[The porch gossips]: "What she doin coming back here in dem overhalls? Can’t she find no dress to put on? – Where’s dat blue satin dress she left here in? – Where all dat money her husband took and died and left her? – What dat ole forty year ole ‘oman doin’ wid her hair swingin’ down her back lak some young gal? – Where she left dat young lad of a boy she went off here wid? – Thought she was going to marry? – Where he left her? – What he done wid all her money? – Betcha he off wid some gal so young she ain’t even got no hairs – Why she don’t stay in her class? – " (1.6)
The inhabitants of Eatonville resent Janie for not fitting into an easily-identifiable class. She was known as the venerable wife of the mayor before she ran off with a no-name and no-account man far too young for her. Yet she is beautiful and has her dignity, so the porch gossips jealously point out everything wrong with her – her masculine dress, her hair worn in a manner too youthful for her age, her widowhood, and her apparent poverty.
[Nanny]: "Whut Ah seen just now is plenty for me, honey, Ah don’t want no trashy n*****, no breath-and-britches, lak Johnny Taylor usin’ yo’ body to wipe his foots on." (2.27)
Nanny considers Johnny Taylor far below her and Janie’s station. This is apparent because she uses words like "trashy" and "breath-and-britches," implying that Johnny is poor. She equates his low social status with negative intentions toward Janie – which may or may not be the case. Still, Nanny uses social status as a way of determining a person’s value and integrity.
[Nanny to Janie]: "If you don’t want him [Logan], you sho oughta. Heah you is wid de onliest organ in town, amongst colored folks, in yo’ parlor. Got a house bought and paid for and sixty acres uh land right on de big road and…Lawd have mussy! Dat’s de very prong all us black women gits hung on. Dis love! Dat’s just whut’s got us uh pullin’ and haulin’ and sweatin’ and doin’ from can’t see in de mornin’ till can’t see at night." (3.21)
Nanny envies the middle-class white life, valuing key material objects that signify wealth like organs (not like kidneys, but the piano-like instrument), houses, and "sixty acres uh land." She wants that kind of wealth for Janie and assumes that social status and worldly goods will automatically bring happiness.
It was a cityfied, stylish dressed man with his hat set at an angle that didn’t belong in these parts. His coat was over his arm, but he didn’t need it to represent his clothes. The shirt with the silk sleeveholders was dazzling enough for the world. He whistled, mopped his face and walked like he knew where he was going. He was a seal-brown color but he acted like Mr. Washburn or somebody like that to Janie. (4.14)
Janie is dazzled by this urbane pedestrian’s outfit and jaunty attitude. He seems as if he’s part of another world, one of material wealth and pretty clothes and oozing confidence. His social class seems to be above that of any other black person she’s ever met, so he’s intriguing.
Joe Starks was the name, yeah Joe Starks from in and through Georgy. Been workin’ for white folks all his life. Saved up some money – round three hundred dollars, yes indeed, right here in his pocket. Kept hearin’ ‘bout them buildin’ a new state down heah in Floridy and sort of wanted to come. But he was makin’ money where he was. But when he heard all about ‘em makin’ a town all outa colored folks, he knowed dat was de place he wanted to be. He had always wanted to be a big voice… (4.16)
Despite his wealthy appearance, Joe is an honest worker just like Janie. He has worked diligently for white people his whole life but has been able to save up money and buy the semblance of white wealth. Unlike many other characters, he doesn’t see his social class as fixed – he plans on breaking into the upper-class with his entrepreneurial schemes.
The morning road air was like a new dress. That made her feel and apron tied around her waist. She untied it and flung it on a low bush beside the road and walked on, picking flowers and making a bouquet. After that she came to where Joe Starks was waiting for her with a hired rig. He was very solemn and helped her to the seat beside him. With him on it, it sat like some high, ruling chair. (4.59)
By throwing off her apron and accepting a high seat next to Joe, Janie symbolically discards her status as a domestic, working-class woman. She emerges to take a seat in higher class, among the people who sit in a "high, ruling chair." Interestingly, Janie has social mobility not because of intelligence or talent or education, but because she’s beautiful.
[Logan]: "Considerin’ youse born in a carriage ‘thout no top to it, and yo’ mama and you bein’ born and raised in de white folks back-yard." (4.40)
Logan looks down on Janie for having lived as the white people’s servant and ward her whole life. He considers himself, in his freedom and hard-earned living, classier than Janie. "Considerin’" she comes from a lower social situation, he thinks she doesn’t have the right to act independent or have many opinions.
[Logan]: "Ah thought you would ‘preciate good treatement. Thought Ah’d take and make somethin’ outa yuh. You think youse white folks by de way you act." (4.42)
Janie’s demeanor is too proud for her poor station in life, according to Logan. Apparently, by marrying a woman of a lower social position, Logan was expecting to have Janie feeling gratefully and completely indebted to him. Since he’s also hoping to "make somethin’ outa" Janie, he apparently considers her to be of very little significance the way she is right now.
[Coker]: "There’s some women dat jus’ ain’t for you tuh broach. You can’t git her wid no fish sandwich." (5.76)
Coker considers Janie too high-class for Hicks, who tries to woo his women with fish sandwiches.
"Naw Jody, it jus’ looks lak it [Joe’s new position as mayor] keeps us in some way we ain’t natural wid one’ nother. You’se always off talkin’ and fixin’ things, and Ah feels lak Ah’m jus’ markin’ time." (5.125)
Joe’s new position as mayor inherently puts him in a class above the ordinary citizens of Eatonville, and Janie immediately notices the strain in puts on their relationship. She is always waiting on people and being a pretty face while he is of inflating his ego and making speeches. It makes their marriage less romantic.
On the train the next day, Joe didn’t make many speeches with rhymes to her, but he bought her the best things the butcher had, like apples and a glass lantern full of candies. Mostly he talked about plans for the town when he got there…Janie took a lot of looks at him and she was proud of what she saw. Kind of portly like rich white folks. Strange trains, and people and places didn’t scare him neither. Where they got off the train at Maitland he found a buggy to carry them over to the colored town right away. (5.1)
Joe shows his ambition to get into a higher class by flaunting his wealth to Janie, buying her all sorts of treats like "apples and a glass lantern full of candies." Showing off the new social class that he’s brought her into is also his way of trying to endear himself to her. Maybe he sees rhymes and poetry as a poor man’s way of romancing the woman he loves, and money and gifts as the higher class equivalent.
Take for instance that new house of his. It had two stories with porches, with banisters and such things. The rest of the town looked like servants’ quarters surrounding the "big house." And different from everybody else in the town he put off moving in until it had been painted, in and out. And look at the way he painted it – a gloaty, sparkly white. The kind of promenading white that the houses of Bishop Whipple, W.B. Jackson and the Vanderpool’s wore. It made the village feel funny talking to him – just like he was anybody else. Then there was the matter of the spittoons. No sooner was he all set as the Mayor – post master – landlord – storekeeper, than he bought a desk like Mr. Hill or Mr. Galloway over in Maitland with one of those swing-around chairs to it. What with him biting down on cigars and saving his breath on talk and swinging round in that chair, it weakened people. And then he spit in that gold-looking vase that anybody else would have been glad to put on their front-room table. Said it was a spittoon just like his used-to-be bossman used to have in his bank up there in Atlanta. Didn’t have to get up and go to the door every time he had to spit. Didn’t spit on his floor neither. Had that golded-up spitting pot right handy. But he went further than that. He bought a little lady-size spitting pot for Janie to spit in. Had it right in the parlor with little sprigs of flowers painted all around the sides It took people by surprise because most of the women dipped snuff and of course had a spit-cup in the house. But how could they know up-to-date folks was spitting in flowery little things like that? It sort of made the rest of them feel that they had been taken advantage of. Like things had been kept from them. Maybe more thing sin the world besides spitting pots had been hid from them, when they wasn’t told no better than to spit in tomato cans It was bad enough for white people, but when one of your own color could be so different it put you on a wonder. It was like seeing your sister turn into a ‘gator. A familiar strangeness. You keep seeing your sister in the ‘gator and the ‘gator in your sister and you’d rather not. There was no doubt that the town respected him and even admired him in a way. But any man who walks in the way of power and property is bound to meet hate. (5.130)
Joe flaunts his new wealth in a parodic semblance of Southern white gentry. He spends his money on trivial items like adorned spittoons for himself and his wife. This exorbitance makes the citizens both jealous and resentful of him. Before Joe moved into town, the people of Eatonville had no reason to think of themselves as low class, because they were all the same class – all the same race and all poor. Joe brought social stratification to town, and now everyone else can see what they’re missing out on.
So that’s where the meeting was held with Tony Taylor acting as chairman and Jody doing all the talking. A day was named for roads and they all agreed to bring axes and things like that and chop out two roads running each way. That applied to everybody except Tony and Coker. They could carpenter, so Jody hired them to go to work on his store bright and soon the next morning. Jody himself would be busy driving around from town to town telling people about Eatonville and drumming up citizens to move there. (5.87)
Joe quickly establishes himself as leader of the town, initiating new building projects, hiring people to work for him, and giving himself the position of a spokesperson – he’s too high and mighty to work with his hands.
[When Janie wants to go to the mule’s funeral]: Joe was struck speechless for a moment. "Why, Janie! You wouldn’t be seen at uh draggin’-out, wouldja? Wid any and everybody in uh passle pushin’ and shovin’ wid they no-manners selves? Naw, naw!" (6.69-71)
Janie does not matter who she hangs out with if she is having fun, but Joe has a more prescriptive view. He uses he and Janie’s higher class as officials of the town to insinuate that she is better than the other townspeople and will stain her reputation if she spends time with them. Janie doesn’t care much about her social status, but Joe seems to place reputation above his wife’s happiness.
Janie loved the conversation and sometimes she thought up good stories on the mule, but Joe had forbidden her to indulge. He didn’t want her talking after such trashy people. "You’se Mrs. Mayor Starks, Janie. I god, Ah can’t see what uh woman uh yo’ stability would want tuh be treasurin’ all dat gum-grease from folks dat don’t even own de house dey sleep in." (6.28)
Although Janie doesn’t mind mingling with all the townspeople and making up tall tales about the infamous mule, Joe considers the people "trashy" and "gum-grease." He thinks Janie’s position as mayor’s wife automatically makes her morally superior and he does not want her associating with them. This is, of course, hypocrisy since Joe himself, the mayor of the town, associates and jokes with them all the time. All the same, he seems to think that it hurts his own social status to have his wife hanging around with commoners.
"Dis sittin’ in de rulin’ chair is been hard on Jody," she muttered out loud. She was full of pity for the first time in years. Jody had been hard on her and others, but life had mishandled him too. (8.45)
At Joe’s death, Janie realizes that many of his problems were caused by his position of power in the community and all the expectations that come with that power. Being a member of an upper class, or at least a leader, inflated Joe’s pride and made him too authoritative for his own good – to the point where he didn’t listen to or love his wife anymore. Yes, "life had mishandled Joe," but he also desired the power given to him and was, in turn, corrupted by it.
Joe’s funeral was the finest thing Orange County had ever seen with N**** eyes. The motor hearse, the Cadillac and Buick carriages; Dr. Henderson there in his Lincoln; the hosts from far and wide. Then again the gold and red and purple, the gloat and glamor of the secret orders, each with its insinuations of power and glory undreamed of by the uninitiated. People on farm horses and mules; babies riding astride of brothers’ and sisters’ backs. The Elks band ranked at the church door and playing "Safe in the Arms of Jesus" with such a dominant drum rhythm that it could be stepped off smartly by the long line as it filed inside. The Little Emperor of the cross-roads was leaving Orange County as he had come – with the out-stretched hand of power. (9.1)
Because Joe is considered something of a nobleman, a "little emperor" of Orange County, his funeral is lavish. The powerful come in their "Cadillac and Buick carriages," dressed in "the gold and red and purple, the gloat and glamour of the secret orders." These hints of royalty highlight the townspeople’s high opinion of him and yet his reign is marked by "secret orders" and "insinuations of power" – implying a degree of furtiveness and corruptibility to Joe’s immense power.
When Janie emerged into her mourning white, she had hosts of admirers in and out of town. Everything open and frank. Men of property too among the crowd, but nobody seemed to get any further than the store. She was always too busy to take them to the house to entertain. They were all so respectful and stiff with her, that she might have been the Empress of Japan. They felt that it was not fitting to mention desire to the widow of Joseph Starks. You spoke of honor and respect. And all that they said and did was refracted by her inattention and shot off towards the rimbones of nothing….A Sanford undertaker was pressing his cause through Pheoby, and Janie was listening pleasantly but undisturbed. It might be nice to marry him, at that. No hurry. Such things take time to think about…" (9.16)
After Joe’s death, Janie becomes the object of courtship for many men of the town. However, her status as the late mayor’s wife, renders her seemingly too highborn for the men of Eatonville. They approach her as a delicate object to be honored and spoken to about "honor and respect," never about base "desire." In the high position that Janie occupies, people seem to assume that she no longer has human emotions – like wanting to have a little bit of love or romance in her life.
[Janie]: "Well, is he – he – is he got uh wife or something lak dat?"…
[Hezekiah]: "No’m. And nobody wouldn’t marry Tea Cake tuh starve tuh death lessen it’s somebody jes lak him – ain’t used to nothin’. ‘Course he always keep hisself in changin’ clothes. Dat long-legged Tea Cake ain’t got doodly squat. He ain’t got no business makin’ hissef familiar wid nobody lak you." (11.30-31)
Hezekiah thinks Tea Cake shouldn’t be spending time with Janie, not because Tea Cake is a bad person or a criminal, but simply because he’s poor. To Hezekiah, social status is more important than a person’s character.
[Janie]: "Jody classed me off. Ah didn’t. Naw, Pheoby, Tea Cake ain’t draggin’ me off nowhere Ah don’t want tuh go. Ah always did want tuh git round uh whole heap, but Jody wouldn’t ‘low me tuh. When Ah wasn’t in de store he wanted me tuh jes sit wid folded hands and sit dere. And Ah’d sit dere wid de walls creepin’ up on me and squeezin’ all de life outa me. Pheoby, dese educated women got uh heap of things to sit down and consider. Somebody done tole ‘em what to set down for. Nobody ain’t told poor me, so sittin’ still worries me. Ah wants tuh utilize mahself all over." (12.16)
Janie was always viewed as a trophy by Joe, one to be polished and placed on a pedestal and never to be touched by others’ grubby hands. His treatment of her left Janie isolated and bored. While Janie doesn’t directly criticize people of the upper classes, she hated being idle herself and wants to be of some use, implying that high class idleness is essentially a waste. Since none of those educated ladies probably know what they’re sitting around for either, the upper-class women must not be utilizing themselves in any productive way.
[Pheoby]: "Course she kin do as she please, but dat’s uh good chance she got up at Sanford. De man’s wife died and he got u lovely place tuh take her to – already furnished. Better’n her house Joe left her." (12.5)
Pheoby obviously values material wealth and stability, marks of the higher class. Because the Sanford undertaker’s house is "better’n her house Joe left her," Pheoby thinks the decision is a no-brainer: marry the undertaker. But Janie has different values than Pheoby and the other Eatonville citizens; she’s experience material wealth and knows that it’s not what drives her.
"She was borned in slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam look lak uh might fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me – don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn’t have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool uh do nothin’. De object wuz tuh git dere. So Ah got up on de high stool lak she told me, but Pheoby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere…"
"Maybe so, Janie. Still and all Ah’d love tuh experience it for just one year. It look lak heben tuh me from where Ah’m at." (12.32-33)
Janie, now that she’s experienced wealth, knows it doesn’t make her happy. Like Nanny, Pheoby has had a working life and also thinks that a wealthy, idle lifestyle seems pretty nice. Would Janie really be happier poor, or is this a "grass is always greener" kind of situation? Even when she’s working in the Everglades with Tea Cake, she does always have plenty cash in the bank just in case…
Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods
"Dem wuzn’t no high mucky mucks. Dem wuz railroad hands and dey womenfolks. You ain’t usetuh folks lak dat and Ah wuz skeered you might git all mad and quit me for takin’ you ‘mongst ‘em. But Ah wanted yuh wid me jus’ de same. Befo’ us got married Ah made up mah mind not tuh let you see no commonness in me. When Ah git mad habits on, Ah’d go off and keep it out yo’ sight. ‘Tain’t mah notion tuh drag you down wid me.
"Looka heah, Tea Cake, if you ever go off from me and have a good time lak dat and then come back heah tellin’ me how nice Ah is, Ah specks tuh kill yuh dead. You heah me?"
"So you aims tuh partake wid everything, hunh?"
"Yeah, Tea Cake, don’t keer what it is." (13.54-57)
In Tea Cake’s mind, he was acting in a way that would keep Janie from being uncomfortable and associating with people inferior to her. To Janie, Tea Cake was keeping her from having a good time. From Janie’s perspective, being one of the upper class elite means having no pleasure in life – not going to parties and not spending time with her husband. What Janie wants most is to share her life with her husband, social status just isn’t that important to her.
[Tea Cake]: "Oh down in de Everglades round Clewiston and Belle Glade where dey raise all dat cane and string-beans and tomatuhs. Folks don’t do nothin’ down dere but make money and fun and foolishness. We must go dere." (13.82)
Tea Cake is attracted to the Everglades because it represents work, money, and "fun and foolishness." It is a place for the lowest social classes among the black people but neither Tea Cake nor Janie care, as long as they can make a decent living and enjoy themselves.
Day by day now, the hordes of workers poured in. Some came limping in with their shoes and sore feet from walking. It’s hard trying to follow your shoe instead of your shoe following you. They came in wagons from way up in Georgia and they came in truck loads from east, west, north and south. Permanent transients with no attachments and tired looking men with their families and dogs in flivvers. All night, all day, hurrying in to pick beans. Skillets, beds, patched up spare inner tubes all hanging and dangling from the ancient cars on the outside and hopeful humanity, herded and hovered on the inside, chugging on to the muck. People ugly from ignorance and broken from being poor.
All night now the jooks clanged and clamored. Pianos living three lifetimes in one. Blues made and used right on the spot. Dancing, fighting, singing, crying, laughing, winning and losing love every hour. Work all day for money, fight all night for love. The rich black earth clinging to bodies and biting the skin like ants. (14.15-16)
Hurston gives a rich description of the migrant workers pouring into work during the harvest season. These are the lowest of the lower classes, so poor that some walk all the way to the Everglades to do their jobs. Such a wretched group of people would be expected to be miserable, but instead, they are vibrant with life – playing in the jook houses and pianos for fun at night, their music and dancing ringing in the night as they live it up. Hurston clearly seems to be saying that the rich have stale lives, but the poor really know how to live. Is Hurston romanticizing the life of the lower classes or is it accurate?
To Janie’s strange eyes, everything in the Everglades was big and new. Big Lake Okeechobee, big beans, big cane, big weeds, big everything. Weeds that did well to grow waist high up the state were eight and often ten feet tall down there. Ground so rich that everything went wild. Volunteer cane just taking the place. Dirt roads so rich and black that a half mile of it would have fertilized a Kansas wheat field. Wild cane on either side of the road hiding the rest of the world. People wild too. (14.1)
What an aristocrat might label as uncivilized wilderness, Janie describes as "big," "wild," and "so rich." She has a decidedly positive attitude towards a place that could be perceived much more negatively by someone high-born. Again, this shows that adventure and pleasure is more important to her than having a luxurious life.
Sometimes Janie would think of the old days in the big white house and the store and laugh to herself. What if Eatonville could see her now in her blue denim overalls and heavy shoes? The crowd of people around her and a dice game on her floor! She was sorry for her friends back there and scornful of the others. The men held big arguments here like they used to do on the store porch. Only here, she could listen and laugh and even talk some herself if she wanted to. She got so she could tell big stories herself from listening to the rest. (14.31)
While experiencing the "low" life of the migrant workers, Janie comes to love it and to pity her friends back in Eatonville for having to deal with pretentious townspeople. Here, nobody acts as if fun is a sin and nobody interferes with anyone else’s happiness, telling them what they can and cannot do. Janie revels in it, especially in the telling of stories.
Anyone who looked more white folkish than herself [Mrs. Turner] was better than she was in her criteria, therefore it was right that they should be cruel to her at times, just as she was cruel to those more n****id than herself in direct ratio to their n****ness. Like the pecking-order in a chicken yard. Insensate cruelty to those you can whip, and groveling submission to those you can’t. Once having set up her idols and built altars to them it was inevitable that she would worship there. It was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity as all good worshippers do from theirs. All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood. (16.43)
Mrs. Turner links race to class. The whiter one is, the classier he or she is. Mrs. Turner takes it to such an extreme level that she considers white people so socially superior that they are gods. She worships them for their inherent superiority to her and wishes with all her might that she could be initiated as a fully white woman, so she could be accepted into their divine social class.
But Mrs. Turner’s shape and features were entirely approved by Mrs. Turner. Her nose was slightly pointed and she was proud. Her thin lips were an ever delight to her eyes. Even her buttocks in bas-relief were a source of pride. To her way of thinking all these things set her aside from N****es. That was why she sought out Janie to friend with. Janie’s coffee-and-cream complexion and her luxurious hair made Mrs. Turner forgive her for wearing overalls like the other women who worked in the fields. She didn’t forgive her for marrying a man as dark as Tea Cake, but she felt that she could remedy that…her disfavorite subject was N****es. (16.5)
Mrs. Turner understandably links whiteness of skin to higher ranks in society than the black people occupy. But she mistakes the whites’ higher social status for moral superiority. To her, white means good while black signals bad. Therefore, based on her logic she approves of everyone who has white blood in them because it means they are inherently superior and belong to a higher class than normal black people.
[Mrs. Turner to Janie]: "Yo’ husband musta had plenty money when y’all got married."(16.8)
Mrs. Turner assumes that Janie holds similar disdain for black people and admiration for whites, so she assumes that the only way a black man like Tea Cake could win Janie’s hand in marriage is if he had money. Mrs. Turner probably thinks of marriage as a vehicle for increased social status, either by marrying for money or marrying someone with fair skin.
[Mrs. Turner]: "You’se different from me. Ah can’t stand black n*****s. Ah don’t blame de white folks from hatin’ ‘em ‘cause Ah can’t stand ‘em mahself. ‘Nother thing, Ah hates tuh see folks lak me and you mixed up wid ‘em. Us oughta class off."
[Mrs. Turner]: "Look at me! Ah ain’t got no flat nose and liver lips. Ah’m uh featured woman. Ah got white folks’ features in mah face. Still and all Ah got tuh be lumped in wid all de rest. It ain’t fair. Even if dey don’t take us in wid de whites, dey oughta make us uh class tuh ourselves." (16.14-20)
Mrs. Turner thinks that because she and Janie have white blood in them, they inherently belong to a higher class than black people and thus they should "class off." This new class would be of a lower status than the fully white people and higher than the fully black people. Essentially, Mrs. Turner wants every inch up the social ladder she can get. What does she really expect to get from becoming a member of a higher class?
Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods
[Tea Cake]: "Mah Janie is uh high time woman and useter things. Ah didn’t git her outa de middle uh de road. Ah got her outa uh big fine house. Right now she got money enough in de bank tuh buy up dese ziggaboos and give ‘em away."
"Hush yo’ mouf! And she down heah on de muck lak anybody else!" (17.5-6)
Tea Cake is proud of Janie’s former status as a mayor’s wife and he similarly admires her wealth. It’s almost like he sees his status increasing by pointing out that his wife left her wealth and comfortable life for him and to work in the muck beside him. That’s how awesome he his.
It woke up old Okechobee and the monster began to rollin his bed. Began to roll and complain like a peevish world on a grumble. The folks in the quarters and the people in the big houses further around the shore heard the big lake and wondered. The people felt uncomfortable but safe because there were the seawalls to chain the senseless monster in his bed. The folks let the people do the thinking. If the castles thought themselves secure, the cabins needn’t worry. Their decision was already made as always. Chink up your cracks, shiver in your wet beds and wait on the mercy on Lord. The bossman might have the thing stopped before morning anyway. (18.27)
Although the lake is obviously swelling with water and ready to flood, the black migrant workers stay down in the swamps, clinging to the confidence of the white people, that they will be safe no matter what nature throws their way. The black "folk let the [white] people do the thinking." Notice how the colloquial and lower-classed are called "folk" and call the white richer men as "people" – a more serious term than the quaint "folk." Even based on terminology, the lower class people are granted less humanity than their higher class neighbors.
Then the band played, and Tea Cake rode like Pharaoh to his tomb. No expensive veils and robes for Janie this time. She went on in her overalls. She was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief. (19.183)
Janie dressed in expensive black veils and such for Joe’s funeral, but she doesn’t do the same for the man whom she truly loved. Tea Cake’s funeral isn’t an opportunity to flaunt her wealth or status; the only reason Janie used so much money for Tea Cake is because that’s her personal way of lovingly saying goodbye. Wearing overalls to Tea Cake’s funeral shows that the money spent on the ceremony was not her way of showing off to the community. If her intention was to show off, she would have remembered to put on some pretty, expensive clothes.
Tea Cake hung back defensively. "Whut Ah got tuh do wid dat [burying bodies]? Ah’m uh workin’ man wid money in mah pocket. Jus’ got blowed outa de ‘Glades by de storm."
The short [white] man made a quick move with his rifle. "Git on down de road dere, suh! Don’t look out somebody’ll be buryin’ you! G’wan in front uh me, suh!" (19.20-21)
Tea Cake’s assumption that money will keep him safe proves to be wrong; to the white men, his black skin overrides any money or class he might have. To them, he is essentially a slave.
Tea Cake makes the false assumption that having money in his pocket will earn other men’s respect and keep them from "bother[in]" him. He’s wrong.
[Janie]: "Can’t nothin’ be done fuh his case, doctah? Us got plenty money in de bank in Orlandah, doctah. See can’t yuh do somethin’ special tuh save him. Anything it cost, doctah, Ah don’t keer, but please, doctah."
"Do what I can. Ah’ll phone into Palm Beach right away for the serum which he should have had three weeks ago. I’ll do all I can to save him, Janie. But it looks too late." (19.102-103)
Janie is desperately trying to use all her resources to save Tea Cake. She hopes that her wealth will gain her access to special medication, but she is deluded. No amount of money will save Tea Cake now, the doctor implies. Wealth and class do not always get a person what she wants.