JOHN MCWHORTER AUGUST 17, 2009
The drifting changes in the links between cultural alignments and political ones over time are always interesting, such as the fact that Republicans were once more interested in black rights than Democrats. It’s equally true in black history. Culturally, Booker T. Washington was much more of what is currently recognized as “culturally black” than W.E.B. DuBois, as were the legions of sharecroppers and urban poor moved by Washington’s example more than DuBois’ (DuBois’ picture rarely hung on walls).
Another resonant example of how contingent the connections between cultural and political alignments always are is author Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960). Celebrated today for her documentation of rural black folklore and her explorations of the black female condition in, especially, her tour de force novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston the actual person would be as much at home on Fox News as on National Public Radio.
She was, quite simply, what is known today as a black conservative, as I write about in this piece for City Journal. It’s a facet of hers that her fan base has not always been comfortable with. After all, she seemed so, well, black! And loveable and warm, with the dusty fieldtrips down South and the open use of what we now call Ebonics. How could she be a conservative?!?
It’s interesting imagining her alive today and asked by African-American Studies departments to give talks. There she’d be at the Thai restaurant with six or seven faculty members before her lecture. When she dismissed reparations, maybe that’d go by--few today consider it a serious possibility anyway. But laughter would get ever more nervous as she started knocking Affirmative Action, dismissing the idea that a black person should derive pride from the accomplishments of black people other than himself (e.g. “I’m proud watching Obama standing up there”) and chuckling at the idea that black people should think of the experience of racism as a facet of black identity--which would inform her take on the Gates affair of late.
Upon which: no “W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research” (the name of the department Gates heads) for her. She was a Booker T. fan (and would almost certainly have hated the term “African-American”).
I mention in the piece that there is a photo (shown above) of a distinctly approachable, grinning Florida black lady that has often been mispresented as being of Hurston. Even Carla Kaplan, editor of a fine collection of Hurston’s letters, reproduces yet another photo of this woman, an anonymous lady snapped on one of Hurston’s field expeditions, as her (I once asked Kaplan about this and she acknowledged the mistake).
Why it’s been so easy to suppose this woman was Hurston is only partly the likeness, which is rather approximate--the woman, if personally approached by someone assuming she was Hurston, would likely have classified it as an example of people thinking all blacks look alike. The lady is a sort of The Jeffersons’ Florence as opposed to Hurston who looked more like Queen Latifah (hint, hint--or, will someone let this woman play Bessie Smith instead before it’s too late?).
This woman has attracted Hurston fans because she radiates the essence of the Hurston many “feel”--down with us, just folks. And Hurston was: but she had a different sense of what “folks” needed than we would expect someone of her demeanor and background to today. Valerie Boyd, author of the definitive Hurston bio, steps around the politics with surmises like “The truth is, we don’t know how she would have responded to a Malcolm X or a Clarence Thomas. The only thing we can know for sure is this: She would have evaluated them as individuals.”
Well, sort of. Hurston’s politics made it clear that this individual evaluation would have fallen into patterns. She would almost certainly have considered Clarence Thomas’ politics praiseworthy along with those of Tom Sowell and Shelby Steele, and by my reading she would have seen Malcolm X as a rabblerouser with no concrete program and felt similarly about Jesse Jackson.
Yet this was someone right in the eye of the Harlem Renaissance, who today would be doing Spoken Word recordings like Cornel West. Zora Neale Hurston was, basically, even more plain interesting than often known.