Zora Neale Hurston Offers an Alternative to Critical Race Theory - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Zora Neale Hurston Offers an Alternative to Critical Race Theory

With inflation, crime, and social discord surging at home and tyrannies such as China and Russia resurgent abroad, Americans face tremendous challenges. Recent polls show we’re dissatisfied with our country’s present and worried about its future. We have good reason to feel both emotions — but not because we have bigger problems than past generations of Americans did. In fact, theirs were often worse.

Consider how they were feeling in the fall of 1943. Yes, the tide of the Second World War had finally seemed to turn against the Axis. After establishing control of Sicily in August, the Allies had invaded the Italian mainland. That forced Germany to withdraw its forces from the Eastern Front, creating opportunities for the Soviet Union to exploit its summertime victory at Kursk. And in the Pacific, the Allies had followed up their victories at Midway and Guadalcanal by launching Operation Cartwheel in mid-1943 to recapture the Solomon Islands and New Guinea.

Still, the nearly two years of bloody fighting Americans had already experienced by the fall of 1943 left them with few illusions about what lay ahead. They knew forcing Germany and Japan to accept the Allied war aim of unconditional surrender would have a heavy cost, including the deaths of many more fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, and nephews. Indeed, Americans had no way of anticipating what we know now — that subduing the latter empire would be accomplished not after a long and bitterly contested invasion of the Japanese homeland but by two demonstrations of a terrifying new weapon of mass destruction.

So, with Americans steeling themselves for more years of desperate struggle, an influential magazine published in October 1943 a remarkable essay by a remarkable author. “High John de Conquer” was the title of Zora Neale Hurston’s piece in the American Mercury. While the newspapers and magazines of the day contained many patriotic odes to America and stirring calls for victory, Hurston’s article was distinctive in both tone and content, as revealed by its subtitle: “Negro folklore offers solace to sufferers.”

A leading voice in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, Hurston spent many years studying the folklore of the American South and the Caribbean, filling her four novels and dozens of short stories, plays, and articles with characters, settings, themes, and tales taken from or inspired by her research. The subject of her American Mercury essay, John de Conquer, was an African-American folk hero who overcame his adversaries with his quick wit and talent for deception. Such tricksters populate the myths and legends of cultures as wide-ranging as Ancient Greece (Hermes and Odysseus), Northern Europe (Loki), Japan (Kitsune), Polynesia (Māui), pre-Columbian America (Coyote and Raven), and the Arabic-speaking world (Sinbad). In the case of John de Conquer, his sprawling body of tales set in the antebellum South bore the unmistakable influence of West African characters such as Anansi the Spider, Bouki the Hyena, and Leuk the Rabbit.

Speaking of which, if the tales of Brer Rabbit come to mind, you’ve got the right idea. In fact, Hurston connected the two characters explicitly in her article, depicting the mystical John de Conquer as donning many guises, including that of “the laugh-provoking Brer Rabbit,” to escape the notice of plantation owners while delivering his message of hope and freedom to the enslaved. “He was not a natural man in the beginning,” Hurston wrote, but a “whisper” who “put on flesh” and whose footsteps “sounded across the world in a low but musical rhythm as if the world he walked on was a singing-drum.”

After describing some of his legendary exploits, such as crossing the ocean astride a gigantic crow and slipping into Hell to make off with the Devil’s daughter, Hurston suggested her fellow Americans take comfort and inspiration from this fully American folk hero. “If the news from overseas reads bad, and the nation inside seems like it is stuck in the Tar Baby,” she told her wartime readers, “listen hard and you will hear John de Conquer treading on his singing-drum. You will know then that no matter how bad things look now, it will be worse for those who seek to oppress us … White America, take a laugh out of our black mouths, and win! We give you High John de Conquer.”

Hurston nursed a lifelong fascination with the character. While teaching at what is now North Carolina Central University in 1940, she started writing a play about John with her friend Paul Green, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and pioneer of the outdoor drama genre (alas, it was never completed.) Nor was Hurston’s promotion of John to a largely white readership out of character for her. While she believed passionately that many more — and more authentic — stories from African-American culture needed to be told, she never meant them to be told only to black audiences. A deft and passionate critic of prejudice and discrimination, Hurston also rejected New Deal–style progressivism, socialism, and other forms of collectivism that sought to subordinate personal agency or responsibility to group identity. She was a thorough-going individualist, directing special scorn at activists she termed “racial cardsharps” who argued the only way for blacks to transcend past enslavement and mistreatment was to demand compensatory handouts and preferences. “What the world is crying and dying for at this movement is less race consciousness,” Hurston wrote in 1942. “The human race would blot itself out entirely if it had any more.”

I submit Zora Neale Hurston would have a mixed response to the current national debate about “wokeness” in school curricula, corporate boardrooms, and the popular culture. She’d celebrate the inclusion of authentic black voices, folkways, and heroes into America’s understanding of its past, present, and future. But she’d be utterly disdainful of the evasions and faux sociology found in critical race theory as well as the exaggerations and bad faith found in the 1619 Project. Instead of expressing her disdain for this new generation of racial cardsharps with lengthy diatribes, however, Hurston would probably just hurl a High John-sized laugh at them.

As her American Mercury essay demonstrated, Hurston thought laughter was one of humanity’s most powerful weapons against adversity, despair, and tyranny. Hers was a characteristic American belief, I think, reflected not just in the African-American folklore of John de Conquer and Brer Rabbit but also in the frontier braggadocio of Davy Crockett and Mike Fink, the hucksterism of P.T. Barnum and the medicine show, the antics of Vaudeville, the slapstick of silent film, and all that has come after.

Can America overcome our current adversities? Of course — but only to the extent that we lean into our common aspirations and values, including our widespread and continuing beliefs in the efficacy of hard work and the promise of American freedom. Woke activists and other partisan elites would have us lean away from these commonalities, and away from each other. Hurston would have had none of that. “Even if your hair comes yellow, and your eyes are blue, John de Conquer will be working for you just the same,” she wrote in her conclusion. “From his secret place, he is working for all America now. We are all his kinfolks.”

John Hood is a foundation executive, author, and newspaper columnist who teaches at Duke University. John de Conquer is a central character in his latest historical-fantasy novel Forest Folk (Defiance Press, 2022). The first novel in the series is Mountain Folk

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