The Ain't-half-bad Tea Cake in Their Eyes Were Watching God
Hurston did not design her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God with the intent of creating a protagonist figure in Tea Cake Woods. Hurston’s characters just naturally fit into the roles and personalities that African American women have been socialized to expect and accept from black men. The good over the bad; turn the other cheek; don't let it get you down. Forever taught that the road ain't gonna be easy and that a ain't-half-bad man is better than no man, African American women have been instilled with the belief that abuse, bitterness, and sadness can be ignored if there is something else to focus that energy on. In Janie's case, we are moved to accept Tea Cake, who is at times abusive, because of the way he makes Janie feel - young and happy.
I first read the novel during my Junior year of high school, during which time our main focus was merely to include African American authors in the canon, not to search their writings for their social and political implications. For this reason, I left my first reading of Hurston's novel with glazed-over eyes and a lifelong quest, if not an obsession, for a man like Tea Cake.
After another reading Their Eyes Were Watching God, I was shocked to discover just how much I had forgotten. How easily the details of Janie's first two husbands, Logan Killicks and Jody Starks, had escaped me. How willing I was to forget Tea Cake's abusive, indulgent ways in order to leave his reputation intact--in order to still love him when Janie was forced to take his life. After our class discussion, I became more and more disturbed by my ability to forgive and forget the first time around. Heartless slaps become love taps and petty jealousies become cute little hang-ups. The reader becomes a woman and it all becomes so easy to bear.
Janie's entrance into womanhood mirrors the entrance of almost every woman--her sexual emotions develop along with her body and each day, as naked reality reveals itself, knicks are added to the smooth china of her dreams. Hurston's novel creates a character, Janie, whose experience and socialization mirrors that of her black female readership. In this way, the reader travels a path with Janie which is common to us all. The reader identifies with the contest between Janie's wants and desires within a socialization construction which teaches that fulfilling one's needs is necessary while fulfilling one's desires is indulgent.
The first phase of Janie's socialization, and thus the socialization of the African American woman, is the acknowledgment of a voice, real or imagined, which alerts us to what is to be sacrificed for and what needs be left behind in the interest of healthy development. Nanny is this voice for Janie. Nanny, rootless as a result of her slave experience, seeks to ground Janie in such a way that she will never feel the lack of foundation which Nanny's history has laid upon her.