Their Eyes Were Watching God
Language and Communication Quotes Page 15
How we cite our quotes:
Then she saw all of the colored people standing up in the back of the courtroom. Packed tight like a case of celery, only much darker than that. They were all against her, she could see. So many were there against her that a light slap from each one of them would have beat her to death. She felt them pelting her with dirty thoughts. They were there with their tongues cocked and loaded, the only real weapon left to weak folks. The only killing tool they are allowed to use in the presence of white folks. (19.156)
The black people in the courthouse have come to speak out against Janie because their tongues are the "only real weapon" they have left. Racism has made sure that no other weapons come their way.
"Mistah Prescott, Ah got somethin’ tuh say," Sop-de-Bottom spoke out anonymously from the anonymous herd.
The courtroom swung round on itself to look.
"If you know what’s good for you, you better shut your mouth up until somebody calls you," Mr. Prescott told him coldly.
"Yassuh, Mr. Prescott."
"We are handling this case. Another word out of you, out of any of you niggers back there, and I’ll bind you over to the big court."
When a black man wants to speak, he is quickly and mercilessly silenced by the white judge. The language that Mr. Prescott uses is very divisive, clearly showing who’s in charge and who’s in the "in" group. Mr. Prescott uses "we" and "you" to clearly show that any of the black people in the "anonymous herd" are not part of the group "handling this case," nor are they important in any way in the court.
They all leaned over to listen while she talked. First thing she had to remember was she was not at home. She was in the courthouse fighting something and it wasn’t death. It was worse than that. It was lying thoughts. She had to go way back to let them know how she and Tea Cake had been with one another so they could see she could never shoot Tea Cake out of malice.
She tried to make them see how terrible it was that things were fixed so that Tea Cake couldn’t come back to himself until he had got rid of that mad dog that was in him and he couldn’t get rid of the dog and live. He had to die to get rid of the dog. But she hadn’t wanted to kill him. A man is up against a hard game when he must die to beat it. She made them see how couldn’t ever want to be rid of him. She didn’t plead to anybody. She just sat there and told and when she was through she hushed. (19.169-170)
The text is ambiguous about what Janie means by "she had to remember she was not at home." Perhaps it means that she drops the black vernacular and speaks in Standard English to seem more professional and to gain the ear of the white jury. Or that she’s more open and direct than she commonly was at home. Who knows? Anyway, her words in her testimony come straight from the heart, telling it exactly as it happened. The astute reader remembers the instance in which Janie congratulates Joe on freeing the yellow mule and recalls the moving eloquence with which she spoke. You can assume she is applying the same kind frank eloquence here. It is important that Janie is not "plead[ing] to anybody;" she does not view the white men as gods (like Mrs. Turner), but instead speaks her words ringingly true so that nobody can deny them. Like when she criticized Joe at the end of his life, her words have power because there is truth behind them.