Zora Neale Hurston’s legacy of individual rights and equality

February 09, 2024 | By BRITTANY HUNTER
Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston was a cultural icon of the Harlem Renaissance. Known for her prolific writing, especially her renowned novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston broke through racial barriers at a time when society was viewed primarily through a black or white lens.

But Hurston’s artistic contributions to the countercultural zeitgeist of the early 20th century are not the only attributes that make her such a historical gem.

Hurston was an unwavering champion of individualism during an era of rising collectivism. Despite the criticisms she faced by her peers, she valiantly believed true equality was based on the universal principle that a person should be judged on the content of their individual character and not the color of their skin.

Daughter of Eatonville

Hurston came of age at a pivotal time in American history. All four of her grandparents had been born into slavery, but Hurston’s generation was the first to be brought into a world where freedom was guaranteed.

While the Fourteenth Amendment promised equal treatment for all on paper, Southern society was not so quick to comply, which made the South a hotbed for racial tension. Despite the chaos, there was one town in the South where private property rights allowed black men, women, and children to thrive in the face of Jim Crow segregation. And it just so happened to be the town where Hurston was raised.

Eatonville, Florida, was, in many ways, sheltered from the world around it. As the first black township in the country, there was a true sense of self-sufficiency and independence that did not exist anywhere else in the South.

For Hurston, the idea that her race limited her opportunities or potential never occurred to her because in Eatonville, it didn’t.

Growing up in this unique setting had a great impact on Hurston, who was, by and large, shielded from the animosity the black community experienced in the South. In her book, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston even remarked that she really had no concept of what it meant to be black in the South until she grew up and left her hometown.

Hurston’s mother raised her children to believe that every person was capable of becoming whomever they wanted, no matter where they started—a mindset instilled in her by Booker T. Washington. It wasn’t even a matter of race; it was a matter of individual drive and the motivation to strive toward a desired end.

Hurston once wrote, “Booker T. Washington said once that you must not judge a man by the heights to which he has risen, but by the depths from which he came.”

Armed with this staunch individualism, she would go on to make her own way in the world and eventually attend the prestigious Howard University, Barnard College, and Columbia University, laying the foundation for her work as a treasured American storyteller, filmmaker, and anthropologist.

Hurston was a storyteller above all else, which is partially attributed to her work in anthropology. And that storytelling in turn informed her work in anthropology. At the behest of her mentor at Columbia, Franz Boas, she traveled to the American South and the Caribbean to study folklore.

It was during the course of this work that she discovered that the roots of all the different black cultural folklore were planted in individualism. This set the stage for her outspoken political views.

Political activism

As celebrated as she was by many for her literary talent, Hurston had her fair share of critics when it came to her political views. When she entered the Harlem Renaissance scene, she was taken aback to see so many of her peers advocating not for individual equality, but for something else entirely. They thought only in terms of the collective, and she couldn’t help seeing the hypocrisy of it all.

For Hurston, individuals, not groups, were responsible for their actions.

She wrote, “Now, suppose a Negro does something really magnificent, and I glory, not in the benefit to mankind, but in the fact that the doer was a Negro. Must I not also go hang my head in shame when a member of my race does something execrable?”

She continued:

… the word ‘race’ is a loose classification of physical characteristics. It tells nothing about the insides of people. Pointing achievements tells nothing either. Races have never done anything. What seems race achievement is the work of individuals. The white race did not go into a laboratory and invent incandescent light. That was Edison. The Jews did not work out Relativity. That was Einstein. The Negros did not find out the inner secrets of peanuts and sweet potatoes, nor the secret of the development of the egg. That was Carver and Just. If you are under the impression that every white man is Edison, just look around a bit. If you have the idea that every Negro is a Carver, you had better take off plenty of time to do your searching.

She would often summarize these strong beliefs as the “richer gift of individualism.”

She once beautifully said:

Light came to me when I realized that I did not have to consider any racial group as a whole. God made them duck by duck and that was the only way I could see them. I learned that skins were no measure of what was inside people. So none of the Race cliches meant anything any more. I began to laugh at both white and black who claimed special blessings on the basis of race.

Her views on race and individual equality weren’t the only ideas that made her controversial. Hurston threw her support behind the conservative senator Robert Taft, who appealed to her because she believed he stood for the idea that “the people and the individual retain true liberty.” She was also outspoken against the ant-individualistic communism as is demonstrated in her essay “Why the Negro Won’t Buy Communism.”

Hurston was especially critical when her own community focused solely on the negative. In her mind, she saw the black community as the ultimate representatives of optimism and resilience. And she believed it was important for black poets and artists to recognize the positive. or what she sometimes called the “song of the morning.”

Can the black poet sing a song to the morning? Upsprings the song to his lips but it is fought back. He says to himself, . . . ‘Ought I not to be singing of our sorrows? That is what is expected of me and . . . if I do not some will even call me a coward. The one subject for a Negro is the Race and its sufferings and so the song of the morning must be choked back. I will write of a lynching instead.’ So the same old theme, the same old phrases get done again. . . . The writer thinks that he has been brave in following in the groove of the Race champions, when the truth is, it is the line of least resistance and least originality.

Unfortunately, her outspoken opinions did her no favors with her Harlem Renaissance peers.

Author Richard Wright once compared Their Eyes Were Watching God to a minstrel show in a review of the book. Hurston in turn responded with her own scathing review of one of Wright’s books where she criticized him for believing that racism could only be solved by “state responsibility for everything and individual responsibility for nothing, not even feeding oneself.”

While her critics would like to peg her as someone who ignored the plight of her own black community, it was precisely Hurston’s individualism that made her such a strong advocate for civil rights and to call for a “complete repeal of All Jim Crow Laws in the United States once and for all, and right now.”

Eventually, Hurston found it hard to publish the type of literary work she was truly passionate about because of the social pressures regarding what she should be writing about. In Dust Tracks on a Road, she wrote, “What I wanted to tell was a story about a man, and from what I had read and heard, Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem.” But this didn’t excite her at all. She said, “[M]y interest lies in what makes a man or a woman do such-and-so, regardless of his color.”

For Hurston, dissecting a person based only on a characteristic they just happened to be born with wasn’t nearly as appealing or interesting as the story of an individual—a message her peers couldn’t seem to grasp.

“It seems to me that if I say a whole system must be upset for me to win, I am saying that I cannot sit in the game, and that safer rules must be made to give me a chance. I repudiate that. If others are in there, deal me a hand and let me see what I can make of it, even though I know some in there are dealing from the bottom and cheating like hell in other ways.”

The later years

Sadly, Hurston lived out her later years in poverty, working as a maid as she had in her late teens. Her work had been largely forgotten, which some scholars believe to be a direct result of her political views.

Harvard literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. said that “the dark obscurity into which her career then lapsed reflects her staunchly independent political stances rather than any deficiency of craft or vision.”

Hurston could have saved her mainstream reputation by denouncing her controversial beliefs. She could have unauthentically apologized and “fallen in line” with the way she was supposed to think, as determined by her community. But she never faltered. “It’s time for us to cease to allow ourselves to be delivered as a mob by persuasive ‘friends’ and become individual citizens,” she said.

It was against her nature to sell out her beliefs and capitulate to the mob. As she put it, “I am so put together that I do not have much of a herd instinct. Or if I must be connected with the flock, let me be the shepherd my ownself.”

In the end, she was buried in an unmarked grave. But after she died, her books were rediscovered by a new audience, and the author’s work experienced its own renaissance among individualists far and wide. Today, she is remembered for her unwavering commitment to equality based on the individual and his or her merits and contributions, rather than on immutable characteristics.

She will also be remembered for her wit and her way with words, which are perfectly executed in her quote, “I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It is beyond me.”

Pacific Legal Foundation fights for the principles of equality in which Zora Neale Hurston so fervently believed. It is what has motivated us to take cases that challenge the government’s tendency to judge a person by their race or gender. And to protect her legacy and the legacy of other equality activists, we will continue to fight to protect every individual’s right to equality before the law.