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Zora Neale Hurston: No Shrill Revolutionary Voice August 26, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Literary Essays (Roger), Zora Neale Hurston.
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(Zora Neale Hurston is one of my two favorite Republicans.  The other is Dwight D. Eisenhower (“ I Like Ike!”), who may have spent most of his eight year presidency on the golf course, and he twice knocked off my first political hero, Adlai Stevenson; but … he did two things that really turn me on.  One, in his farewell address, he warned the nation about the growing “military industrial complex, and that turned out to be quite the prophecy for the late 1950s.  Secondly, when his hawkish Secretary of State, the notorious John Foster Dulles, was ready to nuke the Vietnamese when they had the French army surrounded at Dien Bien Phu, in what turned out the be the final defeat for French imperial rule in Vietnam, Ike put the kibosh on the idea.  I was just a kid during Ike’s reign, and he was grandfatherly, so that may have something to do with my feelings as well.

  But this is about Hurston, and I highly recommend her fiction.  Her work was almost entirely forgotten until she was “rediscovered” by Alice Walker, who searched for and found her burial site, and who launched a Hurston revival by publishing her “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in Ms. Magazine in 1975.)



The massive outpouring of mourning over the death of Civil Rights legend, Rosa Parks, has reminded America that the struggle for freedom has relevance beyond Black History Month.



African-American voices, however, have traditionally gone beyond calls for Black liberation.  From W.E.B. Dubois to Paul Robson to Martin Luther King to Malcolm X, they have been in the vanguard of criticism of America’s imperialist adventures.



Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was no shrill revolutionary voice.  Born into poverty in South Florida, she rose to become a prominent Black academic and writer in the era before, during, and just after World War II.  Henry Louis Gates, Jr. describes her as “a novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist whose fictional and factual accounts of black heritage are unparalleled.”  But she vigorously eschewed the role of Black liberationist.  Serving as a counterpoint to Black radicals of the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, she railed against those who made a liberatory category out of Race, claiming that individual talent, ability and ambition were the paths to success.  Nonetheless, her groundbreaking novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) was the first to acknowledge and celebrate the role and struggle of Negro women, and it is considered a classic of Black feminist literature.



Yet, Zora Neale Hurston was no shrill revolutionary voice.  She was the recipient of two Guggenheim fellowships and several honorary degrees.  For popular publications such as the Saturday Evening Post, she wrote articles with titles like: “Crazy for This Democracy,” “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism,” and “A Negro Voter Sizes up Taft.”  She was above all, a patriot.  She was a small “c” conservative in her political outlook.  She was a Republican!



In 1942, J. B. Lippincott published her autobiography, “Dust Tracks on a Road.”  Most of the manuscript had been written prior to Pearl Harbor, and the editors at Lippincott saw fit to expunge an entire chapter on the grounds that her international opinions were “irrelevant” to her autobiography.  I will leave it to you to guess at their real motives.



Here is a chunk of that red penciled chapter.  Don’t forget, Zora Neale Hurston was no shrill revolutionary voice:

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. (Italics added)



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 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 build monuments to him.  The very weapons he used are also honored.  They picture him in unforgetting stone with the sacred tool of conquest in his hand.  Democracy, like religion, never was designed to make our profits less.  (Italics added)

Now, for instance, if the English people were to quarter troops in France, and force the French to work for them for forty-eight cents a week while they took more than a billion dollars a year out of France, the English would be Occidentally execrated.  But actually, the British Government does just that in India, to the glory of the democratic way.  They are hailed as not only great Empire builders, the English are extolled as leaders of civilization.  And the very people who claim that is a noble thing to die for freedom and democracy cry out in horror when they hear tell of a “revolt” in India.  They even wax frothy if anyone points out the inconsistency of their morals.  So this life as we know it is a great thing.  It would have to be, to justify certain things.



I do not mean to single England out as something strange and different in the world.  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 from the treatment, it was not because the medicine was not good.  We are positive of that.  We have seen it work on other patients twice before it killed them and three times after.  Then, too, no matter what the outcome, you have to give the doctor credit for trying. (Italics added)



The United States being the giant of the Western World, we have our responsibilities.  The little Latin brother south of the border has been a trifle trying at times.  Nobody doubts that he means to be a good neighbor.  We know that his intentions are the best.  It is only that he is so gay and fiesta-minded that he is liable to make arrangements that benefit nobody but himself.  Not a selfish bone in his body, you know.  Just too full of rumba.  So it is our big brotherly duty to teach him right from wrong.  He must be taught to share with big brother before big brother comes down and kicks his teeth in.  A big good neighbor is a lovely thing to have.  We are far too moral a people to allow poor Latin judgment to hinder good works. (Italics in original)



But there is a geographical boundary to our principles.  They are not to leave the United States unless we take them ourselves.  Japan’s application of our principles to Asia is never to be sufficiently deplored …



Our indignation is more than justified.  We Westerners composed that piece about trading in China with gunboats and cannons long ago.  Japan is now plagiarizing in the most flagrant manner.  We also wrote that song about keeping a whole hemisphere under your wing.  Now the Nipponese are singing our song all over Asia.  They are full of stuff and need a good working out.  The only hold-back to the thing is that they have copied our medicine chest.  They are stocked up with the same steel pills and cannon plasters that Doctor Occident prescribes … (Italics added)



All around me, bitter tears are being shed over the fate 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.  Hitler’s crime is that he is actually doing a thing like that to his own kind.  That is international cannibalism and should be stopped.  He is a bandit.  That is true, but that is not what is held against him.  He is muscling in on well-established mobs.  Give him credit.  He cased some joints way off in Africa and Asia, but the big mobs already had them paying protection money and warned him to stay away.  The only way he can climb out of the punk class is to high-jack the load and that is just what he is doing.  President Roosevelt could extend his four freedoms to some people right here in America before he takes it all aboard, and, no doubt, he would do it too, if it would bring in the same amount of glory.  I am not bitter, but I see what I see.  He can call names across the ocean, but he evidently has not the courage to speak even softly at home.  Take away the ocean and he simmers right down.  I wish that I could say differently, but I cannot.  I will fight for my country, but I will not lie for her.  Our country is so busy playing “fence” to the mobsters that the cost in human suffering cannot be considered yet.  We can take that up in the next depression. (Italics added)



As I see it, the doctrines of democracy deal with the aspirations of men’s soul, but the application deals with things [Karl Marx wrote that under capitalism persons are treated like things and things like persons.  Nora was no shrill revolutionary voice, but she could sure imitate it when she wanted to!].  One hand in somebody else’s pocket and one on your gun, and you are highly civilized.  Your heart is where it belongs – in your pocketbook.  Put it in your bosom and you are backward.  Desire enough for your own use only, and you are a heathen.  Civilized people have things to show their neighbors …

I think 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 is out of their system.  It has just been decided to move the slave quarters farther away from the house …

To mention the hundred years of the Anglo-Saxon in China alone is proof enough of the evils of this view point.  The millions of Chinese who have died for our prestige and profit!  They are still dying for it.  Justify it with all the proud and pretty phrases you please, but if we think our policy is right, you just let the Chinese move a gunboat onto the Hudson to drum up trade with us.  The scream of outrage would wake up the saints in the backrooms of Heaven …



“Appendix: Seeing the World as It Is,” in “Dust Tracks on a Road,” Zora Neale Hurston, Harper Perennial edition, 1991, pages 248-252.

Remember, these words were penned in 1939 and 1940, just prior to the U.S. entry into the Second World War.  This was long before the United States’ post-war interventions in Latin America (Guatemala, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Chile, Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador, Haiti, Brazil, Venezuela, Grenada and Colombia), not to mention Vietnam and today’s imperial adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.  She was certainly prescient.  If anyone doubts that the present United States regime has globalized the Monroe Doctrine, I urge them to read President George W. Bush’s National Security Strategy, published in September of 2002 (it’s on the Internet).



Zora Neale Hurston was no shrill revolutionary voice.  She was considered timid, if not reactionary, when it came to the Black struggle in America.  But, when it came to an understanding of United States imperialism, she told it like it is.  And like Dwight D. Eisenhower, the last and only president to warn his country of the dangers of the military industrial complex, Zora Neale Hurston was a Republican.  And did I mention, no shrill revolutionary voice?



Playas, November 2005