February 4, 2022

By Timothy Sandefur

The author Zora Neale Hurston died in obscurity in 1960, but today she’s one of the best-selling writers in America. A new book called You Don’t Know Us Negroes brings together her best non-fiction essays, and I discuss it in the latest issue of National Review.

Hurston’s a fascinating figure, who refused to follow the trends of communism and realism that dominated literature in her day. When writers such as W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes urged black authors to devote their energy to writing what they called “race propaganda,” Hurston refused. She thought leftist politics could offer nothing to black Americans—and that race-obsession would ruin their literature. Most of all, she refused to accept the idea that race issues in America should be dominated by notions of inherited guilt. In her memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road, she wrote:

Light came to me when I realized that I did not have to consider any racial group as a whole. God made them duck by duck and that was the only way I could see them. I learned that skins were no measure of what was inside people. So none of the Race cliches meant anything any more. I began to laugh at both white and black who claimed special blessings on the basis of race…. I am a mixed-blood, it is true, but I differ from the party line in that I neither consider it an honor nor a shame. I neither claim Jefferson as my grandpa, nor exclaim, “Just look how that white man took advantage of my grandma!” It does not matter in the first place, and then in the next place, I do not know how it came about. Since nobody ever told me, I give my ancestress the benefit of the doubt. She probably ran away from him just as fast as she could. But if that white man could run faster than my grandma, that was no fault of hers. Anyway, you must remember, he didn’t have a thing to do but to keep on running forward. She, being the pursued, had to look back over her shoulder every now and then to see how she was doing. And you know your ownself, how looking backwards slows people up.

Needless to say, such views make Hurston politically incorrect today, so literary scholars now struggle to downplay Hurston’s conservative views. But she was not really a conservative so much as an individualist. She despised segregation, but thought that black Americans would be better off pursuing happiness on their own terms rather than devoting all their energies to politics. Worse, she was repelled by those who attacked the idea of self-reliance and portrayed black Americans as helpless victims. The despised the violent and bitter novels of Richard Wright, for example, and loathed the tendency of white liberals to act as thought blacks needed their pity. She preferred to focus her energies, as she put it, to “singing a song to the morning.”

I took a more in-depth look at Hurston in an article for The Objective Standard two years ago.

You can click here to read my full article on Zora Neale Hurston at National Review.

Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.

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