Last week provided two notable literary occasions in the world of Black Literature. One was the 123rd birthday of the late great writer, Zora Neale Hurston, on Tuesday, January 7. The other, was the sad event of the passing of Black Arts Movement legend Amiri Baraka, one of the great links to both the practical and artistic sides of the movements of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. These occasions give me a chance to reflect a little bit on these two great individuals and their legacies.
Zora Neale Hurston’s life, as well as her work, may have even more import and meaning for our current times as when she was actually living and writing. Hurston’s background, not only as an anthropologist, but as the daughter of a schoolteacher and a preacher, raised in the all black town of Eatonville, Florida, produced a writer who was unique among black writers of her time. The quality of her work and her importance were championed by Alice Walker in the ’70s, who discovered her grave site and purchased her a head stone. She has been taken as an icon of black feminism, in particular her classic 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, which recieved a popular movie treatment. She was definitley that, but her life, anthropological studies, approach to black culture, political beliefs, and much more in her life speak to a Black American individual who lived thier life outside of the box and who’s life is worthy of study and relection due to it’s qualities of uniqueness.
Ms. Hurston was born on January 7th, 1891, which makes her a member of the “Lost Generation.” William Strauss and Neil Howe’s book, “Generations, The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, describes the Lost Generation as one that came of age in a very greed oriented time in America’s history. “The Gilded Age” was one of major expansion and few protections for workers, an age when child labor of all sorts was common. The Lost Generation went on to serve in World War I, and then saw many vetrans gunned down on the lawn of the White House when they came to demand the money they were owed. They’re known for their hedonism, wildness,and adventerousness during the 1920s, the “Jazz Age”, but the years that were supposed to be their peak years of earnings and influence, the 1930s and ’40s, were taken up by the Depression and World War II. As a result, the Lost were thought of as a generation that matured into conservatism, as they had too much first hand experience with the hardness of the world. Statistically, they skewed more conservative and Republican than any other generation, but it was not the sunny, big government conservatism of Ronald Reagen, it was the non interventionist, fiscally responsible, “beware the military industrial complex” conservatism of President Dwight D Eisenhower.
Black people of this generation had a particulary interesting arch. It was a very difficult time for the black struggle, as a post Reconstruction America was not concerned with black issues at all. The Plessy V Ferguson Supreme Court decision of 1896 (four years after Hurston was born.) was the spiritual opposite of 1954’s Brown v Board, a decision that upheld segregation. Booker T Washington promoted a program in response to this that called for economic self sufficiency, ignoring elective politics, and accepting segregation in order to build a strong self sufficient ethnic community in America, in line of Jewish or Chinese people, a view that Hurston herself would adopt. Things were so bad that black men had to fight just to serve in “The Great War”, an had many of their vetrans shot in their uniforms when they returned home, in order to “show them their place.”
However, the black Lost Generation still found many means of pride and hope. They also were the generation of the first ‘Great Migration” in which some 1.5 million blacks left the South for urban areas. This is the generation of “The Harlem Rennassaince”, and “The New Negro”, and of Marcus Garvey proclaiming “Up you mighty race!!!” Out of these tough times and this generation, many of the greatest writers and actors of American culture were produced, such as Mae West, James Cagney, the Marx Brothers, Edward G Robinson, Rudolph Valentino and Humphery Bogart. It’s also known as the most gited generation of American writers, producing some nine Nobel Prize winners in literature.
Zora Neale Hurston was a true blue member of the Lost Generation, and the issues she raise still resonate in American culture today. She was a lady so resourceful she put her age back so that she could complete high school. She graduated from college with a BA at 37 years old in anthropology and conducted deep anthropological resarch among black people in the rural South.
She was also active in Harlem in the 1920s, forming a group along with writers such as Wallace Thurmon, Langston Hughes and Richard Bruce Nugent, a group called “The Niggerati”, producing the literary journal “Fire.” This group was very talented, but also, much criticized among the black intelligentsia of the day. They produced works that dealt with prostitution, the ghetto, homosexuality, and all kinds of other issues that were considered the underbelly of society at large and black culture in particular. Black leaders felt that as black people were striving for respectability, these well educated artists were pandering to white audiences who wanted to go “slumming” and think of all depraivity in black terms.
Here, the things that Hurston and her peers went through in the Harlem Rennasaince remind me so much of things I’ve seen in my lifetime with regards to the criticisms of hip hop. While many criticism of hip hop one might find today are warranted, many of these same criticisms were leveld at the most vital, in your face works of twenty or so years ago. Basically, there is always a group of blacks who want to judge all art in political terms of respectability and “uplifting the race”, while there is another faction that wants to “tell it like it is” and represent blacks with what they feel is “authenticity.” It just amazes me that I grew up with a great rap group called “Niggaz Wit Attitude” in the 1980s and ’90s, and these great black literary figures called their group “The Niggerati” in the 1920s. Maybe older blacks felt enoughhad changed so that NWA would not have to use such terminology in the ’80s.
But the book “Generations” links “Generation X” to the “Lost Generation”, in their hard nosed, unpretentious, hedonistic, dont-sugarcoat-it attitude. Zora Neale Hurston was criticized in particular for her use of black dialogue (which she studied scientifically as an anthropologist), and also for the lack of political point in her novels, in particular by the Communist leaning author Richard Wright. She was also criticized for the sexual freedom she allowed her female characters.
Her politics however, were also different from the Richard Wrights of the World. She grew up in an all black town to educated parents and did not view segregation as a hinderance to the black community. She leaned Republican all her life, but she was far from a sexual prude or one who believed in traditional roles for women. She was probably closer to a Libertarian, socially liberal and fiscally conservative. She was against US intervention, and it would be interesting to find out if she put a black twist on this, maybe opposing intervention because it would leade to colonial relationships. She also for the most part opposed the New Deal and Welfare because she felt it would lead blacks into dependency.
I find this aspect of Ms. Hurston fascinating and I can not dismiss her due to them. The other thing is, I don’t find them particularly different from some people who were seen as black radicals such as Elijah Muhammed, Malcom X, Marcus Garvey, Louis Farrakhan, Jim Brown, and James Brown. Zora Neale Hurston was a person who believed in black self sufficiency, point blank.
Ms. Hurston left us a wealth of literature and books to be explored, and its amazing that as long ago as she wrote, they still have great value today. Ms. Hurston told the story of black individuals as normal individuals with hopes, fears, problems, strengths, weaknesses, and wisdom, just like anybody else, not always strictly defined by racist oppression. And for that, she may have been the most futuristic black writer of her times.
Amiri Baraka. Of course, I can’t remember a time when I did not know Baraka’s name. But maybe the first time I can remember him hitting the mainstream news in my time of recollection was when he protested Spike Lee’s directing of “X”. Of course, I disliked him then as an old man who didn’t want to see anybody do anything, but that was my foolish young viewpoint.
Baraka as most of us know, was born LeRoi Jones. In the ’50s he was a Beat movement poet. The Beats were mostly white poets who were highly influenced by Jazz and Black culture to find a new way of expressing and living in the conformity of mid century America. Baraka though, was a black man, and close to the source of what the Beats were trying to find. He ended up becoming one of the greatest jazz writers of all time, writing the classic “Blues People”, which spoke of black musics journey from African rhythms and melodies to the field, and dealt with how black music can be watered down by chasing middle class acceptance. From there he went to champion Free Jazz and the Funk of James Brown as pure, strong black expressions in “Black Music.” He was known for the liberating, free power of his jazz inflected verse in books like “Home”, a book of essays, and “The System of Dante’s Hell” an excellent novel.
Baraka did more than just write, truly living a revolutionary life. He also got involved in politics, helping to elect the first black mayor in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey. He went from a black nationalist to a Marxist, believing that only through ending Capitalist oppression could black people all over the world be free. He’s reviled by some for the strong notes of violence in some of his work, but then again, he exorcised it both for himself, and his people.
Two giants worthy of listening to. And now, both ancestors.<a href="