One of the most critically acclaimed novels of the 20th century entitled Their Eyes Were Watching God was written by Zora Neal Hurston. The novel follows the life of a young girl named Janie Crawford through adolescence, three marriages, widowhood, and other various major events in between. Janie meets several interesting people throughout her journey; one notable character being a woman she meets while in her third marriage named Mrs. Turner. Mrs. Turner is a complex character because despite being mixed race, she seems to buy into the racist system black people are oppressed by and partake in the discrimination against black people herself.
Mrs. Turner is initially described by Janie as “a milky sort of a woman that belonged to child-bed,” which is indicative of her mixed heritage (Hurston 163). Mrs. Turner associates herself with Janie because of their similar backgrounds, specifically, “Janie’s coffee-and-cream complexion and…luxurious hair” (Hurston 164). Tea Cake, Janie’s third husband, pokes fun at Mrs. Turner by claiming that she “had been shaped up by a cow kicking her from behind” (Hurston 164). Mrs. Turner, however, valued the parts of her appearance that suggested her white background. Her thin lips, slight, pointed, nose and even “her buttocks in bas-relief were a source of pride” (Hurston 164). What most of the African Americans, including Tea Cake, would have found dissatisfying, she treasured. To Mrs. Turner, appearances were so important because they were representative of social class.
We are first introduced to Mrs. Turner’s bigotry and racism when she thinks to herself that “She didn’t forgive [Janie] for marrying a man as dark as Tea Cake” (Hurston 164). Through hateful comments, the novel reveals that Mrs. Turner has a deep-rooted belief that the white race is superior to the black race. She expressed this blatant prejudice when she says to Janie, “Ah can’t stand black niggers. Ah don’t blame de white folks from hatin’ ’em ’cause Ah can’t stand ’em mahself.” This is ironic because Mrs. Turner’s livelihood relies on the business of black people and workers in the town. Mrs. Turner also believed that she could ‘help’ Janie by introducing her to her brother who had a much lighter complexion and “dead straight hair” (Hurston 167). She believed that Janie should abandon her husband and remarry someone else just on the basis of skin tone.
It was clear that Mrs. Turner valued everything white and hated everything black. She took it even so far as to say that she only visits white doctors and will refuse t be seen by black doctors (Hurston 166). It is stated in the novel that “like all other believers [she] had built an altar to the unattainable—Caucasian characteristics for all” (Hurston 170). Mrs. Turner’s character is so bewildering because she is associating herself with a people and belief system who openly and actively discriminate against her. But then again, Mrs. Turner actually believed that she deserved this discrimination and prejudice as punishment for the blackness that was inherently part of her. She felt like it was an evil; a burden that she had been so unfortunately chosen to bear. Instead of resenting racism she actually propagates it and places whiteness on a pedestal. According to Mrs. Turner’s beliefs, “anyone who looked more white folkish than herself was better than she was…[and] therefore it was right that they should be cruel to her at times, just as she was cruel to those more negroid than herself in direct ratio to their negroness.” (Hurston 169-170). She truly believed that the racism she endured and inflicted was just and deserved. Not once was never any desire for equality.
Another ironic moment in Mrs. Turner’s rant is when she accuses Janie of being “sorter hypnotized” by Tea Cakes love, which, in her eyes, is wrong because he is dark skinned. In reality, she is the one who has been hypnotized by the overblown institution of racism at the time. Mrs. Turner is an extreme example of the twisted effects of racism and intolerance. She chose to associate herself with the white side of racism and heritage because in her eyes it might somehow save and deliver her to “her paradise—a heaven of straighthaired, thin-lipped, high-nose boned white seraphs” (Hurston 170).
Mrs. Turner was deeply dissatisfied with her life and position on the totem pole of race. In conversation, she mentions to Janie that “De black ones is holdin’ us back,” and that they “oughta class off” (Hurston 165). She knew she could never truly attain the whiteness that she desired and she felt trapped by her blackness. Therefore, she thinks that a new race for she and Janie should be created. From Mrs. Turner’s perspective, anything is better than being associated with darker skinned African Americans. She believes that women like herself and Janie should only marry white men and “lighten up de race” (Hurston 165). This statement leaves Janie at a loss. She is not interested in ‘classing off’ nor does she give much attention to her heritage. Janie pays little attention to her racial status; perhaps because she is content and happy in her love with tea Cake.
It is interesting how Hurston manages to bring so many elements of the impact of racism into one character. Mrs. Turner was a product of the society she was in. White people reigned in her understanding in the world and it was her hope that if she could embrace the part of her heritage that was white, she might evade some of the suffering that accompanied being an African American. Mrs. Turner was so complex because she genuinely accepted a social system that oppressed and discriminated against her and even took part in it herself. She was a perverse response to an extensive institution of racism.
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