Zora Neale Hurston: Selected Articles

Glee clubs and concert singers put on their tuxedoes , bow prettily to the audience, get the pitch and burst into magnificent song—but not Negro song. The real Negro singer cares nothing about pitch. The first notes just burst out and the rest of the church join in—fired by the same inner urge. Every man trying to express himself through song. Every man for himself. Hence the harmony and disharmony, the shifting keys and broken time that make up the spiritual. (870–871)

This volume of Zora Neale Hurston’s non-fiction writing ends with a series of articles published over the course of her career, beginning in the 1920s and ending with what may be her final public word, criticizing what she saw as the presumption of the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. Most of the articles collected here deal in one way or another with Hurston’s studies in folklore or are autobiographical. The highlights for me were defiantly some of her writings for Negro: An Anthology and some of the folk lore she collected for the Florida Writers’ Project (a subset, I guess, of the Works Progress Administration).

The selections open with “The Eatonville Anthology,” which is a set of vignettes about life in Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville Florida. In this, Hurston made an attempt to get at the rich texture of this small town. Although it was an all-black small town, it has an incredible diversity. From this we can understand her often-stated hostility toward the idea of “racial consciousness.” We also see that even if it is sustaining a mainstream set of values, a small town seems to need rebellious elements to survive. The best example of this here is Daisy Taylor, the “town vamp.” When she left for Orlando, an environment she could more likely hide herself, we think that Eatonville lost a great deal of vibrancy.

Her writings for Negro: An Anthology, edited by Nancy Cunard and published in 1934, are an attempt to lay out the elements of African American culture with a degree of scientific objectivity lacking in Mules and Men. It is simply a great introduction into black folklore, cultural icons (Mother Catherine, Uncle Monday), and motifs. It also has one of the most succinct explanations of the place of the Devil in black folklore. Also read this for the introduction to the “jook” or the “Negro bawdy house.”

Hurston’s work on folklore for the Florida Writers’ Project is no less significant, coming after she had already completed Mules and Men and Tell My Horse. She provides a mature and useful definition of folklore. She sees art as the discovery of the truth that already exists in folklore. It is worth quoting at length. From my perspective as a left libertarian, I appreciate this because it helps us respect the canon while also realizing that it is important to decenter it. The canon is the realization of the truths of a culture, not the true expression in itself. We sometimes see artists as the vanguard, but maybe we need to see them more like a scientist analyzing the facts of culture.

Every generation or so some individual with extra keen perception grasps something of the obvious about us and hitches the human race forward slightely by a new “law.” For instance, millionso f things had been falling on and about men for thousands fo years before the falling apple hit Newton on the head and made him see the attraction of the earth for all unsupported objects heavier than air. So we have the law of gravity. In the same way, art is a discovery in itself. Seen in detail it is a series of discoveries, perhaps intended in the first instance to stave off boredom. In a long view, art is the setting up of monuments to the ordinary things about us, in a moment and in time. [. . .] Folklore is the arts of the people before they find out that there is any such thing as art, and they make it out of whatever they find at hand. (876)

In later details, Hurston explains that the relative underdevelopment of black art in America (in her opinion anyway) was due to the silence enforced on generations by slavery.

One article that should be brought up is “Crazy for this Democracy,” written in 1945. As my last point highlighted, Hurston censored her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road (1942) after the US entered World War II. She removed much of her criticism of US imperialism, specifically her claims that Japan was merely copying the US imperial practice in the Pacific. By 1945 she was no longer able to sit on her hands on this issue and published a devastating critique of US. He fed into the language of the “Double V” movement, which consisted of the belief that the battle against fascism in Europe was deeply connected to the battle against Jim Crow. What makes the document unique and important is that Hurston places the struggle against Jim Crow in a global context. This essay should be read more often as an example of African-American global consciousness in the 20th century.

Her 1955 letter to the Orlando Sentinel, “Court Order Can’t Make Races Mix,” is her response to Brown v. Board of Education. She was not saying that Jim Crow is defensible (see “Crazy for this Democracy”), nor was she saying that integration was not an admirable goal. Her criticism of the decision was that it exposed a hypocrisy among black leaders. She correctly points out that a major trend in black life since Reconstruction was the movement toward self-rule. We see that in the Union Leagues, towns like Hurston’s own Eatonville, and—Hurston points out—in black educational institutions. She feared that a subtext to the decision was that black teachers could not teach black students. Forced court order integration seemed to undermine these efforts in her view. This would be fine if it was not for the rhetoric of racial consciousness (which she attacked at length in her autobiography). As she summarizes: “Thems my sentiments and I am sticking by them. Growth from within. Ethical and cultural desegregation. It is a contradiction in terms to scream race pride and equality while at the same time spurning Negro teachers and self-association. That old white mare business can go racking on down the road for all I care.” (958) I do not know much about how the black nationalists responded to school desegregation, but I suspect they may have agreed with Hurston here. I would only add that Hurston’s own education was based on “ethical and cultural desegregation” but formally tied to all-black institutions.

James Baldwin, Conclusions (Assorted Essays)

Now it is time to close the book on my companion of the past two weeks, James Baldwin.  It was one of the more exhilarating experiences I had since starting this blog because he is so profoundly interested in informal power, the way power functions on the psychological level, building up walls from our childhood.  I suppose we would now call this bio-power, but we do not need any philosophical concepts to understand that oppression needs to work on the mental level first.  Without a lifetime of institutional, interpersonal, and systemic lessons and disciplining it is unlikely that Jim Crow could have survived as long as it did.  Baldwin documents the dismantling of this mental regimen of power.  Another theme in his work is what Dubois called “double consciousness” or “the veil.”  This refers to the fact that the United States really looked different depending on your position across the color line.  As Dubois points out and Baldwin makes clear, black people had the burden (and unique ability I suppose) to look at the United States from the perspective of their own live and experiences as well as clearly understand white America because it was white people who created the superstructure of the color line.  White people, privileged to only look at the world through the superstructure they created, are not quite so omniscient.  (While I am certain this is generally true, I am not sure it is universal.  I do think empathy is possible, but that may be an ahistorical observation.)

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Looking over some of his collected essays included in this volume (there are around 40), arranged chronologically, we can summarize Baldwin’s career into three phases.  The first period (1950 until 1961) began with the publication of book reviews and includes his extended period living abroad in France.  He is observing the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement but seemed very interested in pursuing a literary life.  He published novels that were not novels about race and his essays (which were about race) were attempts to understand the color line.

The second period, from 1961 until the early 1970s, are his revolutionary writings.  It is during this time he completes Another Country, The FirNext Time, and No Name in the StreetHis essays from this period are mostly interested in the political issues.  His “A Talk to Teachers” is about the ramifications of the revolution for the education of black children.  During this period he talked to political figures, engaged in debates, met with Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, and wrote some of his most provocative essays.  “Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White” is a good example of this, engaging in a class analysis of black anti-Semitism.

The selections form Baldwin’s final period are slim, amounting to no more than 70 pages.  This period is that of revolutionary Thermidor.  After the political agitation ended and after the cities stopped burning, Baldwin and other writers turned in part to cultural politics.  We have his review of Roots, a defense of “black English” as a language, and at least one essay on sexuality (“Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood”).  What comes out strongly in these essays is that although there were many successes to the revolution, much remanded unchanged.  “The Price of the Ticket” is the most somber essay making this point and perhaps a good ending.

When people question my anarchist leanings, the Civil Rights movement often comes up in conversation because one of the historical lessons of Civil Rights is that it took a powerful state to impose itself on the criminal behavior of Southern communities.  In this logic, it is at the community level that we are most at risk of losing our freedoms.  Only a powerful state can enforce our rights.  It is not a bad historical argument, but it does require a whole lot of bracketing of the of the long list of freedoms the state seizes from us anyway, and their defense of capital.  Baldwin suggests that atonement cannot be possible be the crimes of racism were perpetuated by a multitude, but it is a multitude that serves the interests of power not one running against it.  “A mob is not autonomous: it executes the real will of the people who rule the State.  The slaughter in Birmingham, Alabama, for example, was not, merely, the action of a mob.  That blood is on the hands of the state of Alabama: which sent those mobs into the streets to execute the will of the State.  And, though I know that it has now become inconvenient and impolite to speak of the American Jew in the same breath with which one speaks of the American black, I yet contend that the mobs in the streets of Hitler’s Germany were in those streets not only by the will of the German State, but by the will of the western world, including the architects of human freedom, the British, and the presumed guardian of Christian and human morality, the Pope.” (840)

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James Baldwin, “Nobody Knows My Name” (1961)

Nobody Knows My Name is James Baldwin’s follow-up to Notes of a Native Son (he even subtitles it, “More Notes of a Nature Son.” The essays in this collection were written between 1955 and 1961 and carry on many of the themes of his first collection, including the different experiences of race in Europe and America, depictions of African-Americans in literature, and the religious life.  In his introduction he write about how he decided to return to the United States after several years in Europe.  For him, it was overcoming terror.  He confesses to residing in Europe out of fear.  Well, he returned at the right time to take part in some of the most interesting discussions about race in American history.  The essays in Nobody Knows My Name are therefore transitional.

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His opening essay considers the old question: “What does it mean to be an American?”  Perhaps it was Crevecoeur who first asked this question in his Notes from an American Farmer, where among other things we learn that being an American means first and foremost not being a European.  And Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Dubois taught us that this question is far from color blind.  For a writer, it poses the problem of perspective, which Baldwin sees are rooted in the place of our birth.  “Every society is governed by hidden laws.” (142)  He starts to hint at the trouble of being an American writer as tied to the liquidity of the society.  While Europe was more static in terms of class and status, “American writers do not have a fixed society to describe.” (142) More subtlety, Americans still have those hidden structures but cannot admit them or fully analyze them.  Europe provides some breathing space and perspective to describe the boundaries and limits of the American liquid world.

He has a long essay describing “The Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists” in Paris, which was declared by one of the presenters to be a second Bandung conference.  Baldwin does not quite fit into this conference, often opposing the Afrocentric positions of many writers.  Having spent much of his time arguing for the distinctive African-American experience, he cannot swallow this idea of a unitary black experience.  Africans at least have a country.  Baldwin is still impressed at the enthusiasm of the conference and its power.  I wondered if Baldwin felt himself as an immature writer, surrounded by those “big heads.”  I might just be projecting my own generational burdens.

Following up on this conference, Baldwin takes us back to Harlem where he exposes the devastation caused by urban renewal and the development of housing projects.  The rhetoric of free choice and free markets break down in a place like Harlem where race and economic barriers limit mobility.  If the urban reformers want a disgusting, low quality housing project they have the power to construct it, even if that construction costs the city a neighborhood, businesses, or parks.  As bad as the projects were as institutional impositions, they necessitated the further occupation of Harlem by the police.  “The only way to police a ghetto is to be oppressive.” (176)  I think essays like these on Harlem are useful correctives to those who think things are okay.  In fact, things are much worse than we suspect.  Sadly, few of us realize this even though the evidence of how bad things are is often just across the street, or require looking at the world with a small amount of empathy. 

Nobody Knows My Name also includes a series of essays on the U.S. South.  Baldwin sees the South and the North as part of the same national trauma.  Northern blacks live the South, even if they never have been there.  It is in their family history and their cultural memory.  Its problems are also not unique.  He even correctly predicts that the trauma of the Civil Rights struggle in the South would be relived in Northern urban areas before long.  “It must be said that the racial setup in the South is not, for a Negro, very different from the racial setup in the North.  It is the etiquette which is baffling, not the spirit.  Segregation is unofficial in the North and official in the South, a crucial difference that does nothing, nevertheless, to alleviate the lot of most Northern Negroes.” (203)  I might add that at least formal institutional oppression can be easily targeted, if not easily taken down.  With the unofficial means of control, we face opaque threats that need to be clearly defined and located before they can be broken down.  In the same section he attacks liberal white Southerners for their inability to fully imagine an alternative to the world that they helped construct and define.  He focuses on Faulkner (who I have not yet read). White Southern writers cling to the mythology of the South and cannot demand immediate change without destroying the world that created them.  “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.” (209) The end of this safety is something that people of Faulkner’s ilk cannot accept, making them poor allies for the struggle for racial equality.

I will leave you with another of Baldwin’s public talks.

Henry David Thoreau, “Collected Essays, Part One”: In Search of Greatness

Continuing my adventure through The Library of America, I picked up one of the two volumes covering the works of Henry David Thoreau.  This one collects his essays and poems.  For today I read the first ten essays:

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“Aulus Persius Flaccus” (1840). A short essay of criticism on this classical satirist.

“The Service” (1840). An early essay of Thoreau’s on violence, pacifism, resistance, and non-resistance, suggesting we can learn from the military the virtue of bravery.

“Natural History of Massachusetts” (1842).  A sprawling look at the wildlife and flora of Thoreau’s beloved Massachusetts.

“A Walk to Wachusett” (1842).  A description of Thoreau and Henry Fuller’s walk to Princeton Massachusetts.

“Sir Walter Raleigh” (1843).  A look at the heroic life Sir Walter Raleigh and a consideration of the meaning of his life for contemporaries.

“Dark Ages” (1843).  A brief essay suggesting that it is our job to unearth history.  Dark Ages are a product of how much light we shine on them, not how much they give off.  A good description of the foreignness, darkness, and remoteness of the past.

“A Winter Walk” (1843).  On the beauty of the winter in Massachusetts, but more profoundly on the struggle of humanity to survive the winter.

“The Landlord” (1843).  The importance and self-sacrifice of the bartender and inn-keeper.

“Paradise (To Be) Regained” (1843).  A criticism of J. A. Etzler’s The Paradise within the Reach of Men, a technological utopian text.  Thoreau is skeptical about the ability to overcome human limitations through technology alone.

“Homer. Ossian. Chaucer” (1844). More literary criticism, this one looking at three narrative poets.

My first impression was that these works could be divided into two themes: Thoreau’s naturalism and a search for the limit of human potential.  Now I see that there is essentially only one theme for us and that is that search for greatness, for even his naturalist writings have a touch of the Promethean in them.  I believe this search for the projectural life is one of the most important contribution he makes (inadvertently I am sure) to the anarchist tradition.  The other contribution, of course, is his ideas on civil disobedience and non-violent resistance (rather than non-resistance).

I do not see that Thoreau achieves a definition of the projectural life.  In fact, I hope we would not find that.  He does point out some models and archetypes that suggest some of the character and values of the projectural individual.  In “The Service,” he suggests that we can learn from the recruit about how to be a truly creative artist.  The brave man does not strive for quantifiable achievements.  “His bravery deals not so much in resolute action, as healthy and assured rest. . . . He does not present a gleaming edge to ward off harm, for that will oftenest attract the lightening. . . . His greatness is not measurable.” (8)  In contrast, “the coward wants resolution.” (9)  He attacks those silly intellectuals writing their mangum opus, or those politicians seeking the “grand bargain.”  Thoreau prefers to see our struggle in this day.  The projectural person cannot live for the future.  He must act in our time.  “It concerns us rather to be somewhat here present than to leave something behind us; for, if that were to be considered, it is never the deed men praise, but some marble or canvass which  are only a staging to the real work.  the hugest and most effective deed may have no sensible result at all on earth, but may paint itself in the heavens with new stars and constellations.” (18)

His nature writings show Thoreau to be not an early primitivist, but rather someone who sees nature as inspiring great deeds.  “Nature has taken more care than the fondest parent for the education and refinement of her children.” (36)  “Nature is mythical and mystical always, and works with the license and extravagance of genius.” (37)  Even the simple act of hiking shows how he thinks interaction with nature can only improve civilization.  “The mountain chain determines many things for the statesman and philosopher.  The improvements of civilization rather creep along its sides than cross its summit.  How often is it a barrier to prejudice and fanaticism?  In passing over these heights of land, through their thin atmosphere, the follies of their plain are refined and purified. . .it is only the hardy mountain plant that creeps quite over the ridge, and descends into the valley below.” (53–54).

Sir Walter Raleigh may strike us as a strange model for greatness, give what we know about the history of European empire in the New World, but Thoreau was convinced that the American civilization was being suffocated by reformism and cowardice.  But, he points out, we do not dream as children of being reformers, New Dealers, tinkerers on a sinking ship.  “All fair action is the product of enthusiasm, and nature herself does nothing in the prose mood.  We would fain witness a heroism which is literally illustrious, whose daily life is of the stuff of which our dreams are made–so that the world shall regard less what it does than how it does it, and its actions unsettle the common standards, and have a right to be done, however wrong they may be to the moralist.” (88)

In “A Winter Walk” we start with a long description scenery, flora, and fauna of Massachusetts in winter, but he ends with a description of the Promethean struggle for survival of the wintering farmer.  To survive the winter requires almost, he suggests, a different religion.  “The good Hebrew revelation takes no cognizance of all this cheerful snow.  Is there no religion for the temperate and frigid zone?” (106)  He describes the snow drifts as “imprisoning” and how the farmer’s destiny is for three months “wrapped in furs.”  It is in the victory over this that the farmer’s greatest achievement is reached.

I should end here for today with his essay “Paradise (To Be) Regained.”  In the 19th century virtually all utopian thinkers and writers saw technology as the key to human liberation.   This guy J. A. Etzler certainly seems to be one of these writers, looking for a world without labor as the key to human happiness and universal freedom.  Like Kropotkin would later do, Etzler looks to contemporary trends in science and technology and predicts that the end of drudgery and post-scarcity is just around the corner.  Etzler believed the harnessing of water power would be the key.  Thoreau is actually not that critical of these goals and the schema Etzler lays out.  His major argument against the book is in Etzler’s failure to account for the need of “moral progress” first.  “Suppose we could compare the moral with the physical, and say how many horse-power the force of love, for instance, blowing on every square foot of a man’s soul, would equal.”  (137)  While I agree that it would  be wrong to see technology as a silver bullet to all social problems and assume everything can be quantified, I cannot help not notice that Thoreau’s critique is not dissimilar from many of the most pedestrian, common, and banal attack on utopian thought.   If we constantly wait to act until “humans are ready for utopia” we will certainly never achieve utopia.