Michele Wallace, in an impassioned essay on Zora Neale Hurston published in the 80s, and republished in her collection, Invisibility Blues, has a good time mocking Harold Bloom for setting aside Hurston’s politics and discussing her in terms of a wholly white literary lineage, a sort of Wife of Bath figure. Yet when it comes to Hurston’s politics, nobody seems prepared to confront it head-on, except to proclaim that her opposition to Brown vs. Board of Education and her support for Joe McCarthy was unfortunate. Usually these things are attributed to some unfortunate experience the woman had – Wallace ends up blaming it on the bum rap hung on Hurston for seducing under age boys, which was ultimately thrown out of court, and others blame it on the aging process.
It is true that the Hurston who can write in a letter about the unforgiveability of the atom bomb, or coint the brilliant phrase, in her anti Jim Crow essay, The American Museum of Unnatural History, for the way she and other black thinkers are put away in a little segregated corner and exhibited, seems to be going in a different direction from the woman whose heart belonged to Taft. But I don’t think the answer to the question of how she kept these thoughts together is answered by a reference to some odd contingency. Hurston’s politics were definitely on the right, but a right of her own making – a maroon right. Her experiences in Florida, in Jamaica and in Haiti all went into her viewpoint, which – taking a phrase from Callaso, who takes it from Tallyrand, is a defense of the “sweetness” of life. Eccentrically, and whitely, I see her counterpart on the left as Pasolini. These two paragraphs from his Pirate Writings could have been subscribed to, I think, by the Hurston who raged against the kind of representation of Southern blacks that put lynching at its center – as in Richard Wright’s novels.
“At present, when the social model being realized is no longer that of class, but an other imposed by power, many people are not in the position to realize it. And this is terribly humiliating for them. I will take a very humble example: in the past, the baker’s delivery boy, or « cascherino » — as we named him here in rome, was always, eternally joyous, with a true and radiant joy. He went through the streets whistling and throwing out wisecracks. His vitality was irresistable. He was clothed much more poorly than today, with patched up pants and a shirt that was often in rags, However, all this was a part of a model which, in his neighborhood, had a value, a sense – and he was proud of it. To the world of wealth he could oppose one equally as valid, and he entered into the homes of the wealthy with a naturally anarchic smile, which discredited everything, even if he was respectful. But it was the respect of a deeply different person, a stranger. And finally, what counted was that this person, this boy, was happy.
Isn’t it the happiness that counts? Don’t we make the revolution in the name of happiness? ? The peasants’ and sub-proletariats’ condition could express, in the persons who lived it, a certain real happiness. Today – with economic development – this happiness has been lost. This means that that economic development is by no means revolutionary, even when it is reformist. It only gives us anguish, anxiety. In our days, there are adults of my age feckless enough to think that it is better to be serious (quasi tragic) with which the e « cascherino », with his long ha ir and little moustache, carries his package enveloped with plastic, than to have the “infantile” joy of the past. They believe that to prefer the serious to laughter is a virile means of confronting life.
In reality, these are vampires happy to see that their innocent victims have become vampires too. To be serious, to be dignified, are horrible tasks that the petit bourgeoisie imposes on itself, and the petit bourgeoisie are thus happy to see to it that the children of the people are also serious and dignified. It never crosses their minds that this is a true degredation, that the children of the people are sad because they have become conscious of their social inferiority, given that their values and cultural models have been destroyed."
Pasolini famously said that in the struggle between the cops and the students on campus, he was for the cops, as they were the authentic children of the people – a statement as shocking in 1969 as Hurston’s statement that Brown vs. Board of Education was due to a “whine” among certain Negros who wanted to be white. Somehow, I think the political impulse in both cases came from something deeper than Hurston’s personal hurt from neglect by certain of the privileged tenth.