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Zora Neale Hurston Takes On Everyone

Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston
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"Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can they deny themselves the pleasure of my company?" Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960).

Happy birthday to her!
To call her a Harlem Renaissance writer alone would ignore her connections to Florida, the Caribbean, and Westfield, New Jersey, her fieldwork involved studying African rituals in Jamaica and vodoun rituals in Haiti, and her lack of popularity among many in the Black literary establishment.

I. Their Eyes Were Watching God
II. Watching Her Watch God: Zora and the Creative Life Force
III. Hurston the Rebel
IV. What Are the "Open Markets" of "Free Trade"?
V. Slavery by a Different Name: Global White Supremacy and “Free” Trade

I. Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God is book I hold dear to my heart. Through the character Jaine, it showed me what it is like to find real love.

“She found herself glowing inside. Someone wanted her to play. Someone thought it was natural for her to play.”

To me - aside from communication and the ability to initiate a recovery after a disagreement-bringing out one’s inner light through playfulness is what being in love is about. Later, Jaine’s boyfriend, Tea Cake, invites Jaine to chess

“… He was jumping her king! She screamed in protest against losing the king she had such a hard time acquiring. Before she knew it she had grabbed his hand to stop him. He struggled gallantly to free himself. That is he struggled, but not hard enough to wrench a lady’s fingers.

“ ‘Crazy thing!’ Jaine commented, beaming out with light. He acknowledged the compliment with a smile and sat down on a box … They made a lot of laughter out of nothing.

I urge all of you to read Their Eyes Were Watching God, where the above quotes are from, or at least watch the movie starring Halle Berry. In it, Jaine explores her growing womanhood, but the story is not just about Jaine’s history love: it is also her history of race, gender, and class consciousness. She paid homage to the rural Blacks she knew so well, but she did not indulge them- her depictions of simple religion and Black rural life modeled after white Cracker culture (Scots-Irish, Appalachian culture) is not spared subtle criticism: religion is seen as a part of life for all the wrong reasons as it is fear-based, sitting on front porches gossiping is treated by Jaine’s criticism, but even the go-getter, Jaine’s husband the mayor Joe Starks, is seen as worthy of criticism:

“Joe Starks, for instance, is at once the most racially insecure (he emulates at every turn the white bosses he has known), the most sexually oppressive and most entrepreneurial, profit-driven character in the novel. To become free, Janie must leave, not merely an oppressive husband but an entire world, one based on sexual, economic and racial oppression, values absent in the world of the Everglades in which she and Tea Cake flourish.” [1]

Jaine tears down her dying husband Starks for being too self-absorbed:

“You wasn’t satisfied with me the way I was. Naw! My own mind had to be squeezed and crowded out to make room for yours in me. … And now you got to die to find out that you got pacify somebody besides yourself if you want any love and any sympathy in this world. You ain't tried to pacify nobody but yourself. Too busy listening to your own big voice.”

Aside from Joe Starks, though, her critical subjects would still be treated with humor, grace and respect: she shows how Jaine’s understanding of God, though naïve, helps in her emancipation from loveless relationships. She looks at God from the standpoint of focusing on the poetic inner light, as opposed to a religious focus on fear of being sinful and going to hell: her only sin was letting herself stagnate for too long. And gossipers surrounding Jaine are made into mythical figures. Enter the dynamic duo of Lige and Sam, two men who insult each other for the sake of a good argument and, perhaps more importantly, for the sake of drawing attention to themselves:

Lige would act all serious, like he was thinking about something heavy, and say he can’t get any work done, he’s been busy all day thinking. He begs Sam for an answer to the puzzling and perplexing question (really, he’s baiting Sam). Sam pretends to avoid the struggle. That draws everyone in. Sam begins baiting Lige right back, and says,

“You scared to lemme know what it is, cause you know I’ll tear it to pieces. You got to have a subjick tuh talk from, do yuh can’t talk. If a man ain't got no bounds, he got not place to stop.”
By this time, they are the center of the world.

“Whut is it dat keeps uh man from gettin' burnt on uh red-hot stove—caution or nature?”

This jesters' take on Plato & Aristotle having public debates at the School of Athens (nature versus nurture debate) is mixed in later with their talk of tall tales that are reminiscent of the oral tradition of the Bible. But the Bible is so serious, maybe it took out the Timon and Pumba night-sky conversations for fear of making a mockery of religion and philosophy. Hurston writes about Lige and Sam, that they engaged in

“Eternal arguments. It never ended because there was no end to reach. It was a contest in hyperbole and carried on for no reason.”

II. Watching Her Watch God: Zora and the Creative Life Force

“Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid,
by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down.
I do not choose to admit weakness.
I accept the challenge of responsibility.

Life, as it is, does not frighten me,
since I have made my peace with the universe as I find it,
and bow to its laws.

Somebody else may have my rapturous glance at the archangels. The springing of the yellow line of morning out of the misty deep of dawn, is glory enough for me.

I know that nothing is destructible; things merely change forms. When the consciousness we know as life ceases, I know that I shall still be part and parcel of the world. I was a part before the sun rolled into shape and burst forth in the glory of change. I was, when the earth was hurled out from its fiery rim. I shall return with the earth to Father Sun, and still exist in substance when the sun has lost its fire, and disintegrated into infinity to perhaps become a part of the whirling rubble of space.

Why fear? The stuff of my being is matter, ever changing, ever moving, but never lost; so what need of denominations and creeds to deny myself the comfort of all my fellow men? The wide belt of the universe has no need for finger-rings. I am one with the infinite and need no other assurance.” Zora Neale Hurston [2]

III. Hurston the Rebel
She was a piece of work, that Zora Neale Hurston. Shunned by the Black literary establishment for daring to transcend a central theme of race in her works, she returned fire against Blacks she called "whiners" and "mourners" (crybabies) because they did not join an armed revolutionary struggle against white supremacy. Instead they “complained” in their writings about being victims of racism. Put up or shut up was her message. [3] Even if one disagrees with her message, you knew where she was coming from, and her boldness is badass. In a time when Black intellectuals in the North were trying to distance themselves from the uneducated rural Blacks of the South, Hurston, was writing about this group with curiosity, skepticism, wit, and compassion. Her use of uneducated slang from her characters irritated Northern intellectuals to no end.

Hurston also railed against white liberals who tried to show how noble they were for offering her their presence. She found this condescending and would not put up with it. This is likely why she opposed liberal efforts like school integration, saying "How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me to be near them?" [4]

Zora Neale Hurston saw that slavery had not died, but it had taken a new form: "Already it has been agreed that the name of slavery is very bad. No civilized nation will use such a term any more. Neither will they keep the business around the home. Life will be on a loftier level by operating at a distance and calling it acquiring sources of raw material, and keeping the market open. If a ruler can find a place way off where the people do not look like him, kill enough of them to convince the rest that they ought to support him with their lives and labor, that ruler is hailed as a great conqueror, and people built monuments to him. The very weapons he used are also honored. They picture him in unforgettable stone with the sacred tool of his conquest in his hand. Democracy, like religion, never was designed to make our profits less”. [5]

She was talking about neo-colonization, or the economic colonization called "globalization"- the global free market in which the white nations forced self-governing nations to end their self-determination because it did not allow for the business interests of the U.S. and Europe (known together as the “Western World”). The Western World did this in Japan (U.S. gunboat diplomacy in 1853), China (British opium wars from 1839-1860), the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico (the Spanish-American war of 1898), Hawaii (overthrown by the U.S in 1898), Latin America during the communist uprisings (the CIA's secret funding of U.S.-friendly dictators), and Iraq (1990s). As Howard Zinn has put it, during a protest of the Iraq war when it had just begun, "True, we liberated Afghanistan from Taliban rule, but not from us! We liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein, but not from us! Just as in 1898, we liberated Cuba from Spanish tyranny, but not from us!" [6] In all these cases, American military bases and corporations jumped in to assert American power, build secret prisons for torture, and reap heavy profits.

W.E.B. DuBois believed that the racism of these wars cut off the option of escaping oppression at home by emigrating abroad: "Nothing has made emigration seem more hopeless than the recent course of the U.S. toward weaker and darker people in the West Indies, Hawaii, and the Philippines." The African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church's stance during the Spanish American War- "It is about time for the ministers of the A.ME. Church to tell the young men of our race to stay out of the United States Army. If it is a white man's government, and we grant it is, let him take care of it. The negro has no flag to defend. [7] Said Hurtson, “The Ass-and-All of Democracy has shouldered the load of subjugating the dark world completely” [8] - this is her take on "the white man's burden." Such a global perspective of racism would later be seen throughout Malcolm X’s speeches and is why the Nation of Islam, along Muhammad Ali, resisted the Vietnam war. Hurston turned slam poet with this critique:

We, too, consider machine gun bullets good laxatives for heathens who get constipated with toxic ideas about a country of their own.” [9]

IV. What Are the "Open Markets" of "Free Trade"?
Slavery in “Life will be on a loftier level by operating at a distance and calling it acquiring sources of raw material, and keeping the market open”-
Hurston was here talking about the “open markets” of “free trade.”

What is called “Free trade” today is not really free.
Double-standards. While the American and European governments give huge subsidies (financial support) to their farmers in the form of tax breaks, which is not necessarily a bad thing, they demand via global trade and banking institutions that other countries cut their own farmer’s subsidies in a unfair double-standard. While the U.S. grew to become powerful using protectionist policies like tariffs (taxes on goods coming into the country, a policy which favors local businesses rather than foreign businesses), the cry today for “free trade” means cutting protectionist policies from poor, undeveloped nations of dark-skinned peoples (mostly former colonies that had been stolen by white nations).

Dumping, exploiting, extracting. The U.S. then uses this to dump its cheaply produced (because it is subsidized) food into poor nations, making them even poorer. It also lets multinational corporations with no allegiance to the citizens of a country come in to poor countries and exploit natural resources by having local workers be paid low wages for products that are sold for a much higher price- the workers are exploited. The products from the countries natural resources are then shipped out to the rich, Western world; starving immigrants who go to those countries face racist attitudes, policies, and practices.

Cycles of debt. When these poor countries go into debt, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) give them loans, but only if they cut social services (so that school is not free, hospitals are expensive, help for the poor is cut), let their natural resource and energy industries be privatized to multinationals, business regulations must be cut (creating sweatshops), their markets must be opened ("liberalized") and they must export more (to rich countries). This in turn creates more poverty. What a surprise. Poor countries often fall behind on their loans and need to take out more loans to cover what they missed, and now need to pay off a debt to pay off the debt, in a cycle of debt.

Offshore sweat shops. Offshoring also increases under free trade: remember when Apple got in trouble because Foxconn, its subsidiary in China, had a huge increase in worker suicides due to the sweatshop conditions? Remember when a garment factory, part of the supply chain for popular clothing stores in American and European malls, collapsed in Bangladesh last year, killing over one thousand people? "In 2011, Walmart rejected reforms that would have had retailers pay more for apparel to help Bangladesh factories improve safety standards. After the collapse, a group of 17 major North American retailers, including Walmart, Gap, Target and Macy’s, announced a plan to improve factory safety in Bangladesh, drawing immediate criticism from labor groups who complained that it was less stringent than an accord reached among European companies. Unlike the accord joined mainly by European retailers, the plan lacks legally binding commitments to pay for those improvements." [10]

V. Slavery by a Different Name: Global White Supremacy and “Free” Trade
Today I will keep Ms. Hurston in mind and do her an honor by writing a letter to my Congresspeople Cory Booker and Robert Menendez against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (T.P.P.). I urge you honor Ms. Hurston any way you would like, and also to do this letter-writing as well. The T.P.P. opens Asia up being gutted by the United States, just as the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (N.A.F.T.A.) gutted Mexico to bits by allowing the U.S. to dump its excess corn in Mexico at such unreasonably low prices that Mexican farmers could not compete- instead, they and their families starved. The T.P.P. includes

"new investor safeguards to ease job offshoring and assert [corporate] control over natural resources, and severely limit the regulation of financial services, land use, food safety, natural resources, energy, tobacco, healthcare and more.

"Countries would be obliged to conform all their domestic laws and regulations to the TPP’s rules—in effect, a corporate coup d’état. The proposed pact would limit even how governments can spend their tax dollars. Buy America and other Buy Local procurement preferences that invest in the US economy would be banned, and 'sweatshop-free,' human rights or environmental conditions on government contracts could be challenged." [11]

The T.P.P. would join N.A.F.T.A. along with groups which keep global white supremacy in place: In 2003, the World Trade Organization (W.T.O.), a bastion of Western hegemony along with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.), showed its true colors. Far from being a Star Trek-style egalitarian forum, in which both poor and rich countries have to agree on economic measures before the measures are passed, the WTO showed that it continues the legacy of white supremacy, which changed from racial bigotry and colonization to what Hurston noticed: our Western Hegemony and neocolonialism. The European Union’s own lead negotiator Pascal Lamy forced the representatives of poor, dark-skinned nations to walk out after four days of trying to push on them an unacceptable proposal.

“He appears to have been seeking to resurrect, by means of an 'investment treaty,' the infamous Multilateral Agreement on Investment. This was a proposal that would have allowed corporations to force a government to remove any laws that interfered with their ability to make money, and that was crushed by a worldwide revolt in 1998.
"In return for granting corporations power over governments, the poor nations would receive precisely nothing. The concessions on farm subsidies that Lamy was offering amounted to little more than a reshuffling of the money paid to European farmers. They would continue to permit the subsidy barons of Europe to dump their artificially cheap produce into the poor world, destroying the livelihoods of the farmers there.” [12]

Nobody does anti-globalization protests like South Korean farmers. At the 2003 WTO summit in Cancun, Mexico, activist Lee Kyung-hae stabbed himself to death after unfurling a banner that declared 'WTO kills farmers.' Early this year, in November, two more farmers committed suicide by drinking insecticide. Small wonder, then, that the 9,000 police mobilized for this week’s WTO summit in Hong Kong are reported to be targeting some 1,500 visiting South Koreans as public order enemy No. 1.” [13]

Lee Kyung-Hae has led a heroic life, being named as Farmer of the Year in 1983 in South Korea, becoming president of the Farmers and Fishermen’s Union of South Korea, and attempting suicide and leading hunger strikes plenty of times prior to his successful suicide attempt at the Cancun summit. Like Japan and Norway, Korea, whose farm subsidies keep its people from starving in a nation where most food is exported, need the independence and food security which subsidies provide. The late Kyung-Hae knew that South Korea, like Hong Kong (it being an offshore haven for the rich) and Shanghai (it being a zone of regulation-and-tax-free trade), was on a path to sacrificing the independence and soul of a people by following the Western hegemony’s example, playing their game, and selling out national sovereignty and common workers to join the proverbial “buyer’s club” - the status of being a "developed nation." Also known as a "corporation-ruled nation" of a small rich and powerful oligarchy making up 1% of the population and a large, depressed 99%.

At the opening session of the Cancun conference, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan explained, ‘We are told that trade can provide a ladder to a better life and deliver us from poverty and despair...Sadly, the reality of the international trading system today does not match the rhetoric.’” [14]
This great African man knows what South Korea ignored: Making a deal with the Devil comes at a cost.

In 2011, Japanese farmers protested the T.P.P, which is being called "NAFTA on steroids." [15] In 2012, the TPP details were leaked in the Wikileaks release, causing such an uproar that many Democrats and some Republicans have spoken out against it. In early 2013, Rodrigo Contreras, Chile’s lead TPP negotiator recently up and quit to warn people of the dangers this agreement poses to everyone except the giant multinational corporations [16].

I found a couple of petitions (
) and an anti TPP web site (
), but I think writing your Congressperson would be your best bet.

Today I honor Zora Neale Hurston, who died in obsucirity in a welfare home and buried in an unmarked grave afterworking temporary odd jobs such as reporter and librarian just to make ends meet- after her character was assassinated and the literary establishment felt threatened by her.

[1] Meisenhelder, Susan. "Gender, Race & Class in Zora Neale Hurston's Politics."

[2] Hurston, Zora Neale. "Religion," from Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), anthologized in African-American Humanism: An Anthology edited by Norm R. Allen Jr. (1991). Freedom From Religion Foundation.

[3] Meisenhelder, Susan. "Gender, Race & Class in Zora Neale Hurston's Politics."

[4] Hurston, Zora Neale. Letter to the Orlando Sentinel condemning the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision. Quoted from On the Shoulders of Giants by Kareem Abdul-Jamar, page 98.

[5] Meisenhelder, Susan. "Gender, Race & Class in Zora Neale Hurston's Politics."

[6] Zinn, Howard. A People's History of American Empire. p. 7
[7] Zinn, Howard. A People's History of American Empire. p. 68

[8] Meisenhelder, Susan. "Gender, Race & Class in Zora Neale Hurston's Politics."

[9] ibid

[11] Wallach, Lori. "NAFTA on Steroids." The Nation. 2012: June 27
[12] Monbiot, George. "A Threat to the Rich." The 2003: Sept. 16
[13] Leonard, Andrew. "South Korean farmers: The WTO’s most lethal enemy." 2005: Dec. 12
[14] Shah, Anup. "WTO Meeting in Cancun, Mexico, 2003" Global 2003: Sept. 18
[15] Wallach, Lori. "NAFTA on Steroids." The Nation. 2012: June 27
[16] Zeese, Kevin and Margeret Flowers. "The People Can Defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership." 2013: Nov. 16

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