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Watching God

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Have I got a book for you: "Their Eyes Were Watching God," by Zora Neale Hurston.

Yup, that's Piper for you -- always the last one onto the bandwagon. Hurston has been politically correct for years now, ever since it was discovered that this proud feminist and racial champion had been unjustly neglected as a woman of color.

I get tired of political polemics about literature. Real talent, so I fondly imagine, asserts itself. Some second-raters probably do get demoted to third-raters on such spurious grounds as race or class or gender. But nobody I know says that Richard Wright is a halfway decent writer, for a Negro, or Virginia Wolff, for a woman. They are acknowledged for what they are, great writers.

Then my high school daughter was assigned to read "Their Eyes Were Watching God." So I read it, too. (What will I read when my daughter grows up?)

This is a wonderful book. It's set in a world that otherwise I could never enter (a black town in Florida, early in the century); it has fascinating and sympathetic characters; it has humor, intelligence and pathos. And the writing is astonishing. Here is a young girl's sexual awakening:

"[She] stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees . . . [and watched] a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom."

Where has Zora Neale Hurston been all my life? In high school and college we read Faulkner and Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Hurston was their contemporary, but we never heard of her. I hate to admit that the polemicists are right, but what explanation can there be, other than that a bigoted society couldn't see the worth of a writer who was black and female?

As it happens, there is another explanation. Hurston is a victim of the serpentine twists of cultural politics. Every age, it seems, sees in her either a spearhead or an impediment to The Cause. A review by Andrew Delbanco in The New Republic (July 3) tells the story.

Hurston was among the most brilliant of what Langston Hughes called the "Niggerati" during the "Harlem Renaissance" of the 1920s and 1930s. She ran with a sophisticated, mixed-race crowd and was celebrated for her pranks. (Once she scooped subway fare out of a beggar's cup, promising to repay him later.)

At Barnard College she became a protege of the anthropologist Franz Boas, whose students also included Margaret Mead. It was a time when researchers were collecting the folk tales and dialects of isolated rural communities. Boas encouraged Hurston travel her native South and, as she later put it, "to tell the tales, sing the songs, do the dances and repeat the raucous sayings and doings of the Negro farthest down."

"Their Eyes Were Watching God" was published in 1937. White America's black cultural icons were the shuffling darky Stepin Fetchit, the strutting dandy Sportin' Life, the pancake pitchwoman Aunt Jemima and the fluttery Butterfly McQueen ("Lawdy, Miss Scarlett, I don't know nuthin' about birthin' babies.").

White America loved Zora Neale Hurston, and loved "Their Eyes Were Watching God." It was black America that ostracized her.

The civil-rights leader Roy Wilkins denounced her as an apologist for the Jim Crow South. Richard Wright complained of her "minstrel technique that makes the white folks laugh." Her books were all about comic cuckoldry and long-winded preachers; they ignored the reality of beatings and lynchings.

So that's why we didn't read Zora Neale Hurston when I was in high school and college. In the civil-rights era, she was politically incorrect.

By 1976, however, she was rehabilitated as an authentic witness to her people's nobility. Alice Walker extolled Hurston's sense of "racial health -- a sense of black people as complete, complex [and] undiminished."

But you'd better read Hurston quickly, because there are signs that the political line may be shifting again. Andrew Delbanco quotes the radical critic Hazel Carby's assessment that Hurston "privileges the nostalgic and freezes it in time." "Their Eyes Were Watching God" has achieved its current eminence, Ms. Carby suggests, because "it acts as a mode of assurance that, really, black folk are happy and healthy."

Well, golly, who would want to read about folk who are happy and healthy? Indignant am I at the very thought. But, luckily, I got in under the wire. I read the book when it was my political duty to enjoy it. I advise you to do the same.

G9

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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