I came across this book by sheer coincidence. I had just finished Their Eyes Were Watching God – and this was on sale in the lovely Brookline Books in Boston. And I couldn’t resist it. 2 years later, I finally got round to reading it.
I really enjoyed it. Maya Angelou’s Preface makes it clear the Zora Neale Hurston’s attempt at autobiography is also an attempt at autocreation. Rather than providing a matter-of-fact account of what she has done and when, Hurston mixes together fiction to create an origin story for herself. That said, the book was first published in 1942, and it shows many signs of its time.
Zora Neale Hurston spent a considerable amount of her childhood in the all-black community of Eatonville in Florida, of which her father was mayor for three terms.
The young Hurston was close to her mother and her account of her is full of love and admiration.
“Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to “jump at de sun”. We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground. Papa did not feel so hopeful. Let well enough alone. It did not do for Negroes to have too much spirit. He was always threatening to break mine or kill me in the attempt. My mother was always standing between us. She conceded that I was impudent and given to talking back, but she didn’t want to ‘squinch my spirit’ too much fo fear that I would turn out to be a mealy-mouthed rag doll by the time I’m grown.”
Hurston relationship with her father was fraught. Her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, is often interpreted as describing her father: a man full of good intentions, but with considerable trouble implementing them.
Here’s a not-unusual fragment from Dust Tracks on a Road about their her father:
“So looking back at it, I take it Papa and Mama, in spite of his meanderings, were really in love. Maybe he was just born before his time. There was nothing to hinder his impulses. They didn’t have zippers on pants in those days, guaranteed to stay locked on no matter what the strain. From what I can lear, those button-up flies were mighty tricky and betraying.”
Hurston is unashamedly funny at times. She also has a beautiful knack for describing the fancies of childhood – I loved the passage where the little girl imagines that the moon follows her around as she runs “shining and shouting after me like a pretty puppy dog.” Her early childhood years are the happiest – till her mother dies young of TB.
Hurston’s father quickly took another wife – and the eight children from his first marriage were quickly scattered to the winds, as his new wife did not like them. The children reciprocated the sentiment. Hurston describes the fistfight that she got into with Sara without any embarrassment. Then followed the years of trying to make a living as an orphan of sorts, with some of that beautiful writing that Hurston is famous for.
“There is something about poverty that smells like death. Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in a dry season and rotting around the feet; impulses smothered too long in the fetid air of underground caves. The soul lives in a sickly air. People can be slave-ships in shoes”
Eventually, Hurston became a maid for a travelling performer and it is here where she found hope again. She returned to school , where she fell in love with literature. From there, she went to Howard.
It is at her time at Howard that Hurston describes one of the more disturbing scenes in the whole book – a time when she worked at a black-run barber’s shop for whites in order to have money for her degree.
A black man came in and demanded a haircut and a shave. The black proprietor threw him out.
“It was only that night in bed that I analyzed the whole thing and realized that I was giving sanction to Jim Crow, which theoretically I was supposed to resist. But here were ten Negro barbers, three porters and two manicurists all stirred up at a threat of our living through loss of patronage. It was an instinctive thing. That was the first time it was called to my attention that self-interest rides over all sorts of lives… Perhaps it would have been a beautiful thing if Banks had turned to the shop crowded with customers and announced that this man was going to be served like everybody else even at the risk of losing their patronage… It would have been a stirring gesture, and have made headlines for the day. Then we could all have gone home to our unpaid rents and bills and things like that… So I do not know what was the ultimate right in this case. I do know how I felt at the time.”
There are quite a few things about this paragraph. Firstly, it shows the insidiousness of racism which corrupts society by dividing it against itself. To survive in the system, you have to be complicit in it. Rebellion threatens your very right to survival. And not all people placed in this position can rebel. Second, Hurston’s ambivalence here is characteristic of her stance throughout this book. If you find too much to take, you will struggle with her narrative. This is one of the many compromises she has made in her life.
Another era of Hurston’s life was her research into black American folk stories. Her first attempt got her nowhere, as her well-educated Barnard accent turned people off. But soon she became an expert at listening and studies Vodoo in New Orleans. She continued her studies in the Bahamas.
“I enjoyed collecting the folk-takes and I believe the people from whom I collected them enjoyed the telling of them, just as much as I did the hearing. Once they got started, the “lies” just rolled and story-tellers fought for a chance to talk.”
You can tell Hurston listened, because her books are full of those voices she heard. Mellifluous, rhythmical, funny and heartbreaking speech has been incorporated in to her craft. According to her version of events, it was when she was researching in the field that inspiration came to her for her first novel.
” What I wanted to tell was a story about a man and from what I had heard and heard, Negroes were supposed to write about the race problem. I was and am thoroughly sick of the subject. My interest lies in what makes a man or a woman do such-and-so, regardless of his color. It seemed to me that the human beings I met reacted pretty much the same to the same stimuli. Different idioms, yes. Circumstances and conditions having power to influence, yes. Inherent difference, no.”
This statement is something she often repeats throughout her autobiography. And I think I also encountered it quite a bit in Daniel Hack’s Reaping Something New, a study of 19th century African American reactions literary responses to Victorian literature.
I am not really qualified to talk about this, but this experience of feeling that you are “supposed to write about a subject” is something I have come across a lot in Polish writing, so it may be that it is something similar. Traditionally a Polish writer, especially in the 19th-century ( but even now, really) feels that they must absolutely engaged with their Polishness, with Poland’s oppression by occupying forces (in the 19th century, then in the 20th), with national identity. Some authors revoltagainst this supposition using parody and subversion as their weapon of choice.
I would perhaps point to Paul Beatty’s The Sellout as a parallel here.
But in a way the whole discussion is a double-bind – for no matter how you want to rebel against writing about something – the very fact of your rebellion is an acknowledgement of the subject you are writing about.
To me it seems that Hurston, even in the fact of claiming that she is not writing about the race problem and simply saying that “all human beings are equal” is actually deceptively radical here. It is 1942. Black people are not treated as equal in the US. And Hurston knows this.
I know quite a few people find Hurston depressingly complicit in the racism of her times, but I think it is crucial to remember her political context. One must try to remind oneself that things that are obvious now, or even acknowledged as “not enough”, were still pretty crucial to say back then.
Hurston’s essays can be disturbing in what seem like completely casual racism, in storytelling and in jokes. One can tell from Hurston’s storytelling that she knew that compromise – and not pretty compromise at that- was the only thing that guaranteed survival. One often feels that those jokes are a compromise on her part, a way of trying to make her (after all, often white) audience feel at ease. One can and often does feel disgusted, but it is much easier to have that judgement from a 21st century perspective rather than in the America on the 1940s.
That’s a personal reflection ( I’m trying to understand the world through the context that I know) – it may not apply here and you may find it wrong or insensitive. If it is, please let me know.
It was while doing storytelling research in Haiti that Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God.
“It was dammed up in me, and I wrote it under internal pressure in seven weeks. I wish I could write it again. In fact, I regret all of my books… Perhaps, it is just as well to be rash and foolish for awhile. If writers were too wise, perhaps no books would get written at all”
I love this account. Firstly, because she describes “regretting” an absolutely fantastic novel. Secondly, because she acknowledges that writing and living consists of making mistakes and trying to learn from them.