Jump at de Sun
It is heartbreaking to imagine what Hurston might have produced, or become, with even a fraction of the financial comforts afforded to a white (and in Hurston's opinion, less talented) writer like Fannie Hurst. Returning to Florida and settling into a solitary life on a plot of land that she hoped to buy (but could not), we're told that Hurston "planted a small garden that she happily tended every day before sunrise...black-eyed peas, pole beans, lima beans, watermelons, okra, and tomatoes." We yearn to see more of this Zora: the private personas, as Kaplan puts it, of "recluse, sailor, pet lover, gardener and cook."
But not everyone loved Zora, as the current boom might suggest. Her political and personal contradictions--about segregation, patriotism and Communism--became more and more pronounced as she aged, and Hurston seems to have alienated even her most ardent supporters by the end of her life. A raucous scandal involving a "morals charge" against her, in which she was accused of sexually abusing two young boys, didn't help her reputation either (the charges were dropped).
At the crux of her paradoxical racial views was this: Eatonville had taught her about both race pride and universal humanity. Deeply committed to the idea of an essential Negro self--one with "greater spiritual endowment, greater sensitivity, greater power for artistic expression and appreciation" than his Nordic neighbors--Hurston was dedicated to the rich folklore, dialect and ways of ordinary black people. She spent her life enamored with the porch talk she'd grown up with: storytelling about "God, the Devil, the animals, and the elements." And her belief in the inherent superiority of black culture corresponded with a profound respect for spirit guidance, visions, signs and voodoo, which she defined simply as "the old, old mysticism of the world in African terms."
On the other hand (and herein lies the rub), Hurston also believed that "all clumps of people turn out to be individuals on close inspection," and that "black skunks are just as natural as white ones." And she had absolutely no tolerance for the suffering protest narratives such as those offered up by novelist (and nemesis) Richard Wright. But "can the black poet sing a song to the morning?" she demanded in a 1938 essay. No, she laments, answering her own question. "The one subject for a Negro is the Race and its sufferings and so the song of the morning must be chocked back. I will write of a lynching instead."
And there are other troubling inconsistencies. Those of us of racially mixed parentage, for example, might wonder whether we would have qualified for Hurston's affection as "authentic" black folk. That she placed a premium on "pure" Negroness was apparent in her attacks on colorist prejudice among the light-skinned black elite (W.E.B. Du Bois was not well-loved by Hurston for his championing of the talented tenth); her disparaging remarks about "a crowd of white Negroes" on their way to Russia to make a movie about black America who had never been "south of the Mason-Dixon line"; and her "color-conscious casting" of an "authentic" Negro concert with "no mulattoes at all." (Godmother Mason was also pleased by this banning of the "diluted ones.")
She was a black nationalist, say some. Indeed, her complicated opposition to Brown v. Board of Education flew in the face of everything the "race leaders" of her time fought and died for. Though she was not a segregationist, Hurston found the assumption of Negro inferiority deeply insulting, according to both Boyd and Kaplan. "It is a contradiction," as Hurston put it, "to scream race pride and equality while...spurning Negro teachers and self-association."
To complicate matters more, many of her most radical views were never published. Quite possibly the best novel that Hurston ever wrote, according to Kaplan, was The Golden Bench of God, a now-disappeared manuscript about Madame C.J. Walker, commonly touted as the first black woman millionaire (but actually the second). Walker's was "a completely female-run industry," says Kaplan. "Very politicized in terms of its ties to the black community." It included a college where thousands of people got degrees, as well as "a day-care and employment center and a literacy program." Unable to interest a publisher in the book, Hurston wrote to her literary agent, Jean Parker Waterbury: "Imagine that no white audience is present to hear what is said." This is the novel, says Kaplan, "that was written completely for the black community."