I wish I could have met her. That is the surest conclusion I’ve drawn after reading Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd (winner of the 2003 Southern Book Critics Circle Award). The famous author was smart but pleasant — down to earth but with some interesting quirks — a serious artist, but without angst or self-pity.
I would not call this a brilliant biography, but a brilliant biography is not called for here. Sometimes a biographer does best by assembling the research and then letting the subject’s life speak for itself, without psychoanalysis or other unwelcome intrusions. This is generally what Valerie Boyd — arts editor at the Atlantic-Journal Constitution — has done, painstakingly reviewing Hurston’s published works, letters, manuscripts, and everything else she can find, interviewing any still-living contemporaries, but generally staying in the background. Like many biographers, she errs on the side of inclusion, but that is a forgivable sin, and this book comes in at 438 pages — not counting notes, bibliography, and so forth — which is not too bad. The title is a phrase from Hurston’s autobiography: “I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and a sword in my hands.”
Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891 and grew up in all-black Eatonville, Florida. Her happy childhood ended with her mother’s death, and she wound up estranged from her father and all but abandoned by him. She drifted as an adolescent, but her hunger for education and her innate intelligence led her back to school, first to Morgan Academy, then Howard University, and finally Barnard College. She was present and active in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and “is often thought of today as a Harlem Renaissance writer,” but “she did not actually produce very much literature during the Renaissance.”
Two neologisms attributed to Hurston during those heady days show her sense of humor: The “Niggerati” at that time frequently had white patrons, the “Negrotarians.” Hurston wrote plays and poetry, but her career was really based on her prose, both fiction and non-fiction. The former included novels like Their Eyes Were Watching God, novellas, and short stories. The latter included journalism, essays, and an autobiography. In between fell her collections of black folk stories, like Mules and Men and the relatively recently found and posthumously published Every Tongue Got to Confess.
Over the decades and until she died in 1960, she never stopped writing — in large part because, financially speaking, she had no choice. It’s not that she was extravagant; she wasn’t. She just never made much money. But she was not bitter about this, apparently never complained, and cheerfully took work as a maid toward the end of her life to help make ends meet. A full life, but not an easy one.
She was not perfect, in matters big or little. Her three marriages (each to a younger man) all seemed to end before they started; she lied constantly about her age; she committed one act of plagiarism (not discovered until after her death); she smoked unfiltered cigarettes, and eventually weighed over 200 pounds.
Her most remarkable quirk was that she was not just interested in voodoo — she was, after all, an anthropologist and folklorist — but apparently actually believed in it. An intelligent, stable, generally level-headed woman who actually took this stuff seriously: baffling. Ayn Rand, when she first met William F. Buckley Jr., declared, “You are too intelligent to believe in God”; a silly statement, but wasn’t Zora Neale Hurston too intelligent to believe in voodoo? Go figure.
So why am I smitten with her? She was, for starters, a serious writer: She would leave Manhattan, rent a small house somewhere in Florida, or somewhere in the out-of-the-way south, sometimes literally in the woods, and for months would do nothing but write. For someone of her station at that time, this was beyond unusual. As Boyd observes, she “had been making her living solely as a writer for two decades by the autumn of 1933. But Hurston, it seemed, was the only black woman in the country still trying to do so ….”
I will not argue that Hurston was a conservative — as Boyd says, “we don’t know” how she would have taken to Clarence Thomas — but there was much about her that conservatives should find endearing. She was anti-Communist (in 1951, she wrote an article for American Legion Magazine titled “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism”), patriotic (“My country, right or wrong,” she wrote in 1928), “a registered Republican” (not so unusual for African Americans not so very long ago) — who supported Robert Taft in his 1952 presidential bid and, in other elections, opposed Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Claude Pepper — and a proud Southerner.
But what is most refreshing is not so much her overt politics as her attitude toward race, and race relations — and the very fact that she was obsessed with neither. She was criticized by black activist authors like Richard Wright because she did not believe that African-American artists had a duty to advance some political agenda. W. E. B. DuBois had declared in 1926, “I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.” So Hurston knew that “Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem,” but maintained nonetheless, “I was and am thoroughly sick of the subject. My interest lies in what makes a man or woman do such-and-so, regardless of his color.”
”Races have never done anything,” she also wrote. “What seems race achievement is the work of individuals.” And “all clumps of people turn out to be individuals on close inspection.” She told Countee Cullen, “I mean to live and die by my own mind.” Hurston
delineated her own political philosophy, which valued individualism over “race pride,” a social construct that she believed divided people into separate camps in a manner that was particularly explosive. “And how can Race Solidarity be possible in a nation made up of as many elements as these United States? It could result in nothing short of chaos. The fate of each and every group is bound up with the others,” she argued. Hurston saw America in more complex terms than limited racial thinking allowed, and she saw black America as more complex than most “race leaders” acknowledged. “Anyone who goes before a body and purports to plead for what ‘The Negro’ wants, is a liar and knows it. Negroes want a variety of things and many of them diametrically opposed,” she stated candidly. “There is no single Negro nor no single organization which can carry the thirteen million in any direction.”
This was in 1942.
Hurston condemned racial bloc voting, criticized many black colleges as fraudulent and for providing inferior educations, and frequently decried light/dark color prejudice among African Americans. She had an “impatience with ‘race leaders’ of dubious moral character”:
The day of the race leader was done, [Hurston] proclaimed [in 1938], even if the race man did not realize it himself. “Though he is… paid scant attention, the race man is still with us,” she complained. “His job today is to rush around seeking for something he can ‘resent.’”
Hear that, Reverends Jesse and Al?
She had what Thomas Sowell praises as a “constrained vision”; or, as Boyd puts it, Hurston saw that “there is no such thing as a perfect people or an earthly utopia. And freedom is an elusive thing — won, day by day, from within.” Hurston herself, in discussing one of her novels, said, “I do not attempt to solve any problems.” She went on: “I know I cannot straighten out in a few pen-strokes what God and men took centuries to mess up. So I tried to deal with life as we actually live it — not as sociologists imagine it.”
Throughout her life, Hurston refused to be “overly sensitive about race,” recognizing that, in her words, “you are bound to be jostled in the ‘crowded street of life.’” “I am not tragically colored,” she declared. “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 has somehow given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it…. No, I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
She would ignore slights. One occurred when she met with her publisher and others at a restaurant, and the waiter was rude, infuriating the rest of her party, but she refused to be bothered: “His whiteness notwithstanding, he was only a waiter, after all; she was the published author.” That was her way in matters racial and nonracial. Toward the end, debilitated by a stroke and now in a nursing home, “Zora refused to style herself a victim and she exhibited no traces of self-pity.” As she put it, and as Boyd quotes her in the book’s last line: “God balances the sheet in time.” With her posthumous veneration, He has done so.
And, as noted, she had a sense of humor. In her autobiography, Linda Chavez — another American woman of color — approvingly quotes Hurston: “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’s beyond me.” When Hurston spoke at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1939, she “beguiled the [all-white] crowd with her disarming humor.” She told them that, as she drove onto the campus in her convertible, “a Tarheel student tried to insult her, but she ended up getting the last word. ‘Hi, nigger!’ he called out. ‘Hi, freshman,’ she replied.”
Hurston had the right attitude, and even if one thinks it was not the right attitude then, it is most definitely the right attitude now. She was not afraid to denounce white prejudice, did so in no uncertain terms, and demanded to know why, if whites were superior, they were afraid to compete with blacks. “She would not allow white oppression to define or distort her life,” however, and she “resolved to stay the course and focus on the positive, as was her way.” Now more than ever, while it is fine to look at the injustices of the past, one should not — as John McWhorter recently warned — stare. If Hurston, who lived in the Jim Crow South, concluded that one should not let bigotry define one’s existence, how much truer is that now? Hurston was even skeptical of whether the integration mandated by Brown v. Board of Education was necessary for black advancement — a position that was controversial then and appears bizarre today — so it is hard to imagine that she would have much patience with the current institutionalization of lowered standards for African Americans in order to achieve “diversity.”
It would be nice to have more black Americans today who are conservative, but what is more important is that even African Americans who are unwilling to embrace conservatism at least recognize that it is not a horrible, racist ideology. Zora Neale Hurston reminds us that it is not a foreign concept for an African American to have conservative sensibilities and take conservative positions.