Janie isn't sure where to begin her story, so she begins with the beginning of her own life - her parents and her childhood. Janie never knew her father or her mother, but was raised by her grandmother, who worked as a servant for a white family, the Washburns. Her grandmother, Nanny, had a little house in the backyard of the white family's home. When Janie was very young she was a playmate of the white children, but didn't know she was any different from them. One day, she sees a photograph taken of the group of children; all of the other children identify themselves in the picture, and the only figure left unclaimed is a little dark-skinned girl. She suddenly realizes she is different from the other children - "colored," as she calls it. All of the white people find it funny both that she didn't recognize herself and that it distresses her.
Soon she is having trouble at school (which is not racially integrated, of course), where other children make fun of her because she and her grandmother live in the backyard of a white family, and that she wears the cast-off clothing of the more affluent white children. They also, cruelly, refer to the fact that Mr. Washburn (her grandmother's employer) and the sheriff had to use dogs to track down her father after what he had done to her mother. Janie comments how her taunting schoolmates never mentioned that her father later returned to offer to marry her mother. In any case, Nanny was upset when Janie was teased, and so decided to buy her own little house.
There is a jump in time in the story: now Janie is sixteen and is sitting under a pear tree at the house she lives in with her grandmother. The tree is blossoming, and Janie is led to think about her life, and the possibility that she'll be married someday. She is thrilled to be young, to have so much in front of her, and watching the flowers and the bees around her - she begins to realize she is now a being with sexual desires. The whole world begins to look different to her. So when a tall, lean, boy named Johnny Taylor appears, walking down the road, she's overcome by desire. She goes up to the fence and kisses him; but her grandmother sees this, and immediately calls her back into the house.
Nanny is deeply upset by what she's seen. She tells Janie she's a woman now, which Janie disagrees with. Nanny tells her she wants her to get married right away; Janie is shocked and confused. Nanny thinks Johnny Taylor is bad news and tells Janie so. She makes Janie feel guilty for her behavior, and reminds her of all she's sacrificed for her. Nanny admits she knows Janie didn't mean to do anything wrong, and promises she'll protect her, by marrying her off immediately. Janie asks whom she could possibly marry. Her grandmother responds she already has a candidate: Logan Killicks, a fairly successful farmer, also a widower. Janie reacts in horror: she thinks he's too old and unattractive. Nanny is furious; she's afraid Janie will cause her the same kind of grief as her own daughter, Janie's mother. All Janie thinks about is her beautiful vision of the pear tree ruined; she won't look her grandmother in the eye. Her grandmother slaps her across the face, but relents when Janie starts to cry. She explains to Janie that black women are the most oppressed group in the whole world - "de nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see."
Nanny questions how many times Janie has kissed Johnny; she tells her it was only once. Her grandmother explains she only wants her to get married so she'll be protected; Nanny is old and is worried what will happen to her when she's gone. Nanny was really happy to raise Janie so she could have another chance, as Janie's mother, Leafy, had a tragic life.
Nanny now tells Janie some of her family history. It turns out Nanny had been a slave on a southern plantation, and in fact had been the mistress of her owner; Leafy was actually the product of this relationship. Nanny tells of a time when the white wife of the slaveowner came to see her new baby and clearly saw the family resemblance on Leafy's infant face. The woman started to beat her. Then she said Nanny would be whipped by the overseer the next morning, and the baby would be sold. That instant, Nanny decided to escape. A few years later, with the end of the Civil War, Nanny and her daughter Leafy are finally, actually free.
But Nanny never married, because she was worried about someone mistreating her baby. So she moved down to West Florida and got a job with the Washburns. She was sending Leafy to school, and was hoping for Leafy to become a schoolteacher herself. But one day she didn't come home on time; the next morning, they find her crawling on her hands and knees back home - she'd been raped by her schoolteacher. Leafy was never the same again; after Janie was born she drank all the time and finally she went out and never came back.
Nanny again says she's done the best she could for Janie, and asks for her sympathy. She wants Janie to be safe and taken care of.
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