Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)
A few months ago, I picked up a copy of African-American Humanism: An Anthology (1991) edited by Norm R. Allen Jr. It is a fascinating collection of essays and works written by some famous (and some lesser-known) Black humanists, rationalists and free-thinkers such as Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglas, Melvin Tolson, Hubert Harrison, Joel Augustus Rogers, Richard Wright and Emmanuel Kofi Mensah.
In this anthology, renowned humanist Norm Allen Jr. hoped to counter the popular modern perception of the Black religious community being the primary proponent of significant social change from the turn of the century until the Civil Rights Era by showcasing the significant contributions of Black free-thinkers and humanists (who are often overshadowed by their Caucasian contemporaries).
Norm Allen Jr. enthusiastically shares the work of dozens of African-American and African individuals who refused to subscribe to traditional ideas about God and morality, yet who were also driven by a deep, “this-worldly” desire to improve living conditions for themselves and others for the betterment of humanity.
As a young African-American male with strong humanist sympathies, I have been both enlightened and inspired by reading about the heroic accomplishments of these exemplary individuals- especially considering the fact that they were outspoken and active in a cultural context which rendered them unpopular in most religious, social and political circles.
Among these individuals, I rediscovered Zora Neale Hurston, an author, folklorist and anthropologist who, along with Langston Hughes, became one of the literary forerunners of the Harlem Renaissance. Although raised in a Missionary Baptist Church as a preacher’s daughter, Hurston chose not to subscribe to the faith of her forbears and tells how her doubts regarding organized religion led her into a different understanding of reality.
Among its many offerings, African-American Humanism includes Hurston's essay, “Religion” (taken from her 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road), in which she further articulates her most personal thoughts about God, faith and spirituality.
"The unreachable and therefore the unknowable always seem divine- hence, religion. People need religion because the great masses fear life and its consequences. Its responsibilities weigh heavy. Feeling a weakness in the face of great forces, men seek an alliance with omnipotence to bolster up their feeling of weakness, even though the omnipotence they rely upon is a creature of their own minds. It gives them a feeling of security…"
Towards the end of her essay, Hurston shares her understanding of the role of religion in the lives of human beings:
"…As for me, I do not pretend to read God’s mind. If He has a plan of the universe worked out to the smallest detail, it would be folly for me to presume to get down on my knees and attempt to revise it. That, to me, seems the highest form of sacrilege. So I do not pray. I accept the means at my disposal for working out my destiny. It seems to me that I have been given a mind and willpower for that very purpose. I do not expect God to single me out and grant me advantages over my fellow men. Prayer is for those who need it. 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."
She then delves into her personal thoughts regarding the topic of prayer:
Hurston begins the conclusion of her essay by explaining how she finds meaning and purpose in life outside of organized religion while recognizing its importance to those who subscribe to more traditional notions of divinity.
I love the portion of the passage below where she says, in reference to religious creeds, "I feel no need for such. However, I would not, by word or deed, attempt to deprive another of the consolation it affords. It is simply not for me."
I wholeheartedly share her sentiments here and appreciate the fact that she has not attempted to belittle those who find meaning in creed-based religion.
In the closing passage of her essay on religion, Hurston advocates a fearless view of reality that expertly assuages existential fear and anxiety with bold, poetic language capturing the majesty of science's most credible insights and findings about chemistry, astronomy, biology and physics.
(I'll end this with Zora's own words):
"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. The ever-sleepless sea in its bed, crying out 'How long?' to Time; million-formed and never motionless flame; the contemplation of these two aspects alone, affords me sufficient food for ten spans of my expected lifetime.
It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such. However, I would not, by word or deed, attempt to deprive another of the consolation it affords. It is simply not for me. 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.”