SECRET LIVES

Zora Neale Hurston: Black Feminist Icon and Thought Criminal

She wrote what is considered the greatest piece of black feminist fiction, but she was denounced by fellow black intellectuals for her points of view that didn’t fall into line.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

How dare Zora Neale Hurston author the African-American feminist classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God, yet hate the New Deal, blast Brown v. Board of Education’s desegregation demand, and endorse Republican conservatives like Robert Taft!?

As inconceivable as Hurston’s heresies may be, her popularity today is even more incredible. She died so abandoned that neighbors had to contribute money to bury her—but couldn’t afford a tombstone. Today, Time considers Hurston’s “great tale of black female survival” one of its All-Time 100 Novels. On Amazon, we learn it’s “perhaps the most widely read and highly regarded novel in the entire canon of African-American literature,” that it’s “Not only groundbreaking as a piece of feminist literature, but also as one of the first books of its kind written about the African-American community.”

Credit the novelist Alice Walker with this literary resuscitation. In 1973, Walker found Hurston’s grave—and marked it. In a 1975 Ms. essay, she reintroduced Hurston to the world.

In her masterpiece, Hurston captured the dialect of turn-of-the-century, rural, Florida. With an anthropologist’s eye, a musician’s ear, and a poet’s soul, she produced universal nuggets, including “Some people could look at a mud puddle and see an ocean with ships” and “If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all.”  

Alas, beyond the racism Hurston endured from whites, she was politically ostracized by many blacks.

Zora Neale Hurston was a performance artist. She dazzled and offended, sweeping into a room, with red scarf flowing, pronouncing “Queen Zora is here.” She was talented enough to have the New York Times Book Review praise her first novel Jonah’s Gourd as “the most vital and original novel about the American Negro that has yet been written by a member of the Negro race.” And she was a meticulous enough ethnographer to capture African-American life when blacks enjoyed enough freedom to develop a unique culture but not quite enough civil rights to dilute it through integration. Overall, she published four novels, two folklore studies, an autobiography—Dust Tracks on a Road—and more than 50 short stories and essays.

Born in rural Notasulga, Alabama, in 1891, Hurston grew up in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida. Blacks governed themselves there—her preacher father was a three-time mayor. When she was 13, Zora lost her mother—and her family’s stability. To win acceptance to high school at 26 she claimed to be 16—and continued the age-masquerade for decades.

Hurston thrived in academia—becoming Barnard College’s first black graduate in 1928. She continued studying intermittently at Columbia University, with the pioneering anthropologists Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, and fellow students like Margaret Mead. “Research is formalized curiosity,” she concluded. “It is poking and prying with a purpose.”

While studying, Hurston already was an award-winning short-story writer and a sparkplug in 1920s’ New York’s black cultural revival, “The Harlem Renaissance.” Acerbic and flamboyant, she labelled herself and her fellow Renaissance-men-and-women, including the poet Langston Hughes, “The Niggerati.” She christened their white patrons, “Negrotarians.”

Chronicling lowbrow black culture through field research in the South, Jamaica, and Haiti—where she wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in seven weeks—violated the Harlem Renaissance dictat to “uplift.” While whites hailed her—the Times called Their Eyes Were Watching God “perfect …. Irresistible”—her black brethren scoffed. Richard Wright, a Communist Party poet, working on what would be his 1940 classic Native Son, attacked Hurston’s ethnographic brilliance as a “minstrel technique” that entertains whites by keeping “the Negro” swinging “between laughter and tears.” Her greater crime, Wright concluded, was “her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought.”

Just what made Hurston’s novel so transcendent made it politically radioactive. Echoing black dialect was unenlightened. Celebrating black life was treasonous. Eschewing Communist propagandizing was frivolous.

The gap between Hurston and these commissars would only grow.

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Zora Neale Hurston’s iconoclasm fueled her devotion to “the richer gift” of American individualism. She wanted “free vertical movement, nothing horizontal.” She resented the Communist Party’s exploitation of black misery. And, she declared “the American Negro… too smart to fall for Joe Stalin’s brand of up-to-date slavery” in the pages of the American Legion magazine.

Hurston even feared Franklin Roosevelt’s welfare state would squelch entrepreneurship and impose dictatorship. She characterized his relief programs as power grabs, forcing citizens to submit “to the will of the ‘Little White Father.’” She disdained Roosevelt’s foreign policy as hypocritical—preferring he first guarantee his Four Freedoms at home.

While condemning blacks’ white political allies up North, Hurston abhorred the oppression of the South. She deemed “Anglo Saxons” the “most intolerant of human beings in the matter of any other group darker than themselves.” She wrote in 1943 that “this poor body of my mine is not so precious that I would not be willing to give it up for a good cause... A hundred Negroes killed in the streets of Washington right now could wipe out Jim Crow.”

Her disgust for racism triggered calls for “less race consciousness” among African-Americans too. “I am not tragically colored…” she insisted, “I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood.” Asserting individual identity, she explained, “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” didn’t invent “incandescent light,” she snapped. “That was Edison.”

In the 1950s, Hurston pushed her political logic—and unorthodoxy—further. In 1951, her essay “A Negro Sizes Up Taft,” endorsed “Mr. Republican,” Robert Taft, for president in the Saturday Evening Post. She praised Taft as “not pro-Negro, and not pro-white” and “not trying to win our votes so much” as “trying to do what is right.” Declaring Taft a liberal “in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson,” she lamented how Communist Party “pinkos” who won’t “admit they are pro-Kremlin,” mislead the masses into believing a “‘liberal’ is a person who desires greater Government control and Federal handouts.”

Two years later, Hurston found the Supreme Court’s outlawing of segregation in Brown v. Board of Education to be “insulting rather than honoring my race.” Yet again, she feared a New Dealish “Govt by fiat.” Additionally, she naïvely believed “Negro schools… are in very good shape and on the improve.” Most of all, her inner-anthropologist trusted separation to promote black culture—and pride. “How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them?” she wondered. “Since the days of the never-to-be-sufficiently deplored Reconstruction,” she warned, “there has been current the belief that there is no greater delight to Negroes than physical association with whites.” She endorsed: “Growth from within. Ethical and cultural desegregation. It is a contradiction in terms to scream race pride and equality while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association.”

By then, Hurston was spiraling downward. Her fourth novel Seraph on the Suwanee in 1948 fizzled. A morals charge in New York—which she beat—of molesting 10-year-old boys—derailed her. Ailing, impoverished, abandoned, hustling for work, she wrote sporadically. In 1950, while reading the Saturday Evening Post, one matron discovered that “her” 59-year-old “girl” dusting the bookshelves was a prominent writer.

Hurston died in the Saint Lucie County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce, Florida, in 1960.

Today, few Hurston worshipers know of her heresies. Many who do, squirm. “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,” Alice Walker explains, saying she also doesn’t view Billie Holiday’s work through her “addiction to heroin.” The comparison is telling.

Creativity is to political conformity what Zora Neale Hurston is to the forgotten hacks who dismissed her. Hurston’s work isn’t memorable despite her political incorrectness, but because of it. Her boldness in one realm spilled into other realms too.

Her inspiration warns that today’s totalitarian thought-police aren’t just shortchanging themselves by suppressing ideas—because learning, growth, must be risky; these thoughtitarians hurt us all by suppressing the next Zora Neale Hurston, that iconoclast whose eyes are watching God—and whose thoughts transcend today’s pieties.

FOR MORE…

Alice Walker, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” Ms. Magazine 1975.

John H. McWhorter, “Thus Spake Zora,” Manhattan Institute 2009.

Robert E. Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, 1980.

Valerie Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, 2004.