One of the last photos of Zora Neale Hurston, taken in the late fifties, is heartrending. Once renowned as a handsome figure who could dominate any room, she sits outside a Florida bungalow, a bloated old woman living in poverty, chatting with locals. As sanguine as she looks, we can’t help wishing that she had been in New York, plugging her latest novel on The Jack Paar Show. But all her books were out of print, and she was supporting herself on piddling jobs, including working as a maid (not for the first time). She seems to have reached the state of mind that her character Janie describes at the end of her masterwork, Their Eyes Were Watching God: “Ah done been tuh de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons.”
Hurston died soon thereafter, in 1960. But she was a mesmerizing thinker who could never have remained a footnote for long. Thirteen years later, the novelist Alice Walker brought her back to the world’s attention. Hurston’s works are in print again—indeed, enshrined in a Library of America volume. Her early play Mule Bone, a collaboration with Langston Hughes, enjoyed a full-scale staging in New York in 1991. The postage stamp arrived in 2003, a film of Their Eyes Were Watching God came out two years later, and PBS’s American Masters documentary series celebrated her in 2008. Hurston scholarship has advanced over the last several years, too, with an important biography by Valerie Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows, and a superb edition of Hurston’s letters by Carla Kaplan.
Hurston, then, has taken her place in the Harlem Renaissance diorama, and it would be easy for us to read the knowing grin she wears in photos as signaling her recognition that Black Is Beautiful. That was true, to a point. But she was more eccentrically self-directed than many of her fans today realize, a fervent Republican who would be at home today on Fox News and whose racial pride led her to some unorthodox conclusions. Zora Neale Hurston’s grin was a quiet challenge to black people as well as white, and it still is.
Boyd has established that Hurston was born in 1891 not in Eatonville, Florida, as she claimed—she arrived there as an infant—but in a tiny “blink of a town”: Notasulga, Alabama. Her mother died when Hurston was 13, and her father, John, busy traveling as a preacher and maintaining a string of paramours, wasn’t inclined to bring up a brood of children alone. He sent Zora to a Jacksonville boarding school, where she often worked as a janitor in lieu of the tuition money that he didn’t always remember to send. A brief return home ended when Zora nearly killed her father’s preening young snip of a second wife in a domestic dispute.
Zora later returned to Jacksonville for a seven-year spell that she glided over in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, and that leaves her modern biographers largely stumped. We do know that she worked as a maid and wound up as a factotum in a Gilbert and Sullivan troupe that stranded her in Baltimore. At 26, she pretended to be 16 to get into a college preparatory program at what is now Baltimore’s Morgan State University, moved on to a similar program at all-black Howard University, and earned her high school diploma. Entering Howard itself seemed a natural next step, and there she began writing and publishing short stories and poetry. Like many talented black writers of the time, she was taken up by white New York promoter Carl Van Vechten. Soon she arrived in New York to attend Barnard, eventually earning her B.A. in 1928.
At Barnard, Hurston came under the spell of anthropologist Franz Boas, whose work sought to show the complexity of indigenous cultures, in contrast to the then-common impression of peoples beyond the First World as primitive. Her study with Boas became the defining experience of her life. Under his tutelage, Hurston learned that she had grown up in a culture as genuine as that of Native Americans—and decided that she wanted to explore it. She returned to Florida to collect a corpus of rural black folktales that would form the basis of her career. Though Hurston would also hang out in New York with Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and the literary gang she termed the “niggerati”—and deftly court the white supporters she dubbed “Negrotarians”—she spent most of her time doing fieldwork, in the deep South and in the Bahamas, and found true fulfillment in it.
She not only put the folklore material down in print; she also made it live as theater, fashioning a concert production of songs, sketches, and dances. Usually titling the revue The Great Day, she presented it more than once in New York and later on tours in several states. All the while she juggled essays, drafts of plays, occasional academic papers, and, starting in 1934, books.
Jonah’s Gourd Vine marked her debut as a novelist. In part, it’s a roman à clef about Hurston’s childhood—an attempt to come to terms with her father’s philandering. But at heart, the book is a channeling of Boas’s idea, a demonstration that a remote, poverty-stricken world possessed a vital culture of its own and wasn’t merely a degraded version of mainstream white culture.
At one point, for instance, a character approaches another with “Hello, John. Ah see you fixin’ tuh make soap.” John asks, “Whut make you say dat, Lucy?” Her answer: “Ah see yuh got yo’ bones piled up.” Hurston continues, “She pointed to his crossed legs and they both laughed immoderately.” Bone ash, you see, was used to make soap. The lesson is that this culture—in which people spend most of their lives barefoot, literacy is rare, speech comes in a full-blown rural black dialect, and dinner consists of the likes of sow bosom—has the intelligence and wit of wordplay, just as the white world does. And Jonah’s Gourd Vine is replete with lessons like this, a lecture in the class that Hurston would teach for the rest of her life.
Hurston’s next novel, published in 1937, was Their Eyes Were Watching God, which would justify her fame if she had written nothing else. Eyes tracks the humble but bewitching Janie as she achieves self-awareness through three marriages—the third to younger sex bomb Tea Cake, a “glance from God,” who contracts rabies and becomes so abusive that she has to kill him in self-defense. Roiling, redolent, and real even 72 years later, Eyes has that ineffable sense of having been dictated from on high.
At least, that’s its estimation now. At the time of its publication, Richard Wright could only see shucking and jiving, with the characters swinging “like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.” Dean of the black literati Alain Locke found the novel’s folk aspect superficial, neglectful of “inner psychology.” But this is a novel whose protagonist stretches out under a tree, watches a bee pollinate a flower, and enjoys her first orgasm—“a pain remorseless sweet.” She rises “seeking confirmation of the voice and vision, and everywhere she found and acknowledged answers. A personal answer for all other creations except herself. She felt an answer seeking her, but where? When? How?” Uncle Remus this isn’t, and it’s almost perplexing, today, reading such smart men so casually dismissing a novel bursting with layered symbolism and some of the most vivid black characters that had yet appeared in fiction.
But Wright and Locke were thinkers of their era, viewing Eyes’s opening, which depicts men on a porch trading colorful tall tales, as hee-yucking “local color.” Americans had not yet learned that the indigenous was compatible with sophistication. Wright and Locke’s dismissiveness resulted from a misunderstanding of how distinct Hurston’s project was from theirs. They wanted to show what black people could be: rebels against injustice or equals to white achievement. Hurston thought what black people already were was splendid enough.
Eyes arrived at a time when Howard students were dismissing spirituals as a primitive practice from a past best forgotten, and when black writers were supposed to show how well they could pull off mainstream forms, with ten-dollar words, inverted syntax, and references to Keats and Shelley. Many readers today, consulting black literature before the twenties, expect “authenticity” and instead find black characters talking like books in antimacassared living rooms. Anticipating contemporary sensibilities, Hurston bucked against what she called the “oleomargarine era in Negro writing” and urged black writers to resist merely imitating whites. “Fawn as you will,” she wrote. “Spend an eternity standing awe-struck. Roll your eyes in ecstasy and ape his every move, but until we have placed something on his street corner that is our own, we are right back where we were when they filed our iron collar off.”
This insistence that the humblest folkways of black America were a precious heritage crying for documentation was the bedrock of Hurston’s work. Though today her novels get the most attention, she tended to dash them off in a few months and rarely felt satisfied with them. The years-long sweat and tears that many writers devote to their novels she put instead into gathering folktales. Hot on the heels of Jonah’s Gourd Vine came Mules and Men, a collection of folk materials from Eatonville and New Orleans. Hurston struck a balance between scientist and participant, knitting together the descriptions of voodoo rituals with vivid personal testimony. For her follow-up, Tell My Horse, she underwent initiation as a healer in order to document healing rituals in Jamaica and Haiti.
Today, we must read Mules and Men and Tell My Horse as history. Desegregation, roads, and media spelled the death of the folkways that Hurston documented. The signal was already fading in the thirties, as she wrote to Boas: “It is fortunate that it is being collected now, for a great many people say, ‘I used to know some of that old stuff, but I done forgot it all.’ You see, the Negro is not living his lore to the extent of the Indian. He is not on a reservation, being kept pure. His negroness is being rubbed off by close contact with white culture.”
Hurston’s embrace of black folk culture was far ahead of its time. In her day, a somber musical about black sharecroppers would have been hooted off the stage, even by black audiences; today, a musical version of Walker’s novel The Color Purple is touring the country after playing for over two years on Broadway. But while Hurston’s once-radical point of view about folkways has become mainstream, other aspects of her vision of black authenticity have not taken hold—above all, her politics.
There is a frequently reproduced photograph of Hurston showing a lanky, slit-eyed, laughing gal. The photo seems warm and spontaneous, suggesting that Hurston is a black “sister” who is “down with us,” an early representative of a very modern sensibility.
But Valerie Boyd notes that the shot, from one of Hurston’s field expeditions, is of someone else entirely. Perhaps the reason that Hurston’s fans continue to make the mistake—as Kaplan’s anthology does, for example—is that they want to think of her as just one of us. But that version of Hurston becomes increasingly elusive as one plumbs her actual life story.
For one thing, Hurston held a fiercely asserted black conservative politics akin to Clarence Thomas’s. Her most famous statement in this vein comes from “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” an essay of 1928: “I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. . . . 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.”
To be sure, Hurston knew what racism was, and she deplored Jim Crow: “I am for complete repeal of All Jim Crow Laws in the United States once and for all, and right now. . . . Not in some future generation, but repeal NOW and forever!” She became even more militant through the 1940s, occasionally writing things that would delight the leftist wing of the college-town set: “The Anglo-Saxon is the most intolereant [sic] of human beings in the matter of any other group darker than themselves.”
But she also acknowledged, “You are bound to be jostled in the ‘crowded street of life,’ ” exemplifying what Thomas Sowell calls “tragic vision.” For her, the key was self-reliance: “It’s the old idea, trite but true, of helping people to help themselves that will be the only salvation of the Negro in this country. No one from the outside can do it for him.” Unsurprisingly, she admired Booker T. Washington. (A preacher in Jonah’s Gourd Vine yells, “DuBois? Who is dat? ’Nother smart nigger? Man, he can’t be smart ez Booger T.!”)
Hurston decried the assumption that successful blacks were somehow “beside the point,” arguing that “these comfortable, contented Negros are as real as the sharecroppers.” In saying that the black vote should not be one “dark, amorphous lump,” she anticipated today’s black conservatives in pointing out the pitfalls of reflexively supporting one party: “It’s time for us to cease to allow ourselves to be delivered as a mob by persuasive ‘friends’ and become individual citizens.”
Boyd attributes Hurston’s relative lack of interest in denouncing racism, as well as her dedication to black self-sufficiency, to her growing up in an all-black town, where blacks occupied all political offices and whites were largely an abstraction. But countless black figures of her era had similar backgrounds and didn’t end up as conservative thinkers. She was an odd duck.
And her oddness wasn’t just political. For all her love of her deeply Christian people, for example, she was not a churchgoer. In one letter describing her investigations of voodoo, she even disavowed Christianity. She entered into three short-lived and largely long-distance marriages, to men much younger than she was, usually less accomplished, and barely known to her friends. She dedicated her books to white acquaintances. She rarely saw her siblings, and she never had a long-term intimate friendship. All of the contemporaries quoted by Boyd and earlier biographer Robert Hemenway speak of her from a distance, as a memorable character they observed but didn’t know well. After shaving ten years off her age to get into prep school, she continued to pose as ten years younger for the rest of her life—and passing as 30-something when pushing 50 entails raising a scrim of sorts between oneself and the social world.
Hurstonites cherish her depiction of blacks’ “ ‘feather-bed’ resistance to whites’ attempts to figure them out, the inquisitive probe met with an inviting softness that ultimately leads nowhere in particular”—the sly grin in the photos comes to mind. Yet Hurston met not only her white “Negrotarians,” but even blacks, with this genial brand of deflection. By the time she died, it seems that not a single person had ever really known her, at least not for long.
To many today, Hurston’s impatience with groupthink suggests an underlying discomfort with being black. But for Hurston, it was a simple matter of inner pride. Her anthropological and literary work puts paid to the slightest question of whether she loved black culture and her own people. Yet she still understood that seeking individual validation in race “pride” amounted mostly to smoke and mirrors:
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.
Hurston would likely irk many today with skepticism about the black community’s pride in Barack Obama’s election. She would also have no patience for the slavery reparations movement that flowered most recently in the early 2000s, in the wake of Randall Robinson’s best-selling manifesto The Debt (see “Reparations, R.I.P.,” Autumn 2008). When slavery was recent enough for her to have interviewed former slaves, she even went as far as asserting, “Slavery is the price I paid for civilization.” In what reads like a riposte to Robinson’s book, she wrote: “You have at least a hundred years of indoctrination of the Negro that he is an object of pity. ‘We were brought here against our will. We were held as slaves for two hundred and forty-six years. We are in no way responsible for anything. We are dependents. We are due something from the labor of our ancestors. Look upon us with pity and give!’ ”
Hurston did not live long enough to offer her two cents on affirmative action, but she gave ample hints of how she would have responded to universities’ lowering standards based on pigmentation:
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.
Italics mine: she knew that life was never perfect, but she counseled blacks to make the best of themselves nevertheless, rather than shouting from the rooftops that human nature must change first. She knew that when it comes to ability, assertion cannot stand up to demonstration: “Equality is as you do it and not as you talk it. If you are better than I, you can tell me about it if you want to, but then again, show me so I can know. . . . If you can’t show me your superiority, don’t bother to bring the mess up, lest I merely rate you as a bully.”
She could overdo it at times. Deriding the concept of the “race man,” she once wrote: “His job today is to rush around seeking for something he can ‘resent.’ ” Hurston was chafing at people like Richard Wright for expecting her to write only about black misery. But it was a little facile to toss that one off in 1938, just seven years after the Scottsboro Boys’ trial. Her disapproval of the Brown v. Board of Education verdict—she insisted that there was nothing wrong with an all-black educational environment—stemmed from ignorance of the deplorable conditions in most black schools in the South.
Still, in combining a commitment to the “blackest” of folkways with a politics not far from Shelby Steele’s, Hurston explodes the myth that the black conservative is a grim opportunist, parroting the right-wing line while privately haunted by a disdain for his own people. Striding fashionably late into drawing rooms in her red scarves, shamelessly brandishing her black Southern accent and regaling listeners with electrifying renditions of folktales straight from the mouths of poor Southern blacks, she was difficult to regard as a sellout. (Or as racked by self-hatred: “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!”) She beautifully demonstrated that impatience with the melodrama of identity politics is not antithetical to deep love for one’s people.
Hurston’s modern fan base doesn’t know quite what to do with all this. “I think we are better off if we think of Zora Neale Hurston as an artist, period—rather than as the artist/politician most black writers have been required to be,” Walker writes. “This frees us to appreciate the complexity and richness of her work in the same way we can appreciate Billie Holiday’s glorious phrasing or Bessie Smith’s perfect and raunchy lyrics, without the necessity of ridiculing the former’s addiction to heroin or the later’s [sic] excessive love of gin.” Sure—but if Hurston had been more inclined to sing about what happens to a raisin in the sun, one suspects that Walker would have had no trouble celebrating her as an “artist/politician.”
Many have tried to compartmentalize Hurston’s conservatism, calling it an aberration of her declining last decade. Carla Kaplan proposes that she veered rightward out of paranoid despair after three preadolescent boys falsely accused her of sodomizing them—a charge that the black press reveled in, though it was dismissed. But Hurston had been writing things that would have gotten her chased out of an NAACP meeting since the 1920s. Her ideology became clearer in the 1950s, true, but only because she started writing more political essays when she could no longer get her novels published.
The sad fact was that, as acute an artist and thinker as she was, Hurston’s novelistic output was ultimately small and uneven. Of her four novels, only Eyes stands up as a masterpiece. Hurston bristled under black critics’ reflex to read Jonah’s Gourd Vine as depicting a universal “Negro” rather than individual characters; but, in fact, its characters are more folk archetypes, speaking in strings of savory metaphors in a stylized black vernacular, than flesh-and-blood men and women. Even Eyes retains the problem to an extent: the characters too often perform instead of talk. Hurston’s use of dialect was a pioneering try; others, like Walker, have since followed her lead and ironed out the bugs. And Hurston leaves Janie as much device as person—it’s hard to imagine how she would laugh, for example.
Legions of writers would be content to produce just one book on the level of Eyes, of course, but overall, Hurston’s light burned brightest in her lovingly rendered folk documentation. Her soulful rendition of black folk speech was unprecedentedly accurate, embodying a kind of standing character in itself. Mules and Men is among her most resonant works, and The Great Day was, by all accounts, a theatrical treasure. In a time when many of the black literati sought legitimacy in mimicking white artistic forms, Hurston was an educated, cosmopolitan soul who joyously rooted herself in the folkways of the poorest of her people. That alone required a rigorous equipoise, a manner of standing at the same time within and outside herself that was unfamiliar in her time.
And she exhibited a further quintessence of sophistication that remains elusive even today: refraining from translating her folk allegiance into the politics of pity. We have much to learn from someone who is—as quiet as the secret is kept—America’s favorite black conservative.