In 1973, novelist Alice Walker wrote the epitaph for Zora Neale Hurston after her grave remained unmarked for thirteen years. It read as follows:
ZORA NEALE HURSTON
“A GENIUS OF THE SOUTH”
All three titles are apt. Born in Alabama in 1891 (as opposed to 1901) and raised in Florida, Hurston was a novelist during the Harlem Renaissance and an anthropologist of Hoodoo in the American South. Once her writing was recovered by Walker, her genius was recognized and she “shortly became the most canonized black woman writer in American literature,” according to bell hooks. Her legacy has endured such that her most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was listed as one of the top “100 Novels That Shaped Our World” by BBC News in 2019.
Both within and beyond her literature and anthropology, Hurston did not shy away from political commentary. She was an outspoken anti-communist, opposed the New Deal, and was a staunch anti-interventionist in terms of foreign affairs. For these positions, along with her support for Robert A. Taft, she might be characterized as a member of the American Old Right. As John McWhorter writes, “[S]he is black people’s favorite black conservative, quiet though her conservatism is kept.”
In 1951, Hurston penned an article titled “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism” in which she criticized communist propaganda, which she described as suggesting that, “there are no more frontiers; no more chances at all for free enterprise; not a prayer for a lone individual to rise by his own efforts. No more nothing but collectivism. It was like a rotting fog hovering over the land.”
In response, she suggests that, “the Negro is the most-class conscious individual in the United States.” According to Hurston, “The dear peasant in the Soviet Union in his shapeless felt boots and slurping his cabbage soup, meant exactly nothing to us. Just the thing we are striving to get away from.”
Zora Neale Hurston opposed FDR’s New Deal and the welfare-dependent citizenry which it created. In 1951 she wrote, “If the average American had been asked flatly to abandon his rights as a citizen and to submit to a personal rule, he would have chewed tobacco and spit white lime.” But, with the New Deal came a new dependency and, “under relief, dependent upon the Government for their daily bread, men gradually relaxed their watchfulness and submitted to the will of the “Little White Father,” more or less.”
Hurston was also fiercely anti-interventionist. Her opposition to America’s involvement in foreign wars brought about a blistering criticism of Western imperialism in her 1941 chapter of her autobiography, “Seeing the World As It Is” (which was originally rejected by the publisher only to be published posthumously in 1995). Firstly, she wrote of Western Europe’s hypocritical sentiment towards imperialism:
“[I]f the English people were to quarter troops in France, and force the French to work for them for forty-eight cents a week, while they took more than a billion dollars a year out of France, the English would be Occidentally execrated. But actually, the British Government does just that in India, to the glory of the democratic way. … And the very people who claim that it is a noble thing to die for freedom and democracy cry out in horror when they hear of a “revolt” in India.”
In the context of World War II, she continued by showing the obvious contradiction in the West’s condemnation of Hitler’s imperialism without confronting their own:
“All around me, bitter tears are being shed over the fate of Holland, Belgium, France, and England. I must confess to being a little dry around the eyes. I hear people shaking with shudders at the thought of Germany collecting taxes in Holland. I have not heard a word against Holland collecting one twelfth of poor people’s wages in Asia … What happens to the poor Javanese and Balinese is unimportant; Hitler’s crime is that he is actually doing a thing like that to his own kind.”
For Hurston, the hypocrisy was not only present across the Atlantic but appeared in American foreign policy as well:
“President Roosevelt could extend his four freedoms [freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear] to some people right here in America before he takes it all [abroad], and, no doubt, he would do it too, if it would bring the same amount of glory. … He can call names across the ocean, but he evidently has not the courage to speak softly at home.”
For Hurston, America could not be the world police when they themselves denied their own citizens the freedoms they sought to bring to others. Hurston was unafraid to call Western imperialism what it was: hypocrisy.
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