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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."
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