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Janie starts to tell her story, and she doesn’t start with Tea Cake—she starts at the beginning. We enter into a flashback of Janie’s early life.
Janie never knew her father or mother. She’d been raised all her life in West Florida by her grandmother, whom she calls "Nanny," along with four white children in the Washburn household.
Janie spends so much time with the white children that she doesn’t realize she’s black…until she sees a photograph of the family. After all the white children in the picture are pointed out and named, there’s only a dark, skinny girl left. In the moment of revelation, Janie cries, "Aw, aw! Ah’m colored!"
Janie is often called Alphabet in the Washburn household, a nickname she gained because so many people call her different things.
Even as a child, Janie’s beauty is apparent and envied.
Because she often dresses in the white children’s hand-me-downs (unlike many other black children, who didn’t have such quality clothing), she’s picked on by other black children.
The kids tease Janie relentlessly, using the story of Janie’s parentage to shame her. Everyone knows the part about the police sending bloodhounds hunting after her father because he slept with her mother. But, they keep the part about her father attempting to marry her mother hush-hush.
However, Nanny does her best to give Janie all the advantages she can. She even buys her own land and house.
We flash forward, and Janie is now 16 years old and discovering the phenomenon of sex for the first time.
While lying out under a blossoming pear tree, Janie witnesses a bee pollinating a pear blossom and describes it as a sexual experience. The whole experience is so beautiful, she’s sure that this is what love and marriage must be like. She envies the tree.
Janie happens upon Johnny Taylor, who had never before seemed appealing to her, but in her romantic pear tree daze, he’s a "glorious being."
Nanny, who’s in the house taking a nap, wakes up to hear Janie and a boy talking outside. She looks out the window just in time to see Johnny and Janie in a lip-lock.
Nanny pronounces that Janie is now a woman and tells her to get married as soon as possible. Janie resents the idea; she doesn’t feel like she’s really a woman yet.
Nanny’s worried that Janie will naively end up being used and treated like garbage by some man without her grandmother’s guidance. And granny is getting on in age.
A man named Logan Killicks is interested in marrying Janie, but Janie is disgusted because of the huge age difference and because he "look like som ole skullhead in de grave yard." Definitely unappealing.
Nanny accuses Janie of not wanting to be an honest wife and slaps Janie for her insolence.
When Janie begins to cry, Nanny immediately repents and rocks her granddaughter in her arms.
Nanny explains that she doesn’t want Janie to suffer as she has and as Janie’s mother did. She says that the black woman is "de mule uh de world" and her only motive behind suggesting reliable old Logan Killicks is to help Janie avoid a terrible fate.
Nanny feels her days on earth are numbered, and she wants to see Janie "protected" before she goes. Even though Janie is young, she should get married before Nanny dies.
Nanny tries to explain to Janie where she’s coming from. Though it’s the early 1900s right now, Nanny grew up as a slave.
Nanny describes a scene during the Civil War when her former master rode off to fight and she was left to face the wrath of the mistress of the house. When the mistress discovered that Nanny’s daughter had gray eyes and blond hair, she started slapping Nanny and threatened to have her beaten to a pulp and have the little girl sold off. In case you don’t get why, it’s because the baby’s looks were proof that the master had been sleeping with Nanny.
Nanny ran away into the swampland and was lucky enough to survive until slavery was abolished.
As a free woman, she decided not to marry...though she'd had plenty of proposals. She was worried a man would mistreat her daughter.
Nanny settled in West Florida with the Washburn family and put her daughter, Leafy, in school as soon as she could.
Many years later, Leafy, at age 17, was raped by her white schoolteacher. After Leafy gave birth to Janie, Leafy became an alcoholic and ended up leaving.
So, all in all, the women in Janie’s family have had hard lives, and it’s no wonder Nanny wants to see her granddaughter married.
The chapter ends with Nanny’s sincere plea, "Ah can’t die easy thinkin’ maybe de menfolks white or black is makin’ a spit cup outa you: Have some sympathy fuh me."