Every Tub Must Sit on Its Own Bottom: The Philosophy and Politics of Zora Neale Hurston
1995, by Deborah G. Plant, © 1995 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used by permission of the University of Illinois Press
Introduction: The Reclamation of an Intellectual Life
The world’s most powerful force is intellect.
“The Race Cannot Become Great until It Recognizes Its Talent”
With four published novels, two collections of folklore, a collection of short stories, numerous essays and journal articles, and several musical and dramatic productions, Zora Neale Hurston was one of the most industrious and prolific writers of her day. Her achievement can be measured against her ability to survive engulfing poverty and to resist stereotypical images of Black womanhood. It can also be measured in relation to her determination for self-empowerment. Hurston’s spirit of resistance is characteristic of women of Africa and the African diaspora who continually struggle against “racial,” sexual, economic, and cultural domination. Because of her ability to negotiate adversity and succeed on her own terms, Zora Neale Hurston stands as a model of resistance.
Given women’s centrality to the survival and liberation of African peoples, an examination of Hurston’s strategies of survival and resistance and her struggle for self and self-empowerment, from every possible angle, is of vital importance. In this work, I examine Hurston’s philosophy and politics. Since Black women’s intellectual work is a fundamental component of Black women’s resistance to domination and struggle for empowerment, understanding Hurston as a thinker as well as a doer is essential in an analysis of her as a model of resistance. Through what is essentially a hermeneutic enterprise, I use a variety of critical approaches – narratological, biographical, archetypal, womanist, psychoanalytic, expressive, sociological, Black aesthetic – to explore Hurston’s intellectual life and interpret its textual formulations.
Though Hurston’s genious is now more widely recognized, the image of her as a folksy, smart-talking, “naturally” gifted individual yet obtains and undermines her intellectualism. She is rarely described as an intellectual and her intellectual life has been given minimal attention. This is due in part to “the secondary status afforded the ideas and experiences of African-American women,” to the exclusion of Black women’s thought from what is narrowly defined as intellectual discourse, and to conventional pedantic definitions that determine who qualifies as an intellectual (Collins 12-15). Hurston’s informal writing style, marked by her use of the Black vernacular, though now celebrated and held as esteemed and authentic features of the African American literary tradition, formerly situated her work outside the elitist realm of intellectual, “serious” discourse. The breadth and depth of her intellectual endeavors were not only concealed by a seemingly effortless style of expression but were also rendered inconspicuous because of the author’s reluctance to represent herself as an “intellectual,” a class of people she held in contempt. In addition to a cultivated folksiness, Hurston’s postures of naivete and ambivalence, her provocative and questionable politics, and her art of dissemblance and silence resulted in a perception of the author as controversial, compromised, and nonserious.
The style and content of Hurston’s work are generally attributed to her Eatonville experiences and to her formal training as a folklorist and cultural anthropologist. These influences explain certain surface elements of Hurston’s literary production, but other aspects of her writing, such as her philosophical and political stances, have remained confusing and perplexing. As an intellectual, as a thinker, Zora Neale Hurston generated the individualist philosophy and politics upon which she based her activism and literary work. Her life in Eatonville and her formal academic training certainly informed her worldview. The intellectual standpoint from which Hurston interpreted and integrated her Eatonville and academic experiences into a coherent philosophical and political ideology and the constitution of that standpoint are aspects of Hurston’s strategies of survival and resistance that I address.
Though now viewed as a serious writer, Hurston is still described as enigmatic and unfathomable. Rather than quirks of character, however, these qualities are deliberate constructions of the Hurston persona. As Darlene Clark Hine has argued, the “dynamics of dissemblance” among Black women “involved creating the appearance of disclosure, or openness about themselves and their feelings, while actually remaining an enigma.” Through a “self-imposed invisibility,” ordinary Black women accrue[d] the psychic space and harness[ed] the resources needed to hold their own in the often one-sided and mismatched resistance struggle” (915). Though they distrust society, Black women are compelled to negotiate it. So they disclose as little of themselves as necessary to obtain their ends, while safeguarding, as best they can, the interior world of their psychic and spiritual selves. This inner world in which so many Black women function is a hallowed locus, and as such, is the only sphere of freedom and security wherein they can live unmasked. I begin chapter 1, therefore, with an explanation of the only place in which Hurston felt secure – her self. Truly a woman who kept her own counsel, Hurston often referred to the source of her innermost thoughts as the only place in which she could escape societal limitations and censorship and freely express herself. There, in the inner regions of the self, she found affirmation, a place to heal, a place of restoration and recovery. There, she nurtured a spirit of resistance that enabled her to survive and continue. It is there that Hurston constructed alternative images of herself to stand in opposition to the controlling, stereotypical images of Black women, images that were devised in a society built on Black women’s objectification and subjugation.
Hurston’s autobiographical text, Dust Tracks on a Road, is analyzed as a configuration of the metaphors of self that sustained her. Generally disclaimed as a truthful account of her life, the autobiography, however, is the one text that traces Hurston’s life as it unfolds in the only sphere of freedom available to her: the psychic, spiritual space of self. A mythic narrative, Dust Tracks is a glimpse into Hurston’s interior world. Beneath the surface bravado and nonchalance and emedded in the text’s deep structure lies the essence of Zora Neale Hurston.
“Sham and tinsel, honest metal and sincerity,” are the controlling images in the Dust Tracks narrative. The honest metal and sincerity speak to Hurston’s sense of herself as a woman of dignity, a self-reliant, resilient, and empowered individual. The sham and tinsel speak to her resourcefulness and her unwillingness to disclose and expose her essential self. Whether identified as masking, shamming, or tomming, the dynamic of dissemblance is an ingenious survival strategem. In Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Houston A. Baker, Jr., analyzes masking as a modernistic enterprise brought to the “foreground of black intellectual history with the emergence of Booker T. Washington” (15). Because Washington mastered strategies of masking and put them to use in “the growth and survival of a nation,” Baker reads Washington’s dissemblance as a deft stroke (37). He notes, however, that consideration of Washington’s dissemblance as liberatory and revolutionary is a novel stance (25). What is now considered subversive and empowering in Washington’s expressive stratagems is yet viewed as duplicity or naivete in Hurston’s. But as Baker’s reading of Washington’ stances and standpoints situates Washington as a “modern” in Black intellectual history, a similar reading of Hurston’s work situates her also as a “modern” and an intellectual. For, as a cultural anthropologist whose ethnographic writings resist and subvert Anglo-American cultural hegemony, Hurston’s work also contributes to “the growth and survival of a nation.”
Hurston was able to resist and subvert this cultural hegemony because of a powerful worldview. In chapter 2 I discuss the individualist underpinnings of Hurston’s worldview and examine her family and community; Booker T. Washington’s theory of self-help, industry and personal responsibility; her anthropological study under Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict; the Spinozan philosophy of self-preservation, self-perfection, optimism, and pantheism; and the Nietzschean will-to-power, amor fati, and the Dionysian ideal as influences in Hurston’s intellectual life. All of these factors culminated in a political philosophy of uncompromising individualism that helped her survive systemic sexism, racism, and classism, strengthened her will to resist negative controlling images, and empowered her to overcome Anglo-American cultural hegemony. Her individualist standpoint engendered and confirmed in her an autonomous sense of self, enabling her to negotiate a world particularly hostile to Black women. It reinforced her ambition to excel and her resolve to “wrassle up a living or die trying.”
Hurston’s philosophy of individualism was firmly rooted in an African American folk ethos, which is a “fundamental site of resistance.” In chapter 3 I analyze Hurston’s cultural politics in the context of the prevailing ideologies and politics of the Harlem renaissance. Hurston understood profoundly the significance of African American culture as a vital component in the full political emancipation of African American people, individually and collectively. She understood cultural survival as a condition of liberation and cultural affirmation as an essential step in decolonizing the Black mind. Hurston saw that within African American culture lay the alternative images, self-definitions, and strategies necessary to resist Anglo-American cultural domination and to reclaim Black life. Central to the struggle was the vitality of the folk, which can be seen in Signifying, storytelling, indirect discourse, and humor – all instruments of resistance and self-empowerment Hurston used in her work.
Perhaps most central to the folk is the folk preacher, who figures as culture bearer and liberatory voice. In chapter 4 I look at Hurston’s appropriation of the folk preacher’s voice and the folk sermon form. Historically, the preacher’s sermon stood in opposition to the dehumanization to which African Americans were subjected and served as a means of resistance to and rebellion against spiritual assassination and physical and mental enslavement. Hurston appropriated the style and tone of the folk preacher and the rhetorical devices of the folk sermon to express her individual standpoint and to oppose ideologies of domination.
Her ability to powerfully oppose ideologies of domination speaks to her intellectual acumen. In chapter 5 I challenge conventional notions of Zora Neale Hurston as an intellectual lightweight by assessing her political thought and analyzing it in terms of her philosophy of individualism. No greater manifestation of her thought can be found than Moses, Man of the Mountain. Critics have long identified Moses as Hurston’s most ambitious novel and have praised her use of African American folklore in it. Moses has even been described as a masterpiece. Nevertheless, the critical attention given Moses has been negligible considering its true merit. Moses is a profound, mythic narrative that inverts, revises, and erases conventional social and political categories and ideologies. Because Moses, Man of the Mountain is Hurston’s political manifesto, because it is illustrative of her intellectual brilliance, and because it has been neglected, it is the central focus of the chapter. Through a keen use of folk culture, Hurston redefines power in this novel and envisions a society based on individual merit and equal opportunity. Using parodic-Signifying language, Hurston makes incisive cultural critiques of African American and Anglo-American society, deconstructing conventional notions of power and authority and mocking the leadership of both. Her caricature of the folk offers penetrating insights into human nature as it explores the psychological and spiritual dynamics of an oppressed people. Her analysis is a commentary on the universal human will to survive and to resist oppression and exploitation.
Hurston’s individualist standpoint recommends her as a self-reliant, self-determining, resilient and autonomous individual. Her self-representation suggests that she was a pillar of strength, one who survived and negotiated adversity, and, like Dionysus, laughed in the face of it. Hurston was certainly a heroic figure. But her struggles were never so simple as she portrayed them, nor were they so easily overcome. She rarely spoke of the difficulties of growing up as a Black girl or of facing the world as a Black woman. Given the marginalization and devaluation of Black women in American society, her psychological and spiritual conflicts were inevitable. However, stories of the pain endured and the scars borne from continuous battle have been largely unattended to. In chapter 6 I examine some of those submerged stories of pain, including Hurston’s “overwhelming complex about [her] looks.” I analyze the effects of her experiences of “racial” discrimination in the larger society and those of sexism and alienation as female “other” in her family environment. I focus closely on Hurston’s conflictual relationship with her father, John Hurston, exploring her father’s rejection of her and her resulting feelings of unattractiveness, worthlessness, and woundedness. Never a victim, Hurston was able to resist being overwhelmed by her feelings of inferiority because of a strong sense of self nurtured by her mother and, paradoxically, by her father.
By emphasizing the patrilineal line of descent in Hurston’s personality and her literature, I argue for the importance of recognizing and acknowledging the significance of the paternal factor in Hurston’s psychospiritual development. In chapter 6 I also focus on sexual dualism in Hurston’s work and her difficulty in reconciling contending notions of the masculine and feminine, a difficulty that stems from her childhood experiences. The sexual dualism apparent in Hurston’s writing makes more evident Hurston’s emotional scars and submerged stories of pain. A reading of Hurston’s life that considers the problem of sex role socialization and sexual dualism brings to the surface those submerged stories as it helps to explain stereotypical notions of sex roles in Hurston’s texts. The assumption that Hurston was somehow unaffected by sex role socialization has resulted in the discursive formation of a Hurston canon that ignores these aspects of Hurston’s life and that excludes one of her major works, Seraph on the Suwanee. In chapter 6 I retrieve this text and analyze it in the context of Hurston’s sexual politics.
Hurston transcended the paralyzing polarities of sexual dualism as a matter of practice in her own life. Her androgynous character was a major factor in her ability to do so. In the Conclusion I analyze this aspect of her character in terms of resistance and (self) empowerment while emphasizing the need to recognize and reconcile the feminine and masculine principles of human nature. As Toni Cade contends, “The usual notions of sexual differentiation in roles is an obstacle to political consciousness” and that cracking through the veneer of society’s definition of “masculine” and “feminine” is essential to total self-autonomy (101, 108). As an ardent individualist, Hurston practiced a politics of self that defied stereotypical conventions of sex and sex roles. In her personal life, she was able to embrace both masculine and feminine principles in a way that empowered her to achieve what she did. Hurston is not an anomaly, but rather part of a continuum of “manly women” that can be traced from the United States and other parts of the African diaspora to the African continent itself. As African women of antiquity and modernity are models of resistance, they are also models of the androgynous character and spirit necessary for self-actualization and continued resistance progress. As we can draw inspiration from women of Africa, we can also look to Zora Neale Hurston as a model of empowerment.
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