Saturday, March 5, 2011

The White Mare

On August 11, 1955, Zora Neale Hurston penned a letter to the Orlando-Sentinel decrying Brown v. Board of Education as "insulting" for its presumption that black education would benefit simply from the "presence of white people." Equating the ruling to a political trick, or "white mare," Hurston argued instead for equalization of facilities and "growth from within." While conservatives like John McWhorter have recently tried to claim that Hurston was a black conservative who would have "gladly peddled her wares on Fox News," black writer Cecil Brown (author of the incredible Stagolee Shot Billy) has offered a thoughtful response, indicating that in fact Hurston was making an argument for a separate, important, black culture, something that conservatives like McWhorter discount. If Cecil Brown is right, then Hurston's letter becomes a targeted response to the dismissive stance towards black culture taken by the Supreme Court in Brown when it cited Gunnar Myrdal's American Dilemma in footnote 11. In Volume II of Dilemma, for example, Myrdal writes that "American negro culture ... is a distorted development, or a pathological condition, of the general American culture." Where did he get this view? One possible source is Guy B. Johnson, a UNC anthropologist and self-proclaimed expert on the "Cultural Traits of the Negro" who worked for Myrdal. Yet, while going through Johnson's papers last summer at UNC, his take on black culture seemed less dismissive than pluralist, not unlike Margaret Mitchell's take on white culture. Did Myrdal, an outsider who repeatedly used the "N" word in black company, bring his own, Euro-centric cultural prejudice to bear on southern diversity? Or, was Johnson less attuned to cultural diversity than others in the South at the time, people like Zora Neale Hurston, for example, who worked with Alan Lomax in Florida turpentine camps in the 1930s, recovering rich cultural legacies in the region's more obscure corners?

Photo credit: Van Vechten number: IV H 8, Library of Congress.