Gender, Race & Class in Zora Neale Hurston’s Politics

Against the Current, No. 55, March/April 1995

Susan Meisenhelder

SINCE HER “REDISCOVERY,” due in large part to Alice Walker’s discussion in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Zora Neale Hurston has been both widely read and embraced as a major foremother of contemporary Black women writers. Despite this rescue from obscurity and her canonization amongst Black women writers, Hurston still suffers from the political image of a flamboyant naif or embarrassing conservative — a view, in fact, no different from the reputation she was saddled with during her life.

The simplistic view of Hurston as “a character” was most starkly sketched perhaps by Langston Hughes in his autobiography, The Big Sea. Discussing famous figures of the Harlem Renaissance period, a time when whites rushed to Harlem on the weekends and revelled in Black music and folk culture, he wrote:

“Of this ‘niggerati,’ Zora Neale Hurston was certainly the most amusing. Only to reach a wider audience, need she ever write books — because she is a perfect book of entertainment in herself. In her youth she was always getting scholarships and things from wealthy people, some of whom simply paid her just to sit around and represent the Negro race for them, she did it in such a racy fashion. She was full of side-splitting anecdotes, humorous tales, and tragicomic stories, remembered out of her life in the south as a daughter of a travelling minister of God. She could make you laugh one minute and cry the next. To many of her white friends, no doubt, she was a perfect ‘darkie,’ in the nice meaning they give the term — that is a naive, childlike, sweetly humorous, and highly colored Negro (The Big Sea, 238-39).

Even today, while Hurston is almost universally acknowledged as “a genius,” the word is often used to suggest a person with little interest and no understanding of complex social and political realities.

This portrait of Hurston is inadequate, unfair to Hurston and responsible for her neglect amongst contemporary radicals. In fact, her work has much to say to leftists today, for she picked up on relationships between race, class and gender in ways few of her contemporaries did and even fewer of her contemporaries suspected. The task of understanding her political views is a difficult one, however, both because she fits into few political pigeonholes and because she often seems self-contradictory — quite conservative in material published in mainstream magazines and publishing houses, much more radical in letters and articles published in Black-controlled periodicals.

Often dependent on the approval of white patrons for money to survive while she wrote books, never lucky enough to write a book that sold enough to provide her financial security, nearly always desperate to get material published just to stay economically afloat, Hurston was often forced to censor what she said when she was trying to publish in white periodicals and publishing houses. To look only at that material, and not to Hurston’s letters and manuscripts, for evidence of her views is to miss much that she had to say.

Assessment of Hurston’s political views has also been hampered by a frequent tendency to note her conclusions while disregarding the logic by which she arrived at them. For instance, part of Hurston’s image as a political conservative comes from her lukewarm enthusiasm for integration. Her reasons, however, based on an ethnic pride and cultural nationalism she had valued throughout her career, were far from simple-mindedly “conservative.”

It was her conviction that self-hatred and internal conflict often resulted when Blacks moved into a white world that led her to distrust integration as a panacea to cure racial inequality. As she suggested in a letter to a French friend, she resented the condescension she sensed behind much white acceptance of integration:

“…physical contact means nothing unless the spirit is also there, and therefore [I] see small value in [integration]. I actually do feel insulted when a certain type of white person hastens to effuse to me how noble they are to grant me their presence. But unfortunately, many who call themselves `leaders’ of Negroes in America actually are unaware of the insulting patronage and rejoice in it” (ZNH to Madame Sobloniere, December 3, 1955, University of Florida Archives).

Her faith in “Growth from within” and belief that “It is a contradiction in terms to scream race pride and equality while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association” (Orlando Sentinel, October 19, 1955) would certainly have received a different interpretation and response by the late 1960s than in the 1950s.

Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, is also often seen as evidence of her conservatism, naivete and false consciousness. Even for her admirers, this book is an embarrassment because Hurston seems both so eager to spell out her loving indebtedness to white people and so cavalier in her treatment of social and political issues affecting Black people.

Slavery is breezily dismissed – “I see nothing but futility in looking back over my shoulder in rebuke at the grave of some white man who has been dead too long to talk about” (282) — and race often rejected as a significant category in her experience: “Racial Solidarity is a fiction and always will be. Therefore, I have lifted the word out of my mouth” (329).

While comments like this evoked effusive praise from white reviewers, Blacks were less generous. Arna Bontemps, for instance, sarcastically pointed to Hurston’s personal relationships with whites, the “line of substantial friends who saw in the exuberant unspoiled colored girl the kind of Negro they wanted to encourage,” and saw her desire to ingratiate herself with them as the central shaping force behind her approach to race in her autobiography: “Miss Hurston deals very simply with the more serious aspects of Negro life in America — she ignores them. She has done right well by herself in the kind of world she found.”

Harold Preece, reviewing the book in Tomorrow, even more bitterly called it “the tragedy of a gifted, sensitive mind, eaten up by an egocentrism fed on the patronizing admiration of the dominant white world.”

While Hurston’s autobiography might initially seem to warrant such criticism, immediately noticeable is the difference between what Hurston has to say about race in the published version of her autobiography and what she had to say in letters to other Black people or in articles written in Black publications. Her virulent hatred of racism and her sense of its pervasiveness in the white world burn in some letters she wrote to Black contemporaries.

Arguing in a letter to Claude Barnett (February, 1943, Chicago Historical Society Archives) that race prejudice exists “everywhere the Anglo-Saxon set[s] his foot,” Hurston concludes with a vow at variance with the mask she often presented to whites:

“But one thing is definite. The iron has entered my soul. Since my god of tolerance has forsaken me, I am ready for anything to overthrow Anglo-Saxon supremacy, however desperate. I have become what I never wished to be, a hater. I no longer even value my life if by losing it, I can do something to destroy this Anglo-Saxon monstrosity.”

United States’ actions toward the end of World War II did nothing to soften Hurston’s attitude. Writing to Barnett in July, 1946, she argues:

“Truman is a monster. I can think of him as nothing but the BUTCHER OF ASIA. Of his grin of triumph on giving the order to drop the Atom bombs on Japan. Of his maintaining troops in China who are shooting the starving Chinese for stealing a handful of food…. Of his lynching all the able Japanese under the guise of ‘War Criminals.’> War is war, but these men are criminals for daring to shoot at white men…” (Chicago Historical Society Archives).

Outraged at Black silence in the face of these atrocities, Hurston goes on in this letter to posit a close relationship between these actions and racism at home:”Do we not see that we… [are] being morally lynched with everyone of those able Japanese. WE are being taught a lesson and given a horrible example through that. Is it that we are so devoted to a `good Massa’ that we feel that we ought not to even protest such crimes?”

Hurston expresses similar strong feelings in a letter to Countee Cullen (March 5, 1943, Dillard University Archives): “I know that the Anglo-Saxon mentality is one of violence. Violence is his religion. He has gained everything by it, and respects nothing else.”

In this letter Hurston explains that her disaffection with liberal “race leaders” stems, not from their call for equal rights, but from their tentative, non-threatening methods: “When I suggest to our `leaders’ that the white man is not going to surrender for mere words what he has fought and died for, and that if we want anything substantial we must speak with the same weapons, immediately they object.”

She demands, instead, direct and — if necessary, violent — confrontation:

“My stand is this: either we must do something about it that the white man will understand and respect, or shut up. No whiner ever got any respect or relief. If some of us must die for human justice, then let us die. For my own part, this poor body of mine is not so precious that I would not be willing to give it up for a good cause. But my own self-respect refuses to let me go to the mourners bench.”

Her allegiance is clear: “If any of our leaders start something like that [violent insurrection] then I will be in it body and soul. But I shall never join the cry-babies.

While these comments seem totally antithetical to the published version of Hurston’s autobiography, her original chapter on contemporary world affairs in Dust Tracks on a Road expressed quite similar sentiments. Although her editors required her to severely edit her discussion before publication of the book, Hurston initially attacked the brutal oppression she saw in America and Europe.

Had it been published, the manuscript chapter, “Seeing the World As It Is,” included as an appendix in Hemenway’s edition of Dust Tracks, would have contributed to a much more radical portrait of Hurston, for it contains the most open and extended critiques of American and European imperialism she ever tried to publish through white-controlled periodicals or publishing houses. Repeatedly, bitterly, she attacked American hypocrisy, the discrepancy between American principles and its political actions around the world:

“There was the dignity of man. His inalienable rights were sacred. Man, noble man, had risen in his might and glory and had stamped out the vile institution of slavery. That is just what they said. But I know that the principle of human bondage has not yet vanished from the earth. I know that great nations are standing on it. I would not go so far as to deny that there has been no progress toward the concept of liberty. Already it has been agreed that the name of slavery is very bad. No civilized nation will use such a term any more. Neither will they keep the business around the home. Life will be on a loftier level by operating at a distance and calling it acquiring sources of raw material, and keeping the market open. It has been decided, also, that it is not cricket to enslave one’s own kind. That is unspeakable tyranny.

“But must a nation suffer from lack of prosperity and expansion by lofty concepts? Not at all! If a ruler can find a place way off where the people do not look like him, kill enough of them to convince the rest that they ought to support him with their lives and labor, that ruler is hailed as a great conqueror, and people built monuments to him. The very weapons he used are also honored. They picture him in unforgettable stone with the sacred tool of his conquest in his hand. Democracy, like religion, never was designed to make our profits less” (338-39).

Closely tied to economic “operating at a distance” is an underlying racism that legitimated the oppression of people of color. The English, she argues, would not consider treating France as they do India; in a non-European context, however, “the very people who claim that it is a noble thing to die for freedom and democracy cry out in horror when they hear tell of a `revolt’ in India” (339).

Americans too “consider machine gun bullets good laxatives for heathens who get constipated, with toxic ideas about a country of their own. If the patient dies from the treatment, it was not because the medicine was not good. We are positive of that” (339). The violence of American racism and imperialism is also evident in foreign policy toward the “little brother” in Latin America: “He must be taught to share with big brother before big brother comes down and kicks his teeth in” (340).

Hurston’s belief in the close connection between racism and imperialism led her to some stinging comments on world affairs in this unpublished chapter. Some of her most controversial ones (for 1941) concern Japanese and German affairs. She labels American outrage at Japanese aggression hypocritical self-righteousness, asserting that the Japanese are just “singing our song all over Asia” (341).

She similarly exposes the double standard underlying American concern for the fates of Holland, Belgium, France, and England: “I must confess to being a little dry around the eyes. I hear people shaking with shudders at the thought of Germany collecting taxes in Holland. I have not heard a word against Holland collecting one twelfth of poor people’s wages in Asia” (342). After these comments on Western imperialism (and the racism underlying it), Hurston concludes:

“…it would be a good thing for the Anglo-Saxon to get the idea out of his head that everybody else owes him something just for being blonde. I am forced to the conclusion that two-thirds of them do hold that view. The idea of human slavery is so deeply ground in that the pink-toes can’t get it out of their system. It has just been decided to move the slave quarters farther from the house” (343).

Not silenced when her white editors forced her to delete such comments from her autobiography, Hurston repeated some of the main ideas in an article, “Crazy for this Democracy,” originally published in the December, 1945 issue of Negro Digest. With venomous satire, she announces, “The Ass-and-All of Democracy has shouldered the load of subjugating the dark world completely” (I Love Myself, 166).

Such a stance, she asserts, is not recognized as the economic exploitation that it is, but legitimated as divine call: “The inference is that God has restated the superiority of the West. God always does like that when a thousand white people surround one dark one. Dark people are always `bad’ when they do not admit the Divine Plan like that” (166).

Although again the pressures of publishing through white-controlled presses often forced Hurston to treat issues in various indirect ways, she nevertheless worked a sophisticated and radical social analysis into her novels. For instance, although Their Eyes Were Watching God is generally read as a novel about racial and gender identity, it also has much to say about the interconnections between racism, sexism, and capitalism.

Joe Starks, for instance, is at once the most racially insecure (he emulates at every turn the white bosses he has known), the most sexually oppressive and most entrepreneurial, profit-driven character in the novel. To become free, Janie must leave, not merely an oppressive husband but an entire world, one based on sexual, economic and racial oppression, values absent in the world of the Everglades in which she and Tea Cake flourish.

Perhaps the most surprising revelation of Hurston’s sociopolitical views is found in her last novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, published in 1948. Focusing on whites and seeming to validate traditional American values of hard work, tough men and loyal women, the novel has generally been seen as evidence of Hurston’s false racial consciousness and growing political conservatism. It is a kind of Horatio Alger myth worthy of Hollywood, the story of a poor Southern white, Jim Meserve, who (seemingly by his personal charm, wits, and grit) wins the adoration of a neurotic white woman named Arvay and rises above his poverty to create an economic empire.

Beneath this surface plot, however, Hurston depicts the white world of postwar America as a profoundly diseased one, a direct contrast to the ideal Black world of the Everglades that she had painted in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Far from holding up Jim Meserve as a hero, the novel constitutes a broad critique of the economic exploitation, racism, and sexism Hurston saw as hallmarks of the dominant white world and as the underpinnings of his rise to power.

Although Jim claims to adore his wife and work only for her (a claim unquestioned by Hurston’s contemporary reviewers, who saw Jim as an ideal “real man”), Hurston repeatedly emphasizes the gender inequalities that characterize relations between men and women throughout the novel.

While for postwar white America, Arvay may have seemed a kind of Cinderella figure, rescued from poverty and sexual frustration by Prince Charming, Hurston gives us a quite critical view of life on a pedestal. Despite her wealth and seemingly ideal life, Arvay’s existence as a “seraph” is one of the emptiest lives of any of Hurston’s female characters. She is Jim’s pampered “pet angel,” but his solicitous concern for her welfare and happiness only thinly masks her degradation.

In contrast to the vigor and equality of Janie and Tea Cake’s love, marriage in this world involves male repression and control of female sexuality (Arvay’s marriage actually begins with Jim raping her to tie her to him) as well as female emotional service to men. It takes the whole novel for Jim to “help” Arvay adjust to marriage, but by the end she embraces her role as Jim’s sexless seraph and nurturing mother.

Jim’s domination of Arvay is paralleled in his domination of Nature, symbolically depicted as female in the novel and as a power that must be controlled or destroyed in the name of “progress.” Jim thus mutilates trees in his turpentining venture and rapes the sea in his shrimping ventures. This demand that Nature and women serve him, as his last name ironically suggests, is also played out in his development of the swamp, his final most grandiose and profitable financial scheme.

Reminding the reader of the parallels between this swamp and the Everglades of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston stresses Jim’s blindness to the spiritual power embodied in it; for him, it “ain’t nothing but a lot of big trees and stuff growing together” that he yearns to own. Seeing its richness only in material terms, he dreams throughout the book of extracting the wealth from it.

Toward the end of the novel, Jim achieves his goal, drains the swamp, and creates the model housing development of the future, laid out with fine homes, golf links, and a club house. In doing so, he does more than destroy the swamp, for the “development” that rises from the wilderness creates the class hierarchy crucial to American capitalism: it “came along and stratified the town. The original line of the swamp gave accent like a railroad track. Those who belonged moved west” (197).

In addition to gender and class, Hur<->ston also factors race into her understanding of American society in this novel by showing the Black world does not escape unscathed by the social arrangements that dominate the novel. Like Arvay, in fact, the Black characters are domesticated and diminished, stunted as the name of one shipmate – Stumpy — graphically suggests.

The strength and independence of Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God is parodied in the mindless fawning of Janie in Seraph on the Suwanee, who seems a Black character from the set of Gone With the Wind. Her mate is not the Tea Cake of Hurston’s earlier novel, but a pale and sickly reflection, a “faithful retainer” character, Jeff, who always carries out Jim’s orders.

Just as Arvay is, in many ways, a servant in her relationship to Jim, Black men are consistently feminized in their relationship with him, not merely subservient but also forced into serving traditional female functions (emotional mothering and cooking, for instance) in the absence of white women.

Hurston also subtly documents how thoroughly Jim’s success and the “progress” of development relies on the appropriation of Black labor. While Jim takes personal credit for his economic achievements, every one of Jim’s financial ventures — from his still operation to his turpentining, citrus groves, development projects, and shrimping fleet — depends on Black labor and expertise. These workers, Hurston reminds us, clearly do not participate in the fruits of their own labor: when the completed Howland Development they build “stratifie[s] the town…like a railroad track” (197), they find themselves living on the wrong side of town.

The damaging effects on Black people living in a white world are outlined in the changes that occur in the relationship of the two main Black characters in the novel, Joe and Dessie. Even though Jim sees his role as one of benevolent protector of Blacks (a role Joe never disputes), the money Joe receives from Jim cuts him off from his roots and finally ruins his life.

In what looks like a move upward, bowing to Jim’s pressure to invest his money in land, Joe moves his family to town where he starts to build a fine house. Joe’s rise in class, however, results in a hollow life symbolized in the unfinished shell of the home that is never completed and graphically evident in the destruction of his marriage. It is little wonder, given Hurston’s portrait of white America in this novel, that she failed to see integration as a cure for the problems of Black Americans.

Hurston’s work tells us much about social realities of American life, ways in which domination underpins this society on economic, racial, and sexual levels. Her life itself is another political lesson. The control exercised by whites over her writing, the way in which she was therefore forced to mask many of her criticisms and to make her points indirectly, speak to the racism and sexism she labored under throughout her life.

Yet despite their contradictions, Hurston’s life and work also speak to contemporary leftists in other ways. Something is terribly wrong — and perhaps not simply with Hurston — when a Black woman with the insight into various kinds of oppression that Hurston demonstrated finds no place for herself in progressive politics.

Those of us working in radical organizations today can perhaps learn something for our own use from Hurston’s criticism of the Communist Party, whether or not it matches our own assessment of that organization during the 1950s. Perhaps her evaluation can help us in working with people who, like her, see things along radical lines but who have no history of working in leftist organizations.

She spelled out the reasons for her disaffection in an article, “Why The Negro Won’t Buy Communism.” In addition to sensing profound condescension towards Blacks and insensitivity to their cultural values in Communist Party propaganda (she singled out the failure to recognize the importance of religion and the pervasiveness of class-consciousness in Black social life as examples), she also decried what she saw as doctrinal rigidity in a Communist analysis. Her lament – “They try to change the whole world, but refuse to let anything change them” (59) — probably speaks to the feeling of more than one woman or person of color coming into many progressive organizations, the feeling of being the object of rather than the creator of theory, the handmaiden of someone else’s social analysis rather than the author of one’s own.

Ever ready to lampoon pomposity and circumlocution wherever she saw it, whether amongst whites or upwardly mobile Blacks, Hurston also saw a lack of vitality and mind-numbing jargon in the Communist Party that would have turned her off no matter how accurate the analysis. Her jibe that the language of Communist analysis felt “ghosty and too much like marrying a zombie. Death on the breath, and something feeling corpse-like to the hand” (59) would probably strike a chord with some of our contemporaries who often find socialist analysis forbiddingly dry and abstract.

In fact, what Hurston implicitly called for in this article foreshadows what many contemporary radical Black feminists demand: a flexible, multi-level analysis of oppression spoken in the language of real human beings. It’s a call to which progressive organizations should try to respond.

Works Cited

Bontemps, Arna. “From Eatonville, Florida to Harlem” [Review of Dust Tracks on a Road]. New York Herald Tribune Books, November 22, 1942, p. 3.

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Hill and Wang, 1940.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road. 1942. Second edition. Edited and with an introduction by Robert E. Hemenway, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

———-. “Mourner’s Bench, Communist Line: Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism.” American Legion Magazine 50 (June 1951), 14- 15, 55-60.

———-. Seraph on the Suwanee. 1948. Reprinted with an introduction by Hazel V. Carby. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

———-. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. Reprinted, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978.

Preece, Harold. Review of Dust Tracks on a Road. Tomorrow, February 1943.

Walker, Alice, ed. I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive<D>. Old Westbury, New York: Feminist Press, 1979.

———-. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983.

ATC 55, March-April 1995