“What dat ole forty year ole ʼoman doin’ wid her hair swingin’ down her back lak some young gal?”
Readers first glimpse Janie through the eyes of her neighbors in Eatonville, who are sitting on the porch at sundown and watching her return home. Janie’s long, straight hair is a symbol of her sexuality, assertiveness, and youthful energy. To her neighbors, Janie’s hair is also a symbol of her nonconformity, even indecency.
And one night he had caught Walter standing behind Janie and brushing the back of his hand back and forth across the loose end of her braid ever so lightly so as to enjoy the feel of it without Janie knowing what he was doing. Joe was at the back of the store and Walter didn’t see him. He felt like rushing forth with the meat knife and chopping off the offending hand. That night he ordered Janie to tie up her hair around the store.
Joe Starks, Janie’s second husband, is a jealous, possessive, and controlling person. Joe realizes that Janie’s hair makes her sexually attractive to men, so his decree that Janie must cover her hair is a claim that her sexuality belongs exclusively to him. In Joe’s mind, Janie’s hair is a symbol not only of her beauty but also of her potential for wanton behavior. By insisting that she cover her hair to retain her modesty, Joe is suggesting that Janie’s nature is immodest.
Before she slept that night she burnt up every one of her head rags and went about the house next morning with her hair in one thick braid swinging well below her waist. That was the only change people saw in her.
Janie’s husband, Joe Starks, insisted that she cover her hair so other men could not see it. So one of Janie’s first actions after Joe dies is to uncover her hair. By destroying her head rags and letting her hair down, she signifies that she is no longer under Joe’s control. Janie’s hair has become a symbol not only of beauty and sexual power but also of freedom and individuality.
The guards had a long conference over that. After a while they came back and told the men, “Look at they hair, when you cain’t tell any other way.[”]
After the hurricane, Tea Cake and other survivors are pressed into service to bury the dead. White bodies are put in coffins, while Black bodies are buried in a common grave. The guards decide that hair is the best means of distinguishing white people from Black. The passage makes explicit what has been implicit throughout the story, namely that hair is a symbol of race. Janie’s beautiful long hair is one of the features that sets her “above” her darker-skinned African American neighbors.
Now, in her room, the place tasted fresh again. The wind through the open windows had broomed out all the fetid feeling of absence and nothingness. She closed in and sat down. Combing road-dust out of her hair. Thinking.
At the end of the novel, Janie has returned to Eatonville, having buried her beloved Tea Cake. Now she is ready to get on with her life. The road-dust in Janie’s hair represents the traumatic events that have happened to her since she left Eatonville. Janie’s hair now symbolizes not only her beauty, power, and independence but also her inner self. The act of combing her hair symbolizes Janie shaking off the past and reclaiming her life.