Waste and Whiteness: Zora Neale Hurston and the Politics of Eugenics

Article excerpt

Readings of Zora Neale Hurston's Seraph on the Suwanee (1948) have often focused on the text's racial and gender problems, either critiquing the text's failure to measure up to the racial consciousness and feminism evident in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) or reversing this critique by claiming that Seraph's power lies in its heavily coded championing of its protagonist, Arvay Meserve. [1] Janet St. Clair observes that "Seraph on the Suwanee has been virtually ignored by all but authors of full-length studies of Hurston, and even they generally scurry across its surface in consternation" (39). Among the critics' anxieties are the fact that Arvay is not a "feminist" heroine (or even "likable"), the text's complicated and problematic treatment of rape, Hurston's conscious prioritization of white characters, and the oftentimes stagnant narrative which accompanies Arvay's psychic turmoil. While this tendency on the part of critics has very recently been reversed, [2] I would suggest that Seraph's racial and gender problematics can open up the text to further critical assessment and cultural critique. Critics have long been aware of the non-conformity of Hurston as both an author and a public persona during the Harlem Renaissance. [3] Does it come as any surprise that Seraph on the Suwanee throws a wrench into the works? If Seraph messes up or, say, whitewashes what might otherwise be a rather clean record for Hurston's writing of complex, black folk characters, then perhaps it is with the notions of "mess" and "wash" that we should approach not only Hurston's most problematic fiction, but also her other writings.

Scholars familiar with Hurston's writing know that representations of washing and cleanliness recur in her work, perhaps most significantly in Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), the brilliant "Gilded Six-Bits" (1933), and "Sweat" (1926). I will not offer a full analysis of these texts here, but instead mention them to establish a comparative element that can be traced throughout Hurston's writing. Jonah's Gourd Vine, for instance, begins with the image of washing on a large scale, and suggests its double meaning as it relates to domestic work and spiritual purging: "'Ole Massa gwinter scrub floors tuhday,'" remarks Amy Crittenden, as she spies rain clouds and senses an impending storm (3). This observation is followed by the argument between Amy and her husband Ned, which leads to the casting out of Amy's first-born (bastard) mulatto son John (Buddy Crittenden) Pearson, around whom the novel revolves. Hurston spins a narrative of John's personal, spiritual purity (both marital and sexual) and leads us through the wa y in which John's community first welcomes, then rejects, and finally re-integrates him. Just before John's much noted (spiritually cleansing) sermon in Chapter 24, rot and purgation find poignant expression: "He felt inside as if he had been taking calomel. The world had suddenly turned cold. It was not new and shiny and full of laughter. Mouldy, maggoty, full of suckholes--one had to watch out for one's feet" (144). Such imagery typifies the way in which Hurston delves into the combined abjection of the body, the psyche, and the world in which her characters move.

Similarly, "The Gilded Six-Bits" opens with Missie May "bathing herself in the galvanized washtub in the bedroom" (985). In "Six-Bits" it is the female character who negotiates her sexual and spiritual purity and her emotional abjection after her husband Joe catches Missie May in the act of adultery with Slemmons. The overlapping themes of value (both personal and economic) and cleanliness (both domestic and spiritual) again point to the way in which Hurston frames some of her best stories with the resolution of radical oppositions, and how the narrative middles dwell in the mess and tension of binary breakdowns.

The intertwining of race and gender with bodily and psychological impurities suggests that a turn toward psychoanalysis might assist in interpreting Hurston's work. …