There’s much discussion in the literary and civil rights circles about Hurston’s apparent apathy toward the massive problems facing blacks in the US at that time (the turn-of and early years of the twentieth century). Maya Angelo talks about this controversy in her forward to Hurston’s Dust Tracks, and she offers some perceptive analysis of Hurston’s personal distance throughout the book.
Hurston does keep her readers at arm’s length, and through her narration we can see that she participates in the world in a detached sort of way. Reading her story, I came to believe that Hurston doesn’t intentionally keep people at a distance. She’s smart and a capable anthropologist, but as we so often are unaware of ourselves, she is unaware of her detachment from the world of social constructs.
It should be no surprise that Hurston views the racial conflicts of the times through a distant lens which only affects her sparsely, and seems of little consequence to her. Nothing affects her strongly that isn’t related to her father, mother, or step-mother. In fact, even her siblings are mentioned only in how they affected her directly, never for their own sake She’s not an overtly or intentionally selfish person; rather, she’s barely aware of the outer world, blinded by an almost benevolent hubris. She can’t see what the big deal is.
By her recollection, Hurston’s childhood seems almost idyllic, in terms of racial relations. Perhaps it’s the setting – an incorporated black town in Florida – or perhaps it’s that Hurston doesn’t process events the way other people might; there could be a psychological component to her lack of awareness. Later, Hurston comments on how it was more important to make one’s own way in the world than it was to try to make the world better for others. A black man came into the barber shop where she worked, which catered to white men only, and the employees – all black – threw him out, refusing to serve him. She described her perspective of the experience this way:
“An incident happened that made me realize how theories go by the board when a person’s livelihood is threatened… that night in bed I analyzed the whole thing and realized that I was giving sanction to Jim Crow, which theoretically, I was supposed to resist. But here [we were] all stirred up at the threat of our living through loss of patronage… Perhaps it would have been a beautiful thing if Banks [the manager] had turned to the shop crowd with customers and announced that this man was going to be served… Then we could all have gone home to our unpaid rents and bills and things like that… There is always something fiendish and loathsome about a person who threatens to deprive you of your way of making a living. That is just human-like, I reckon.” (Dust Tracks, 134-136)
When I first read that, it felt significant, but honestly I was just trying to get through the book. I noted it for later consideration, understanding that Hurston preferred her life of relative ease (compared to the lives of other blacks, especially at that time). I struggled, as I’ve said, to finish the book. It was enlightening, but not engaging. When I finished it, I put it down in relief, grateful to be done with it and more than somewhat resentful of the essay I still had to write about it for my class (which I still haven’t written – I skipped it, taking the hit on my grade rather than brutalizing my sensibilities trying to answer the asinine questions being asked).
That passage of Hurston’s was illuminated in perfect clarity when I read the next book on the class list: Assata Shakur: an autobiography. Where Hurston noted troubles and ascribed them to immutable human nature, Assata notes troubles and determines to change them, by her own force if necessary. Maybe it’s only that Assata lives more fully in the world of people than Hurston does; I think it’s that Assata is involved in life and is driven by compassion, or empathy, or a wiser sense of the human experience. Perhaps those characteristics can’t really be separated. Regardless, Hurston is one to work around problems rather than trying to solve them, and she doesn’t pay much attention to those which aren’t obstinately in her way.
And regardless of my own issues with reading through this book, I do recommend it to readers interested in this section of US history. Viewed through an awareness of the lens of Hurston’s detachment, her story is useful in that it provides the view of those blacks who chose not to support civil rights. Perhaps some understanding is to be had here for that cause, though understanding of course should not be confused with endorsement.