Zora Neale Hurston: American Talent
Lately, I’ve been reading You Don’t Know Us Negroes and Other Essays by Zora Neale Hurston, Edited with an Introduction by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Genevieve West.
This is a collection of essays by a woman who, in some respects at least, may be the greatest writer of modern times in America. I formed that opinion about a year back when, at our brunch time, Jerry used to read aloud long passages from her beautiful novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. It’s not usually worthwhile to try to draw these comparisons — major to minor talent, head of the queue to next in line. Each writerly talent has its own reason for being, its own burden to carry and honor. Nor am I such a connoisseur of literary production as to be entitled to pronounce any such verdicts.
We live in an age that is hyper-conscious of the debts owed by groups to other groups — having already collectively injured and deprived one another. In our country’s case, once the Declaration of our independence from “our British brethren” had been drawn up and signed — as the justification for the self-separation of these United States — it began to seep into national consciousness that there were certain jagged gaps between the Declaration’s promise and its performance at ground level.
Now, 246 years later, these realizations are reaching paroxysmic force: the broken promise, the bad check, the negative of the photograph.
The power of Zora Neale Hurston goes another way. If there has been a wound, must wholeness be reclaimed from outside — from the injuring party? Or is the injured tissue capable of self-repair? In our own time, have we any chance of seeing what the wholeness in question looks like?
That is where a talent like Zora Neale Hurston’s comes in. She is capable of putting it — the wholeness — out there for the world to see and hear. If, as she affirms, the suffering of slavery, Jim Crow, and other repressions can be summed up as coerced silence — hers is the talent that gives voice to that silence. For example, by refusing to join the hand-me-down groupthink of sloganeering or the massive clumsiness of the protest novel.
Some years ago, I was taking a subway to Brooklyn College and, by mistake, got off at the wrong stop. So I climbed on a bus that would get me to work on time. Presently I perceived that I was the only person of no color in a bus filled exclusively with persons of color, the bus driver included. The passengers and driver were engaged in a byplay, a back and forth, that I had never seen before. They were funny, mutually teasing, absolutely surging with an internally encoded life system. It was hilarious. It was grand. I thought to myself, no nationally famous comedian of color shows the half of what I’m seeing and hearing on this bus.
Another time, I went down to Manhattan in the thirties to buy an electric typewriter, in the days when writers used such things. The store owner and employees were ritually observant, self-separated Jews. They were earthy, super-smart, filled with spontaneous hilarity and self-assurance. No Jewish comedian can show the half of this, I thought.
There is a wholeness quite untouched by all the persecutory maiming that the world can do.