Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896-1953), woman writer and author of the wildly popular novel The Yearling and memoir Cross Creek, moved from New York State to north-central Florida after purchasing 72 acres of land in a place named Cross Creek which had an orange grove and a remote wildness that she craved.
Rawlings longed to sink herself within an ecosystem, get to know it intimately and allow the writing to emerge from that immersion. And that is exactly what happened. It was a deliberate act, not random. She longed for authenticity in her writing and knew one could not fake that.
See Nasty Women Writers’ piece on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings:
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: A Woman Writer Living Life On Her Own Terms.
Rawlings was an incredibly pioneering and independent woman and writer yet she was also a white woman of some privilege who lived in the segregated south. On her ranch in Florida, Rawlings employed a mostly black staff whom, though she paid them well and offered personal support when they needed it, was also said to have talked at them not to them (231) and often referred to black people as “niggers.” She also wrote some black characters in very stereotypically demeaning and degrading ways. Considered liberal for her time, Rawlings was, though she would never have thought so, a racist.
However, a meet up with black woman writer Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) helped Rawlings confront her own racism and change her ways.
Read our post about the importance of the connections between women writers:
Invisible Connections: The Hidden Web of Women Writers
Rawlings met Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), while speaking at Memorial College in St. Augustine, Florida in 1942 where Hurston was an instructor.
See Nasty Women Writers’ posts on Zora Neale Hurston:
Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida and lived in other locations throughout her life including Harlem and St. Augustine, which was close enough to Cross Creek (70 miles) for Rawlings’ second husband to own and run a hotel there and for Rawlings to live there part time. Rawlings, a very gregarious person and a consummate host and cook, immediately invited Hurston over to the apartment she shared with her husband in his popular Hotel: Castle Warden.
In The Life She Wished To Live, a recent biography of Rawlings, author Ann McCutchan reveals that the minute Rawlings told her husband, Norton, about the invitation she began to regret it. She worried that having Hurston appear at her husband’s segregated hotel would upset the wealthy white guests.
“Norton, however, assured Marjorie that the invitation could stand, instructing a trusted black assistant—who balked at first—to watch for Zora at the appointed hour and “get her through this lobby the fastest you ever seen and get on the elevator, and get her up there.” The hour came, but neither Norton nor his assistant saw anything of Zora. Marjorie’s guest had foreseen the situation, entered the hotel through the kitchen, and found her way to the apartment”(230).
Rawlings and Hurston proceeded to have a great time together and Rawlings reported to her friend in a letter that Hurston “has the most ingratiating personality, a brilliant mind and the fundamental wisdom that shames most whites”(230).
However, Rawlings was left shaken and embarrassed by the panic that had come over her when she imagined Hurston using the front door. She confronted her feelings of discomfort at her white guests witnessing this and forced herself to examine her worry that they might no longer want to patronize the hotel. She decided that she did not wish to be comfortable with accepting her friend, Hurston’s, gracious way of sparing Rawlings any trouble by using the back door. She came to the conclusion that she could no longer close her eyes to the reality that this interaction had revealed to her. This prompted Rawlings to begin to question her own relationship with racism and own her own collaboration with segregation.
Eventually Rawlings began to write and speak out against segregation and in favor of equal rights. McCutchan’s book takes time to show how it was not an overnight or snap of the fingers change. It took time for Rawlings to understand, integrate and face the many ways she had internalized racism. It is sometimes painful to read about especially when she admits “I still have to fight a lingering prejudice, and when a little black Martha touches me, as she loved to do, I cringe. But if one recognizes it for a prejudice and a hang-over from one’s prejudiced training, it will pass”(269). It’s tough to read but it’s brutally honest and she examines it only in the context of wanting to root it out of her psyche.
In 1946 The Yearling was banned from several schools for its use of the ’N’ word and racist depictions of black characters. Here we see Rawlings being defensive at first: “It would have been an unpardonable anachronism to have used the ‘Negro’ instead of ‘nigger’ in a book of this date”(298) but then coming to an understanding and later talking about avoiding dialect “because she wanted to give ‘complete dignity to all Negroes’”(299). Of course now even hearing and seeing the word Negro makes us cringe.
The women continued to be friends, supporting each other in their writing. In 1948 Hurston dedicated her book Seraph on the Suwanee, to Rawlings.
McCutchan describes one time where Rawlings wrote to Hurston expressing frustration with her writing and desperation over a long and drawn out lawsuit against her. Upon receiving the letter Hurston got in her car and drove “the hundred miles from Daytona to the Creek on a mission to give Marjorie a boost”(262).
That evening Rawlings discovered that Hurston had made arrangements to spend the over night with one of Rawlings’ black employees, Martha, in the tenant house. Rawlings was aware that in spite of how much Martha authentically loved Hurston, this arrangement was in part created to spare Rawlings from having her neighbors witness a black person spend the night in her home. But this time Rawlings doesn’t allow Hurston to spare her embarrassment. She calls her back over to her house and insists she stay in the guest room.
Rawlings recorded later in a letter:
“And I thought of the tenant house already crowded to the rafters, and my empty house, and I thought, damn it, now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of a moral principle! So I said that I didn’t want to be selfish or disappoint Martha, but I had so much more room, and would Jack please bring her bags over here to the back guest room. And I have never in my life been so glad that I was not a coward, I had to hurdle an awfully wide ditch! I was amazed to find that my own prejudices were so deep. It has always surprised me that my thinking is so Southern. But I felt that if I ever was to prove my humanitarian and moral beliefs, . . . I must do it then”(263).
And so she did.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Zora Neale Hurston are Nasty Women Writers who were friends.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2022
McCutchan, Ann. The Life She Wished To Live: A Biography of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Author of the Yearling. W. W. Norton & Co. 2021