Two master writers, two African Americans taking different paths through life’s experiences and insights. Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright show us the variety of life in the African American epic. Different – yet similar and linked as Hurston writes of living that epic and Wright writes of surviving in it. Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road and Richard Wright’s Black Boy establish that life did not crush their souls. The might of the sword – their pen – delivered them to universal awareness and knowledge. Their quest to obtain education and knowledge propelled them on different paths of growth and understanding of the world. While both search for their human horizons, they come from the sun with distinctive experiences and perceptions.
Dust Tracks places Hurston’s life in a home adorned with flowers, love and self-determination. This culture and cultivation protected her from the prejudices which lurked on the outskirts of Eatonville, Florida, the only incorporated, all-Black town in America. This culture provided her a vehicle in approaching the rest of the world. Dust Tracks captures a Black woman living life through velvet eyes and having the insight and mastery to present the Black family without the intrusion of White America leering at Hurston’s tears, laughter, love and hate. Amelia Marie Adams observes in All About Zora,
Like native anthropologists, she studied her own community, meaning not just the people of Eatonville, but the Afro-American experience as a whole. Further, by letting the people speak in their own words, she preserved their natural thought, “language” and culture. Hurston worked not just to record and retell the Afro-American folklore of the South, but also to change the racial attitudes of both Black and White Americans.
Hurston recalls, “mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at de sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground”; an idea that permeated Hurston’s grasp of life. Her mother, Lucy Ann Hurston, would die in 1900; a death Hurston never forgave, for Lucy Ann was her dear friend and spiritual teacher. The light of the sun was pushed to the back of her eyes. Hurston writes,
As I crowded in, they lifted up the bed and turned it around so that Mama’s eyes would face the east [toward Africa]. I thought that she looked to me as the head of the bed was reversed. Her mouth was slightly open, but her breathing took up so much of her strength that she could not talk. But she looked at me, or so I felt, to speak for her. She depended on me for a voice.
For a period of time Hurston immersed herself in tears and hate after the death of her mother, yet her mind was all the time sharp and brilliant with pencil and paper aimed at writing of a world bigger than the world from which she sprang. Here, Hurston would become the voice for others through penning her books.
In that other world, Wright’s Black Boy presents the emboldened Wright depicting his youth and times with the horrors of the South, the hunger, the fear, which he hugged close to his heart with bitterness. According to Wright, “The spirit I had caught gave me insight into the sufferings of others, made me gravitate toward those whose feelings were like my own, made me strangely tender and cruel, violent and peaceful” Similar to Hurston, Wright sought to change the racial attitudes of both Black and White Americans, yet he embarked on a different path. Wright and Hurston reflect their differences in discussing their mothers. For Hurston, her mother’s passing concerns a search for voice ; for Wright, his mother’s illness symbolizes meaningless pain and endless suffering, “freezing his feelings toward his mother”.
Wright’s life begins in 1908 on Rucker’s Plantation, a farm near Roxie, Mississippi, 22 miles east of Natchez. All four grandparents had been born in slavery. His father deserts the family in 1913 to live with another woman, leaving Wright and family impoverished. Wright asserts that
I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.
Black Boy highlights life in a country where a young African American boy visits despair after despair upon his entrance to the world. A baby cries when he is removed from his mother’s womb. Yet, that which would be natural nurturing of the baby until young adulthood is shattered. As the child grows, we no longer see his tears, yet his heart is pummeled by internal tears. That peaceful corner of Wright’s search for that source of the sun that will embrace a peaceful environment is never reached.
Hurston believes that African American women must have the freedom of expression and pen to color their words on paper with the love of their culture. Hurston’s writings increasingly inspired a myriad of Black creative artists; whether it be writing, dancing, acting, etc., the cultural experiences of a people’s heritage would be nurtured with a trajectory from one generation to another. The African mores and traditions would be preserved in the lives of Black people and carried forward in the pages of numerous literary works. The tears, laughter, love and hate of Hurston’s horizon lives in her writings. Cheryl Wall writes, “that while Hurston was not the first African American woman to publish a novel, she was the first to create a language and imagery that reflected the reality of Black women’s lives” (qtd. in duCille 137). This significance of Hurston’s writings is widely acknowledged.
Dust Tracks illuminates Hurston’s stirring view of an environment free of hostility. This book attempts to liberate women of all hues and she paints a picture of oppressed people’s love of life capturing spoken and written words, stories, music, song and dance. When Hurston exalts with joy at a tender age to live with her brother, she writes: “I shall never forget how the red ball of the sun hung on the horizon and raced along with the train for a short space, and then plunged below the belly-band of the earth”. The words might indeed be considered a Negro Spiritual or Gospel in many homes. Her style of writing is the image she reveals not just about her life; the imagery reveals all elements around her. Zora’s views color her style – velvety, joy, interest in subjects without hostility.
Wright considers the idea of writing his autobiography following a lecture at Fisk University:
I gave a clumsy, conversational kind of speech to the folks, black and white, reciting what I felt and thought about the world, what I remembered about my life, about being a Negro. . . . It was not until half-way through my speech that it crashed upon me that I was saying things that whites had forbidden Negroes to say. . . . Later, I learned that I had accidentally blundered into the secret, black, hidden core of race relations in the United States. That core is this: nobody is ever expected to speak honestly about this problem.
It is that honesty conveyed through the skill of a master writer which empowers Wright’s writings. Black Boy underscores Wright’s earlier years living in the segregated South with the pain of hunger that shapes his style of writing – rapid, hard-hitting, focusing on conflict and survival. “I dreamed of going north and writing books, novels. The north symbolized to me all that I had not felt and seen; it had no relation whatever to what actually existed. Yet, by imaging a place where everything was possible, I kept hope alive in me”. Here, Wright develops a technique that would preserve his prolific writing career – his writings chronicle surviving. Hurston’s writings chronicle life and living. Both reflect the connection between style of writing and their viewpoints.
Hurston travels widely throughout the South and particularly in Florida, gathering tales of African American traditions and lores. She walks in search of the stories expressed through the eyes of women, for she remains in search of her mother’s voice. Hurston takes an extensive variety of firsthand information and succeeds in preserving the tradition of African American folk culture in the Black Belt of the South. Hurston colors Dust Tracks with folklore. After her mother’s death she states:
The Master-Maker in His making had made Old Death. Made him with big, soft feet and square toes. Made him with a face that reflects the face of all things, but neither changes itself, nor is mirrored anywhere. Made the body of Death out of infinite hunger. Made a weapon for his hand to satisfy his needs. This was the morning of the day of the beginning of things . . . .
While traveling to New Orleans, Hurston states, “I delved into Hoodoo, or sympathetic magic. I studied with the Frizzly Rooster, and all of the other noted doctors. I learned the routines for making and breaking marriages; driving off and punishing enemies; influencing the minds of judges and juries in favor of clients; killing by remote control and other things” .
In discussing findings of pre-historic monsters in phosphate mines, she describes, “Some old-time sea monster caught in the shallows in that morning when God said, ‘Let’s make some more dry land. Stay there, great Leviathan! Stay there as a memory and a monument to Time. Shark-teeth as wide as the hand of a working man. Joints of backbone three feet high, bearing witness to the mighty monster of the deep when the Painted Land rose up and did her first dance with the morning sun'”.
Hurston claims that
“When I see what we really are like, I know that God is too great an artist for we folks on my side of the creek to be all of his best works. Some of His finest touches are among us without doubt, but some more of His masterpieces are among those folks who live over the creek”.
Wright’s writings show a different view – Black people on this side of the creek were never given the fair opportunity to demonstrate their worth. Without equality of opportunity and the same power of self-determination possessed by the folk on the other side of the creek, we cannot explicate the true worth of the races. Folklore emerges in Wright’s story tinted with the toughness of his experiences. He would tell his grandmother that “If I were to see an angel I would accept that as infallible evidence that there was a God and would serve him unhesitatingly”. Griggs, once a schoolmate of Wright’s who obtains a job for Wright, tells him,
“You know, Dick, you may think I’m an Uncle Tom, but I’m not. I hate these white people, hate ’em with all my heart. But I can’t show it; if I did, they’d kill me. . . . Once I heard an old drunk nigger say: All these white folks dressed so fine their ass-holes smell just like mine”.
Wright describes how a White man had manipulated him and another Black youth, Harrison, to believe that each was out to cut the other with a knife. Wright and Harrison talk before there is a knife fight and find out that the White man was trying to have Wright and Harrison kill each other. They concluded that this was fun for the White men to whom it did not matter if one of them killed the other. The story goes on – having failed to cause a knife fight, the white men finally have Wright and Harrison box each other for $5. To White people entertainment is obtained by having Black people kill or fight each other.
Finally, Wright tells a “tale” which probably illustrates his conviction since the age of twelve, “that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering”. The tale, Wright tells us, is of a Negro woman whose husband had been seized and killed by a mob. Vowing to exact revenge, the woman wrapped a shotgun in a sheet and pleaded with the whites to be allowed to take her husband’s body for burial. She was allowed to come to the side of her husband while the whites looked on. After praying, the woman unwrapped the sheet, and before the White men realized it, she had slain four of them, “shooting at them from her knees” . This tale illustrates that the everyday folklore Wright encountered and passed on were attempts of a people to find wisdom and solutions where their lives were threatened with a dismal existence.
Hurston’s treatment of gender reflects sisterhood, strength and self-identity not molded by a male companion. Here, Hurston’s tears, laughter, love and hate are dimensions reflected in the women portrayed in her writings. Today more than in earlier years, Hurston would be deemed a feminist and womanist, a delineation she would gladly accept. Hurston’s mother, Lucy Potts Hurston, is seen as a nurturing, inspiring, and protective presence in Hurston’s life; “jump at de sun” dramatizes a spiritual bonding between mother and daughter. In a similar way, Wright’s love for his mother and Aunt Maggie was admirable. His mother always encouraged Wright to seek knowledge, as she had been a school teacher in her earlier years. His understanding of women first emerged at an early age living with his grandmother, a worshipful Seventh Day Adventist. Wright’s mother loved him immensely, struggled hard to survive and to care for her two boys, yet Wright constantly saw fear in her eyes after his father would desert the family.
His search for the true African American male and female embraces his efforts to change the world he knew – the South – that was violently hostile to African American women. He believed that until fear, hunger, cruelty and rage are consciously resisted, fought against and eradicated from the psyche of the African Americans, their character will further inherit the horrors of life under which African Americans are forced to live and their minds would continue to be controlled and oppressed by the dominant white population.
Wright has many jobs and since his youth feels responsible for his mother and brother after his father deserts his mother. He moves to Memphis in order to work and save money to move his mother and brother. Once Wright realizes the continued demands hunger places on his family, the urgency to move north – Chicago, Illinois – becomes a reality. When Wright sojourns to France to build his career in writing, he continues to support his mother and Aunt Maggie until her death in 1958 and his mother’s death in 1959. He would not forsake his mother and aunt, for they were two of the women in his life who would nurture his spirit during some of his darkest days. Wright’s friendship with Gertrude Stein shows his ability to regard women on the same level as men. That friendship is similar to Hurston’s friendship with Fannie Hurst and Mrs. R. Osgood Mason. For both Wright and Hurston, the sun did not have a mandatory boundary.
Hurston believed women were oppressed by men and needed to be liberated. Men were sometimes in competition with Hurston because of her independent thoughts and tenacity in achieving her goals. She declared once “I am so put together that I do not have much of a herd instinct”. When Hurston asked to borrow a book from a Harvard man and he looked at her in a way that said “what for,” he had formulated a prejudicial opinion for a woman; a Black woman reading was questionable. Hurston believed all areas should be opened to women – there should be no restrictive gender roles. She also believed women participated in the gender roles that men made women subject to. She had many male friends who related to her in the artistic or academic fields. Manning Marable in his book, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America states that “Black women appeared no longer as ‘auxiliaries’ or marginal participants in Black educational, social and political life. The leading figures of Mary McLeod Bethune, Mary Church Terrell, Hurston and others provided abundant role models for young Black girls to abandon the yoke of subordination and sexual subservience”.
Though romance was intermittent in Hurston’s life, she would identify it when it turned her on. “But when I fall in, I can feel the bump . . . Love may be a sleepy, creeping thing with some others, but it is a mighty wakening thing with me. I feel the jar, and I know it from my head on down”. Hurston’s first marriage would wane and expire after seven months. She details her wedding day as not her happiest day that she was assailed by doubts. Hurston wondered “who had cancelled the well-advertised tour of the moon? Somebody had turned a hose on the sun” . Her description of meeting the man she fell in love with is overwhelming, “I did not just fall in love. I made a parachute jump . . . God must have put in extra time making him up” . Hurston’s unrelenting love would stumble at the door of choosing between romance and career. Hurston was off to Jamaica to research West Indian Obeah practices. Yet, she clearly heard the pathos in the voice of the man who had marveled at her mind and spirit. Hurston states she “tried to embalm all the tenderness of my passion for him in Their Eyes Were Watching God” . What characteristic about Hurston’s writings is her ability to embrace love and romance as she passionately deeds her words to her readers.
This cannot be said of Wright, as he was always fearful of his surroundings. His emotions would be subsumed primarily with the financial care of his mother, aunt and brother, as well as protecting his family and self from a flood of hunger, violence and fear. During his growing up in the South, Wright did not envision building a relationship with a woman as a priority. Similarly, Hurston would recoil when love and romance would attempt to juxtapose her feminist ideas and leave her at the door of loneliness like many of the women she wrote about. She would lay love in a contained space and continue to gather her momentum of self-identity, self-image, her work and intellect in order to support her feminist ideology and to hopefully liberate many women. For Hurston’s love from the warmth and brightness of the sun surely had a place; for Wright there was no time or place in space for love.
From the mid-1920s to sometime in the late 1940s a literary grouping of African American writers, poets, critics and playwrights existed that became known as the Harlem Renaissance. It brought the Black experience, history and culture together and stood for urban pluralism. Alain Locke wrote, “The peasant, the student, the businessman, the professional man, artist, poet, musician, adventurer and worker, preacher and criminal, exploiter and social outcast, each group has come with its own special motives . . . but their greatest experience has been the finding of one another” (quoted in Reuben 7). The geographic identification of this development is not accurate – the African American literary grouping was located both in Harlem and in Chicago. The time was post-World War I, post-migration from the South to the northern metropolis, and the suffocation of African American arts could no longer persist at the same level.
Among the artists identified with the Harlem Renaissance are Langston Hughes, Dr. W.E. B. DuBois, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Rudolph Fisher, Wallace Thurman, Arna Bontemps, Jessie Fauset, James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston. The Chicago Renaissance, which sometimes gathered together as the South Side Writers’ Group, had Wright as its guiding force and included among others, Willard Motley, William Attaway, Margaret Walker, Frank Marshall Davis, Gwendolyn Brooks, Theodore Ward, Katherine Dunham and Horace Cayton. The two areas of this Renaissance designate literary generations of African American writings – the Harlem literary flowering covering generally the period from 1920 to 1935 and the Chicago movement the following 15 years – from 1935 to 1950.
The Renaissance also reflects the broad and deep diversity of views and styles in African American writing. Different political movements with varying social analyses and personal identities gave birth to varying, and sometimes conflicting literary visions and critiques. Professor Charles H. Nichols writes,
But the ‘young Turks’ of the Harlem Renaissance, like Bontemps, Hughes, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman and others, were not much inclined to conciliate the bigots and the vested interests of what Du Bois called ‘the land of the thief and the home of the slave.’ For after World War I the peoples of African descent achieved a new identity, a more militant social philosophy, a new dignity born of suffering and a sharp vision of their own possibilities. The Black Nationalism of Marcus Garvey, the Marxism of McKay, the militancy and intellectual power of W.E.B. Du Bois, the pan-African movement – indeed the self-discovery of blacks – created the extraordinary élan and productivity of the Harlem Renaissance.
With this diversity among artists of strong opinions, energy and self-will it is not unexpected that conflicts would erupt between the participants in the Renaissance. The clash between Wright and Hurston is probably the most publicized. Both were highly regarded authors whose pens were often lethal as knives. Hurston attacks the social realism of the 1930s. She ascribes to Wright, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Sterling Brown a view of Black people as reacting to racial oppression with only a deprived culture. She describes this group as “the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a dirty deal”.
On the other hand, the Renaissance participants’ views of Hurston reflect in the first place their disagreement with the ideology of Hurston concerning the impact of slavery and the racial structure of American society on the African American people. Unfortunately, this conflict appears to have overwhelmed other significant aspects of Hurston’s relationship to the male participants. However, the artistry and magic of her writings were not ignored. Langston Hughes, who split with Hurston over their collaboration on the play, Mule Bone, criticizes James Baldwin’s book Go Tell It On The Mountain. In a letter to Arna Bontemps, Hughes writes that if Baldwin’s work “were written by Zora Hurston with her feeling for the folk idiom, it would probably be a quite wonderful book”.
There always was the dynamic of the domineering male role, which affected the relationship of the Renaissance participants. For example, in November 1939, Bontemps writes Hughes about a conversation he had with Hurston concerning the gulf between her and Hughes. He relates “she said her hysterics, etc. were not provoked by you at all, and I believe it. She said, or intimated, that the whole thing could be traced to old-fashioned female jealousy between her and Louise, jealousy over the matter of influence over you. When you look at it this way, it is hard to blame poor Zora. She can’t help it if she’s a woman”.
For Hurston, politics had not the same magnitude as with Wright. Her silence of political views on such matters as oppression, devastation of the conditions people were forced to live under, also revealed her politics. She would immerse herself in feminism and womanism and attack that which would affect women across the board. For the most part white women have not addressed the oppression of Black women, and Hurston would follow that course as well when writing Dust Tracks. Hurston’s tears, laughter, love and hate detailed her predilection of self, of her individualism, and resistance to any one controlling her. She believed she was the ruler of self. That idea would guide her life and career, as she surmounted her craft in a milieu of male writers who examined oppression, racism and militancy. Her primary aspiration rested on climbing a ladder through an approval that would not attack white oppression or make white readers feel uncomfortable. In Darwin Turner’s foreword to Dust Tracks, he critiques Hurston’s short-sighted political stance:
in her autobiography one perceives the contradictory attitudes that must be remembered when appraising the credibility of her fiction. The picture which she chose to paint of herself was that of a fearless, defiant fighter whose father feared the consequences of her impudence; of a woman, loved by whites and feared by blacks; and of an American who transcended the petty conflicts of inter-racial issues. . . . One cannot believe that any person so violently antagonistic towards such black people as her stepmother, her brother, her sister, and various black women, would never have experienced a reportable conflict with a white person. And if one did not know that Zora Neale Hurston had written articles against voting rights for Negroes, integration of schools, and the efforts of the Fair Employment Practices Commission to secure jobs for blacks in white firms, one could not soberly consider the shallow conclusions of Dust Tracks. (iv-v).
Hurston’s and Wright’s different political views are like thunder from differing storms of life as they sought to reach to freedom from a historical past of slavery and a context of white supremacy. The subject of Wright’s writings often consists of the black struggle under conditions of oppression, hunger, deprivation and attack. Cruelty and violence are the offspring of the oppression that occupies his artistic and intellectual attention. Wright’s politics are often mistakenly presented as communist beliefs. Wright joined the Communist Party in 1933, at the depths of America’s Great Depression. He was associated with the John Reed Club in Chicago – a left-wing artist and writer’s group. In the early 1940s he leaves the Party and in July 1944 his split becomes public with his Atlantic Monthly article, “I tried to be a Communist.”13 Wright’s tumultuous life of political and ideological struggles and his voluminous writings reflect the overarching political issue of the relationship of the nationalist and liberation struggles of the Third World and African Americans to the anti-capitalist communist movement and to the traditions of the African societies.
Wright has a powerful global view:
The Negro is intrinsically a colonial subject, but one who lives not in China, India, or Africa but next door to his conquerors, attending their schools, fighting their wars, and laboring in their factories. The American Negro problem, therefore, is but a facet of the global problem that splits the world in two . . . Nowhere on earth have these extremes met and clashed with such prolonged violence as in America between Negro and white. . . . (Les Nouvelles Epitres)
Ten years after his break with communism, Wright tells of a “black colonial Frenchman in Paris” who finds “the French have a great deal of experience in dealing with Communists, but that they shy off in a state of terror when confronted with nationalists” (Black Power 96).15 Wright’s view of nationalism exists in contradiction to his advocacy of the destruction of African traditional beliefs and the benefits of the spread of Western society to the Third World. In White Man Listen he writes,
Bravo! to the consequences of Western plundering, a plundering that created the conditions for the possible rise of rational societies for the greater majority of mankind. . . . That part of the heritage of the West which I value – man stripped of the past and free for the future – has now been established as lonely bridgeheads in Asia and Africa.
There is no doubt that if Wright were alive today, he would be the first to attack this applauding of western encroachment in Africa and Asia. Wright was consistently anti-imperialist and the United States and European transnational corporations devastating the Third World today would receive the same treatment from his writings, as did white supremacy in the United States. While Wright’s views of the road to liberation for Africa and African Americans changed during his lifetime, he always is on that road – for him survival of Africa and the African American requires a successful struggle for liberation.
The United States government recognized Wright’s continuing threat to its power. In 1943 the FBI began an investigation of Wright – his writings, associates, neighbors – which continues until his death in 1960.17 Hurston’s world view is dramatically opposed to Wright’s view. She does not see the African American as a colonial subject or tied to Third World colonial wars; nor is she concerned with the force of Black nationalism. Her views of Africa’s traditions clash directly with Wright’s. For Hurston, preservation of and inhaling that tradition are the sources of the life of African Americans.
In conclusion, Wright and Hurston present complex challenges to those concerned with understanding the African American, the dynamics of racism and the relationship of artistic impression to context and social stance. Writing during the same period of time, reaching for the sun, caring for their people – these two master writers see and portray people and interactions differently. The sources of those differences are real and their existence should not be a surprise. The interest in the conflicts between Hurston and Wright is the result of a stereotypical view which would require all African Americans to speak with one voice.
Ironically the differences between Hurston and Wright have significantly contributed to smashing that stereotype, while they remained linked by their essential tie to humanity and hope. Wright writes in Black Boy “Yes, the whites were as miserable as their black victims, I thought. If this country can’t find its way to a human path, if it can’t inform conduct with a deep sense of life, then all of us, black as well as white, are going down the same drain” In Dust Tracks, Hurston writes:
You who play the zig-zag lightning of power over the world, with the grumbling thunder in your wake, think kindly of those who walk in the dust. And you, who walk in humble places, think kindly too, of others. . . . Consider that with tolerance and patience, we godly demons may breed a noble world in a few hundred generations or so.
In my opinion, if that hope fails then we may find ourselves listening to the words of Curtis Mayfield, “If There’s a Hell Below We’re all Gonna Go.
Footnotes and full citations available at http://www.deelubell.com
Dianne (Dee) C. Lubell is a poet who has recently completed a collection of poetry and essays titled Where the Spirit is in the Water! She has performed her poetry and storytelling in many venues throughout the country. Dee is also artistic director of the Temple of Truth Theatre of Voices, a vehicle for children in diverse communities. She has developed a theatrical environment which bridges history and culture through poetry, theatre, song and dance. For more information Dee can be reached through her website http://www.deelubell.com; or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org