because of beauty and later her position as Jody Stark’s wife and widow. When Tea Cake talks with Janie on the porch of the store, he tells her he can’t sleep because he wants to get his hands into her hair because “[i]t’s so pretty.” Janie pushes the compliment to the side saying she has always had the same hair, and Tea Cake adds on by complimenting her lips and eyes. Again, she denies the compliment, causing Tea Cake to tell her, “You’se got de world in uh jug and make out you don’t know it.”
Even with all of the compliments, Janie thinks that Tea Cake will say anything to get her money. As he leaves, Janie stands over the post of the porch, almost falling asleep, and “before she went to bed she took a good look at her moth, eyes and hair.” Tea Cake’s words cause Janie, eventually, to see herself as beautiful. Like Bita, she does not have her full identity at the beginning of the novel and does not see herself as beautiful. In fact, she does not have any idea about herself because she does not recognize her image in a photograph.
When we first meet Mrs. Turner, “a milky sort of woman,” we learn that “Tea Cake made a lot of fun about [her] shape behind her back.” This information lets us know, before we even see Mrs. Turner’s interactions with Janie or learn more about her that she will serve as a counter to the ideals of beauty that Janie represents within the novel. Tea Cake claims “that she had been shaped by a cow kicking her from behind. She was an ironing board with things throwed at it. Then that same cow took and stepped in her mouth when she was a baby and let it wide and flat with her chin almost meeting,” For Tea Cake and others, Mrs. Turner’s near-white appearance and her adherence to whiteness do not make her beautiful; instead, they make her the laughing stock of the community.
Mrs. Turner builds an actual altar to western ideals of beauty centered around whiteness. She befriends Janie because of Janie’s skin color, and she constructs an idol out of skin color.
Once having set up her idols and built altars to them it was inevitable that she would worship there. It was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity as all good worshippers do from theirs. All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.
Even if her idol of “Caucasian characteristics” deemed her unworthy of acceptance, Mrs. Turner would not give up the faith, she would persevere and strive towards “her paradise–a heaven of straighthaired, thin-lipped, high-nose boned white seraphs.”
All of this, along with Bita in Banana Bottom and Harry Forbes in Speak Now, makes me think about Propaganda’s song “Darkie” and the music video. At the beginning of the video, a Black man is pushed face down on the concrete as blue and red sirens reflect off of the brick wall. The images transition from the man on the ground to him dancing to closeups of the skin of an unidentified Black man. Throughout these transitions, Micah Bournes provides the intro, a recitation of a list of stereotypes endured by Blacks throughout history. The sections concludes with Bournes intoning, “Prayed for you, brothers, the masters done brainwashed ’em.”
The brainwashing that Bournes references here is the same brainwashing that Mrs. Turner buys into in Their Eyes Were Watching God, standards of white beauty. As Propaganda begins the first verse, we see the man dancing down the sidewalk, arms and legs seamlessly gliding as he moves. What becomes obvious, during his movements, is that he has handcuffs around his wrists. Propaganda told Billboard that the handcuffs represent the false altars of white beauty: “The idea is that we are often shackled to constructions of beauty. But when we realize it’s all in our heads, we can dance . . . You are already beautiful and we can’t let our oppression control our narrative.”
The man frees himself from the handcuffs; however, they are still attached to one of his wrists. While he has the freedom, now, to move without the hindrance of the retraining cuffs, they still exist, ready to bind him again. In many ways, this imagery reminds me of Hurston’s famous essay “How it feels to be colored me.” Hurston is proud of her beauty and expresses that pride throughout the essay, yet she also knows that whites, and possibly even others, judge her. This recognition shows up in a couple of places. For one, it appears when she moves from Eatonville to Jacksonville. She left Eatonville “as Zora,” but when she arrived in Jacksonville, she became ” a little colored girl” set apart from the whites who judged her.
In the next post, I will elaborate more on Hurston’s essay in relation to the topics I have touched on in this post as well as in relation to W.E.B. Du Bois’ double consciousness. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.