For women of all races, the journey of finding one’s voice has persisted to this day. In Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Janie attempts to find her voice in spite of the resistance from men, and occasionally, other women. During her journey to find her voice, the men she encounter, also, increasingly have fuller voices. Rather than vilify the voiceless men, Hurston instead directs the audience’s compassion towards them. In the novel, the characters’ voices are influenced by their intrinsic oppression by a commanding authority. Just as women have been manipulated by men, African American men have been controlled by white society. Through Janie’s three major relationships in the story, Hurston indicates that while the voiceless will enact a hierarchical reproduction of their own oppression by in turn stifling the voice of others, those who have achieved a voice will innately attempt to reverse hierarchical oppression by helping others to locate their own voices.
As a result of his inability to express his emotions, Logan Killicks resorts to controlling Janie as his only means of meaningfully interacting with her. Janie’s first husband, Killicks is an affluent man Grandmother forces Janie to marry because of the financial stability and protection he offers. In spite of his ability to overcome the discrimination of white society by establishing himself as a successful black farmer, Killicks is emotionally incompetent, as he struggles to express his feelings even to Janie, a sixteen year old girl. When he wishes to convey his thoughts, rather than open his mouth, he holds a wad of tobacco ‘real still in his jaw like a thermometer of his feelings while he studie[s] Janie’s face and wait[s] for her to say something’ (Hurston 26). Only through the narrator do we learn of his hurt and disappointment towards Janie’s threat to leave him after he forces her to work in the field: “There! Janie had put words to his held-in fears. She might run off sure enough. The thought put a terrible ache in Logan’s body, but he thought it best to put on scorn” (30). Because of Killicks’ silence, Janie views him as a shallow, dispassionate character, intent on making her into his mule. However, Janie fails to understand that in order to achieve his success as a black farmer, Killicks, like Grandma, has had to suppress his individuality and passion, qualities that Janie seeks in a relationship, in favor of a materialistic outlook. While she is cognizant of the plight of African American women such as Nanny or Leafy, who have been raped by white men, she is unaware of the plight of black men like Killicks who have often been lynched by white society. Just like Tea Cake later in the novel, it may well be that Killicks forces Janie to work on the fields because he wants her as a companion so that they can secure their future together. However, because of his lack of voice, Killicks fails himself by demanding her to work on the fields rather than asking her, as Tea Cake does. In essence, Killicks suppresses Janie’s voice because of his lack of voice; his experiences in white-dominated society render him without the ability to interact with her in any other way.
Due to his unwavering subscription to a hierarchical society, Joe Starks attempts to remedy his own lack of an intimate voice with a suppression of Janie’s. When Janie leaves Killicks for the enthusiastic and energetic Starks, she escapes her prison only to be confined to another one. Unfortunately, like Killicks, in his subjugation in white society, Starks views the authority commanded by whites as a privilege that he strives to possess himself. His goals and visions are reduced to that of white materialistic success, as he aims for power, prestige, and property. As their marriage continues, Janie’s love interest in Starks begin to fade because his voice comes to depend largely on smothering hers. It becomes clear that his desire to control her is based off his own insecurities. When Starks proposes to Janie, he says, ”Kiss me and shake yo’ head. When you do dat, yo’ plentiful hair breaks lak day’ ‘ (28). Yet, once they marry, he insists that she cover her hair with a head rag, suppressing her identity and sexuality: “This business of the head rag irked her endlessly. But Jody was set on it. . . That was because Joe never told Janie how jealous he was…. She was there in the store for him to look at, not those others. But he never said things like that. It just wasn’t in him.” (51-52). Like Killicks, even Starks, a prominent leader of the community with a powerful public persona is unable to express his intimate emotions to Janie. As a result, instead of communicating with and understanding Janie, he tries to forcefully shape her into his idealization of a perfect wife. While he believes he is doing everything possible for Janie, in reality she is being coerced into being someone she does not want to be. Even so, Hurston does not mean to depict Jody as a wicked person because he does not aim to hurt Janie; rather, pain is a consequence for Janie because of Jody’s priorities, fallacious as they are. At his core, Starks does not intend to hurt Janie, but he does so as a result of living the only way he is acquainted with — under the principle of male dominance he has acquired from his own inherent oppression by whites as a black man.
Tea Cake’s possession of a voice, along with his gravitation towards experiential, rather than hierarchical fulfillment work to elevate Janie’s voice. Tea Cake reflects the possibility of a non-materialistic and equal relationship without a constant battle for power and control. Unlike Janie’s previous two husbands who sought to suppress her genuine feelings, Tea Cake does not require her to act in any particular way. Though Tea Cake is less financially and socially well off than Killicks and Starks, he possesses the ability to express his love and emotion to Janie, as evidenced by his desire to include Janie as an equal in his work and his play. Tea Cake utilizes his voice as a way to empower Janie’s voice. For instance, when Tea Cake asks Janie to attend a picnic with him, in her uncertainty that his request was only made out of respect, she responds that it is okay if he takes another woman, and Tea Cake replies,’ ‘Naw, it ain’t all right wid you. If it was you wouldn’t be sayin’ dat. Have de nerve tuh say whut you mean’ ‘ (104). As opposed to Killicks and Starks, Tea Cake rejects the reaction by Janie that places him as the authority in the relationship, in favor of her authentic opinion. Because Tea Cake does not inherently possess any insecurities about his own voice or power as Killicks and Starks do, he has an uplifting effect on Janie, who at this point, is yet to complete her journey in finding her own voice. Interestingly, when Tea Cake’s “control” over Janie is threatened by Mrs. Turner’s attempts to persuade Janie to leave Tea Cake for her lighter skinned brother, he beats her as Killicks and Starks would, but from good intentions: “Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behavior had justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss” (140). Whereas when Starks hits Janie, his slaps exhibit his inability to communicate intimately with Janie, when Tea Cake beats her like Starks does, the beating is portrayed as a socially acceptable assertion of love by those in the community. In contrast to Jody, who acts to declare his supremacy over her, Tea Cake’s beating is one of unmotivated violence which comes from a place of possessive love. Likewise, as Jody acts to declare his voice at the expense of Janie’s, Tea Cake acts to raise both his and hers equally.
Through Janie’s marriages to Killicks, Starks, and Tea Cake, Hurston reveals that whilst those without a voice suppress the voice of others as a defense mechanism to their own oppression, those who have achieved a voice challenge authority by empowering the voice of others. Today, Hurston’s message is incredibly clear, as the increasing voice of historically oppressed groups such as women, the LGBTQ community, and African Americans continue to act together to uplift each other. It seems more and more likely that some day, all people will find their voice in society.