Their Eyes Were Watching God
How we cite our quotes:
[Nanny]: "Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. 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." (2.44)
This book reveals a social hierarchy based on race and gender. While the fact that black men were often put down and discriminated against by white men is common knowledge, Nanny points out an even more victimized group – black women. By virtue of being both a racial minority and the "weaker" sex, black women had it worst of all and were essentially the bottom of the totem pole.
[Nanny]: "Dat mornin’ on de big plantation close to Savannah, a rider come in a gallop tellin’ ‘bout Sherman takin’ Atlanta. Marse Robert’s son had done been kilt at Chickamauga. So he grabbed his gun and straddled is best horse and went off wid de rest of de gray-headed men and young boys to drive de Yankees back into Tennessee.
"They was all cheerin’ and cryin’ and shoutin’ for de men dat was ridin’ off. Ah couldn’t see nothin’ cause yo’ mama wasn’t but a week old, and Ah was flat uh mah back. But pretty soon he let on he forgot somethin’ and run into mah cabin and made me let down mah hair for de last time. He sorta wropped his hand in it, pulled mah big toe, lak he always done, and was gone after de rest lak lightnin’. (2.58-59)
Although not stated explicitly, it seems that Nanny’s slave master cares more for Nanny than his white wife. It is, afterall, Nanny that the master returns home to caress and say goodbye to before heading off to battle, not his wife. This harkens back to Leafy’s situation as well. Her white schoolmaster raped her, but he also apparently wanted to marry her. Though socially unacceptable at the time, and often displayed in negative ways, love was not confined to members of a person’s own race.
[Mistress of the plantation to Nanny]: "’Nigger, whut’s yo’ baby doin wid gray eyes and yaller hair?’" She begin tuh slap mah jaws ever which a’way. Ah never felt the fust ones ‘cause Ah wuz too busy gittin’ de kivver back over mah chile. But dem last lick burnt me lak fire. Ah had too many feelin’s tuh tell which one tuh follow so Ah didn’t cry and Ah didn’t do nothin’ else. But then she kept on astin me how come mah baby look white. She asted me dat maybe twenty-five or thirty times, lak she got tuh sayin’ dat and couldn’t help herself. So Ah told her, ‘Ah don’t know nothin’ but what Ah’m told tuh do, ‘cause Ah ain’t nothin’ but uh nigger and uh slave."
"Instead of pacifyin’ her lak Ah thought, look lak she got madder. But Ah reckon she was tired and wore out ‘cause she didn’t hit me no more. She went to de foot of de bed and wiped her hands on her handksher. ‘Ah wouldn’t dirty mah hands on yuh. But first thing in de mornin’ de overseer will take you to de whippin’ post and tie you down on yo’ knees and cut de hide offa yo’ yaller back. One hundred lashes wid a raw-hide on yo’ bare back. Ah’ll have you whipped till de blood runs down to yo’ heels! Ah mean to count de licks mahself. And if it kills you Ah’ll stand de loss. Anyhow, as soon as dat brat is a month old Ah’m going to sell it offa dis place.’" (2.65-66)
For a white woman during the time of slavery, the sting of having one’s husband sleep with a black slave is especially insulting because it gives credence to the idea of black women being as attractive as white ones. To add injury to insult, it brings about the supposed abomination of a mixed child – an anomaly that is difficult to classify – neither white nor black so not belonging to either world. This is the reason the lady of the house is so angry with Nanny and her child.