A post per day for Black History Month
Because my students are reading Zora Neale Hurston this week, she is on my mind. I honor her for being a woman who was not afraid to speak her mind, who was not ashamed of her culture, who was not afraid concerned with being a “nice lady” – who just didn’t conform. She loved her people – black people. She collected our stories and advocated for them being told. Although she died in obscurity, the revival of her works have gained new generations of admirers.
Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1901 in the town of Eatonville, Florida, an all black town that was incorporated in 1886. As Hurson noted, it was not “the black part” of town, but a black town. Here began the forging of Hurston’s love for black cultural traditions.
In the opening piece to the Zora Neale Hurston reader (I Love Myself When I Am Laughing; And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive, The Feminist Press, 1979), Alice Walker addresses critical reflections on Hurston’s work that deem it racist or sexist:
Is Hurston the messenger who brings the bad news, or is she the bad news herself? Is Hurston a reflection of ourselves? And if so, is that not, perhaps, part of our “problem” with her? (I Love Myself….pg 2)
The perceived “problem” with Hurston was that she refused to fit into a box, or perhaps more accurately, she determined the dimensions of the box herself.
In the same volume, Mary Helen Washington writes:
The controversy over Hurston’s work and her political views, which surfaced after the publication of Mules and Men in 1935, mushroomed and spread in the forties and fifties as Hurston, typically erratic, continued to make unorthodox and paradoxical assertions on racial issues. She was quoted in one newspaper interview as saying that the Jim Crow system worked, and that blacks were better off in the South because, although there was no social intermingling, blacks had the “equivalent” of everything whites had. (I Love Myself… pg 18.)
Hurston, accused of being a publicity hound and a sell-out, refuted the quote. She is on record as speaking out against the Jim Crow system. She also refused to let on that the North was any better than the South in terms of race relations. She roundly criticized the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education desegregation decision. In her mind, this decision represented the presumed superiority of white schools and white teachers, and the presumed inferiority of black schools and teachers. This she could not abide, as she believed black people were quite wonderful, capable of learning among their own and contributing much to language, poetry, song… to the arts in general.
Hurston also spoke disparagingly of blacks who spoke of “the tragedy of being Negroes.” She famously noted:
But I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all but about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more of less. No, I do not weep at the world–I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.
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? It’s beyond me.
Hurston died on January 28, 1960 in poverty and obscurity. Alice Walker:
Only after she died penniless, still laboring at her craft, still immersed in her work, still following her vision and her road, did it begin to seem to some that yes, perhaps this woman was a serious artist after all, since artists are known to live poor and die broke. But you’re up against a hard game if you have to die to win it, and we must insist that dying in poverty is an unacceptable extreme.
Amen. Rest well, Sister Zora.