It’s great when people say they “just love Zora Neale Hurston.” Wonderful, because she most certainly loved herself. As she was. I don’t mean that in an egotistical way. She was unafraid to fully accept who she was in American society. She made no apologies and no excuses. Her ideas are still too radical for a lot of people, but most especially women, to accept. Despite all of our advances, today’s women still make excuses for themselves, and if asked, will express the desire to “change something” rather than loving themselves for who they are.
Zora was way, way, ahead of her time in that she didn’t have list. This is why, if someone says they love her, they need to be ready to embrace all of Zora. A lot of her philosophy was expressed through themes in her novels, but more directly in her essays and in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. In her landmark essay “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” her take on racism is truly memorable, “I have no separate feeling about being an American citizen and colored. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company! It’s beyond me.” People are still blown away by this take on racism. Her view shakes readers by their shirts: You are the stupid one if you let race separate us. Amazing.
She talks about pride in who she is at the beginning of the essay: “I am colored but I offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances except the fact that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief.” She clearly means to confront those who embrace a potentially distant heritage rather than embracing the one right in front of them.
Zora showcases her pride in herself the moment she steps out of the door: “At certain times, I have no race, I am me. When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue,…for instance.” A number of readers want to take that as conceit or arrogance. So a woman just be proud of who she is without those labels? Very radical.
However, if you profess to love Zora, you have to love all of her. When most people speak of their love, they mean her most famous novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Usually, they aren’t talking about her conservative viewpoints, her Republican politics or her stance against Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, et. al. Her stance against that landmark decision wasn’t entirely radial at the time. A number of very famous Negro League baseball players were against Jackie Robinson joining the major leagues for the same reasons. But no one wants to talk about those stances now. Too hot. Too controversial.
Another controversial part of the famous essay says: “Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you.” Her attitude here has been assessed as flip, or disrespectful. Her dismissal of slavery as directly involving her is echoed in the views of young people today.
She held many complex viewpoints about many things: her attitude towards marriage, her decisions not to have children but a career instead, her shifting, elusive sexuality as well as her attitudes about race are enough to make her an equal opportunity offender. She wouldn’t have cared. Zora didn’t seek to satisfy you, but sought to satisfy herself. Her lesson in self-care, to me, was to take care of herself first. Admittedly, she did this to the exclusion of other people in her life, including her family who professed not to know that she needed closer medical attention at the close of her life. She just didn’t tell them. She probably thought it was her business and not theirs. And then there was the matter of the way she didn’t have much to pay for her funeral or even for a headstone. But if you know Zora, then you know her attitude about that was probably, so what? I’m dead. What do I care?
She may have even known that literary warriors like Alice Walker would care enough to come along and validate her enough to put that late date that she wanted on her headstone. This week it was Zora Neale Hurston’s one hundred and fifteenth birthday. Not that other, higher, number. Folks better recognize!