Saturday, August 15, 2009

Now I have to go read this woman's books

Just ran across a fascinating article about a woman I never heard of before today: Zora Neale Hurston. The article focuses rather heavily on Hurston's political views, and what he says about them (you could sum them up as being ferociously individualistic and adamantly opposed to the self-poison that is self-pity) resonates very nicely with my own. But that doesn't particularly fascinate me -- if I want to hear somebody express those political views, I can always talk to myself. It's the life and work -- the fact that she combined a passionate commitment to the idea that each black person ought to think of himself or herself as an individual first and foremost, with an equally passionate love of black culture quâ black culture, for example. Now there is a person who followed her own intellectual path with a complete disregard for the facile, and generally false, platitudes of the indolently conventional. And what I wouldn't give to resurrect Hurston and Joel Chandler Harris for twenty-four hours, put them in the same room, and tape the conversation!

Seriously, go read the piece, and see whether you don't finish it and find yourself thinking, "I wonder what it would have been like to talk to that woman."

Here's my favorite Hurston quote from the piece: "Sometimes, 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!" [The Peril cackles delightedly]

HT: The Corner, where Hurston has apparently been a subject of much discussion recently -- which shows how often I read The Corner these days.

UPDATE: I went back and found one of the old Corner posts, this one by Roger Clegg, and his opening words express EXACTLY my own reaction: "I wish I could have met her. That is the surest conclusion I've drawn after reading Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd (winner of the 2003 Southern Book Critics Circle Award)." Exactly. Meanwhile, he has a couple of other quotes that confirm my impression that Hurston knew the fallacy of hypostasization when she saw it (though she may not have known the technical term for it):
"Races have never done anything," she also wrote. "What seems race achievement is the work of individuals." And "all clumps of people turn out to be individuals on close inspection."

And another anecdote that delights me:
One occurred when she met with her publisher and others at a restaurant, and the waiter was rude, infuriating the rest of her party, but she refused to be bothered: "His whiteness notwithstanding, he was only a waiter, after all; she was the published author."
Yes, yes, as I keep trying to get across to my own kids, to be distressed by another person's rudeness to you or his opinion of you, is to validate his own assumption that he is superior to you and that you require his approval. For example, why should it distress me that my ex-mother-in-law has a low opinion of me (as long as she isn't slandering me behind my back in an attempt to create estrangement between me and my children, or at least as long as my children know both her character and mine well enough not to be taken in by the slander and malice)? I mean, seriously, just consider the source and move on. In the anecodote Clegg relates, the waiter's rudeness said nothing at all about Hurston's value as an individual; it merely revealed his own contemptible nature. Why should she sink herself to his level by bothering to resent the treatment? Why be emotionally enslaved to the good opinions of those whose opinions are, quite literally, worthless?

I wish I could have met her.


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