The Secret Zora Neale Hurston
by Steve Sailer
Published in National Review, 4/3/95, 1800 words
Zora Neale Hurston -- Novels and Stories (Vol. I) and Folklore, Memoirs and Other Writings (Vol. II) (Library of America, Vol. I: 1,054pp., Vol II: 1,024 pp., $35.00 each)
Intellectual discourse increasingly centers around Big Books, massive tomes like The Bell Curve, which, while unfinishable, serve as pretexts for journalistic ruminations. Nobody unleashes bigger books than the government-subsidized Library of America, "the only definitive collection of America's greatest writers." Although fastidious in whom it honors, the Library is promiscuous in what it reprints. This pedantic refusal to excerpt lends its publications an air of Gallic pomposity, as exemplified by this 2,078 page outpouring, grandiose enough for Racine, but a comically ponderous salute to an effervescent American original, Zora Neale Hurston (?-1960).
Zora's induction into this quasi-official pantheon does offer a timely occasion to look back upon the first African-American woman writer of note. To traditionalists who haven't read her, Zora's emergence as a mainstay of trendy college reading lists epitomizes the decline of academic standards. To multiculturalists, her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God has become "perhaps the most widely known and privileged text in the African-American literary canon," according to black studies professor Mary Helen Washington. Alice Walker (author of that anti-black male bestseller, The Color Purple) claims, "There is no book more important to me." And Oprah owns the movie rights.
Nobody, however, seems terribly interested in Zora's own ideas. Although the reading public would have been better served by, say, a 700 page "Best of Zora" collection, these portly volumes do at least copiously document her unfashionable world view. Never before has Zora been so widely read, but seldom has any author been so uniformly misread by her self-proclaimed (but self-absorbed) heirs. Stereotyping her by skin color and sex, the diversicrats ignore much of the inner Zora: a disciple of the greatest dead white European male authors, a connoisseur of macho braggadocio, and a shamelessly conservative Republican who scorned victimism and leftist conformism.
What produced such a woman? Zora's father combined carpentry and preaching with the less Christ-like calling of being mayor of what may have been America's first self-governing black town. Eatonville, Florida's singular status sheltered young Zora from the worst of Jim Crow, giving her an almost unique foretaste of our post-Civil Rights world. After leaving Eatonville, Zora scraped by as a maid and waitress, educating herself (once finding a copy of Paradise Lost in a rubbish pile). Finally, her ebullience and wit attracted patrons who helped her become in 1925 the first black at Barnard College. She soon became known as the most irreverent personality of the Harlem Renaissance.
Studying anthropology under Franz Boas, she collected black folklore in Florida logging camps and New Orleans hoodoo dens. An aged ex-slave told her how the King of Dahomey had conquered his West African village, then peddled him to white slavers. Zora reflected, "[M]y people had sold me . . . It impressed upon me the universal nature of greed and glory. Lack of power and opportunity passes off too often for virtue."
Zora reworked her mountain of sermons, songs, and "lies" (tall tales) into beguiling folklore, fiction, and memoirs, imbued with her love for both the oral inventions of poor black folk and the "canonical" masterpieces from Chaucer to Kipling. She maintained that Southern black speech fused two exuberantly innovative traditions: the West African and the Elizabethan.
Her hopes for literary prestige, however, were undermined by the leading black male intellectuals. Their disdain, though, stemmed less from their chauvinism than from their socialism. Unlike her Communist rival, Richard Wright (whose best-selling Native Son made him leader of what she tartly termed the "sobbing school of Negrohood"), she refused to view blacks primarily as victims.
While trying to escape an unworkable love affair with a domineering younger man, Zora wrote Their Eyes in seven weeks. Today, a vast academic literature struggles to reconcile this rushed but irresistible love story with feminist literary doctrine, explicating it as a "text" about the evolving selfhood of an autonomous, intelligent woman achieving her own voice, etc. Yet, as Yale's independent-minded Harold Bloom notes, "Hurston herself was refreshingly free of all the ideologies that currently obscure the reception of her best book. Her sense of power has nothing in common with . . . contemporary feminism," as the plot makes clear:
Lovely, light-skinned Janie, 16, dreamily lounges beneath a flowering pear tree. "She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage!" But an arranged match with an unsexy farmer fails to bloom, so Janie runs off with dynamic entrepreneur Joe Starks to Eatonville. Joe single-handedly turns it into a successful all-black community.
Their marriage, though, wilts as Joe becomes materialistic and stuffy. Yet, Zora also portrays Joe as heroic in his ambitiousness, and Janie as unable to cope with the intellectual demands of tending shop. Eventually, love dies, then so does Joe. Janie, now 38, is left the wealthiest and comeliest widow of color in central Florida.
Suddenly, the story veers back from mildly feminist to wildly feminine, as Janie finally discovers true love in the arms of Husband #3: Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods, a roustabout, gambler, and knife-fighter. Much to Janie's satisfaction, Tea Cake demonstrates his consuming love by occasionally ravishing her ("he hurled her to the floor and held her there melting her resistance with the heat of his body") or beating her:
It aroused a sort of envy in both men and women. The way [Tea Cake] petted and pampered [Janie] as if those two or three face slaps had nearly killed her made the women see visions and the helpless way she hung on him made men dream dreams.
"Tea Cake, you sho is a lucky man," Sop-de-Bottom told him. "Uh person can see every place you hit her... Take some uh dese ol' rusty black women and dey would fight yuh all night long and next day nobody couldn't tell you ever hit 'em. Dat's de reason Ah done quit beatin' mah woman. You can't make no mark on 'em at all. Lawd! Wouldn't Ah love tuh whip uh tender woman lak Janie! ...
This is at heart a lush romance novel, complete with bodice-ripper highlights, so it's a little unsettling that feminist academics bask in it. Janie doesn't "grow in personhood," but rather fulfills the romantic destiny she envisioned under the pear tree by marrying her menacing but smitten Tea Cake.
As delightful as this fantasy often is, Zora could have written a more insightful book by sticking closer to her own life to examine the age-old predicament of a strong-minded woman drawn to masterful men. I suspect that female academics persistently misinterpret Their Eyes by projecting Zora's spunk and eloquence onto Janie's wealth, unaging beauty, and heart-throb hunk of a husband. Now, there's a heroine any woman would enjoy identifying with! (Zora's other novels are less popular today in part because their protagonists are male and/or white.) In truth, though, Janie isn't half the woman her creator was.
Zora, in fact, seems intermittently bored with her relatively inarticulate heroine, digressing frequently to the men trash-talking on Janie's store porch. With its unlikely swings from perfect-pitch Southern black feminine vernacular, to gushing romance, and on to testosterone-fueled insult contests, reading Their Eyes resembles channel-surfing among The Color Purple, Jane Eyre, and White Men Can't Jump. Zora's obvious pride in the prodigious oral creativity of black male bravado illustrates a fundamental contradiction between multiculturalism's two leading strands: feminism and the celebration of African-American culture. Inconveniently for feminists, the single greatest theme of 20th Century black art has been: I am a man. In reaction to the long efforts by whites to make black men into unthreatening boys, black men have forged a masculine persona of stunning charisma that increasingly dominates global pop culture. As an early impresario of African-American culture, Zora could hardly afford feminism's peeved response to swaggering masculinity.
Feminists looking for a role model might be expected to turn from Janie to Zora's most memorable character, vividly displayed in her zestful yet trenchant autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). Revealingly, they are embarrassed. Poet Maya Angelou finds the autobiography "puzzling," since Zora doesn't linger enough on all the sexism and racism she overcame. Alice Walker is disconcerted by its "weird politics," which grew from Zora's hardheaded view of human nature: "It is foolish to expect any justice untwisted by the selfish hand. Look into the Book of Books . . . The Lord wanted [the Hebrew slaves escaping Egypt] to have a country full of big grapes and tall corn. Incidentally, while they were getting it, they might as well get rid of some trashy tribes that He never did think much of, anyway." She had little use for the politics of race: "All clumps of people turn out to be individuals on close inspection," and "The Race Leader is a fiction that is good only at the political trough."
Did Zora eschew racial militance out of greed? Well, Richard Wright made far more money by smiting the white man hip and thigh. Or was she naive? It's widely assumed that black militants are more disillusioned with whites than conservatives like Zora or Thomas Sowell. In truth, the confrontationists show a touching faith in the patience of the white majority. Having studied the universality of group antagonisms, black conservatives lack all confidence in the kindliness of white people.
Nor do Zora's other works support current dogmas. In this time of Afrocentric postulates about black pharaohs, her Moses, Man of the Mountain, an idiosyncratic retelling of Exodus, reminds us that African-American have long been fascinated by tales of Egypt. Before Afrocentrism, though, blacks identified with Egypt's slaves, not its slaveowners.
After WWII, Zora's conservatism became even more outspoken. She campaigned for Adam Clayton Powell Jr.'s Republican opponent, published "Why the Negro Won't Buy Communism" in American Legion magazine, and endorsed Robert Taft for the GOP nomination in 1952. Most controversially, she denounced as demeaning to blacks the Supreme Court's Brown decision that separate always meant unequal. While questionable in 1954, this proved a prescient critique of the 1970's school busing rulings, which implied that the White Child's Burden was to civilize his dusky classmates.
Largely estranged from the black establishment, Zora's finances deteriorated until her death back home in Florida in 1960, alone and broke, but still proud. Upon hearing the news of her impending pauper's burial, old friends rallied around to send her off with the kind of rousing funeral she had always reveled in growing up in Eatonville.
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Steve Sailer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a businessman and writer.