BOOK EXCERPT: Dancing in the Dark

The final selected passage from author Morris Dickstein's cultural history of the Great Depression.


“How It Feels to Be Colored Me”: Zora Unbound

If that was Wright’s message, the book missed its mark. As a wake-up call describing how blacks lived in the North and how they really felt about whites, Native Son had tremendous impact, which continues to reverberate today. Bigger’s graphic murders—and the bottled-up violence that pushes him close to the edge even before he kills—were frightening; his fear and flight, with which we cannot help identifying, felt overpoweringly real. But Wright’s symbolic treatment of rape and murder as steps toward Bigger’s full humanity touched a nerve more in existentialist Paris than in segregated, race-conscious America. Wright’s literary progeny were both tough and tender: urban naturalists like Chester Himes and Willard Motley but also restive protégés like Ralph Ellison and Baldwin, who were drawn to his courageous truth telling and keen psychological penetration before rebelling against his angry example. But since the 1970s his most important rival—and now the most widely taught black writer in America—has been the one he most sharply attacked, Zora Neale Hurston. She responded to the young Wright’s dismissive review of Their Eyes Were Watching God in The New Masses with a damning piece on Uncle Tom’s Children in a more mainstream publication, the Saturday Review. Though there is surely room for more than one vision of the black experience in America, their differences have come to seem archetypal. As Hazel Rowley wrote in her biography of Wright in 2001, “the Hurston-Wright controversy continues to this day.”12

Hurston’s work was almost completely forgotten between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, when it was rediscovered by feminists. But as she exchanged salvos with Wright she was already a celebrated figure, one of the best-known black writers. Born in Alabama in 1891, a date she kept buried all her life, she grew up in the all-black town of Eatonville in central Florida; her father, a preacher, served three terms as the town’s mayor. She dealt with her parents’ courtship, her father’s troubled ministry, his infidelities, and her mother’s early death in her lyrical first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934), but her central subject, in both her fiction and her anthropological work, was the inimitable language, lore, humor, and folkways of the Eatonville Negroes among whom she had grown up.

Hurston had an amazing ear, as she noted that Wright did not—he tended to write dialogue in standard English and “correct” it later into colloquial speech—and the oral quality of her work tilts toward the poetic, not the naturalistic. Even as a child she dazzled visitors and townspeople with her ingratiating cleverness, polishing her talent for mimicry and story­telling. The same gifts helped make her perhaps the most colorful figure in the Harlem Renaissance; she was widely seen as a born performer, irresistible to white patrons but too impatient, too undisciplined ever to write very much.13 Hurston’s early admirers and patrons were legion. They included Annie Nathan Meyer, a founder of Barnard College, where Hurston was the only black student in the late 1920s; Alain Locke, who published an early story of hers (“Spunk”) in the landmark anthology The New Negro (1925); Langston Hughes, with whom she wrote a play, Mule Bone, before they fell out bitterly; Fanny Hurst, the popular novelist who befriended her and hired her as an assistant, though her clerical skills were minimal; Franz Boas, who encouraged her anthropological work and wrote a preface to her Mules and Men; Charlotte Osgood Mason, the wealthy and proprietary Park Avenue “Godmother” who supported Hurston, Locke, Hughes, and other Harlem Renaissance writers; Nancy Cunard, who published her work in her massive Negro: An Anthology (1934); Henry Allan Moe, head of the Guggenheim Foundation, which gave her fellowship support for ethnographic research; and many others, who were all charmed by her quick intelligence and vast command of southern Negro folklore and dialect.

One of Hurston’s charges against Wright was that he was so obsessed with how black people’s lives were dominated by whites, so determined to expose their core of hatred, fear, and powerlessness, that he paid little attention to how they lived among themselves, how they had evolved a rich, nurturing folk culture of their own, and, above all, how they actually spoke. Hurston blamed this on Wright’s adherence to the Communist Party line on southern racism, but of course it was deeply ingrained in the fears he imbibed in his own upbringing. She begins her review by complaining that “this is a book about hatreds” and, after praising some of the writing, ends with the hope “that Mr. Wright will find in Negro life a vehicle for his talents.” The gender difference is also one of the keys to their enduring rivalry. “There is lavish killing here,” she writes, “perhaps enough to satisfy all male black readers.” For her, Wright’s parables of violent oppression and revenge scanted not only the internal culture of black people—their relations with each other—but their responsibility for their own lives (“state responsibility for everything and individual responsibility for nothing, not even feeding one’s self,” she wrote).14 Baldwin made the same charge more than a decade later, claiming that because Wright in Native Son had turned Bigger into a “social symbol,” a prophecy of impending disaster, “a necessary dimension has been cut away, . . . the relationship that Negroes bear to one another, that depth of involvement and unspoken recognition of shared experience which creates a way of life.”15

That “way of life” is what we call a culture; exploring it, especially from a woman’s viewpoint, was the whole raison d’être of Hurston’s fiction and ethnographic work. In an astonishing 1928 essay called “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”—a title that, but for its insouciant tone, its bubbling egotism, could have been plastered across Wright’s collected works—Hurston claims she scarcely knew she was colored until her thirteenth year, when she was sent away from her all-black town after her mother’s death to live with a brother in Jacksonville. But even when the presence of whites reminds her that she is black, and is treated differently, she insists, “I am not tragically colored.” It is no source of sorrow, or protest, or any sense of inferiority; the deep sources of life, she feels, are within—she echoes Emerson here—and the only loss comes from being forced to feel any confining sense of race at all, something many black people do to themselves. “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company! It’s beyond me.”16

These lines are typical of the exuberant, mischievous Zora of the Harlem Renaissance, the performing self who seemed larger than life.[1] Hurston did not imagine that her brimming self-confidence, her buoyant American optimism and individualism, would solve all our social problems. But she did feel that blacks, especially blacks “farthest down,” had cultural resources that gave them surprising strength and vitality. Hurston and Wright could agree that black people lived behind a mask—behind a “veil,” as Du Bois put it. She felt that poor people in general “are most reluctant at times to reveal that which the soul lives by. And the Negro, in spite of his open-faced laughter, his seeming acquiescence, is particularly evasive.”17 But where Wright saw hatred, fear, and rage behind the polite front, Hurston heard the intonations of a tremendous oral culture—competitive storytelling, resourceful folk knowledge, delicious gossip, outrageous boasting, silver-tongued preaching. The “culture of poverty,” as Hurston saw it, was not a set of social pathologies but an organic body of common wisdom, a poetics of everyday life.

Wright’s criticism of Their Eyes Were Watching God brings its differences with his own work into sharp relief. “Miss Hurston can write,” he says, “but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phyllis Wheatley.” Though Native Son, especially in its uncensored version, is daringly explicit about black male sexuality, even at the risk of confirming a racist stereotype, there was a deeply puritanical streak in Wright. Like many attracted to the Communist Party, including those who were drawn to its freewheeling sexual milieu, Wright saw sex and pleasure as political liabilities; like the consolations of religion, they siphoned off discontent and kept the masses docile. For whites the vicarious projection of black sexual freedom was at once a naughty diversion and a hideously condescending form of primitivism; blacks represented the savage state from which they themselves were barred by middle-class inhibition.

In the 1920s many whites were indeed drawn to the Harlem Renaissance writers, as they were enamored of jazz, for its “primitive” qualities: raw energy, physical vitality, unguarded emotion, erotic freedom. (The French adored jazz—and made a sensational cult of Josephine Baker—for the same reason. Indeed, they saw American culture in general as an escape from their own overrefined civilization, which smothered them in moral hypocrisy.) It’s also true that many black writers and performers played to this appeal, as Hurston did in her vast and amusing repertoire of Eatonville stories.

As a creature propelled by her own remarkable gifts, Hurston really did feel free, but she did not feel in the least primitive. Stories of rural black life were in vogue—by 1935 DuBose Heyward’s Porgy had gone in quick succession from a novel to a successful Broadway play to a Gersh­win folk opera—and among the Harlem writers she had the deepest roots in southern life and lore. To the politically committed Wright this was little more than a minstrel show, a blackface entertainment. “Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition that was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh.” In “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Hurston had thrilled to her own powers, her performance, whatever the cost had been: “Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the grand-daughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. . . . Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me. . . . No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory. The world to be won and nothing to be lost. . . . It is quite exciting to hold the center of the national stage with the spectators not knowing whether to laugh or to weep” (827). Wright throws this back at her from the point of view of an angry new generation: “Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.”18