The Radical Self-Respect of Zora Neale Hurston

This article was originally published in the 3rd Issue of Bluestockings Magazine.

How do we who are part of marginalized groups build and maintain self-respect in an oppressive culture? How can changing and radicalizing our thinking be translated into actually feeling good about our identities, our sexualities, our race and gender, our bodies, our capabilities? How can we import feminism not only into our thoughts, but also into our emotions, desires, practices, perceptions, our imaginations, and, ultimately, into our sense of worth? The example of Zora Neale Hurston will serve as a small starting point to this huge discussion. The conditions that facilitated her development as a powerful person and radical activist are worth studying; they help us recognize and cultivate conditions that feel supportive to us, the people affected by oppression.

Zora Neale Hurston was one of the most resolute and controversial writers of the Harlem Renaissance, the 1920s and 30s cultural movement that aimed to change public perceptions of African Americans. Hurston was not only known for the quality of her writing, but also for the quantity of her opinions, in particular the frankness with which she expressed unpopular sentiments. As a woman of color from a rural background—living in a sexist, racist, classist, and urban-centric society—her confidence and self-respect were remarkable achievements. Hurston escaped much of the internalization of dominant racist ideologies because she grew up in Eatonville, an all-Black community in the rural South that profoundly shaped her political views, feelings, and her ability to imagine equality.

Having spent ten years of her childhood in Eatonville, Hurston had already experienced what many leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance merely envisioned: an environment where race was forgettable, an end to being seen and treated as inferior. Hurston’s biographer, Valerie Boyd, writes that “anywhere Zora looked, she could see the evidence of black achievement” (Boyd, 2003). Her formative years were spent in a supportive community that gave her a sense of importance and belonging: “Zora had learned to revel in her individuality, her me-ness, while still being part of a larger community, one that valued her singularity, her Zora-ness, yet considered her no more or less valuable than anyone else. She was ‘their Zora,’ as she put it.” (Boyd, 2003). Being able to cultivate a sense of self while belonging to a community appeared as Hurston’s primary source of strength and inspiration. Her experiences provided her with an expansive idea of what is possible, a different framework than that of people who have only known the culture of domination that still prevail today.

Exposure to discrimination later in her life did not damage her core sense of self. Hurston was introduced to systemic racism—in her words, she “became colored” (Boyd, 2003). What’s more, in Eatonville she had occupied an upper class position: her father was the mayor of the town; her mother held a powerful position in the church and created Sunday school curricula (Boyd, 2003). Leaving Eatonville immediately placed Hurston in a much lower stratum of society due to her race and gender.

In her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston writes about her first work experiences in her early twenties: “theatrical salaries being so uncertain, I did not get mine half the time…I tried waiting tables [but] I resented being patronized, more than the monotony of the job; those presumptuous cut-eye looks and supposed-to-be accidental touches on the thigh to see how I took to things. Men at the old game of ‘stealing a feel’” (Hurston, 1991). The sexual harassment Hurston experienced as a woman was compounded by the low pay and lack of economic opportunities for African Americans in the U.S. It is remarkable that Hurston refused to accept the racist and sexist treatment at work—she left these jobs and elbowed her way into school (Hurston, 1991). This shows a measure of self-respect and dignity that is systematically denied to oppressed groups, but was accessible to Hurston because of her early experiences of racial equality and upper class status within a rural community.

Hurston’s sense of self-worth extended into a refusal to concentrate her writing on race relations; instead she took on human themes like community, religion, happiness, beauty, and culture. This choice exemplifies Hurston’s critique of Harlem’s political leaders who saw the ‘Race Problem’ as the most important topic for all works of art and literature (Boyd, 2003). During the 1920s and 30s, Hurston found recognition and some material security in Harlem through her writing, as well as by living in a community of African Americans who supported each other (Hurston, 1991). Here again, she was part of a space created by and for people of color.

Yet, according to the documentary Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun, the movement’s reliance on White funding and White audiences compromised its integrity. The movement’s focus on race differences seemed contrived to Hurston. She saw the exaggerated emphasis on race relations as deeply complicit with White Supremacy and therefore reinforcing a constant awareness of race for African Americans. Hurston also saw this complicity in her own community: “‘Race Consciousness’ is a plea to Negroes to bear their color in mind at all times. It was just a phrase to me when I was a child. I knew it was supposed to mean something deep. By the time I got grown I saw that it was only an imposing line of syllables, for no Negro in America is apt to forget his race” (Hurston, 1991).

Hurston recognized that a lack of race consciousness is a privilege. Thus, instead of focusing on racial inequality, she wrote about her passions: the richness of Black rural culture in the South, its folklore, wisdom, and songs, its philosophies and beauty.  While this anthropological research can be seen as an apolitical stance, it was an act with political implications—the celebration not only of a supposedly inferior race, but also of a devalued class and culture. These devaluations were never challenged by the urban, middle-class Harlem Renaissance movement; thus Hurston found herself a lone fighter. Her work, furthermore, did not fit narrow conception of activism: it did not try to integrate and assimilate African Americans into White urban middle-class culture, but instead claimed a space for appreciating race and class diversity. Hurston’s stance was and remains radical because it targets the core of racism—the use of differences to justify oppression.

The criticisms Hurston encountered during her life had devastating material consequences: Eventually, she could no longer find publishers and had to work as a teacher, librarian, and then maid to survive. She died in poverty, with all of her books out of print at the time, and was buried in an unmarked grave. Her analysis of effective activism, however, echoes loudly through the study of social movements today. Hurston’s point of view leads back to Eatonville and the creation of autonomous spaces that provide relief from oppression. This does not imply systemic separatism. Hurston was an advocate of interacting with White people—on terms of equality. In a letter to prominent poet Countee Cullen she wrote: “I have no desire for white association except where I am sought and the pleasure is mutual. That feeling grows out of my own self-respect” (Boyd, 2003). Hurston demonstrates a clarity of vision unclouded by conformist hopes and internalized inferiority. Hurston’s condition that “the pleasure [be] mutual” speaks of an inner freedom from having to be recognized by White society as an equal—she already knew her own value as a human being.

Few of us know our own value independent of our status in society, and many of us experience daily attacks on our dignity and sense of self-worth. Ultimately, I see Hurston’s self-respect, her connection to Eatonville, and her critique of the Harlem Renaissance’s struggle for equality as mutually constitutive. Hurston understood the value of creating autonomous spaces to ground visions of equality in real-life experiences and was nourished enough by such spaces to see and articulate the bleak realities of oppression. She was able to organize her personality, life and career choices, social interactions, and desires around a core of self-worth that was not compromised by discrimination. She also did not shy away from honestly assessing social justice work and recognizing that many political strategies are mere expressions of inequality rather than effective counter-measures. Hurston’s activist wisdom remains incredibly relevant today as many social movements struggle with cooptation, stratification, and the unintentional replication of oppressive culture in our own spaces. The question remains how we can create spaces that nourish our self-respect, undo and heal internalization, and grant us tastes of equality. Zora Neale Hurston helps us to imagine such spaces.

By Heike Rodriguez, Contributor


Boyd, Valeria. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. NY: Scribner, 2003. Print.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography. NY: HarperPerennial, 1991. Print.

“Zora Neale Hurston: Jump At The Sun.” 26 Aug 2008. American Masters. Web. 9 Mar 2013.

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