The Conservative Plot to Hijack Zora Neale Hurston

Recently, in The Root, John McWhorter published, “Why Zora Neale Hurston Was a Conservative.”

 “I have always valued her for being America’s favorite black conservative,” he wrote.  “If she were living today, she would gladly have peddled her wares on Fox News.”

Why would a conservative like McWhorter need to recruit the most well known black writer as a member of a conservative movement? Why would a conservative academic like McWhorter find it necessary to claim one of America’s best-known folklorists and novelists as a member of a right winged group?

Zora is not, of course, just any Black writer.  Over the years, since her death in 1960, in Fort Pierce, not far from her hometown, Eatonville, Florida, her novels and folklore have dominated the literary scene and the social science disciplines.  Just as her Mules and Men became a classic in folklore studies, her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God has become a classics in literature.

In the 70s, Robert E. Hemenway published a biography, but now Valeria Boyd has published a recent one, Wrapped In Rainbows; Carla Kaplan has edited her letters.  Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis recorded audio versions of her folktales, and PBS’s celebrated American Masters documentary series produced a an episode on her life in 2008. Documentary films have been made about her (Jump For the Sun, most recently).  Zora even has her own postage stamp.

In sum, since Alice Walker’s article in Ms magazine, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” Zora has become the financial support of many white institutions.  Indeed, what English department hasn’t thrived on a rich staple of Zora Neale Hurston’s work?

She has been so thoroughly exploited by various ideologies  that in 1991 Michele Wallace,asked in a seminal article, ,”Who Owns Zora Neale Hurston?” Recently, another white scholar, Glenda R. Carpio,  has found some of her unpublished stories. For white scholarship, Zora is the gift that keeps on giving.

We have to ask ourselves, is there any more than Zora can give? Apparently, there is.  For now it seems that the exploitation of Zora has moved from the feminist left to a Right Wing ideologue like McWhorter.

Interestingly, McWhorter’s article was not his first attempt to rehabilitate Zora as a Black conservativeness.  A year ago, Summer 2009, he published an essay, five times longer in City Journal, in which he wrote:

“One of the last photos of Zora Neale Hurston, taken in the late fifties, is heartrending. Once renowned as a handsome figure that could dominate any room, she sits outside a Florida bungalow, a bloated old woman living in poverty, chatting with locals. As sanguine as she looks, we can’t help wishing that she had been in New York, plugging her latest novel on the Jack Paar Show.”

If she ever appeared on the Jack Parr Show—or Fox News, for that matter—it would have been the first time a black appeared on the show hawking a book!  For those of us who have long appreciated the feisty and gutsy writings of the novelist and anthropologist, the idea of Zora appearing on  Fox News is not very funny at all.

But McWhorter goes further than this ludicrous assertion. From McWhorter’s reckoning, if she were alive today, Zora would be against slavery reparations movement, she would not support affirmative action (or as he puts it, the “lowering standards based on pigmentation.”), and she would vote Republican “at least most of the time.”

He imagines her in a room with, “Michael Steele, Ward Connerly, Clarence Thomas, Thomas Sowell, Larry Elder, and Star Parker.” What in God’s name would she be doing in a room with these guys?

McWhorter presents very little convince evidence of his conclusions. Where is the evidence that Zora  “held a fiercely asserted black conservative politics akin to Clarence Thomas?”

To be sure, McWhorter’s is not the first person to make the claim that Hurston was politically conservative.   In 1950, she came out against the Supreme Court’s Brown v. the Board of Education decision and everybody jumped on her.  Zora’s Oscar Wilde-like quips about the Brown decision made headlines, but few people actually examined the reasoning behind her opinion. (What she was really saying.)   Reported to have voted for a Republican candidate, she even supported the presidential candidacy of Robert Taft.  (Taft, a Republican senator from Ohio, railed against the New Deal; he was educated at Yale, and Harvard where he edited the Harvard Law Review.)

In his article,  “The Political Incorrectness of Zora Neale Hurston,” Andrew Delbanco declared that when Zora “opposed the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, she confined herself to literary oblivion for decades to come.”  In her book, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s   Ann Douglass   summarizes the matter succinctly, when she writes,   “By the 1950s, Hurston had settled into a belligerent conservatism. “

I don’t have a problem with somebody attributing a conservative label on  Zora, as long as they are willing to examine the contexts surrounding her actions. Why is it necessary for McWhorter to bring up an old charge about her being a Republican then?   Back in the fifties, the Republican Party (and the Democratic Party) was different than it is now, for starters.  What is the motive behind recasting Zora Neale as a black conservative?    (Zora was the kind of person who said what was on her mind.  She wrote her publisher, upon hearing that he was going to publish her novel that the excitement was “like when you look down and see your first pubic hair only greater.”)

Zora undermines the myth, McWhorter says, that Black conservatives are opportunists, who parrot the white Republican Party line, and secretly hate themselves for not being black enough.  His thinking seems to be that, if he could count Zora as a conservative, she would add gravitas to the Republican Party.

Perhaps if I had not made the trip from San Francisco to Florida to visit her home town recently, I would not have been so riled by McWhorter’s take on one of my favorite folklorist.

I arrived in Eatonville (located about thirty minutes drive from Orlando), a few weeks before the annual Zora Arts Festival that comes at the end of January.

For starters, Eatonville should be renamed Zoraville, because she and the town have become one. She is the true literary eponymous heroine, just as Mark Twain is the eponymous hero of Hannibal, Missouri, and Thomas Wolfe is of Ashville, North Carolina.

I stopped in front of the Zora Neale Museum and went inside. I was greeted my N.Y. Nathiri, the director, and main organizer for the Zora Neale Festival.

In the course of our interview, she told me a story about how the Festival came to be and how Zora was revived as a spiritual leader for the town in 1990.

She gave me a description of the town in the 20s when Zora collected the material for Mules and Men.

Back in the twenties and thirties, what was Eatonville like? “Was it a shelter, a refuge against Jim Crow?” I asked her.

“I would say you are right on point. We say Zora was a visionary in the way she regarded her people and her home community.”

What I didn’t know about Eatonville was that there were several towns like this in the Jim Crow South.  In her book, Zora Neale Hurston and the History of Southern Life, Tiffany Patterson chronicles how such black towns sprung up all across the South as ways of dealing with white racism. The background to why it was necessary for blacks to seek out all black towns is related to the civil war. After the war ended, many black ran to areas like Florida where they thought they would have a chance of freedom.

According to Patterson, the small independent towns played an important role in Florida.  “The end of the Civil War brought social chaos and economic instability to central Florida as throughout the South,” she wrote. “ The system of plantation agriculture that had dominated the region for generations was badly crippled by political upheaval, economic change, and social confusion. The beginnings of a free-labor system and declining cotton prices hit planters hard as they tried in vain to return to prewar production levels.”

The South could no longer rely on cotton.  Planters had to find new sources of revenue and a cheap, manageable labor pool.  Since Northern and central Florida were both under-populated and under-developed, planters soon saw an opportunity to rebuild their fortunes in the lush green forests, with their virgin stands of pine and cypress.

But what they needed was free Black labor.  With the exploitation of black labor came Jim Crow.

“More than sixty all-black towns emerged at the end of the Civil War,” she explained.  “In these [independent towns,] African Americans could have a semblance of autonomy between the teeth and within the cavities of Jim Crow.”

Like these towns, Eatonville sought to protect itself from Jim Crow. “Driven by the need to protect themselves from racial violence and to mitigate the abuses of economic exploitation,” Patterson concluded,  “residents of some of these towns incorporated themselves as independent legal units.”

In 1889,  Zora’s beloved town of Eatonville got its start, when Joe Clark, and twenty-eight other black men, approached a white man named Eaton with a proposal. They wanted to enough land from Mr. Eaton to start a town. Mr. Eaton agreed to sell it to them. They called the town Eatonville and made Joe the first mayor.

Zora’s ‘s father was the third mayor. She so admired Joe Clark, who was the first mayor, that she pattered one of her most famous characters Joe Stark after him. Of course, Hurston wrote all about this in her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine and in Mules and Men.

Being a mayor of Eatonville was close to being a tribal king.

What brought Zora and the town together was the highway incident. The Federal government wanted to bring an interstate highway through the town.

“The problem was that since Florida was expanding, it was necessary to get the traffic from Daytona to (West) to St. Petersburg area,” Ms  Nathiri told me as she walked me around the  Hurston Museum. “The people in the next city, Maitland, a very toney community, didn’t want the highway to come through their town.  They learned where the highway was going to do they pushed it down through Eatonville.”

Although Eatonville was the first black town in America, she told me, “It didn’t mean anything to the white officials.  But the people of Eatonville fought back.”

“Zora was not well known to whites down here.” Nathiri added. “We thought we would find an acceptable way to preserve Eatonville. There are people all over the world who knew about Eatonville because of the writings of Zora.”

The citizens formed a committee called the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community to show off the community’s ties to Zora Neale Hurston.

The first festival was presented in 1990. Now over 200, 000 people come here from all over the world.    At the first festival, the committee invoked the spirit of Zora Neale Hurston and invited notables like Alice Walker, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis and other black celebrities. Since that time, the town has been covered by the fame of celebrating her achievement.

This year the festival featured Ashford and Simpson and a special event on Haiti, reflecting Zora’s research.

What did Nathiri have to say to the charges that Zora was a conservative?

“She was a conservative in the sense that she wanted to conserve the qualities of a healthy community spirit,” she said.

Zora didn’t believe in integration, she observed, because she died before the sit-ins and the desegregation of the South. Because she was raised in an independent town, she didn’t have to deal with white imprudence, she felt that Blacks didn’t need to integrate with whites to prove their worth.  She got the label of being a “segregationist.”

 “In the context of the word, she was a creative person, who  didn’t agree that we need integrating to feel full filled. Some integrationists…feel that she is an anachronism, a throw back, because she didn’t feel it was necessary to integrate with whites to have successfully run society.”

McWhorter claims, that Zora had a “relative lack of interest in denouncing racism.” He profoundly misunderstands her art and work.  As in her art, Zora’s approach to politics was indirect. As Susan Meisenhelder points out in “Conflict and Resistance,” Hurston took an indirect approach to race.

“The reason Hurston takes an indirect approach to race,” Meisenhelder insisted, “stems from her dependence on white figures who exerted considerable control over her work. Hurston’s patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason, for instance, literally owned Hurston’s material and consistently pushed Hurston to express only the ‘primitive-ism’ she saw in Black culture.”

McWhorter asserts that Zora was like-minded with Black conservatives because she didn’t take handouts.  But McWhorter is wary of drawing attention to Zora ‘s white patronage. Why? Because the Harlem Renaissance, of which she was an important figure was supported entirely by white patronage. Why did the Harlem Renaissance fail, asked W.E. B. Dubois?  It failed, he answered, because of white patronage, in which whites dictated the taste of the black writers.

Black conservatives don’t like to think that most of the literature written by Blacks before the sixties depended on “handouts” (to use McWhorter own words) from wealthy whites. And they also know that handouts are another form of patriarchy, the daddy of philanthropy.

Recent scholarship, such as Tiffany Patterson’s Zora Neale Hurston: a history of Southern Life,’ reveal just how depended Zora was on white financial support patrons. If McWhorter wanted to place blame on the tragedy of Zora’s life, he might have acknowledged that the fact that the very white people who pretended to help Zora were the same people who wrecked her literary life, her professional work, and caused her to have such a terrible (if you want to go there) personal life.

In order to fight back against her white benefactors, Ms Patterson suggested that Zora  “presented herself as a lovable “darky,” one who thanks white folks for allowing her to collect folklore.”  According to Ms Patterson, “Zora praised the magnanimity of her patron Mrs. Mason…Pouring on the charm of a lovable personality, Hurston paints herself as an Uncle Remus figure pleased to entertain the white world with her tales.”

When the publisher Lippincott dropped Zora, the excuse Lippincott gave her was that the buying audience was not interested in reading about black people from black writers. What was Zora’s response? She published an article in The Saturday Evening Post called, “What White Publishers will Not Print.”

This is not the action of a Black Conservative; as McWhorter would like us believe, but the work of a radical, revolutionary thinker.  Conservative writers, like McWhorter, are not likely to show the financial relationship between the mode of production and ideology.

It is true, however, that Zora did go astray from her literary mission, but it is quite understandable given the climate of racism in publishing. What conservatives don’t want us to see is that Black writing has been controlled by a white cultural industry, then and now. For example,  Zora’s next publisher  gave her an ultimatum: she would be advanced 500 dollars for a new novel, but all of the characters had to be white.  Zora took the bait, and produced an unreadable novel, The Seraph on the Suwannee, in 1948.  Not only did the book not sell, but also the authentic speech of African American characters that she had so lovingly crafted in her work was missing in action.

Zora didn’t believe that integration was necessary because blacks already knew how to take care of themselves, and they didn’t need whites to tell them.  McWhorter interprets this to mean that Blacks don’t want any handout from whites, which is a principle for the Republicans.

Conservatives (White and Black) want us all to pretend that there is nothing special about African American culture that it is just like white culture—except, that Black is just a misinterpreted white culture.  They want you to believe that there is no separate culture, that there is no such thing as a Black language, or Black expressions, or even Black music.

In other words, there is no tribal life.  McWhorter distils the results into a neo-conservative recipe for  a Reverend Jim Jones type kool-aid.   In the same way, conservatives would like to see Blacks give up their group identification, and dispense with the notion that Obama is a symbol of their group solidarity.

But the Zora Neale Hurston Festival is a reminder that Zora was a revolutionary, and as N.Y. Nabiti put is it, “She was a visionary.”

At the end of January every year, about two hundred thousand people from all over the country flock into Eatonville to celebrate the life and work of this author. When you see so many black people in the streets in this tiny hamlet, and buying Obama and Zora paraphernalia, are we supposed to believe that they are there because they want to celebrate a black conservative?

McWhorter assertion that Zora “would not feel proud of Obama’s election” makes no sense.

The black people of Eatonville think that Zora would have adored Obama.  Indeed everything I saw in Eatonville belied McWhorter’s allegations that she is a conservative.

In the streets of Eatonville today, there were so many vendors selling Obama pictures that one man retorted that if Obama had a nickel for every picture was sold of him, he wouldn’t have to collect his salary as president.

If Zora were alive she would be at a big party with Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, Nelson Mandela and Obama. If she is a conservative, then so are David Walker and Malcolm X. No, McWhorter is dead wrong.  Zora would be at her own festival. She would be celebrated, as the Queen of Authenticity, as she is known in her eponymous city, Zoraville.

CECIL BROWN is the author of I, Stagolee: a Novel, Stagolee Shot Billy and The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger. He can be reached at:




Cecil Brown is the author of Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department?. His latest book is Pryor Lives: How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor.