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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

reading while white: Hurston and an image


I was puzzled about a passage I found in Zora Hurston’s Tell My Horse, and looked around for a gloss. The passage interested me, as it takes up the idea of the extermination of a race or ethnicity – a menace much in the air in the 30s, when Hurston visited Jamaica and Haiti. And, really, this is always in the air, the radiowave patrolled air, where a majority, or a group of people having an image of themselves as rulers evolves a history of oppressing a more powerless skin color, religion, or ethnicity. Extermination is the end point of racism, its utopia, the Lebensraum where Leben is much of a sameness. After explaining that Jamaican “mixed bloods” set themselves up as much higher beings than “negroes’, and encourage valuing whiter skin over darker skin, Hurston writes:

Perhaps the Jamaican mixed bloods are logical and right, perhaps the only answer to the question of what is to become of the negro in the Western world is that he must be absorbed by the whites. Frederick Douglass thought so. If he was right, the the strategy of the American Negro is all wrong, that is, the attempt to achieve a position equal to the white population in every way but each race to maintain its separate identity. Perhaps we should strike our camps and make use of the cover of night and execute a masterly retreat under white skins.If that is what must be, then any way at all of getting more whiteness among us is a step in the right direction. I do not pretend to know what is wise and best. “

The one person I’ve read who commented on this passage assumes, with no reference to the cues in the text backing that assumption, that Hurston is just being sarcastic. And the idea of retreating under white skins is a sort of mix of Looney Tune cartoon and bible image that might, broadly, be an indicator of sarcasm. However, I take the sentence to be Hurston’s way of maintaining a certain authorial inscrutability.The deadpan presentation of an exterminationist vision without 'pretending' to know if it is wise or best is a way of making us look at that vision not as something we refuse right off, but as something that we might be complicit in.
So much for my own readerly sense-making. But what really struck me most there was the popping up of Frederick Douglass where I wouldn’t have expected him – on the white skin side of things. I went wha??? Since Douglass seems to me an emancipatory figure that I would figure Hurston would like. How did he get in here?

It took me a while to realize that this was a question that marked reading while white. For when I looked into it, I discovered that Douglass’s second marriage to a white woman had a tremendous effect on his reputation both during and after his life, especially in the African American community. Surely it is this marriage that Hurston is alluding to, since there are no passages in Douglass’s writing that urge such drastic amalgamation.

I of course could be wrong in this conclusion. Regardless, Hurston’s style here is beautifully modernist – a lightening stroke of reference, and the image of striking camp under cover of night – of darkness – that involutes infinitely a retreat that advances us literally into the arms of the White race. For sheer lines – and I read for lines – Hurston has that twenties, that almost Augustan, wit, playing the dozens Dorothy Parker style.

Of course, another reading would be that Hurston took her cues from the linguistic patterns of black folkculture. Of this, there can be no doubt – but at the same time, she wrote for Henry Mencken’s magazine, American Mercury, and she definitely bears some marks of the house style, just as Updike bears marks of the style of the New Yorker.

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