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February 6, 2007

Zora Neale Hurston: Notes on an Outsider

IZora Neale Hurston was an outsider. Not so much as a black woman in America, rather, for the unusual circumstances of her life and for the extreme political stands she took.Big Read:: Frederick Smock says Hurston’s novel “transcends mortal vanities” and broadens empathy.She grew up in the first incorporated black community in America — Eatonville, Fla. — where her father was the mayor. She would come to glorify Eatonville as a utopian model for a separatist black nation.She railed against the Civil Rights movement and its leaders, and argued against blacks getting the vote.She never set any of her fiction around white-on-black racism.And, she supported white ultraconservative politicians.IIDoes any of this matter? Not much. Readers cannot expect — or demand — that artists occupy any particular political ground. What matters, of course, is the art.Hurston wrote mostly outside of racism. White folk just don’t figure much into her novels. Her best novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” takes place within the confines of a fictionalized Eatonville, a subculture with little awareness of or contact with the wide, white world around them.Because she did not write in the black protest tradition, Hurston was and has been an outsider to black academic circles. The question occurs: Is Hurston’s exclusionary view naïve? Or, as Mary Helen Washington phrases it, does it represent a full “investment in black folk tradition”?IIII, a white man, reading Hurston’s hermetic novel (with all dialogue in dialect), feel the outsider. There is a corrective benefit here. It is like being abroad in a country where the people do not speak my language. I am in the minority.By stepping out of my white skin — even for the brief duration of this novel — I might learn something. By denying me access to white culture, Hurston asks me to “become” black, to whatever extent that is possible.In the foreign cities where I have traveled — Copenhagen, Paris, Malmö, San Juan — being the outsider was part of the allure. Isn’t this why we travel, and read? To be taken out of ourselves, to become the Other?By reading “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” I enter another self, another possible life, which could have been mine by an accident of birth equal to the one I own. There is a lot of hurt in this novel — hurt that could have been mine. That’s the point. My empathy has been broadened to include these marvelous strangers.IVGenerally, any writer worth his or her salt writes from the outsider’s perspective, from society’s margins. And, the inner artistic rationale for the novel takes precedence over political considerations.Why should a novel about black folk take account of white folk? Most novels about white folk take no account of black folk, and we do not criticize them for it. There seems to be a double standard at work here.Like all good novels, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” transcends mortal vanities. “Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves,” Janie says. “They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” Frederick Smock is poet-in-residence at Bellarmine University. Contact him at leo@leoweekly.com