Get that last line: She knew very well that society isn’t fair — i.e., about what we call societal racism and so on. She just thought that part of overcoming was learning how to work the system rather than overturn it. She did not go for the idea — now so ensconced that it hardly seems an ideology — that correct black thought is radical rather than liberal.
To her, the position of supplicant was intolerable, and she resisted the idea that her color should have made her feel differently, despite the horrors of history of which she was all too aware. She mocked the outstretched hand: ” ‘We were brought here against our will. We were held as slaves for two hundred and forty-six years. We are in no way responsible for anything. We are dependents. We are due something from the labor of our ancestors. Look upon us with pity and give!’ “
Interesting: If there is one thing that all of the best-known black conservatives have in common when you meet them, it is that visceral resistance to a sense of victimhood or any fear of whites and What They Might Do. The people so often accused of being self-hating — Michael Steele, Ward Connerly, Clarence Thomas, Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, Larry Elder, Star Parker — are actually quite markedly proud. It’s no surprise to me that Hurston was, too.
That pride extended to her own people — former Rep. Diane Watson of California could not have said of Hurston, as she did of Connerly, that she didn’t like being black. Here was someone who depicted Moses speaking black English as a mark of wisdom and found Fisk Jubilee Singers-type arrangements of spirituals “a determined effort to squeeze all of the rich black juice out of the songs and present a sort of musical octoroon to the public.”
And yet — she always throws you in such welcome ways — she also refrained from the escapist mythology of painting black Americans as exotically “African.” Researching poor whites, she found that their speech almost eerily paralleled that of rural blacks. “After my fit of jealousy was cooled off, I realized that Negroes introduced into N. America spoke no English at all, and learned from the whites. Our sense of rhythm points it up a bit, but the expressions for the most part are English held over from the Colonial period.” She’s right on this; here and metaphorically, she understood that we are Americans.
She was truly spun gold. I wish her combination of starchy politics and vivid black authenticity could be brought to life beyond ancient think pieces and letter excerpts. Maybe Tyler Perry can think about a Harlem Renaissance movie. I suggest Queen Latifah as Hurston, by the way.
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root. He is the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.