Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Tori Morrison’s Beloved portray two black women Janie and Sethe, who are victimized by both racism and sexism, constantly dealing with the legacy of slavery, and trying to construct a new world for themselves. Slavery does not only impact the ones who are experiencing, but also the ones who have already gone through, and even who were born after the end of slavery.
Both novels demonstrate the lasting impact of racial oppression resulted from the institution of slavery. For Janie, even though she lives in the period after slavery ended, the principles of slavery still affect her community and individual identities. Janie’s early life is largely shaped by perspectives of her grandmother Nanny, an ex-slave who firmly believes “de white man is de ruler of everything”(14) and prevents Janie from marrying no one else but Logan Killicks because he, as a socially respectable and financially stable man, can give the protection that Janie needs. Nevertheless, the marriage of Janie and Logan proves to be an unhappy and destructive one. As Janie questions her submissive role as Logan’s wife, Nanny thinks Janie is too young to realize the importance of stability in a black person’s life. Security should be prioritized over love and happiness. The conflicting arguments between Nanny and Janie not only epitomize the failure of many black women’s pursuit of true love, but also reflects how slavery continues to circumscribe the lives of black offsprings. In Beloved, the impact of slavery is demonstrated through Sethe’s inability to rescue herself from her traumatic experience as a slave. Even though she runs away from Sweet Home, Sethe is constantly immersed in her rememory. Events from the past intrude upon her present. “The picture is still there,” as Sethe says, “if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you.” More than scenes of being whipped, raped and her milk stolen by white men, the most haunting memory for Sethe, perhaps, is killing her own daughter Beloved out of protection from slavery. Indeed, she tries to resist the past by repressing her memory, leaving things “the way they are”. She often thinks about what Baby Suggs has told her, “‘Lay em down, Sethe. Sword and shield. Down. Down. Both of em down. Down by the riverside. Sword and shield. Don’t study war no more.’” She tries to follow Baby Suggs’s advice and goes to the Clearing where Baby Suggs used to preach, trying to feel the power of healing by reconnecting with Baby Suggs. Nevertheless, she is choked by Beloved and fails to put down the past. The idea that “nothing ever dies” is further demonstrated when Sethe confines herself to 124, completely picks up her distorted maternal identity, and becomes consumed by Beloved, who sinks Sethe into the horrors and suffering of the past. It is the ghost of slavery that keeps Sethe from moving forward and takes over her resistance against the past.
While both Sethe and Janie experience a profound influence from the aftermath of slavery, their image as black females exerts a greater extent of vulnerability and difficulties on their journey to rebuild self-value and seek protection for themselves and ones they love. Janie is constantly influenced by Nanny’s warning that “menfolks white or black is makin’ a spit cup” out of her”(20). The cruelty of being a black woman is revealed in Nanny’s narrative,
“So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger 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 nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” (14).
Hurston has come to the conclusion that due to the social hierarchy based on race and gender, black women have the worst condition of all groups of people. Although Janie’s second husband, Joe, is not like Logan, who treats her like a labor and even threatens to kill her, Joe restrains Janie’s freedom of speech, involvement in town, and even her appearance in front of townspeople. Not only does he forbid Janie to go to public events, Joe also demands her to “tie up her hair” (55) because he only sees her as his trophy that is “only for him to look at, not those others”(55). Facing Joe’s attempt to shut her off from the community and destruct her identity, Janie tries to step out of Joe’s silencing control but fails. She gradually “pressed her teeth together and learned to hush” (71). In fact, her role as the “mule” of her husbands is not changed from Logan to Joe. The similar bestial symbolism of black women is also suggested in Beloved. Sethe once overhears the schoolteacher giving a lesson about her in which he instructed the white boys to categorize her “characteristics”(228) as either human or animal. To slaveholders, female slaves were their possessions that can be used in any means. They are a mere piece of flush that can be easily degraded and mutilated. For women slaves like Nanny, Sethe, and Baby Suggs, rape is a usual and acceptable thing because they equal to procreation machine for the white men and have no rights over their own bodies. With the absence of their husbands most of the time, their suffering is exacerbated by witnessing their children being physically and mentally destroyed by the institution of slavery just like themselves. In Sethe’s case, the return of schoolteacher provokes her action of killing Beloved because she cannot bear her daughters being whipped and raped by white men. It saves her own daughter from going through the feelings of humiliation and disgrace she has suffered as a female slave. The maternal instinct of protecting children is distorted under gender oppression and dehumanizing effect of slavery. In these novels, we see that the pressure from men, either white or black, imposes a further barrier upon women slaves over racial oppression. This layer not only annihilates their ability to assert their own sense of self but also warps their motherhood into an extreme and destructive one.
As a result of both racial and gender oppression, Sethe and Janie use different coping mechanisms to free themselves from the lingering influence of slavery and reclaim their identities. For Janie, her physical runaway from Logan, similar to Sethe’s escape from slavery, does not automatically create individuality and self-assurance for her. “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another” (Morrison, 112). Janie’s real transformation only takes place when she realizes that she has always been living the way other people hope her to. Realizing that her perception of self and love is first dismantled by Nanny then degraded by Joe, Janie states that “she hated the old woman [Nanny] who had twisted her so in the name of love”( ). While her initial verbal combat with Joe against his dominance over her is suppressed by his bossy and arrogant responses, Janie’s inner turmoil of being demeaned by her husband is surging and prompts her to realize that she needs to defend her dignity and build a freed self rather than the surface identity established by Joe. Janie directly confronts Joe publicly when he makes comments on her aging appearance, “talkin’ ’bout me lookin’ old! When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change of life”(79). Janie’s rebuttal is a brutal attack on Joe, which tears off his manhood and self-image in front of townspeople. Her decision to marry Tea Cake after Joe’s death, which is criticized by the community, signals the end of gender oppression and Nanny’s influence over her. Compared to Janie, who primarily achieves her quest for equal marriage and self-identity alone, Sethe would not untangle herself from the ghost of traumatic past and be in search of a new life if Denver and the community had not helped her out.