- “Born with God in the House”: Feminist Vision and Religious Revision in the Works of Zora Neale Hurston
At the start of her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston insists that any reader who wishes to understand the trajectory of her life must first understand her origins. “Time and place have had their say,” she observes, “[s]o you will have to know something about the time and place where I came from, in order that you may interpret the incidents and directions of my life” (1). Later, in the chapter titled “Religion,” Hurston examines her history in the Baptist Church and, quite strikingly, frames her account as a birth narrative: “You wouldn’t think that a person who was born with God in the house would ever have any questions to ask on the subject. . . . I tumbled right into the Missionary Baptist Church when I was born” (215). By portraying the church as her birthplace, Hurston emphasizes the profundity of its influence on her. Readers cannot hope to “interpret the incidents and directions” of her life, she suggests, without understanding her relationship to the church (1). Yet, in the same text, Hurston also declares: “It seems to me that organized creeds are collections of words around a wish. I feel no need for such” (226). Elsewhere she goes even further. In a 1937 letter to Henry Allen Moe of the Guggenheim Foundation, written to report on her Haitian Vodou fieldwork, Hurston assured him, “No I have not been converted locally,” before pointedly adding, “tho I am not a christian either” (391).
An effort to map Hurston’s stance on religion seems to produce a tale of two Zoras. Having abandoned the faith of her youth while in college, Hurston remained steadfast in her refusal to align herself with any organized religion throughout the rest of her life. She was, as this essay will demonstrate, a rigorous and consistent critic of “organized creeds,” and she reserved her most [End Page 25] incisive reproaches for Christianity. At the same time, even a cursory survey of her career suggests that a fascination with Judeo-Christian history, beliefs, and practices determined the direction of her intellectual and creative life. In her anthropological work on Vodou in New Orleans and the Caribbean, she frequently adopted a comparativist approach, putting African diasporic religious practices into dialogue with Christian ones. As a scholar of folklore, she recorded African American folk adaptations of Christian origin myths. And her fiction writing was consistent with this larger ethos of her career. The titles alone hint at the persistence of her devotion—Jonah’s Gourd Vine; Their Eyes Were Watching God; Moses, Man of the Mountain; Seraph on the Suwanee—and her interest in Christian history intensified during the final years of her career, which were dedicated to researching and writing Herod the Great, an unpublished manuscript from the 1950s that she described as her “great obsession” (Hurston to Burroughs Mitchell 702). Hurston was not a Christian, but the themes of her writing and research suggest that she retained a decidedly Christian sensibility.
Following Hurston’s lead, this essay examines what it meant for her to be “born” in the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, where her father, John Hurston, was the preacher, and to be raised “with God in the house.” In so doing, I reveal not two contradictory Zoras but rather one woman responding to the contradictory implications of her religious inheritance. Although Hurston insisted that her childhood exposure to patriarchal religious dogma had threatened the development of her artistic capacities, she also came to recognize that the aesthetics of the black Baptist Church had indelibly shaped her mode of artistic expression. Hurston’s response to this conundrum, I maintain, was twofold. Throughout her writings, and especially in Dust Tracks and her letters, she named the injuries she suffered within patriarchal Christianity and exposed the ways organized religion, more generally, functioned as a tool of domination. Yet rather than repudiate her religious inheritance in its entirety and, in the process, tear at the fabric of her own aesthetic subjectivity, Hurston reinvented that inheritance. Their Eyes Were Watching God, I argue, is an expression of...