Zora Neale Hurston: “Dust Tracks on a Road” (1942)

What I had to swallow in the kitchen has not made me less glad to have lived, nor made me want to low rate the human race, nor any whole sections of it. I take no refuge from myself in bitterness. To me, bitterness is the under-arm odor of wishful weakness. It is the graceless acknowledgement of defeat. I have no urge to make any concessions like that to the world as yet. I might be like that some day, but I doubt it. I am in the struggle with the sword in my hands, and I don’t intend to run until you run me. So why give off the smell of something dead under the house while I am still in these tussling with my sword in my hand? (765)

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Dust Tracks on a Road is Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography written mostly in 1941. This date is important because she consciously removed much of her criticism of American imperialism after the Pearl Harbor attacks. What we end up reading is a slightly self-censored account of Hurston’s life and times. There are voluntary excisions and the edition in the Library of America has much of her earlier version. I will take a look at what she has to say about America’s place in the world later.

The autobiography is lively and interesting throughout. For me, what makes this work so interesting is the tension throughout between mobility and community. Hurston was clearly of the black South in this way. For all the clichéd images of the black South as rooted in towns, confined by Jim Crow, after slavery mobility became a way of life, not just for those who moved North but within the South as well. Hurston’s father was one of these wanderers, looking for new opportunities (and often new women). Yet at the same time, he settled in Eatonville, one of the first all-black towns in the South, a prime example of black self-rule. We imagine that Hurston’s interest in black autonomy was inspired in large part by growing up in such a community. Hurston’s life was full of this same need for community and companionship frustrated by an opposing need to explore the world, seek out new opportunities, and develop her abilities. Whether it was going from job to job in her youth, fleeing her step mother, or escaping an ill-conceived marriage Hurston was often on the move. I wonder if her ability to navigate the world was based on her foundation in the strong community of Eatonville. As we see again and again in American literature, individual freedom and the enduring community are really two sides of the same coin.

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The strong sentiment throughout the book if Hurston’s dedicated individualism. She was quite conscious of his this individualism was becoming more difficult to maintain in the face of an emerging black rights movement in America. She speaks of this tension from time to time in the book, especially in a chapter “My People! My People!” In this chapter she talk about her love of black people, but also what she saw as their failing, including that of the educated black middle class, who she accused of trying to find their place in white America. I wonder if much of this attitude comes from that fact that her childhood was largely in an all-black town. She lived there until she was thirteen, so she did not experience the day-to-day discrimination and violence that so many others experienced. Here is a bit of what she had to say about this:

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 measures of what was inside people. So none of the Race clichés meant anything anymore. I began to laugh at both white and black who claimed special blessings on the basis of race. Therefore I saw no cures in being black, nor no extra flavor by being white. I saw no benefit in excusing my looks by claiming to be half Indian. In fact, I boast that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief. (731)

She concludes by getting right too it. “Our lives are so diversified, internal attitudes so varied, appearance and capabilities so different, that there is no possible classification so catholic that it will cover us all, except My people! My people!” (733) What is only slightly hidden under this is that once you get rid of that quest to find a voice of the people, you are left with that individualism and the claim we seem to come to is that it was only possible given a strong community solidarity.

Dust Tracks on a Road is in roughly three parts. The first five chapters deal with Hurston’s childhood and the emergence of her curiosity about literature, writing and folklore. This awakening in her mind is her major focus in these chapters, along with the history of her father and his arrive in Eatonville. The next five chapters deal with her education and the maturation of her career. She got a late start due to poverty and the need for work, but through the help and inspiration of some important teachers and thinkers her career took off and she began her field work on African-American folklore. The final five chapters deal with different topic such as Hurston’s views on religion, race, love, and literature.

Although Hurston is most well-known for her study of black folklore and her novels about black life, she was inspired in her youth by folklore around the world. She was given texts by some white teachers passing through. It created for her an image of the ideal individual. It seems that this fed into her overall promethean individualism. “In a way this early reading gave me great anguish through all my childhood and adolescence. My soul was with the gods and my body in the village. People just would not act like gods. Stew beef, fried fat-back and morning grits were no ambrosia from Valhalla. Raking back yards and carrying out chamber pots, were not the tasks of Hercules. I wanted to be away from the drabness and to stretch my limps in some mighty struggle.” (596–596) The power of this folk literature is its ability to dream of the absolute limits of human potential. Unfortunately, for Hurston and for many others, it caused a great isolation that could only manifest in a bold individualism. (For the less creative it manifests in social awkwardness, Internet trolling, and other horrendous modern vices we need not get into.) “A cosmic loneliness was my shadow. Nothing and nobody around me really touched me. It is one of the blessing of this world that few people see visions and dream dreams.” (598)

One of the more important moments in her life was the time she spent with a dramatic troupe. It is yet another example of how community and solidarity were simply the reverse side of wandering and individualism. Detached from communities, they formed a tight-knit society on the move. Her experiences there match the tension in her father’s own life, between rootlessness and his settlement in Eatonville.

I saw thirty-odd people made up of all classes and races living a communal life. There were little touches of professional jealously and a catty crack now and then, but let sickness or trouble touch any member and the whole cast rallied around to help out. It was a marvelous thing to see. There were a few there from good families and well-to-do homes who slept in shabby hotels and made meals on sandwiches without a murmur. From what they said and did, you would think they were as poor as the rest. (664)

The wandering troupe seemed to abolish class distinctions within their own community.

I want to leave this with a look at one of the chapters that did not make it into the final text, “Seeing the World As It Is.” This was the original final chapter, but was cut due to editors opposition to her international commentary. This must have had something to do with the outbreak of World War II, but I wonder if the editor would have been so insistent that Mark Twain remove anti-imperial commentary from his autobiographical works for the same reason. The deleted chapter provides a much more focused and direct attack on “Race Solidarity,” which she saw as a presumptuous attempt to unify black people’s thinking and political perspectives. In addition she finds the leaders who promote “racial solidarity” (she calls them “Race Men”) are odious and opportunistic. There are some unfortunate aspects to this, such as her insistence on rejection of worried about the past. This seems to contradict the evidence she provides in Mules and Men and Tell My Horse, both of which show how history does have an impact on how people see their place in the world. Poverty played a role in Hurston sitting out the 1950s for sure, but we see here that she concerns about a struggle based on “racial solidarity.” Although her opinions almost certainly emerged in the context of a an all-black, self-governing community her cultural upbringing was interracial, indeed global.

The rest of the deleted chapter “Seeing the World As It Is,” attacks US hypocrisy in the international arena. We can understand almost at once why it could not appear in print in 1942. “The Unite States being the giant of the Western World, we have our responsibilities. [. . .] But there is a geographical boundary to our principles. They are not to leave the United States unless we take them ourselves. Japan’s application of our principles to Asia is never to be sufficiently deplored. We are like the southern planter’s bride when he kissed her the first time.” (791) She associates the Nazi conquest of Europe with colonialism, showing that Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” are as hypocritical as the Wilsonian demand for national self-determination. In the end, the “four freedoms” were a form of white privileges. Pearl Harbor was long enough ago that I think we can safely read this chapter for what it was, an obvious declaration of the reality of the hypocrisy of American foreign policy, something well known now.

 

 

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Jean Toomer, “Cane” (1923)

This week I will be reading the second volume of the Library of America’s collection of Harlem Renaissance novels.  I considered the works from the 1930s earlier.  The five novels in this collection are from the 1920s and begins with Jean Toomer’s brilliant novel Cane.

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Cane is not a difficult novel to read, but it is impressionistic, like much of high modernist writing.  Structurally, Cane mixes short vignettes drawn from subjective experiences of different people across black America, intermixed with poems.  At the end of the novel is the only lengthy piece, a play about a school teacher.  Many of these works were published before, and as an overall theme is either hard to find or broad, Cane can be read as short stories (and it is anthologized that way often enough).  If any work contested W. E. B. Du Bois’ belief that during a time of political struggle, fiction should take on the role of propaganda, it is Cane, which sought to present life as it was lived, even down to the scents.  What propaganda cannot do well is provide subjective experiences.  In contrast, Toomer floods Cane with those very subjective experiences.  Every small section of this novel provides the perspective of another person.  Men, women, mixed race, Southern, Northern, urban, rural, middle class, poor are all represented in the short vignettes that Toomer strings together elegantly.  While a work of the Harlem Renaissance, Cane is of the South.  It is either set there, or haunted by the memory of the South.  It reminds us that the Harlem Renaissance emerged from the dynamism that migration provides.  And as with any migrants, the writers of Harlem kept one foot in their old homes.  Toomer understood that he was engaged in a dialog with the the black literary establishment.  In the final section of Cane, about a teacher returning to Georgia we find the teacher getting the following explanation about why he must resign from his position.  “Professor Kabnis, to come straight to the point: the progress of the Negro race is jeopardized whenever the personal habits and examples set by its guides and mentors fall below the acknowledged and hard-won standard of its average member.  This institution . . . was founded, and has been maintained at a cost of great labor and untold sacrifice.  It purpose is to teach our youth to live better, cleaner, more noble lives.  To prove to the world that the Negro race can be just like any other race.” (107)  This language is not so far from that of Du Bois and other who believed that art should function to defend the image of the “New Negro.”  Toomer, of course, will have none of that.

toomerJean Toomer himself was biracial and grew up in a white community in Washington D.C.  He studied in various places, including the University of Wisconsin and the Massachusetts College of Agriculture before settling down in New York.  His first marriage was to a white woman, Margery Latimer, although this was short-lived due to Latimer’s death in child-birth.  Many of the stories in Cane reflect elements of his life, especially mixed race sexuality and its challenge to the color line.  Toomer stated as much when defending his first marriage.  “There is a new race in America.  I am a member of this new race.  It is neither white nor black nor in-between.  It is the American race.” (846)  Of course, such an effort to redefine race in American was a threat to the power structure, which sustained so much of its power by manipulating the color line for its own interests.  (See the scholarship on the role of race in union busting throughout American industrial history.)

Thinking about Cane from a libertarian perspective, I was often thinking about how the form of a novel can either liberate or limit a writer’s expression.  Certainly, an entire novel could have been written about “Karintha,” a young woman who is constantly desired by the older men around her.  Toomer is able to condense her story into a few pages but as a reader we do not feel at all betrayed by the apparent negligence.  Indeed, it is so packed with meaning that this short vignette feels like a meal.  In this way, the line between the poems and the stories is not large.

caneThere are two major transgressions documented by Toomer in Cane: interracial sex and mobility.  Both of these transgressions profoundly informed the Harlem Renaissance generation and both were significant challenges to the color line.   Interestingly, under slavery both of these ensured the power of the masters.  Interracial sex enforced the power of white masters over black women and mobility (the domestic slave trade) remained a threat, weapon, or means of making money for masters.  In the post-slavery world, mobility was a threat to land owners and employers who wanted an easily exploited and low paid labor supply in the South.  Interracial sex, once a tool of control, was now a threat to the color line, enforced by legal restrictions on interracial cooperation (and even interaction).  Toomer shows us through some of these stories that blacks as well as white worked to prevent these transgressions.  “Becky,” a white woman with two black sons is ostracized by both sides of the color line.  Yet, the world Toomer describes is still very open with many opportunities for those of will and the walls of power seem everywhere fragile.  While they are there, certainly.  Class is a strong theme, but we do not feel the heavy walls of the bosses bearing down the characters like in some of the more consciously class-based novels (or even compared to James Baldwin’s work, which was heavily invested in the struggle for racial equality).  Toomer’s characters are not revolutionaries. They are people, often at the margins, often seizing weak points in the system.  One of these weak points seems to be the dynamism of Harlem (or all those urban areas in the North).  “Seventh Street is a bastard of Prohibition and the War.  A crude-boned, soft-skinned wedge of nigger life breathing its loafer air, jazz songs and love, thrusting unconscious rhythms, black reddish blood into the white and whitewashed wood of Washington.” (47)  Mobility grinds away at the walls of race.  This helps explain why Toomer’s stories are filled with wandering preachers, teachers moving from north to South, or students entering college in whitewashed Madison.  I am not certain if the mobile worker is truly more powerful, wise, or aware than anyone else, but in the American novel he is.