Magazine December 22, 2019, Issue

Zora Neale Hurston’s Individualism

Zora Neale Hurston at the New York Times book fair, November 1937 (PhotoQuest/Getty Images)
She wrote a novel for the ages but shunned ‘Race Pride’

Eatonville, Fla.

Zora Neale Hurston didn’t want to be a black writer, at least not in the way that others insisted on it: “From what I had read and heard, Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem. I was and am thoroughly sick of the subject,” she wrote in her 1942 memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road. “My interest lies in what makes a man or a woman do such-and-such regardless of his color.”

If she sounds sort of like a conservative, that’s because she was one. The author of what is arguably the most celebrated novel by an African-American woman — Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937 — was a Republican who despised identity politics. “I am not tragically colored,” she wrote in 1928. “I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a low-down dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it.”

Hurston knew a lot about racism, of course. She encountered it in her own life and wrote on it with insight. Yet she refused to become its victim, preferring humor to grievance: “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!”

We’re still enjoying her company today. Although Hurston died in 1960, she hit No. 2 on the New York Times best-seller list last year with Barracoon, based on her interviews in 1927 with an 86-year-old man who was the last living person to have been transported in slavery from Africa to the United States. And on January 14 HarperCollins will release Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick, a new collection of Hurston’s short stories, including eight “lost” tales that haven’t appeared in print since their original publication. 

Despite this, her academic champions are doing their best to ensure the new collection doesn’t get picked up by the Conservative Book Club. The introduction by editor Genevieve West deploys the Left’s favorite buzzwords, citing Hurston’s “intersectionality” and praising her for “interrogating the politics of gender and class.” Separately, Hurston biographer Valerie Boyd has maintained that “we don’t know how she would have responded” to modern political figures and their beliefs.

But we can make some good guesses, as her political ideas fit squarely into a tradition of black conservatism that runs from the self-help philosophy of Booker T. Washington to the constitutional colorblindness of Clarence Thomas. Hurston’s faculty admirers customarily overlook this inconvenient fact — and when they can’t, it holds a special power to trigger them. Remember the old joke about how many feminists it takes to change a light bulb? (Punch line: That’s not funny!) Several years ago, a variation on this theme involved Hurston. The linguist John McWhorter commented that Hurston “would be at home today on Fox News.” This produced a solemn rebuke on Counterpunch, a left-wing website, from Cecil Brown: “The idea of Zora appearing on Fox News is not very funny at all.” 

Clearly this is serious business — and conservatives ought to claim Hurston as a kindred spirit.

She was born in Alabama but grew up mainly in Florida. “You will have to know something about the time and place where I came from, in order that you may interpret the incidents and direction of my life,” Hurston wrote in Dust Tracks on a Road. She was always cagey about time, which is a euphemistic way of saying that she often lied about her age, describing the year of her birth as 1901 or later when in fact it was 1891. But she was blunt about place: Her hometown was Eatonville, which today seems like just another neighborhood in the sprawl of Orlando. During Hurston’s childhood, however, it was what she called an “experiment of self-government for Negroes” — i.e., the first town in the United States incorporated and run by blacks. As a girl, she saw nothing unusual about her fellow blacks’ occupying positions of authority, such as owning stores, serving as mayor, and more. She once wrote that although she knew about white people, she didn’t begin to understand what it meant to be “colored” until she was 13.

Eatonville figures prominently in Hurston’s fiction, and today a plaque at the corner of Kennedy Boulevard and Peoples Avenue commemorates her as “the widely acclaimed writer, folklorist, and cultural anthropologist.” To rise, however, she had to leave. She went to high school in Maryland, took courses at Howard University, and eventually went to Barnard College, the women’s college associated with Columbia University, where she studied under the anthropologist Franz Boas. (A new book on Boas, Gods of the Upper Air, by Charles King, covers Hurston’s connection to her mentor and even takes its title from Hurston’s writings, but, predictably, also refuses a genuine engagement with Hurston’s political views.)

Under the direction of Boas, Hurston became a collector of black folklore in the South and the Caribbean. Along the way, she wrote fiction and drama, contributing to the Harlem Renaissance, a lively movement of black artists and thinkers. Then, on a research trip to Haiti in 1936, she wrote the novel that would secure her place in the American literary canon.

Their Eyes Were Watching God tells of Janie Crawford and her three troubled marriages. Her grandmother arranges the first, to a man of moderate means who lacks passion. Her second husband is a dynamic entrepreneur who helps found Eatonville; this section shows what can happen when a man refuses to treat his wife as an equal. Her third marriage is a product of true love but turns tragic in the wake of a devastating hurricane. The story and its characters possess a mythic power, and Hurston revels in the grittiness and majesty of black culture, especially its vivid dialogue. One of the book’s most quoted lines, uttered by Janie’s grandmother, gives the flavor: “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as ah can see.”

Modern readers may regard such colloquial rhetoric as demeaning, to say nothing of Hurston’s casual use of the N-word. In her time, many black writers condemned Their Eyes Were Watching God as a kind of pantomime performance that threatened to confirm white stereotypes about black inferiority. Admirers, however, tend to see the book’s vernacular language as a vital depiction of an authentic American subculture. (As in all such writing, the words can be daunting to read on the printed page; I recommend the audiobook version narrated by the late actress Ruby Dee, who turns Hurston’s dialect into poetry.) 

Their Eyes Were Watching God was Hurston’s singular achievement, and in recent years it has sold millions of copies. In 2005 it became a television movie starring Halle Berry and produced by Oprah Winfrey. Nowadays, it routinely shows up on the type of list that journalists like to assemble, such as the one the BBC recently released of “100 novels that shaped our world.” Yet few saw its greatness during Hurston’s life, perhaps in part because she became outspoken about politics in ways that damaged her reputation among left-leaning black intellectuals. In 1951 she contributed an essay to American Legion Magazine: “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism.” In 1955 Hurston criticized the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which is usually considered a heroic blow against Jim Crow laws. And perhaps it was. Yet Hurston was troubled by its implication that the proper education of black children requires the presence of white children.

When she died in a welfare home in Fort Pierce, Fla., Hurston was buried nearby in an unmarked grave. In the 1970s, however, the novelist Alice Walker led a revival movement. She revered Hurston as a proto-feminist and pushed for this dead black woman to join the dead white men on high-school and college syllabi. In 1975, in an article for Ms., Walker described a visit to Eatonville and Fort Pierce, where she discovered the location of Hurston’s resting place and put up a stone memorial. Yet she also committed a familiar blunder of liberals, asking a misconceived question: “Why do you suppose Zora was against integration?” Walker seemed to assume that a racist lies behind every skeptic of, say, forced busing — a faulty assumption that remains alive and well, as Joe Biden learned last summer when Kamala Harris targeted him during a Democratic presidential debate because he had criticized forced busing as a young politician.

When it came to race, Hurston was a realist: “I know that there is race prejudice, not only in America, but also wherever two races meet together in numbers.” She refused to partake in what she called “Race Pride”: “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?” She applied the same principle to whites: “The white race did not go into a laboratory and invent incandescent light. That was Edison,” she wrote. “If you are under the impression that every white man is an Edison, just look around a bit.”

In rejecting Race Pride, Hurston sought to honor “the richer gift of individualism.” She warned of “racial card-sharks” who seek to stir up discontent. “Anybody who goes before a body and purports to plead for what ‘The Negro’ wants, is a liar and knows it,” she wrote. “Negroes want a variety of things and many of them diametrically opposed.”

The granddaughter of slaves, Hurston would have savaged the New York Times and its “1619 Project,” which seeks “to reframe the country’s history” as a racial crime. “I see nothing but futility in looking back over my shoulder in rebuke at the grave of some white man who has been dead too long to talk about,” she wrote. She described slavery and Reconstruction as “dark days” but refused to hold a grudge: “I have no personal memory of those times, nor no responsibility for them. Neither has the grandson of the man who held my folks.”

For Hurston, everything came down to individual people. As Janie tells a friend at the end of Their Eyes Were Watching God: “Two things everybody’s got tuh do for theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”

This article appears as “Zora the Explorer” in the December 22, 2019, print edition of National Review.

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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