115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

To Love the (White) Neighbor As Oneself: Judeo-Christian Ethics in Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee

Hannah Nahm, University of California, Los Angeles

This paper reads Zora Neale Hurston’s last published and oft-maligned novel Seraph on the Suwanee (1948) alongside her most celebrated novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) to argue that far from being a misguided text that has no bearing on the issues of race, Seraph is Hurston’s continued meditation on the theme of love—specifically, the Judeo-Christian neighbor-love between blacks and whites.

 

Proposal: 

There is no escaping Zora Neale Hurston. Her most well-known novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is now almost unanimously hailed as a classic, taught in university classes nationwide, and Hurston’s canonical footprints are immortalized with her induction into the highly selective Library of America (1995). Yet her last—and by many critical accounts—Hurston’s most complex novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), has been enshrouded in studied obscurity and marginalization. As Walker puts it, Seraph is a “reactionary, static, shockingly misguided” and “timid” work that “is not even about black people, which is no crime, but is about white people who are bores.”

In my conference paper, I read Seraph alongside Their Eyes to show how the two novels are far from being antithetical; indeed Hurston’s Seraph performs what I provisionally call “intertextual passing,” where it re-peoples itself with key tropes, characters and scenes eerily evocative of those we encounter in Their Eyes.

As she does in Their Eyes, Hurston further interrogates the thematic of love in Seraph—whether self-, romantic, or communal. This time, however, she goes beyond the black intra-communal scope to the interracial, in that in Seraph, Hurston contemplates the possibility of a genuine love between blacks and whites. I read this inter-racial love as the Judeo-Christian neighbor-love—that is, loving one’s neighbor as oneself—given Hurston’s thoroughgoing knowledge and dedication to the Biblical chapters Leviticus and Exodus, and her sustained passion for Jewish history and its people.

 

In as much as I place neighbor-love at the center stage of Seraph, my paper will tease out Hurston’s autobiography so as to establish Hurston’s commitment to the Levitical injunction to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev. 19.18; 19.34) and the Exodus commandment to love the stranger among us through empathy as we have also been strangers in Egypt (Exod. 23.9).