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Zora Neale Hurston’s Politics Might Surprise You

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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23 Comments Post a comment
  1. harrisfr #

    The circumstances into which we are born determine many outcomes. Slavery had to equate survival, and growth from then on also had to equate survival and more growth. We are still learning about points of view. To be a black writer was to be an anomaly.

    Like

    February 27, 2014
  2. Thanks for your thoughtful post! This made me think of the letter Zora Neale Hurston famously wrote denouncing Brown v. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court officially desegregated the nation’s schools. If you are interested in the author, her politics, or the history of civil rights in the U.S., this letter is a must read, not to be missed:

    http://archive.lewrockwell.com/epstein/epstein15.html

    Like

    February 27, 2014
    • Fascinating letter. Thanks for sharing.

      Like

      February 27, 2014
    • Well thanks .. I didnt even know of this…

      Like

      February 28, 2014
  3. Thanks for including this tidbit of history – I love it and history.

    Like

    February 27, 2014
  4. Not too surprising. People vote against their own interest all the time. Interesting though.

    Like

    February 27, 2014
    • harrisfr #

      Vote against their own interests? I think Zora voted with her own interests. White people thought they were a gift. Just another belly laugh for those of get it.

      Like

      February 27, 2014
  5. Yes, interesting, especially the letter about Brown vs. Board. I think we’re far enough down the road to see that segregation did little for Native Americans (or American Indians as Sherman Alexie prefers), so I’m not certain her argument holds up over time. However, I do enjoy the way she expresses herself. She and Dorothy Parker were formidable.

    Like

    February 27, 2014
    • harrisfr #

      Zora’s humor out-classes Parker, who intended to be funny. Zora could have cared less about the humor part. She was serious. And Indians were never given a thought because more of them would die before entering slavery.

      Like

      February 27, 2014
  6. Interestingly, I hear similar differing viewpoints here in Australia, amongst the indigenous people who are still fighting for rights that the ‘invaders’ removed from them. Some take a conservative hard line and others swing into never-never land. I started my career in America during affirmative action and am still not sure how I feel about it.

    Like

    February 27, 2014
  7. Though I tend to be liberal and progressive, I highly respect people who come to their views after they have thought through the issues. It is so easy to put a person in a box simply because of certain things in their personality. But a free-thinker will think deeply about the issues. For this, I applaud Zora. I wish this was true for more people these days.

    Like

    February 27, 2014
    • I agree. If I get the sense that someone has actually thought through their beliefs, rather than just follow the party line, I too have a much greater respect for them. You know that ZNH had the battle scars and had been through enough to have fully thought out her beliefs and why she believed them.

      Like

      February 28, 2014
  8. Reblogged this on mira prabhu and commented:
    Robert says: From the little reading I’ve done by and about (Zora Neale) Hurston, it seems she was very passionate about individual pride and personal responsibility, over cultural pride and “groupthink.” I love this quality in a person! As a proud Indian who now lives in an India where millions are stuck in the rut of cultural pride and groupthink — without using their minds like rapiers to challenge and toss out what we no longer need, what no longer serves our liberation as individuals and as a people…I wish we could breed a million Zoras….just to shake us all up and make us think again — as our brilliant ancestors did!!! So….what do you think, huh?

    Like

    February 27, 2014
  9. A true testament to the fact that the things you learn in history class as a kid are necessarily the whole of the story

    Like

    February 28, 2014
    • Isn’t that the truth. You mean Columbus wasn’t a heroic, stand-up guy?

      Like

      February 28, 2014
  10. Hmm interesting.

    Like

    February 28, 2014
  11. Zora’s family had moved to Eatonville, Florida. This was one of the first all-black towns to be incorporated in the United States. She was only three at the time.Her father later became mayor of this town and had served a few terms. It is known in Hurston’s writings, that she had glorified Eatonville as being one of the places where” African Americans could live as they desired”.

    It is said that “She felt it to be independent of white society”. And it was at that time. Zora had grew up in that sort of environment. An environment in which since the age of three she had lived amongst other successful blacks. A town that had everything that the surrounding white towns also had. Equal in every way but separate,with her father serving as mayor!

    She believed in only what she had lived . She spoke on her experience. But would her mindset had been different if her family never moved to Eatonvile, or served as mayor. I believe so. She spoke on what she knew and what she felt had worked in Eatonville.

    Like

    February 28, 2014
  12. harrisfr #

    She had also lived and worked in other areas of the country. She was hip. She was a Harlem girl too. She knew. She traveled by car and saw various areas. She based what she did and said on a variety of experiences. Eatonville allowed her to feel at home, to know a cherished place. Yes, indeed, she had learned what worked at the time for her personal satisfaction in a heart resting place. Her choices tell us what worked, and her courage gave us a mirror of her politics and experiences.

    Like

    February 28, 2014
    • Yes she was a Harlem girl… She also had spent a lot of quality time with her favorite cousin and my Great Grandmother Mammal Moss in Queens, NY… You are so passionate they would love for more insights.. They have family reunions every year and would welcome you as well as your information, for most of our elders have passed away. https://www.facebook.com/hurston.reunion?fref=pb&hc_location=friends_tab

      Like

      March 4, 2014
  13. chubbles09 #

    http://knownandcherished.wordpress.com/

    Like

    March 3, 2014
  14. Dave #

    Hello Mira… I enjoyed this post. I am unaware of Zora Thurston so this was a great education on a great lady that doesn’t get much press in the history books. I particularly took note of the fact that she would never take the position of being a victim. That is one of the keys to a successful life, I believe. It is a waste of energy and time spent in finger-pointing and a “woe-is-me” mentality that often inhibits many people from achieving a break-through to a life of liberation. She truly embodies the spirit of liberation through these writings.

    Like

    March 5, 2014

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