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!
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.