Review, Yuval Taylor: “Zora and Langston”

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) wrote the striking novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). I am perhaps even more impressed by her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942). She strikes me as having been a phenomenally talented person, who was, by all accounts, even more scintillating in person than she was on the printed page. There are signs in her work of both wisdom and immaturity. Of course, there is much in-between. But more than this, there are signs that she had some genuine individuality and maybe even will-power.

I first came across her by accident: I had a “literary calendar” which included her. There was an openness and patent joy in the photograph portrait. Curious, I read Their Eyes, and from quite an early point had a hunch that she had somehow come across Gurdjieff. The more I pondered it, the more I thought that “their eyes” might be “their I’s”. This idea of many “I’s” is probably the most distinct aspect of Gurdjieff’s teaching. And to say that their I’s were watching meant that under the shock of what was before them (a murderous flood), they had begin to remember themselves, to reassemble their original unity.

It did not take long to realise Hurston had indeed been indirectly influenced by Gurdjieff, through the good offices of Jean Toomer and Carl Van Vechten. The extent of that influence on Hurston is unclear,  but there are some clues that it was by no means negligible, and continued through to the end of her life. Jon Woodson has written some excellent material on her and the milieu she wrote in. Together with Sophia Wellbeloved, he produced an interesting essay: “Monkey Junk” – Zora Neale Hurston’s Experiment in Oragean Modernism. To summarise, the “Monkey Junk” is not the idea that humanity evolved from apes, but that we have not evolved at all because we have not evolved in consciousness.

But I wish to deal here with Yuval Taylor’s engaging Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal (W.W. Norton, 2019). His topic is the life and death of the friendship and collaboration between Hurston and Hughes. He knows that Toomer was a pupil of Gurdjieff (p. 89), but does not fully appreciate his influence on Hurston or the extent to which she accepted Gurdjieff’s ideas. It is, in its own right, and on its own terms, a good read. We are told much about Hurston and Hughes, and the world they lived in. The major figures are well-delineated. It is clear and informative.

My view that Hurston was impressed with Gurdjieff’s theory of multiple I’s was confirmed by this passage from Hurston, in a letter to Hughes, mockingly declaring: “I don’t use such a nasty word. I’m a refined lady and such a word simply upsets my conglomeration.” (199) It is also a humorous way of describing oneself: a “mass stuck together.”

It is sad that the genuinely talented Hurston ended her life in sickness and poverty. Like Toomer and George Schuyler she wanted to be recognised for her human qualities, and not viewed as a negro and a social question first and foremost. She saw herself as a writer, rather than a “negro-writer.” Taylor writes that she “scorned black artists who wrote about racial injustices.” He quotes her defiant words: “I am not tragically coloured … I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a low-down dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. … No, I do not weep at the world – I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” (64) I may be wrong, but I interpret that to mean that she is looking for the pearl of great price of Matthew 13:46, a parable which she references in the short story “Monkey Junk.”

Likewise, she wrote: “We do not hate white people.” Taylor writes: “Throughout her life, Zora largely shunned public display of resentment of white folks … The one unforgivable sin for her was self pity. As …. Boyd points out, ‘It was, Zora knew, like drinking poison and expecting the other person – the resented one – to die.” (65) There is a fair bit on this in the book. At one point, Taylor quotes Dust Tracks: “Bitterness is the graceless acknowledgement of defeat.” (68) She wrote that to accept to play the role of a victim or oppressed person was to “give off the smell of something dead under the house …” (69)

In a letter to Countee Cullen, a negro and a writer, she said: “Our position is like a man sitting on a tack and crying that it hurts, when all he needs to do is to get up off it. … I shall never join the cry-babies.” (69) She was by no means blind to the injustices: on the contrary. But she kept a sense of humour and of herself above all. “She used to tell this story: when a policeman stopped her from crossing on a red light, she told him that since she saw all the white people crossing on green, she thought the red light was for coloured folks.” (57-58) It is witty and incisive, and not at all exculpatory of racism: in fact, the whole point of it is that the rules for and expectations of coloured and white people were so bizarrely different, even when absurd results were produced, that she had drawn this absurd conclusion.

I did read practically all Hurston had ever written, and felt that she was at her best when she wrote about the people and life she knew. The late novels Moses, Man of the Mountain and Seraph on the Suwanee were a sad come down from what should have been her level. I guess that adversity is a relentless foe. But I was recently delighted to read the posthumously published Barracoon, the story of one of the two last surviving former slaves who had been brought out from Africa. His story was so chilling because how he told how the Africans of Dahomey had enslaved him, and brutally slaughtered his people. The role of black people in subjugating, enslaving and massacring black people is barely heard and from what I can see, not learnt from. Hurston learnt from it: our foes are not “whiteness” and constructs like that (racist contructs, to boot), but our very real and very human vices and negative emotions. In three words, our criminal sleep.

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