February 25, 2020
By Timothy Sandefur
Hurston’s popularity has grown immensely in the recent years, but at the time of her death in 1960, she’d been largely forgotten, thanks in part to her opposition to the views of other black writers who embraced communism and believed literature should serve as “propaganda” against what they considered the inherent racism of American society. At one time an associate of such authors as Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. DuBois, Hurston came to view their political and literary beliefs as utterly misguided, and their literature as, in her words, “ugly as the devil’s doll-baby.” Novels like Wright’s Native Son, she believed, “seek out and praise characters of the lowest type and most sordid circumstances and portray the thing as the common state of all negroes, and end up with a conclusion that the whites, and particularly the Capitalist whites are responsible.”
She could not stand to write literature saturated in that sort of resentment. “To me, bitterness is the under-arm odor of wishful weakness,” she wrote. “It is the graceless acknowledgement of defeat.” Instead, her novels—while hardly ignoring the problem of racist oppression—focused on profounder themes about independence, self-reliance, and joy. This is nowhere clearer than in her last—and much too neglected—final novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, which focuses on the meaning and source of personal happiness. Its characters—who, in an unusual move for a black writer in that era, are all white—learn the hard way a lesson that Hurston herself had to learn in her own life: that behind resentment is a sense of personal inferiority and fear, and that one can overcome these feelings and “sing a song to the morning” instead.
Hurston believed there was a profound connection between a sense of personal self-worth and political freedom on one hand, and between a cultivated sense of bitterness and political bondage on the other. In her astonishing 1939 novel Moses, Man of the Mountain, the great Hebrew prophet is disappointed when the Israelites he’s led out of Egypt begin to complain about the burden of running their own lives. “He had found out that no man may make another free,” she writes. “Freedom was something internal…. All you could do was give the opportunity for freedom and the man himself must make his own emancipation.”
But Hurston was never satisfied with writing books on narrow political themes. She wanted a life filled with beauty, independence, and a sense of the rightness of living. “When I get old,” she once wrote, “I can sit around and write for myself, if for nobody else…. All the while my days can be a succession of coffee cups.” That, she achieved. Although the literary world largely ignored her in her lifetime—and she was never able to make a living from her writing—she has now attained well-deserved recognition as one of the greats of American literature.
Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.