Intriguing Authors: Zora Neale Hurston

zora neale hurstonThe Reading Room rotation consists mainly of Christian books (both doctrinal and historical), books relevant to my personal history, historical fiction, classic fiction, and children’s books. All else is tier 2 stuff that I may or not get around to depending  on reviews and research.

Of late, I have spent a fair amount of time going back over what I thought I knew about my place of origin, and black American culture worth embracing (circa 1900). This brings me to my extensive study of Zora Neale Hurston.

Because I heard a lot about her as I grew up, I thought I knew a lot about her. My gathering of her writings was prompted mainly by the fact that reading her books offers me insight into my hometown. I then stumbled into learning about her rather than simply remembering odd facts from elementary school.

Hurston, widely embraced after her death while largely ignored most of her life, was in many ways a larger than life persona. Even the black feminist writers of the 80’s and 90’s, who revived her from obscurity, have a love/confused relationship with her. Her politics, views on relationships, and unwillingness to engage in racial victim-hood put her at odds with much of what they embrace.

In fact it was this very thing that caused her to be largely dismissed by the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. A cursory, unthinking post modern person would assume they criticized her because she was a female in a male dominated movement. That was however, not the case. They disliked Hurston’s work because she refused to write about black life in relation to white America. She didn’t think it did justice to the life and culture of blacks to pretend that their lives held no joy or worth except as compared to the white American mainstream. From her Dust Tracks on a Road:

“I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”

This permeated her writing and her refusal to get in on the racial protest writing that typified the acclaimed writers of the Harlem Renaissance stood in the way of her ability to be widely accepted. Much was and has been made of Richard Wright’s criticism of Hurston, but they simply approached what it meant to be black in America from different angles. To Wright, being black was serious business, while Hurston viewed it as a simple fact of her life which carried some good, and some bad along with it. Same as everyone else. It wasn’t that she was unaware of discrimination:

Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It is beyond me.

It was simply that she didn’t let it define her. The thing most bewildering to today’s cadre of black writers and activists, however, were Hurston’s politics. She wasn’t a liberal. That much is obvious. And although the neocons of today try to co-opt her views as evidence that she would be Republican were she alive today, it is probably closer to characterize Hurston as a libertarian, more akin to Ayn Rand than Ann Coulter. She recoiled against being treated as an inferior creature, and it didn’t matter if it was to her supposed benefit:

“It seems to me that if I say a whole system must be upset for me to win, I am saying that I cannot sit in the game, and that safer rules must be made to give me a chance. I repudiate that. If others are in there, deal me a hand and let me see what I can make of it, even though I know some in there are dealing from the bottom and cheating like hell in other ways.”

On the idea of one black person’s actions being a credit to or an indictment of us all:

“Now, suppose a Negro does something really magnificent, and I glory, not in the benefit to mankind, but in the fact that the doer was a Negro. Must I not also go hang my head in shame when a member of my race does something execrable? . . . The white race did not go into a laboratory and invent incandescent light. That was Edison. . . . If you are under the impression that every white man is an Edison, just look around a bit.”

It has been enlightening and fun to read and learn about this woman whose re-emergence put my hometown on the map.

If not for a few profound differences,  I’d say Hurston was my kind of woman.

12 thoughts on “Intriguing Authors: Zora Neale Hurston

  1. Elspeth says:

    This interests me not only because I was raised in Eatonville from birth, although that was no small part of what inspired my inquiry. Hubs and I had a running joke about where he plucked me from.

    It has turned into a rediscovery of sorts. It wasn’t that I hadn’t heard much of this before, but I’d never stopped to decipher the meaning of it.

    This type of thinking used to be at least tolerated by some black Americans. Even though many HR writers were die hard communists, they gave Hurston her due, acknowledged her talent. Even though they disagreed with her, no one accused her of self-hatred or being the female equivalent of an Uncle Tom. Well, not many did, 🙂 .

    Contrast that with the black leftists of today.


  2. Cranberry says:

    ZNH appears to be rather exceptional for any woman of her time, black or white. Gifted with quick intelligence and the wit and brevity that come with it, she was able to be in her world and not of it, a capable observer who was able to assume the role of fellow traveler while maintaining a critical eye of her object’s mundane and exceptional traits as well as it’s flaws.

    Many do not know that she was trained as an anthropologist and ethnographer. Her works are priceless, in my opinion. Regardless of the circus they now apparently attract, ZNH did more to reveal humanity, in all it’s flaws and beautiful perfection, than other authors of her time. Yes, she was more interested in what an individual, regardless of color, could contribute to America/Humanity, than in assigning a label to that contribution because of color because…color. Hmmm.

    She is decidedly not wholly sympathetic to black people; rather, she portrays them as humans, which is perhaps more sympathetic than some paternalistic critics might enjoy. I know what kind of New Criticism is applied to ZNH’s work; I sometimes wish, knowing what I know (and understand) now about human nature and the fallibility of human nature and the separation from God, that I could return to my undergrad classrooms and say “NO!” she was not saying it’s blackness or whiteness that causes the problems; it’s humanness that causes the problems, and if we see our common humanity we can work on overcoming our flaws, in the way we are capable due to God’s guidance.

    ZNH may be the first person who helped me realize that people are people….huh? But, they are, and we merely cloud what “people” means by trying to draw lines defined by color, race, creed, etc.


  3. Elspeth says:

    What made her truly unique Cran, especially when compared to the people who would be her colleagues today, is that she understood and embraced her blackness ad a real, tangible thing. She didn’t however see it as a source of inferiority nor superiority.

    I am not sure if I can even really articulate.

    Black is what and who she was, unashamedly. Her anthropological work was nothing if not proof of her embracing who she was. But she was also a realist. I mean seriously, one of the quotes from her was so cringeworthy I removed it from the post:

    “Slavery is the price paid for [her to live in] civilization.”

    Her parents were slaves, for goodness sakes! But as I mused over it, there really is no place else I could have been born to the parents I was and lived the life I have lived. Her gift was in her ability to embrace where she came from as well as where she was. And that without bitterness.

    Today if you choose as she chose, you”re a sellout.


  4. Elspeth says:

    She is decidedly not wholly sympathetic to black people; rather, she portrays them as humans, which is perhaps more sympathetic than some paternalistic critics might enjoy.

    Thinking some more about this, and that’s really it in a nutshell. Her support of Republican presidential candidates (she was well known enough for that to make waves) and her principled opposition to Brown v. Board of education -not sure I agreed with her there but I understand her argument- still leaves black academics scratching their heads.

    That you ladies *get it* and most black people don’t, speaks volumes.


  5. Elspeth says:

    So…during lunch today I was reading Dust Tracks on a Road. I’ll spare you guys a review of every book I read as I read the writings of this author who was in Eatonville at its very beginnings. I’ll be reading or re-reading a lot of her stuff as she was really the only one out there who bothered to catalog the existence of a town which was actually a significant American historical event. Hurston put it this way:

    I was born in a Negro town. I do not mean by that the black backside of an average town. Eatonville, Florida is, and was at the time of my birth, a pure negro town- charter, mayor, council, town marshall and all. It was not the first Negro community in America, but it was the first to be incorporated, the first attempt at organized self-government on the part of Negroes in America.

    Never having the sense to appreciate it as she did is why I’m reading the books, but that little bit is actually NOT why I’m adding a comment to this thread. I just ran across this bit that made me (literally) chuckle out loud.

    Zora Neale Hurston’s mother had a habit of attributing all the bad characteristics that her 8 children exhibited to her husband’s side of the family, the Hurston family. She had a habit of attributing all the good characteristics her children exhibited to her family of origin, the Potts family. Hurston encapsulates her thoughts on that as she did most things, with brevity and insight for future reference:

    Things like that gave me my first glimmering of the universal female gospel that all good traits and leanings come from the mother’s side

    Things that make you go hmmm… There really is nothing new under the sun.


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