Though regarded today as one of the seminal figures of the Harlem Renaissance and the overall evolution of Black literature, Zora Neale Hurston was treated as somewhat of a polarizing figure while alive.
Born in Alabama in late 1891, Hurston became a talented novelist and playwright, but her work was routinely scrutinized by the surrounding community of Black writers and activists alike.
Richard Wright, a Mississippi native, poet, novelist and non-fiction author, was one of many Black writers who criticized Hurston. Wright scoffed at Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, because it didn’t focus on race and instead centered around feminism and sensuality, as told through the voice of the novel’s protagonist, Janie Crawford, a thrice-married fair-skinned Black woman in her 40’s living in rural Florida.
In his review, Wright condemned the novel as lacking a message, and a theme. “Miss Hurston can write, but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley,” he wrote. “Her dialogue manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that’s as far as it goes.”
Wright also accused Hurston of continuing a “forced tradition” of Black writers using “minstrel techniques” to pander to whites. “Her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy.”
Their Eyes Were Watching God earned positive reviews from white mainstream media, and overwhelmingly negative reactions from Black writers including Wright, Ralph Ellison, Alain Locke, and Otis Ferguson.
Hurston pushed back at the criticism. “I am not interested in the race problem,” she explained. “But I am interested in the problems of individuals, white ones and black ones.”
In 1938, Hurston reviewed Wright’s novel Uncle Tom’s Children. She was less than impressed writing that the novel was “so grim that the Dismal Swamp of race hatred must be where they live.” Hurston concluded that Wright’s book was full of “hatreds” and null of “sympathy.”
“With his facility, one wonders what he would have done had he dealt with plots that touched the broader and more fundamental phases of Negro life instead of confining himself to the spectacular.”
Wright’s best-selling novel, Native Son, was released in 1940. A year later, the FBI began surveilling Wright due to his affiliation with the Communist Party.
Meanwhile, Hurston was not easily intimidated, but her refusal to cave to the racial uplift movement championed by W.E.B. DuBois, likely affected the sales of Their Eyes Were Watching God. The novel went out of print shortly after its release in 1937 and remained out of print until 1978.
DuBois was one of the more notable, and possibly most dedicated, of Hurston’s critics. The two exchanged multiple critiques and criticisms of each other’s work throughout the years. Hurston didn’t shy from sharing her opinions, no matter how unpopular. In 1955, she penned an article blasting the Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling as “insulting.” Of the Supreme Court verdict that opened the door to integration, Hurston wondered, “How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them?”
By that point in her career, Hurston was prepared for the inevitable backlash. “Now a great clamor will arise in certain quarters that I seek to deny the Negro children of the South their rights, and therefore I am one of those ‘handkerchief-head niggers’ who bow low before the white man and sell out my own people out of cowardice,” she wrote. “However an analytical glance will show that that is not the case. If there are not adequate Negro schools in Florida and there is some residual, some inherent and unchangeable quality in white schools, impossible to duplicate anywhere else, then I am the first to insist that Negro children of Florida be allowed to share the boon. But if there are adequate Negro schools and prepared instructors and instructions, then there is nothing different except the present of white people.”
Wright and Hurston never had an official truce moment. Hurston continued to write dozens of essays, poems, articles and novels, one of which became the recently-released novel Barracoon chronicling the life of Cujo Lewis, one of the last former slaves stolen from Africa and forced into the U.S. in 1860. Hurston also covered the trial of Ruby McCollum, a wealthy Black Floridian convicted in 1952 of killing a racist white doctor. The final years of her life found Hurston penniless and alone and battling health problems.
Much of her work didn’t become popular until after her death.
Wright moved Paris in the late 1940s, but sought to remain in the good graces of the U.S. government in order to stay in France. He eventually became a citizen of the country. Wright published dozens of novels, essays and other non-fiction works well into the late 1950s, and traveled between Europe, Asia and Africa. He spent the remainder of his life in Paris, along with his wife, Ellen Poplar, and their two daughters.
Ironically enough, Wright and Hurston both died in 1960 from heart-related issues.