Archive | July 28, 2008

Watching God From the Palace of Skulls

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Since her “rediscovery” in the 1970s, Zora Neale Hurston has been studied primarily by scholars in women’s studies and African-American studies – fields that, much like libertarian studies, tend to be enormously insightful in some areas and vastly ignorant in others. (Indeed, much of the knowledge generated by libertarian studies tends to lie in women’s studies’ and black studies’ zone of ignorance, just as much of the knowledge generated by women’s studies and black studies tends to lie in libertarianism’s zone of ignorance.) As a result, academic scholars working on Hurston tend to be baffled by her politics. Again and again in the academic literature on Hurston, one finds some version of the puzzled question “Why does she seem so sensibly left-wing on some issues and so horrifically right-wing on others?” Libertarianism is so far off their radar that they don’t even recognise that that’s the best label for her. Hurston makes most sense when placed in conjunction with such other “Old Right” literary figures as H. L. Mencken, Isabel Paterson, Albert J. Nock, Rose Wilder Lane, Garet Garrett, and Ayn Rand – but their works are largely terra incognita in contemporary academia.

Zora Neale Hurston That said, it must be conceded that labeling a Hurston a libertarian may alleviate only so much of the puzzlement. Hurston has a way of unpredictably lurching leftward on one issue and rightward on another in such a way that almost any reader, libertarian or otherwise, is likely to find her infuriating at some point. (But this is of course likewise true for the other writers listed above.)

For my recent Liberty Fund conference I re-read Hurston’s best-known novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. What does the title mean? If you’ve seen the somewhat Hallmarkised tv-movie you may remember Halle Berry lying in the water, saying dreamily “I’m watching God”; but that scene was invented, it’s not in the book. The title actually comes from the following passage. The context is one in which the main characters have made no preparation against a coming hurricane because those with greater social authority seem unworried: “The folks [= poor and/or blacks] let the people [= rich and/or whites] do the thinking. If the castles thought themselves secure, the cabins needn’t worry.” But the “people,” and consequently the “folks” who relied on them, are wrong and the hurricane is devastating:

They huddled close and stared at the door. … The time was past for asking the white folks what to look for through that door. Six eyes were questioning God. … The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God. (ch. 18)

Despite the religious connotations of the phrase and title (in fact all four of Hurston’s novels have titles with religious connotations), Hurston’s meaning as I interpret it is not especially religious – just as Hurston herself was not especially religious. (She wrote in her autobiography, “Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid, by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down.”) As I read this scene, and the novel as a whole, the phrase “watching God,” and likewise the novel’s theme, concerns the contrast between being directly oriented toward reality (“watching God,” “questioning God”) and viewing reality through the lens of other people’s opinions and expectations (“asking the white folks what to look for”) – or in Randian terms, psycho-epistemological independence versus social metaphysics (though Rand would probaly not have used “God” as a metaphor for objective reality). Although the specific example involves blacks’ psycho-epistemological dependence on whites, the novel’s theme is not primarily racial, but is concerned at least as much with women’s dependence on men, individuals’ dependence on the community, and the community’s dependence on its leaders.

Their Eyes Were Watching God - movie version Hence Janie, the heroine, learns to dismiss the intrusive opinions of the town gossips by saying “If God don’t think no mo’ ’bout ’em then Ah do, they’s a lost ball in de high grass” (ch. 1), and again advises her friend Pheoby: “Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got to go to God [in this case probably a metaphor for dying], and they got to tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” (ch. 20)

This reading of the novel’s theme helps, I think, to explain why the character of Joe Starks, the black entrepreneur born with “uh throne in de seat of his pants,” is such an ambivalent figure, apparently both liberatory and oppressive (alike in his relation to the townspeople and to Janie). On the one hand, he encourages his fellow townspeople’s psycho-epistemological indepedence in urging them to develop greater political autonomy, e.g. to start their own post office. Some of the townspeople insist: “Yo’ common sense oughta tell yuh de white folks ain’t goin’ tuh allow [a black man] tuh run no post office.” But Starks convinces others that “Us talks about de white man keepin’ us down! Shucks! He don’t have tuh. Us keeps our own selves down.” And in fact the town does get its own black-run post office and much else beside.

Joe Starks is based on the real-life founder of Hurston’s home town, Joe Clarke, as described in Hurston’s autobiography:

Eatonville, Florida, is … a pure Negro town – charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all. It was not the first Negro community in America, but it was the first to be incorporated, the first attempt at organized self-government on the part of Negroes in America …. Joe Clarke had asked himself, Why not a Negro town? Few of the Negroes were interested. It was too vaulting for their comprehension. A pure Negro town! If nothing but their own kind was in it, who was going to run it? With no white folks to command them, how would they know what to do? Joe Clarke had plenty of confidence in himself to do the job, but few others could conceive of it. (Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, pp. 561-565)

The fictional Starks, like the historical Clarke, expands the horizons of his townspeople’s conception of what is possible for them – thus turning their eyes toward “God,” in Hurston’s metaphor.

On the other hand, Starks to a significant extent substitutes himself for the whites as the intermediary between the townspeople and objective reality. When he first shows up in town he asks: “Ain’t got no Mayor! Well, who tells y’all what to do?” – to which he receives the magnificent answer “Nobody. Everybody’s grown.” But Starks in the end succeeds in getting himself elected mayor, and Hurston describes his rule in rather La Boétiean terms:

The town had a basketful of feelings good and bad about Joe’s positions and possessions, but none had the temerity to challenge him. They bowed down to him rather, because he was all of these things, and then again he was all of these things because the town bowed down. (ch. 5)

Janie expresses the central paradox of Joe Starks when she tells him: “You have tuh have power tuh free things, and dat makes you lak a king uh something.” (ch. 6)

Likewise in his relationship with Janie, Starks contributes to her independence by freeing her from a grim marriage and broadening her horizon, but he expects her to take on the role of passive beneficiary of his own independence, “building a high chair for her to sit in and overlook the world,” rather than becoming an active participant in that independence, with the result that she finds heself more oppressed than liberated – at least until she learns to stand up for the truth that “[s]ometimes God gits familiar with us womenfolk too, and talks his inside business,” i.e., that women can be oriented directly to reality rather than dealing with it always through the intermediary of men’s perceptions.

Ragged segue: Hurston’s political essays are a mixed bag, thanks to the lurching-left-and-right mentioned above; but I want to close by quoting some particularly good passages on imperialism. While Hurston is sometimes accused of being an “Uncle Tom,” in the following passages she seems more like Malcolm X:

I know that the principle of human bondage has not yet vanished from the earth. I know that great nations are standing on it. I would not go so far as to deny that there has been … progress toward the concept of liberty. Already it has been agreed that the name of slavery is very bad. No civilized nation will use such a term anymore. 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. It has been decided, also, that it is not cricket to enslave one’s own kind. … 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 build monuments to him. …

Now, for instance, if the English people were to quarter troops in France, and force the French to work for them for forty-eight cents a week while they took more than a billion dollars a year out of France, the English would be Occidentally execrated. But actually, the British Government does just that in India, to the glory of the democratic way. … I do not mean to single out England as something strange and different in the world. We, too, have our marines in China. We, too, consider machine gun bullets good laxatives for heathens who get constipated with toxic ideals of a country of their own. … The United States being the giant of the Western world, we have our responsibility. The little Latin brother south of the border has been a trifle trying at times. … He must be taught to share with big brother before big brother comes down and kicks his teeth in. …

But there is a geographical boundary to our principles. They are not to leave the United States unless we take them ourselves. Japan’s application of our principles to Asia is never to be sufficiently deplored. … Our indignation is more than justified. We Westerners composed the piece about trading in China with gunboats and cannons long decades ago. Japan is now plagiarizing in the most flagrant manner. …

FDR All around me, bitter tears are being shed over the fate of Holland, Belgium, France and England. I must confess to being a little dry around the eyes. I hear people shaking with shudders at the thought of Germany collecting taxes in Holland. I have not heard a word against Holland collecting one-twelfth of poor people’s wages in Asia. That makes the ruling families in Holland very rich, as they should be. What happens to the poor Javanese and Balinese is unimportant; Hitler’s crime is that he is actually doing a thing like that to his own kind. That is international cannibalism and should be stopped. Hitler is a bandit. That is true, but that is not what is held against him. He is muscling in on well-established mobs. Give him credit. He cased some joints away off in Africa and Asia, but the big mobs already had them paying protection money and warned him to stay away. The only way he can climb out of the punk class is to high-jack the load and that is just what he is doing. President Roosevelt could extend his four freedoms to some people right here in America before he takes it all aboard [sic, presumably for “abroad”], and, no doubt, he would do it too, if it would bring in the same amount of glory. … He can call names across the ocean, but he evidently has not the courage to speak even softly at home. Take away the ocean and he simmers right down. … Our country is so busy playing “fence” to the mobsters that the cost in human suffering cannot be considered yet. …

As I see it, the doctrines of democracy deal with the aspirations of men’s souls, but the application deals with things. One hand in somebody else’s pocket and one on your gun, and you are highly civilized. … Desire enough for your own use only, and you are a heathen. Civilized people have things to show the neighbors.

This is not to say, however, that the darker races are visiting angels, just touristing around here below. They have acted the same way when they had a chance, and will act that way again, comes the break. I just think it would be a good thing for the Anglo-Saxon to get the idea out of his head that everybody else owes him something for being blonde. … The idea of human slavery is so deeply ground in that the pink-toes can’t get it out of their system. It has just been decided to move the slave quarters farther away from the house. …

To mention the hundred years of the Anglo-Saxon in China alone is proof enough of the evils of this view point. The millions of Chinese who have died for our prestige and profit! They are still dying for it. Justify it with all the proud and pretty phrases you please, but if we think our policy is right, just let the Chinese move a gunboat in the Hudson to drum up trade with us. The scream of outrage would wake up saints in the backrooms of Heaven. And what is worse, we go on as if the so-called inferior people are not thinking; or if they do, it does not matter. As if no day could ever come when that which went over the Devil’s back will buckle under his belly. (Folklore/Memoirs, pp. 790-93)

Columbus I see, too, that while we all talk about justice more than any other quality on earth, there is no such thing as justice in the absolute in this word. We are too human to conceive of it. We all want the breaks, and what seems just to us is just what favors our wishes. If we did not feel that way, there would be no monuments to conquerors in our high places. It is obvious that the successful warrior is great to us because he went and took things from somebody else that we could use, and made the vanquished pay dearly for keeping it from us so long. To us, our man-of-arms is almost divine in that he seized good things from folks who could not appreciate them (well, not like we could, anyway) and brought them where they belonged. Nobody wants to hear anything about the side of the conquered. Any remarks from him is rebellion. This attitude does not arise out of studied cruelty, but out of the human bent that makes us feel that the man who wants the same thing we want, must be a crook and needs a good killing. “Look at the miserable creature!” we shout in justification. “Too weak to hold what we want!” (Folklore/Memoirs, pp. 765-66)

[T]he powerful Kingdom of Dahomey, finding the slave trade so profitable, had abandoned farming, hunting, and all else to capture slaves to stock the barracoons on the beach at Dmydah to sell to the slavers who came from across the ocean. … [Q]uarrels were manufactured by the King of Dahomey with more peaceful agricultural nations … they were assaulted, completely wiped off the map, their names never to appear again, except when they were named in boastful chant before the King …. The too old, the too young, the injured in battle were instantly beheaded and their heads smoked and carried back to the King. He paid off on heads, dead or alive. The skulls of the slaughtered were not wasted either. The King had his famous Palace of Skulls. The Palace grounds had a massive gate of skull-heads. The wall[s] surrounding the grounds were built of skulls. You see, the Kings of Dahomey were truly great and mighty and a lot of skulls were bound to come out of their ambitions. While it looked awesome and splendid to him and his warriors, the sight must have been most grewsome and crude to western eyes. Imagine a Palace of Hindu or Zulu skulls in London! Or Javanese skulls in The Hague!

Royal Throne of Dahomey One thing impressed me strongly from this …. The white people had held my people in slavery here in America. They had bought us, it is true[,], and exploited us. But the inescapable fact that stuck in my craw, was: my people had sold me and the white people had bought me. That did away with the folklore I had been brought up on …. I knew that civilized money stirred up African greed. That war between tribes was often stirred up by white traders to produce more slaves in the barracoons and all that. But, if the African princes had been as pure and innocent as I would like to think, it could not have happened. No, my own people had butchered and killed, exterminated whole nations and torn families apart, for a profit before the strangers got their chance at a cut. It was a sobering thought. … It impressed upon me the universal nature of greed and glory. Lack of power and opportunity passes all too often for virtue. If I were King, let us say, over the Western Hemisphere tomorrow, instead of what I am, what would I consider right and just? Would I put the cloak of Justice on my ambition and send her out a-whoring after conquests? It is something to ponder over with fear. (Folklore/Memoirs, pp. 707-08)

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