When novelist Zora Neale Hurston died penniless in a Florida nursing home in 1960, she was buried in a charity cemetery in an unmarked grave, an ironic resting place for a talented American writer and folklorist who, by all accounts, was a dazzling and memorable personality. Though her success had never been more than modest, the last 12 years of her life ushered in an almost complete eclipse of her fortunes as a novelist. The reasons for this are complicated. She had begun her career as a trained anthropologist (under the tutelage of Franz Boas) and folklorist whose first collection of Southern black folktales, Mules and Men, established her as a master of Afro-American dialect. Her best-known novels, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), as well as her controversial autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), drew heavily upon the folkloric idiom, one which she knew firsthand, having been born and reared in the all-black village of Eatonville, Florida. As long as her characters remained within a lower-class black milieu she was able to find willing publishers and avid readers. As Hurston explained in a 1950 essay, “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” black writers during the Jim Crow era were expected to meet certain expectations. Either they confined themselves to the “unnatural history” of picturesque Negro stereotypes, or they set themselves up as indignant protest novelists exploiting the “race problem,” playing deftly upon liberal sympathies in the manner of Richard Wright. While Hurston’s early novels were certainly not “unnatural” histories, they contained an element of the picturesque that appealed to white readers. However, when Hurston attempted to step outside the boundaries in her last published novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), which was, in the words of her first biographer, Robert Hemenway, about “upwardly mobile white crackers,” she was vilified, especially by the black literary establishment. Two subsequent novels, written in the 1950’s, attempted to explore in realistic fashion the inner lives of affluent black characters. Both remained unpublished.
But the decline in Hurston’s literary fortunes was also a result of her politics. Even during her earliest years as a rising star in the Harlem Renaissance, she had never been comfortable with the “black consciousness” advocacy of men like Alain Locke, W.E.B. Du Bois, or the more radical Langston Hughes. Though Hurston benefited by her association with them, she considered the inner circle of the Harlem “Nigeratti,” as she frequently called them, to be a rather effete cabal of well-to-do blacks who, despite their claims of “solidarity” with lower-class blacks, had no real understanding of their lives. Hurston’s break with the “Nigeratti” seems to have reached a critical point in 1942 when, in Dust Tracks on the Road, she penned a scathing indictment of the “race pride” movement that had its origins primarily in the political writings of Du Bois. “Race Pride,” she noted, “was something that, if we had it, we would feel ourselves superior to the whites. A black skin was the greatest honor that could be blessed [sic] on any man. A ‘race man’ was someone who always kept the glory and honor of his race before him.”
For Hurston, the concept of racial pride was flawed in two respects. It was, in the first place, a false abstraction. Endless talk of racial solidarity tended to obscure the rich profusion of differences within racial groupings, to subordinate the individual to the racial tribe. Even worse, racial consciousness promoted a collective resentment of whites that seemed to absolve blacks of any responsibility for their own condition. If blacks found themselves living in poverty, if black communities were rife with social problems, if black achievement was lagging far behind that of whites, then the fault could only lie with the white oppressor. The problem with such an argument is that it tends implicitly to cultivate a culture of inferiority. Individual failure can always be blamed on external, racial factors.
While Hurston was by no means a friend of Jim Crow, a system she denounced on numerous occasions, she was wary of the exclusive focus on civil rights promoted by the “better-thinking negro,” who ever more stridently called for political equality without providing poor blacks with the “tools” they needed to achieve real equality. Thus, she looked behind the militancy of Du Bois and the Harlem cabal (and their friends in the NAACP) to the example of Booker T. Washington, whose philosophy of self-help sought to empower individuals and local communities. She notes with barely concealed scorn how the “better-thinking negro” looked upon Washington “as absolutely vile for advocating industrial education” for blacks. By contrast, left-leaning black leaders were already preparing the ground for the affirmative-action policies of the present, policies that have worked to the advantage of the “better-thinking negro,” while leaving the masses of poor blacks mired in a swamp of dependency. Indeed, Hurston was early on an adamant critic of the New Deal, precisely because it fostered a growing dependency, among both blacks and whites, on the federal government. In her view, the New Deal was, no less than Reconstruction, an unwarranted expansion of government by executive decree. Never missing an opportunity to denounce FDR for both his domestic and his foreign policy, she referred to him shortly after his death as “That dear, departed crippled-up-so-and-so [who] was the Anti-Christ long spoken of. I never dreamed that so much hate and negative forces could be unleashed on the world until I wintered and summered under his dictatorship.” She characterized FDR’s Depression-era relief program as “the biggest weapon ever placed in the hands of those who sought power and votes.” As for the masses who accepted New Deal largesse, they “gradually relaxed their watchfulness and submitted to the will of the ‘Little White Father,’ more or less.”
For her candor Hurston was spurned by the liberal establishment and attacked by the likes of Langston Hughes, whose communist sympathies were well known, and who sought to portray Hurston as a traitor to the cause of black solidarity. But her greatest transgression against the dogma of racial pride was her denunciation of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. The crux of Hurston’s argument, published as a letter to the Orlando Sentinel in August 1955, is that the stated intent of the Court—to ensure equality of education for black schoolchildren—was, in effect, a ruse. As is so often the case in her writing, she draws upon her store of Southern folk wisdom to present her case in quasi-allegorical fashion: “Those familiar with the habits of mules are aware that any mule, if not restrained, will automatically follow a white mare. Dishonest mule-traders made money out of this knowledge in the old days.” One needed only to lead a white mare down a country road and “slyly open a gate, and the mules in the lot would . . . follow this mare.” Brown is the white mare used to lead black folk (the mules) into a new captivity, an illusory equality that promised little in the way of substantive improvement in the quality of black children’s education. Critics of Hurston’s argument, then and now, often dismiss it with the claim that only a woeful ignorance of the poor quality of education in segregated black schools could explain her failure to support the Court’s decision. But that isn’t very likely. Hurston’s own mother was a schoolteacher; Hurston herself worked, among her many jobs, as a substitute teacher; and she traveled widely in the segregated South over the course of several decades.
What Hurston’s critics—some self-styled conservatives among them—have ignored are her apprehensions about the long-term implications of the Brown decision. Though she doesn’t say as much in the Sentinel letter, it is likely that Hurston was fully aware that Brown was reached on psychological, not constitutional, grounds. Among other studies cited by the Court was psychologist Kenneth Clark’s finding that, when given a choice between black and white dolls, black children more often chose white dolls. From this Clark inferred that black children saw themselves as inferior, and the Court agreed. As one legal expert has recently asked, “Isn’t it telling that the Court [did] not even attempt to explain the less-than-obvious connection between how a black child describes black and white dolls and the relative effect of integrated versus segregated schools on that child’s ‘feeling of inferiority’?” One might conclude, of course, as even some constitutional originalists such as Robert Bork have, that, while the methodology of the Brown decision was flawed, the decision itself was correct. If one measures correctness in this context by the achievement of a purely factitious equality, then perhaps Bork is right. But it is blindingly clear that, in the half-century since the implementation of Brown began “with all deliberate speed,” very little real improvement in the quality of education for black children has been achieved. On the contrary, the American public-school system is scandalously dysfunctional, and Brown, among other factors, brought this about.
What Hurston understood better than most in 1955 was that the Brown decision was a flagrant attempt at social engineering by the Court, the sort of thing that has become all too frequent in recent decades. She warns in no uncertain terms against the implications of judicial activism:
In the ruling on segregation, the unsuspecting nation might have witnessed a trial balloon. A relatively safe one, since it is sectional and on a matter not likely to arouse other sections of the nation in support of the South. [But] . . . a precedent has been established. Government by fiat can replace the Constitution.
Hurston also understood that segregated black schools were important centers of cultural life in black communities all across the South, centers that provided cohesion and support for precisely the kind of self-help ethic that Booker T. Washington had worked tirelessly to cultivate. Indeed, Hurston’s opposition to Brown was not at all eccentric, as many of her detractors claim. Many black teachers and administrators across the South shared her views. As Lynn Moylan notes, having surveyed a number of recent studies of the impact of Brown, “despite the lofty premises of Brown, . . . the cultural connection and the vital sense of belonging and ‘ethic of caring’ characteristic of . . . former all-black schools were in effect destroyed by the court system.” Even former NAACP Legal Fund attorney Derrick Bell, who at one time believed Brown to be the “Holy Grail of racial justice,” has recently conceded that he was woefully mistaken, that in fact the Court should have enforced separate but equal funding for black schools.
Fifteen years after Hurston’s burial in a pauper’s cemetery, she was disinterred in the pages of Ms. when novelist Alice Walker published an essay there entitled “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.” Walker set the stage for the rebranding of Hurston’s image, presenting the feisty, iconoclastic writer as a proto-feminist heroine and pioneering multiculturalist, while largely ignoring her politics. Today, Hurston’s life has been made the subject of several biographies, most of her novels are in print, and she is studied widely in the academy. But it is a fair bet that most of the students exposed to Hurston’s work rarely learn that she was a staunch conservative-libertarian thinker who would be appalled to discover that she has become an icon of the left-liberal establishment. It is true that in recent years some conservatives have attempted to reclaim her as one of their own. This is a perfectly legitimate endeavor, but one must be wary of easy generalizations. John McWhorter, in a recent piece in the City Journal, claims that Hurston was a “fervent Republican who would be at home today on Fox News . . . ” This is doubtful. Yes, Hurston was a Republican, but she was as frequently critical of Republicans as she was of Democrats. Her closest political affiliations, especially in her last two decades, were with such Old Right Republicans as Robert Taft, whom she openly supported during the presidential campaign of 1952, and whose noninterventionist foreign policy was dear to her heart. Indeed, her denunciations of U.S. imperialism were frequent and bitter. In a passage expunged by the editors of the original 1942 edition of Dust Tracks, she wrote, “We, too, have our Marines in China. We, 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 of the treatment, it was not because the medicine was not good.” One imagines that such remarks would not play well on FOX News.