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Why Richard Wright Hated Zora Neale Hurston

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

(Continued from Page 2)

A Heroine Unloosed 

So what really lay at the core of this dispute? Wright accused Hurston of using what he called "highly charged language" to titillate white readers, especially white males. (Hurston felt, on the contrary, that it was Wright who pandered to white readers, especially to white males, by writing about black male violence against white racists.) He was deeply troubled that Hurston had created a black female character who not only has healthy sexual fantasies, as we will see, but who also goes through two marriages to black men whom she realizes that she doesn't love, black men who abuse her in one way or another, one of whom she leaves and the other of whom she metaphorically "kills" by disparaging his manhood in public. 

And as if that weren't offense enough, Jane then ultimately finds an exciting and fulfilling sexual relationship with a man much younger than she, a man who is also much darker and poorer and who is uneducated, but who treats her as an equal, not as an object, teaching her how to play checkers, how to shoot a gun, how to work and, yes, make love for the sheer pleasure of it. Black literature had never seen anything like this: a female character as free, as liberated, as self-determining and as sexual as Jane Crawford.

Richard Wright was appalled. One scene in particular drove Wright crazy, as he admits: when Janie experiences her first orgasm.

"She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid."

This is, I believe, the first orgasm depicted in the entire history of African-American literature. And if this was not sufficiently offensive to Wright and some of Hurston's other male readers, the structural center of the novel depicts Janie freeing herself from her oppressive second husband, Joe Starks, by playing the dozens on his manhood (or lack of it), angrily calling out his impotency in front of his friends and neighbors in his own store:

"Naw, Ah ain't no young gal no mo' but den Ah ain't no old woman neither. Ah reckon Ah looks mah age too. But Ah'm uh woman every inch of me, and Ah know it. Dat's uh whole lot more'n you kin say. You big-bellies round here and put out a lot of brag, but 'tain't nothin' to it but yo' big voice. Humph!  Talkin' about me lookin' old! When you pull down you' britches, you look lak de change uh life."

To which her husband's friend, Sam Watson shrieks, "Great God from Zion! Y'all really playin' de dozens tuhnight!"  

Janie's husband, of course, is devastated: "'Wha-whut's dat you said?' Joe challenged, hoping his ears had fooled him. 'You heard her, you ain't blind,' Walter taunted, driving the knife into Joe even more deeply." Devastated, "unmanned," Joe soon dies of a displaced "kidney failure"! 

Not only do Janie's words symbolically kill her second husband, but they seemed to just about kill Richard Wright, too, especially Hurston's lyrical depiction of that orgasm, which Wright singled out to mock: "The romantic Janie, in the highly-charged language of Miss Hurston, longed to be a pear tree in blossom, and have a 'dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace,' " quoting the crucial section of the passage, as if its supposed vulgarity would be self-evident to any sensible reader.