The Unequal Reaction to Zora Neale Hurston


Newton’s Third Law of Motion says that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

What Newton may never have realized is that his formulation applies as much to political and social movements as it does to physical objects and forces. I was reminded of this while watching an episode of the PBS series American Masters.

The segment in question deals with Zora Neale Hurston, the all-but-uncategorizable African-American writer who was, among other things, the first member of her race to graduate from Barnard College. As an artist and folklorist, she is best known (justly so) for Their Eyes Were Watching God and Mules and Men. In these books, and other works, she turned her unique eyes and ears — which were preternaturally attuned to rhythms and motifs of speech and movement and trained by the pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas — on the communities in which she was born and raised, and in which she would spend much of her life. The result, as more than one fellow writer observed, was that she could render the idioms of early 20th Century black Americans in a way that middle-class white Americans could feel as if they were reading their own language.

So why were all of her books out of print at the time of her death in 1960? (When I was an undergraduate a quarter-century ago, the revival of interest in her work was just beginning.) And, you may be asking, how does all of this relate to Newton’s Third Law of Motion?

The answer to these questions lie with an aspect of Ms. Hurston’s life and work that has been ignored, downplayed or simply been greeted with a dismissive "tsk, tsk" by the writers and scholars such as Alice Walker and Henry Louis Gates.

I am referring to the political views she expressed. Or, more precisely, I mean the principles she extracted from her life experiences and expressed as a cogent philosophy of race relations and their relation to economics and politics. Her expression of these axioms brought upon her the wrath of the very people who once championed her books.

Actually, there was always an undercurrent of resentment against Hurston’s focus on language, stories and traditions, and the aesthetic pleasure she found in them. Richard Wright (best known for his Native Son) was probably the most prominent voice castigating her for not writing "protest" novels, or simply works that were more blatantly political (read: Communist/Socialist). Writers such as Wright as well as the critics and scholars who championed them would become part of the action and reaction that would propel the irony of Hurston’s rise, fall and resurrection in the eyes of the reading public.

Today nearly everyone deplores, rightly, the "McCarthyism" that stifled so much meaningful discourse during the 1950’s. Wright and other writers who had been, in one way or another, associated with the Communist Party before the war strenuously denounced their pasts or simply denounced their former party affiliation. It’s hard to blame them: Any number of writers and other artists and intellectuals had their careers interrupted or destroyed altogether over mere allegations of their allegiance to the Kremlin.

However, the American Masters episode about Hurston contains one of the few references — let alone more-than-cursory treatments — of Hurston’s politics outside of conservative intellectual journals.

That Hurston was a Republican was not terribly remarkable, even in the 1950’s. While African-Americans began their flight from "The Party of Lincoln" two decades earlier, many — particularly those of Hurston’s generation and members of what Richard Florida today calls "the creative class" — retained their allegiance to the Grand Old Party. Gates and any number of white liberal academics see this political orientation of the idea that "I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps, so can everyone else." However, such an interpretation — which was shared by Wright and others who would denounce Hurston — does not come close to accurately representing the beliefs Hurston actually expressed.

That is the reason why leftist writers and intellectuals — very often, the very people impugned by McCarthy’s allegations — as well as leaders of the emerging Civil Rights movement attacked Hurston, sometimes viciously. As soon as they learned that she opposed the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, she was labeled an "Uncle Tom" and worse. (Similarly, too many people who claim to want an end to US involvement in Iraq and to restore civil liberties wouldn’t consider Ron Paul upon learning that he opposes Affirmative Action legislation.) They never read or listened long enough to learn what may have been the most valuable lesson that Hurston learned from her experiences of gathering folklore: that she was a member of a strong and resilient race of people who, because they had endured great hardships and injustices, had the will as well as the ability to rise above their current condition. That view is best expressed in a letter she wrote to the editor of the Orlando Sentinel in 1955.

Indeed, how can anyone not see her faith in her people — and in herself — after reading the following?:

If there are not adequate Negro schools in Florida, and there is some residual, some inherent and unchangeable quality in white schools, impossible to duplicate anywhere else, then I am the first to insist that Negro children of Florida be allowed to share this boon. But if there are adequate Negro schools and prepared instructors and instructions, then there is nothing different except the presence of white people.

Lest anyone infer that she was writing as a pie-in-the-sky utopian, she shows that her work left her with about as realistic a view of human nature as one can have when she says, in essence, that laws can end segregation in schools but not people’s hearts or when she wonders, "How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them?"

Furthermore, she frequently expressed her opposition to welfare programs like the ones initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. She believed, prophetically, that reliance on entitlements would undermine black men’s and women’s sense of their self-worth. This, in turn, would destroy their families and communities: the very institutions she did so much to portray for a wide audience.

Expressing these views would lead to her being "blacklisted," although almost no one, it seems, describes her treatment as such. After her Seraph on the Suwanee was published in 1948, only letters to local newspaper editors and occasional articles kept her name in print. She had become a persona non grata to the very writers, editors, agents and publishers who, just a few years earlier, couldn’t get enough of her.

Ms. Hurston, who so strenuously refused to define herself as a victim, became just that at the hands the very people who were victimized by their actual or alleged political affiliation. Perhaps the saddest irony of all is that some of those people who shunned Ms. Hurston helped to launch, or were otherwise associated with, the Civil Rights movement that helped to bring about the Brown decision, Affirmative Action and other legislative actions that would leave Hurston spinning in her grave — and give Newton affirmation, though perhaps not the kind he would’ve liked.