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Zora Neal Hurston’s Politics Might Surprise You

By Robert Bruce @robertbruce76

I try to avoid politics on this blog. As a general rule, I despise politics and all that comes with it.

But when an author has unique political views, sometimes I step into the shallow end of the pool a little. That’s the case today with Zora Neale Hurston.

She was a Republican. Granted, being a Republican in the 1950s is different than being a Republican in 2014. But, still, her views were certainly unique in her culture during that time.

John McWhorter is a professor at Columbia University, and he’s called Hurston “America’s favorite black conservative.” Other academics have said she was more in line with a Libertarian. Either way, she wasn’t a Democrat—which generally gets about 90% of the African-American vote, according to The National Review. 

From the little reading I’ve done by and about Hurston, it seems she was very passionate about individual pride and personal responsibility, over cultural pride and “groupthink.”

You even see sprinkles of that throughout Their Eyes Were Watching God:

“Ah done lived Grandma’s way, now Ah means tuh live mine.”

“What you mean by dat, Janie?”

“She was borned in slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches like de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me–don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn’t have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool uh do nothin.’ De object wuz tuh git dere. So Ah got up on de high stool lak she told me, but Pheoby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere. Ah felt like de world wuz cryin’ extra and Ah ain’t read de common news yet.”

Outside of her fiction, ZNH wasn’t shy about discussing her views on race in her essays.

McWhorter wrote a piece in 2009 called “Thus Spake Zora.” In it, he includes several thought-provoking quotes from Hurston. Here’s a longer excerpt:

To many today, Hurston’s impatience with groupthink suggests an underlying discomfort with being black. But for Hurston, it was a simple matter of inner pride. Her anthropological and literary work puts paid to the slightest question of whether she loved black culture and her own people. Yet she still understood that seeking individual validation in race “pride” amounted mostly to smoke and mirrors:

[Hurston said] “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 did not go into a laboratory and invent incandescent light. That was Edison. . . . If you are under the impression that every white man is an Edison, just look around a bit.”

Hurston would likely irk many today with skepticism about the black community’s pride in Barack Obama’s election. She would also have no patience for the slavery reparations movement that flowered most recently in the early 2000s, in the wake of Randall Robinson’s best-selling manifesto The Debt (see “Reparations, R.I.P.,” Autumn 2008). When slavery was recent enough for her to have interviewed former slaves, she even went as far as asserting, “Slavery is the price I paid for civilization.” In what reads like a riposte to Robinson’s book, she wrote: “You have at least a hundred years of indoctrination of the Negro that he is an object of pity. ‘We were brought here against our will. We were held as slaves for two hundred and forty-six years. We are in no way responsible for anything. We are dependents. We are due something from the labor of our ancestors. Look upon us with pity and give!’ ”

Hurston did not live long enough to offer her two cents on affirmative action, but she gave ample hints of how she would have responded to universities’ lowering standards based on pigmentation:

[Hurston said] “It seems to me that if I say a whole system must be upset for me to win, I am saying that I cannot sit in the game, and that safer rules must be made to give me a chance. I repudiate that. If others are in there, deal me a hand and let me see what I can make of it, even though I know some in there are dealing from the bottom and cheating like hell in other ways.”

She knew that life was never perfect, but she counseled blacks to make the best of themselves nevertheless, rather than shouting from the rooftops that human nature must change first. She knew that when it comes to ability, assertion cannot stand up to demonstration: “Equality is as you do it and not as you talk it. If you are better than I, you can tell me about it if you want to, but then again, show me so I can know. . . . If you can’t show me your superiority, don’t bother to bring the mess up, lest I merely rate you as a bully.”

McWhorter’s analysis aside, what about those quotes from Hurston?

I would never expect to learn about another human being’s worldview from just a few quotes. But, at least in that small glimmer, her views seemed much different than that of many of her peers from the racial uplift movement, and even the Harlem Renaissance.

“Slavery is the price I paid for civilization.” Wow. That’s harsh. That said, this is one of those topics that I would never pretend to have any first-hand knowledge of or remotely understand what it’s like to be an African-American in today’s culture, much less 60 years ago.

Hurston believed what she believed, and she was highly passionate about why she believed those things. It’s just interesting how different her views were from her peers, like Richard Wright and Alain Locke.

If you have the time, read McWhorter’s entire article about Hurston. It’s enlightening, I believe.

What do you think about Zora’s politics? Do they surprise you at all?

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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