An underlying theme in Their Eyes Were Watching God was the treatment of characters due to their race. The book, which was written in 1937, portrays elements of racism that were present during that historical time period. It is important to understand that history, for although the book didn’t directly address racism, its presence is obvious throughout the story due to character interaction and the setting.
During the early 1900’s, the time period in which the story took place, racism was rampant throughout the entire nation. While African Americans technically were equal by law, they were anything but, in action. Laws such as “separate but equal” were used to justify blatant discrimination, laws that were coined as “Jim Crow Laws.” (Wikipedia, Jim Crow Laws) Jim Crow Laws were local and state laws that were used to “legally” discriminate and segregate African Americans. Perhaps the most well-known Jim Crow law of that time was “separate but equal,” a law that opened up the gates to decades of racial tension and discrimination.
In 1890, the state of Louisiana passed a law, known as the Separate Car Act, that forced African Americans and white passengers to be in separate train cars, providing that they were of equal condition. (Wikipedia, Separate Car Act) This law was tested in 1892, when Homer Plessy, a very light skinned, but technically African American, boarded a white train car. He was arrested for breaking the law, but immediately went to court claiming that his rights were violated (Wikipedia, Separate Car Act). He was repeatedly found guilty by lower courts, but continued to appeal until his case reached the Supreme Court. In one of the most crucial and important Supreme Court cases o...
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...can American people as “all against her”, and throughout the trial it is made clear the African Americans believe she is guilty. The most ironic part in the novel, near the very end, “The white women cried and stood around her like a protecting wall and the Negroes, with heads hung down, shuffled out and away.” (Their Eyes Were Watching God) The white women are there with Janie, crying and comforting her, while the African Americans leave, turning their back on Janie.
Their Eyes Were Watching God and its portrayal of racism in various scenes demonstrates some of the problems typical of that time period and some of the challenges faced by different people groups. It clearly shows that while racism itself was a major problem, it wasn’t just about black white relations, and racism – in reality – is something every people group experiences; it’s not all black and white.
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