Zora Neale Hurston's Inconvenient Individualism

The author of Their Eyes Were Watching God defies easy political categorization.


In 1937 the left-wing magazine New Masses ran a negative review of Zora Neale Hurston's masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God. "Miss Hurston can write," allowed Richard Wright, whose own landmark novel, Native Son, would appear three years later. But her writing, he said, wallowed "in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression." Hurston's novel "is not addressed to the Negro," Wright asserted, "but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy." In effect, Wright accused Hurston of selling out the race by pandering to whites.

Wright could not have been more wrong. Hurston, a former student of the famed Columbia University anthropologist Franz Boas, had conducted extensive fieldwork throughout the American South, carefully noting (and delighting in) the various black cultures and dialects she encountered. That real-world language permeates her remarkable novel, nestled alongside sundry elements drawn from her own compelling life story, including her Southern upbringing, failed marriages, and searing love affair with a younger man. By attacking Their Eyes Were Watching God, Wright had actually disparaged the authentic, individualistic black voices that Hurston worked so hard to amplify.

Some of Hurston's critics are still missing the point. The novelist Maya Angelou once complained that Hurston's 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, "does not mention even one unpleasant racial incident," even though "the southern air around her most assuredly crackled with the flames of Ku Klux Klan raiders." Yet Dust Tracks does contain a passage in which Hurston recalled her father fretting that "the tendency I had to stand and give battle" might prove fatal in the Jim Crow era. "He predicted dire things for me," Hurston wrote. "The white folks were not going to stand for it….Posses with ropes and guns were going to drag me out sooner or later on account of that stiff neck I toted." Hurston did not always emphasize the racist crackling in the air, but it is discernible if you listen for it.

Then there is the subject that has confounded her critics the most: Hurston's politics. On the one hand, she could sound as militant as any activist, once writing that "this poor body of 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 in the nation so far as the law is concerned." She favored "complete repeal of All Jim Crow Laws in the United States once and for all, and right now."

Yet Hurston also wrote that "Race Pride and Race Consciousness seem to me to be not only fallacious, but a thing to be abhorred." She had little patience for groupthink, racial or otherwise. "The white race did not go into a laboratory and invent incandescent light. That was Edison," she wrote. "If you are under the impression that every white man is an Edison, just look around a bit." She held "my people" to the same standard. "If you have the idea that every Negro is a [George Washington] Carver," Hurston wrote, "you had better take off plenty of time to do your searching."

Statements like that have led many of Hurston's otherwise admiring critics to shake their heads in disbelief and dismay. Hurston's politics were "ill conceived" and "even reactionary," objected the Yale University literary scholar Larry Neal in a 1971 introduction to Dust Tracks on a Road, especially when viewed "in terms of the ongoing struggle for Black liberation." Putting a more positive gloss on the same subject in a 2009 City Journal essay, Columbia linguist John McWhorter dubbed Hurston "America's favorite black conservative," arguing that she "held a fiercely asserted black conservative politics akin to Clarence Thomas's."

Meanwhile, one of Hurston's most influential exponents, novelist and essayist Alice Walker, famously argued that readers should probably just ignore any unwelcome right-of-center themes in Hurston's work entirely. "I think we are better off," Walker wrote, "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."

But would we really be better off if we did that? Not if we want to appreciate Hurston's life and work in full. That is because the same individualist spirit that motivated her fiction also motivated her politics.

'The Race Problem'

Zora Neale Hurston had a tendency to lie about her age. She was born on January 7, 1891, yet sometimes she would give the year of her birth as 1900, or 1901, or even 1910. Even in middle age she apparently had little trouble passing as a much younger woman.

She was still a toddler when her parents made the move that would shape the course of her life. The family relocated from Notasulga, Alabama, to Eatonville, Florida, one of the first incorporated black townships in the United States and the future inspiration for some of Hurston's greatest writing. Her father, a traveling preacher and carpenter named John Hurston, served four terms as mayor and wrote a number of town bylaws that remain on the books. "In Eatonville," observed Valerie Boyd, author of Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, "Zora was never indoctrinated in inferiority, and she could see the evidence of black achievement all around her."

By 1925 Hurston had made her way to New York City, enrolling as an undergraduate at Barnard College, Columbia University. It was there that she became one of Franz Boas' star students. By the time she graduated in 1928 she had been invited to join the American Ethnological Society and the American Anthropological Society. "Booker T. Washington said once that you must not judge a man by the heights to which he has risen," Hurston later wrote of those days, "but by the depths from which he came. So to me these honors meant something, insignificant as they might appear to the world." Her fieldwork soon produced a pair of groundbreaking anthropological studies, Mules and Men (1935), about black American folklore, and Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (1938), both of which remain fascinating and readable today.

At the same time, she became an active participant in the Harlem Renaissance, publishing short stories, attending various salons and soirees, and collaborating with the famous poet Langston Hughes. By the late 1920s she was itching to write a novel, based loosely on the strivings and shortcomings of her father. But "what I wanted to tell was a story about a man, and from what I had read and heard, Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem." Because "my interest lies in what makes a man or a woman do such-and-so, regardless of his color," Hurston later explained, she put the project on the backburner for several years. That debut novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine, finally appeared in 1934. It was offered as a selection by the Book of the Month Club, a sign of its contemporary reach and success.

Her true breakthrough came in 1937 with Their Eyes Were Watching God, a gripping semi-autobiographical portrait of a woman's odyssey in search of romantic and personal freedom. It is now justly recognized as one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century.

Hurston published seven books during her lifetime, not to mention dozens of penetrating short stories, articles, and essays. Yet she would be virtually forgotten by the literary world in the final decade of her life. By the late 1950s, her publishing deals were long gone, her books were out of print, and she was forced to find work as a maid. When she died in 1960, she was living in the St. Lucie County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce, Florida. Hurston, one of the greatest writers of her time, was buried in an unmarked grave.

What happened?

'The Richer Gift of Individualism'

What happened was at least partially due to politics. In the words of the Harvard University literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., the editor of a superb new collection of Hurston's nonfiction, You Don't Know Us Negroes and Other Essays (HarperCollins), "the dark obscurity into which her career then lapsed reflects her staunchly independent political stances rather than any deficiency of craft or vision."

Some of Hurston's contemporaries, such as Richard Wright, made their names by writing about race and racial injustice with a left-wing bent, an approach that is still plenty fashionable today. Hurston did not. In fact, Hurston denounced Communism's demeaning influence on writers like Wright. (Wright was a member of the American Communist Party for several years before breaking with his old comrades and becoming a prominent left-wing anti-Communist.) "Mr. Wright's author's solution," Hurston scoffed in a 1938 review of Wright's short-story collection, Uncle Tom's Children, "is the solution of the [Communist] Party—state responsibility for everything and individual responsibility for nothing, not even feeding one's self."

Her dissents from mainstream progressivism could be equally caustic. "Throughout the New Deal era," Hurston wrote in 1951, "the relief program was the biggest weapon ever placed in the hands of those who sought power and votes." More to her taste was the approach of Republican Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio, a libertarian-leaning conservative whose credo, as Hurston favorably summarized it, was "the people and the individual retain true liberty." Thanks to views like that, Hurston found herself increasingly out of step in elite literary and publishing circles.

Which brings us back to Alice Walker's argument that Hurston should be remembered as an "artist, period" rather than as an "artist/politician." In fact, Hurston's art and politics are not so easy to separate. The same "richer gift of individualism," as Hurston called it, that led her to reject race consciousness also fueled her literary craft in Jonah's Gourd Vine. "The story is about Negroes but it could be about anybody," Hurston explained about her debut novel. "It is the first time that a Negro story has been offered without special pleading. The characters in the story are seen in relation to themselves and not in relation to the whites as had been the rule." Hurston would say much the same thing about her own point of view. "I am so put together that I do not have much of a herd instinct," she declared. "Or if I must be connected with the flock, let me be the shepherd my ownself."

What Hurston wanted, in both life and literature, was for everyone, of every race, for better or worse, to be viewed as an individual first.