Their Eyes Were Watching God

Chapter 16

The season closed and people went away like they had come—in droves. Tea Cake and Janie decided to stay since they wanted to make another season on the muck. There was nothing to do, after they had gathered several bushels of dried beans to save over and sell to the planters in the fall. So Janie began to look around and see people and things she hadn’t noticed during the season.

For instance during the summer when she heard the subtle but compelling rhythms of the Bahaman drummers, she’d walk over and watch the dances. She did not laugh the “Saws” to scorn as she had heard the people doing in the season. She got to like it a lot and she and Tea Cake were on hand every night till the others teased them about it.

Janie came to know Mrs. Turner now. She had seen her several times during the season, but neither ever spoke. Now they got to be visiting friends.

Mrs. Turner was a milky sort of a woman that belonged to child-bed. Her shoulders rounded a little, and she must have been conscious of her pelvis because she kept it stuck out in front of her so she could always see it. Tea Cake made a lot of fun about Mrs. Turner’s shape behind her back. He claimed that she had been shaped up 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 left it wide and flat with her chin and nose almost meeting.

But Mrs. Turner’s shape and features were entirely approved by Mrs. Turner. Her nose was slightly pointed and she was proud. Her thin lips were an ever delight to her eyes. Even her buttocks in bas-relief were a source of pride. To her way of thinking all these things set her aside from Negroes. That was why she sought out Janie to friend with. Janie’s coffee-and-cream complexion and her luxurious hair made Mrs. Turner forgive her for wearing overalls like the other women who worked in the fields. She didn’t forgive her for marrying a man as dark as Tea Cake, but she felt that she could remedy that. That was what her brother was born for. She seldom stayed long when she found Tea Cake at home, but when she happened to drop in and catch Janie alone, she’d spend hours chatting away. Her disfavorite subject was Negroes.

“Mis’ Woods, Ah have often said to mah husband, Ah don’t see how uh lady like Mis’ Woods can stand all them common niggers round her place all de time.”

“They don’t worry me atall, Mis’ Turner. Fact about de thing is, they tickles me wid they talk.”

“You got mo’ nerve than me. When somebody talked mah husband intuh comin’ down heah tuh open up uh eatin’ place Ah never dreamt so many different kins uh black folks could colleck in one place. Did Ah never woulda come. Ah ain’t useter ’ssociatin’ wid black folks. Mah son claims dey draws lightnin’.” They laughed a little and after many of these talks Mrs. Turner said, “Yo’ husband musta had plenty money when y’all got married.”

“Whut make you think dat, Mis’ Turner?”

“Tuh git hold of uh woman lak you. You got mo’ nerve than me. Ah jus’ couldn’t see mahself married to no black man. It’s too many black folks already. We oughta lighten up de race.”

“Naw, mah husband didn’t had nothin’ but hisself. He’s easy tuh love if you mess round ’im. Ah loves ’im.”

“Why you, Mis’ Woods! Ah don’t b’lieve it. You’se jus’ sorter hypnotized, dat’s all.”

“Naw, it’s real. Ah couldn’t stand it if he wuz tuh quit me. Don’t know whut Ah’d do. He kin take most any lil thing and make summertime out of it when times is dull. Then we lives offa dat happiness he made till some mo’ happiness come along.”

“You’se different from me. Ah can’t stand black niggers. Ah don’t blame de white folks from hatin’ ’em ’cause Ah can’t stand ’em mahself. ’Nother thing, Ah hates tuh see folks lak me and you mixed up wid ’em. Us oughta class off.”

“Us can’t do it. We’se uh mingled people and all of us got black kinfolks as well as yaller kinfolks. How come you so against black?”

“And dey makes me tired. Always laughin’! Dey laughs too much and dey laughs too loud. Always singin’ ol’ nigger songs! Always cuttin’ de monkey for white folks. If it wuzn’t for so many black folks it wouldn’t be no race problem. De white folks would take us in wid dem. De black ones is holdin’ us back.”

“You reckon? ’course Ah ain’t never thought about it too much. But Ah don’t figger dey even gointuh want us for comp’ny. We’se too poor.”

“ ’Tain’t de poorness, it’s de color and de features. Who want any lil ole black baby layin’ up in de baby buggy lookin’ lak uh fly in buttermilk? Who wants to be mixed up wid uh rusty black man, and uh black woman goin’ down de street in all dem loud colors, and whoopin’ and hollerin’ and laughin’ over nothin’? Ah don’t know. Don’t bring me no nigger doctor tuh hang over mah sick-bed. Ah done had six chillun—wuzn’t lucky enough tuh raise but dat one—and ain’t never had uh nigger tuh even feel mah pulse. White doctors always gits mah money. Ah don’t go in no nigger store tuh buy nothin’ neither. Colored folks don’t know nothin’ ’bout no business. Deliver me!”

Mrs. Turner was almost screaming in fanatical earnestness by now. Janie was dumb and bewildered before and she clucked sympathetically and wished she knew what to say. It was so evident that Mrs. Turner took black folk as a personal affront to herself.

“Look at me! Ah ain’t got no flat nose and liver lips. Ah’m uh featured woman. Ah got white folks’ features in mah face. Still and all Ah got tuh be lumped in wid all de rest. It ain’t fair. Even if dey don’t take us in wid de whites, dey oughta make us uh class tuh ourselves.”

“It don’t worry me atall, but Ah reckon Ah ain’t got no real head fur thinkin’.”

“You oughta meet mah brother. He’s real smart. Got dead straight hair. Dey made him uh delegate tuh de Sunday School Convention and he read uh paper on Booker T. Washington and tore him tuh pieces!”

“Booker T.? He wuz a great big man, wusn’t he?”

“ ’Sposed tuh be. All he ever done was cut de monkey for white folks. So dey pomped him up. But you know whut de ole folks say ‘de higher de monkey climbs de mo’ he show his behind’ so dat’s de way it wuz wid Booker T. Mah brother hit ’im every time dey give ’im chance tuh speak.”

“Ah was raised on de notion dat he wuz uh great big man,” was all that Janie knew to say.

“He didn’t do nothin’ but hold us back—talkin’ ’bout work when de race ain’t never done nothin’ else. He wuz uh enemy tuh us, dat’s whut. He wuz uh white folks’ nigger.”

According to all Janie had been taught this was sacrilege so she sat without speaking at all. But Mrs. Turner went on.

“Ah done sent fuh mah brother tuh come down and spend uh while wid us. He’s sorter outa work now. Ah wants yuh tuh meet him mo’ special. You and him would make up uh swell couple if you wuzn’t already married. He’s uh fine carpenter, when he kin git anything tuh do.”

“Yeah, maybe so. But Ah is married now, so ’tain’t no use in considerin’.”

Mrs. Turner finally rose to go after being very firm about several other viewpoints of either herself, her son or her brother. She begged Janie to drop in on her anytime, but never once mentioning Tea Cake. Finally she was gone and Janie hurried to her kitchen to put on supper and found Tea Cake sitting in there with his head between his hands.

“Tea Cake! Ah didn’t know you wuz home.”

“Ah know yuh didn’t. Ah been heah uh long time listenin’ to dat heifer run me down tuh de dawgs uh try tuh tole you off from me.”

“So dat whut she wuz up to? Ah didn’t know.”

“ ’Course she is. She got some no-count brother she wants yuh tuh hook up wid and take keer of Ah reckon.”

“Shucks! If dat’s her notion she’s barkin’ up de wrong tree. Mah hands is full already.”

“Thanky Ma’am. Ah hates dat woman lak poison. Keep her from round dis house. Her look lak uh white woman! Wid dat meriny skin and hair jus’ as close tuh her head as ninety-nine is tuh uh hundred! Since she hate black folks so, she don’t need our money in her ol’ eatin’ place. Ah’ll pass de word along. We kin go tuh dat white man’s place and git good treatment. Her and dat whittled-down husband uh hers! And dat son! He’s jus’ uh dirty trick her womb played on her. Ah’m telling her husband tuh keep her home. Ah don’t want her round dis house.”

One day Tea Cake met Turner and his son on the street. He was a vanishing-looking kind of a man as if there used to be parts about him that stuck out individually but now he hadn’t a thing about him that wasn’t dwindled and blurred. Just like he had been sand-papered down to a long oval mass. Tea Cake felt sorry for him without knowing why. So he didn’t blurt out the insults he had intended. But he couldn’t hold in everything. They talked about the prospects for the coming season for a moment, then Tea Cake said, “Yo’ wife don’t seem tuh have nothin’ much tuh do, so she kin visit uh lot. Mine got too much tuh do tuh go visitin’ and too much tuh spend time talkin’ tuh folks dat visit her.”

“Mah wife takes time fuh whatever she wants tuh do. Real strong headed dat way. Yes indeed.” He laughed a high lungless laugh. “De chillun don’t keep her in no mo’ so she visits when she chooses.”

“De chillun?” Tea Cake asked him in surprise. “You got any smaller than him?” He indicated the son who seemed around twenty or so. “Ah ain’t seen yo’ others.”

“Ah reckon you ain’t ’cause dey all passed on befo’ dis one wuz born. We ain’t had no luck atall wid our chillun. We lucky to raise him. He’s de last stroke of exhausted nature.”

He gave his powerless laugh again and Tea Cake and the boy joined in with him. Then Tea Cake walked on off and went home to Janie.

“Her husband can’t do nothin’ wid dat butt-headed woman. All you can do is treat her cold whenever she come round here.”

Janie tried that, but short of telling Mrs. Turner bluntly, there was nothing she could do to discourage her completely. She felt honored by Janie’s acquaintance and she quickly forgave and forgot snubs in order to keep it. Anyone who looked more white folkish than herself was better than she was in her criteria, therefore it was right that they should be cruel to her at times, just as she was cruel to those more negroid than herself in direct ratio to their negroness. Like the pecking-order in a chicken yard. Insensate cruelty to those you can whip, and groveling submission to those you can’t. 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.

Mrs. Turner, like all other believers had built an altar to the unattainable—Caucasian characteristics for all. Her god would smite her, would hurl her from pinnacles and lose her in deserts, but she would nor forsake his altars. 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. The physical impossibilities in no way injured faith. That was the mystery and mysteries are the chores of gods. Beyond her faith was a fanaticism to defend the altars of her god. It was distressing to emerge from her inner temple and find these black desecrators howling with laughter before the door. Oh, for an army, terrible with banners and swords!

So she didn’t cling to Janie Woods the woman. She paid homage to Janie’s Caucasian characteristics as such. And when she was with Janie she had a feeling of transmutation, as if she herself had become whiter and with straighter hair and she hated Tea Cake first for his defilement of divinity and next for his telling mockery of her. If she only knew something she could do about it! But she didn’t. Once she was complaining about the carryings-on at the jook and Tea Cake snapped, “Aw, don’t make God look so foolish—findin’ fault wid everything He made.”

So Mrs. Turner frowned most of the time. She had so much to disapprove of. It didn’t affect Tea Cake and Janie too much. It just gave them something to talk about in the summertime when everything was dull on the muck. Otherwise they made little trips to Palm Beach, Fort Myers and Fort Lauderdale for their fun. Before they realized it the sun was cooler and the crowds came pouring onto the muck again.


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This work (Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston) is free of known copyright restrictions.