The Zora Neale Hurston we don’t talk about
“You are my idea of the worst secretary in the world,” the white woman once said to the black woman. But today she was saying, “Come, Zora, with your car and let’s go you and I on a trip.” So Miss Fannie Hurst and Miss Zora Neale Hurston left the confines of Hurst’s West 67th Street duplex and drove out. As Hurston writes, in an essay titled “Fannie Hurst”, the two writers weaved their way through Saratoga Springs and Ontario, stopping at the falls because Hurst begged him – “Zora, you must see this thing from the Canadian side”. Zora, loving a trip and, presumably, a salary, obliged. Hurst, as Hurston observed, made immaturity a habit, “almost dancing up and down like a six-year-old putting something on his elders”. But the trip showed Hurston another side, the artist “on the verge of giving birth to a book”. (The book, although Hurston does not mention it, was probably “impersonation of life. ”) Hurst was “a mixture of woman and author,” writes Hurston. “You can’t separate the two things in his case. Nature must have intended it to be so.
This profound essay, originally published in the Saturday Reviewis one of the fifty pieces collected in “You don’t know us niggersa new volume of Hurston’s writings, published last month. Edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Genevieve West, this is Hurston’s first collection of a short nonfiction book. Hurston’s recovery story prefaces his archives like a fable: the indelible image of Alice Walker combing through the brush of central Florida in search of an unmarked grave. This tomb has read “Genius of the South” since 1973. The interim has seen Hurston recognized as a folklorist and ethnographer, novelist and short story writer. Her name has become synonymous with a certain strain of Afro-Americana, her most famous quotes invoked as maxims: “I am tragically not of color”; “I feel most colorful when projected against a crisp white background.” With the new collection, write its editors, “Hurston takes his place as a major essayist of the twentieth century”. The essays also reinforce the impression that many readers still have some spirit behind “Their eyes looked at God.”
The volume contains some well-known essays by Hurston, among them “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” and “What White Publishers Won’t Print”, both emblematic of the proud, bristling Southern woman with whom we have become familiar. I regularly teach “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” another piece in the collection, which provides a window into Hurston’s studious side for time-strapped readers. Yet reading any of these individual texts is different from knowing Hurston as an essayist, as a mixture of black woman and writer who worked for her bread. The late and immensely scholar Cheryl Wall, who helped elevate Hurston’s reputation, observed that although the canon of African-American literature is replete with essayists, often “critics turn to their essays primarily for light. they throw at the best authors. -known texts. But the essay form, “digressive” in thought and full of personality, resists such instrumental use. Hurston wrote vigorously and often and was, by scholarly accounts, America’s most prolific black female writer during the decades covered by this collection. What emerges from the sum of these writings is a Hurston who cannot easily be construed as a champion of racial pride, which she once called “a luxury I cannot afford.”
Consider, for example, an essay titled “The Race Cannot Grow Great Until It Recognizes Its Talent,” in which Hurston offers a particular defense of black art. For much of history, “every thought worth its salt had to be embalmed in French or Latin,” writes Hurston, adding that Chaucer changed all that, as did “Shakespeare the man.” If its linguistic history does not pass the course, that is not the question; Hurston wants to make an analogy with the American arts. Black people, she argues, should cherish their unique creative offerings and rid themselves of the half-decayed performances of whiteness she has seen pass: “We cry out against the ignorance and barbarisms in the South which we believe , block our way to the heights. “Here she mentions Claude Neal, who was lynched and paraded among thousands of white people in Jackson County, Florida. “But he’s one man,” Hurston continues. “How about the intellectual lynching we perpetrate on ourselves? We could call it an analogy too far. I doubt we’ll find a quote like “WE LYNCH ORIGINAL THOUGHT” printed on a tote bag soon. The modern reader who associates Hurston with the lush empathy offered to Janie Mae Crawford, the protagonist of “Their Eyes Were Looking at God,” might not appreciate “The Lost Keys to Glory” either. The play is an amusing parable for women’s equality – “The devil and woman have always been the best of friends”, writes Hurston – which is as serious as a stroke in lamenting the lost female powers over the women leaving home. “There is no doubt that women take themselves very seriously as equals to men in all of these activities,” writes Hurston. “It is obvious, however, that women are not up to the fight.”
It’s light compared to what Hurston had to say about Brown v. Board of Education (headline: “Court Order Can’t Mix Races”) or the lingering issue of segregation. It was rumored that, towards the end of his life, Hurston antagonized some people in his Florida community for vigorously supporting a certain segregationist politician. I suspect that politician was Spessard L. Holland, whom she praises in an essay, circa 1958, which was never published at the time. (The play survives only in a manuscript version, and parentheses in the book indicate parts that were lost when staff at the nursing home where Hurston had lived began burning its effects after his death.) Hurston defends the Holland on the basis of house customs which she deems incompatible with the progressive lexicon of the North. “Certain words and phrases mean one thing to Dixie and something completely different on the outside. For example, segregation is interpreted as racial hatred on the outside, but not in the South where it simply means activities and separate social relations – not hatred of black individuals,” she wrote. “The South is very outspoken about this.”
That Hurston was no friend of the left is no secret, though few are as keen to discuss his politics as John McWhorter, the writer and linguist, who dubbed Hurston “the favorite black conservative of America”. Black conservatism, like folklore, is a tradition with ancient roots, though white people rarely recognize it as such. In the introduction to the new collection, Gates and West write that “we could think of Hurston as a black cultural nationalist, in contemporary black political parlance, or as a black cultural ‘conservative’ or ‘traditionalist’. “It strikes me as a roundabout way of saying that Hurston both loved Southern folk traditions and hated what she called ‘federal subsidies.'” In a footnote to an essay titled “I Saw Negro Votes Peddled,” an eyewitness account of the single vote in Dade County, editors warn that “Hurston was unwittingly repeating” Columbia’s Dunning School racist ideology regarding Reconstruction and “clearly hadn’t read WEB’s seminal rebuttal. Du Bois But what if she had read “Black Reconstruction in Americaand found it neither here nor there? Because we love Hurston, calling him direct can feel like a hassle, like airing out a family business.
Reading these essays necessitates abandoning the agonizing enterprise of rescuing Hurston from his politics, as if the writer we credit for knowing so much about his own Negro mind has justly forgotten himself on occasions when the catches are not have not aged as well as we would prefer. Journalist and scholar Valerie Boyd, who died last weekend, aptly wrote, in her biography of Hurston, “Wrapped in rainbowsthan “Hurston’s individualistic position. . . did not cancel his identity as one of the people. Hurston’s lifelong artistic project, mastering a black idiom, is not incongruous with his views; The negro was her mode of composition, whether she was discussing electoral politics or conducting her ethnographic research. For Hurston, Negroness was something of a charm, if that rang true. The idiom, as she defines it in an essay entitled “L’art et tel”, concerns the “poetic flow of language”, carried out by “cooking the subject in its own juice”. Hurston’s subjects might be Bob Taft or High John of Conquer, the folk hero of Africa (“To some he was a tall, physical man like John Henry. To others he was a bit, hammered, low – man built like the Devil’s baby-doll”). Twice in the collection, Hurston writes about the nose – as dark a subject as there ever was – attributing social qualities to the trait in general and in its particulars racial and ethnic (Greek, Anglo-Saxon, African). “I observe a great stir among the ladies of the high world because if there were no noses there would be no rebuffs and without rebuffs there would there would be no society,” she writes. From such disparity—from noses to neo-spirits—emerges a Hurstonian sense of mode, assertive and not objective, but preoccupied with this “stew” and focusing on point of taxonomy.