Why Richard Wright Hated Zora Neale Hurston

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: A genre lost its inhibitions as Janie's orgasm riled critics.

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Two years later, Nella Larsen in her novel Quicksand created the light-skinned character Helga Crane, who marries a very dark man, the Reverend Pleasant Green, primarily because of the deep sensuality he awakens in her, a "longing for the ecstasy that might lurk," as the text puts it. Helga marries Reverend Green and enjoys sex with him, until multiple childbirths kill her. So, even for Larsen, fulfilled desire suggested the dangers of sex, not its pleasures, since Helga's sexuality leads literally to her downfall, her demise.

Until James Baldwin, only Zora Neale Hurston heeded Du Bois' call for an explicitly full and celebratory representation of black sexuality, and Hurston was the first to do so through a female protagonist, Janie Starks, in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). And she got into serious trouble with her contemporary black male authors for doing so, especially with the great novelist Richard Wright.

In a 1975 essay titled "In the Space Where Sex Should Be" (echoing a phrase that James Baldwin had used about the same subject), Marilyn Nelson Waniek observed that far too many black writers -- especially male writers, including Richard Wright -- traditionally substituted the figure of white men (as the embodiment of an all-encompassing and all-determining anti-black racism) precisely in the place in their texts where a reader might expect to find the development of healthy sexual relations between black characters. "Many critics have complained of a scarcity of fulfilling heterosexual relationships in novels by Black American authors," Waniek wrote, and this "would include most of the novels written by black men in this country," novels that lack "a lasting sexual relationship between the Black protagonist and a woman."

On the other hand, though Waniek doesn't say this, in the "underground" black vernacular traditions -- such as the blues and jazz, or oral poetry such as "Shine and the Titanic" and "The Signifying Monkey" -- black sexuality was always alive and well. But these were the people's art forms, expressions created by and for the consumption and enjoyment of other "regular" black people hungry to consume images of themselves, and not concerned in the least about middle-class readers and their values, whether white or black. Far too often, the vitality of black vernacular expression didn't spill over into the written tradition.

With the exception of Hurston, this sad state of affairs remained generally the case in the black novel until the revolution in the representation of black sexuality created after 1970 by black women writers such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Terry McMillan and a host of others, drawing upon the precedent set by Hurston's bold representation of Janie, and James Baldwin's controversial depictions of both homo- and hetero-eroticism in his novels of the '50s and '60s.

Heavyweights Spar

Despite Du Bois' charge to his audience that night in 1926, and his and Hughes' praise of Jean Toomer's Cane, the politics of sexuality remained deeply problematic within black literary circles, reaching a boiling point in the heated, vitriolic exchange between Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston in the late '30s, whose root cause, I believe, was Hurston's creation of a black female protagonist who was comfortable with and celebrated her own sensuality, and who insisted on her right to choose her own lovers in spite of the strictures of the black community. In reviews of each other's books, sexual politics met literary politics for the first time in public in all of African-American literary history.

In an angry and suggestive essay on Hurston's masterpiece, which reads more like an example of playing the dozens than a book review, Wright charged Hurston with pandering to the lurid tastes and fantasies of white males: Hurston's "prose," he says, "is cloaked in the facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley." Wright then accuses Hurston of "voluntarily continu[ing] in the novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, the minstrel technique that makes 'the white folks' laugh." Wright reveals what most bothers him about Hurston's novel: its "sensory sweep," which, he continues, "carries no theme, no message, no thought." Why? Because "her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy [emphasis added]," with the word "satisfy" doing double-duty here as a not-so-veiled reference to Hurston's principal "offense," her celebration of Janie's enjoyment of her own sexuality, which, as we shall see, Wright specifically mentions and insultingly mocks. But first, Hurston's rebuttal.

In self-defense, she gave as good as she got: A year later, in a review of Wright's four inter-related novellas, Uncle Tom's Children, Hurston charged that Wright's novel wasn't concerned with "understanding and sympathy"; rather, it was "a book about hatreds," composed of "stories so grim that the Dismal Swamp of race hatred must be where they live." And the only role of sex in his book, she said, was as a motivation for murder: The "hero gets the white man most Negro men rail against -- the white man who possesses a Negro woman. He gets several of them while choosing to die in a hurricane of bullets and fire because his woman has had a white man. There is lavish killing here, perhaps enough to satisfy all male black readers." [Emphasis is mine.]

For good measure, Hurston added that Wright's use of black dialect in his book "is a puzzling thing. One wonders how he arrived at it. Certainly, he does not write by ear unless he is tone deaf!" Make no mistake: This was some high-class signifying and playing the dozens!