Short sto­ries of Har­lem Re­nais­sance

Short sto­ries pro­vide a rich look at black lives from sawmill work­ers to gam­blers to wash­er­women

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Zora Neale Hurston has earned such an in­deli­ble place as a novelist that we some­times for­get she was ed­u­cated as an an­thro­pol­o­gist. In a new col­lec­tion of her short sto­ries, the fic­tion writer and the so­cial sci­en­tist com­ple­ment each other.

Hit­ting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick gath­ers 21 sto­ries, pub­lished be­tween 1921 and 1934, and pre­sented in the or­der in which they first ap­peared in print, mostly in magazines and news­pa­pers.

Some are touch­ing, some are dark, many are full of rol­lick­ing hu­mor. To­gether, they give read­ers a win­dow into Hurston’s devel­op­ment as a writer – her best-known work, Their Eyes Were Watch­ing God, would be pub­lished in 1937 – and into how her ed­u­ca­tion shaped her fic­tion.

Hurston earned a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in an­thro­pol­ogy in 1928 from Barnard Col­lege (she was its only black stu­dent at the time), and went on to grad­u­ate stud­ies in that dis­ci­pline at Columbia Univer­sity un­der the great Franz Boas. Some­times called the father of Amer­i­can an­thro­pol­ogy, Boas is known for his em­pha­sis on cul­tural rel­a­tivism – the idea that there are no su­pe­rior or in­fe­rior cul­tures, but that all have their own value and in­ter­est. Hurston did ex­ten­sive field­work un­der Boas’s di­rec­tion, col­lect­ing folk­lore in the Amer­i­can South and the Caribbean, and some of that ma­te­rial – and her an­thro­pol­o­gist’s eye – shapes th­ese sto­ries.

She grew up in Ea­tonville, north of Or­lando, one of the first self-gov­ern­ing all-black mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in the United States. Her father served as its mayor when she was a young­ster, and was also a preacher. She had ab­sorbed folk­tales and other sto­ry­telling as a child, but as an adult she saw them with a dis­tance both artis­tic and sci­en­tific.

By the time she was writ­ing th­ese short sto­ries, Hurston was liv­ing in Har­lem in the midst of the Har­lem Re­nais­sance, the artis­tic move­ment in the 1920s that pro­duced a host of tal­ented African-Amer­i­can writ­ers, mu­si­cians, vis­ual artists and schol­ars. Al­though she is con­sid­ered one of the move­ment’s ma­jor fig­ures, Hurston some­times ran against its cur­rents, es­pe­cially its em­pha­sis on the “New Ne­gro,” which pre­sented artis­tic high achiev­ers as an ideal. Hurston was such an achiever her­self, but she pre­ferred to write about the ev­ery­day lives of peo­ple of color. In the sto­ries in this book, her char­ac­ters are sawmill work­ers and gam­blers, wash­er­women and mis­chievous lit­tle girls who wish they were princesses.

Hurston is fond of sub­ver­sion of fic­tion’s norms as she fo­cuses al­most com­pletely on black char­ac­ters. White peo­ple are all but ab­sent in this world, and when they do show up mo­men­tar­ily, they’re gen­er­ally clue­less. Hurston sub­verts white at­ti­tudes to­ward black peo­ple by sim­ply ig­nor­ing them.

Whether the sto­ries are set in Ea­tonville or Har­lem, in most of them Hurston writes her char­ac­ters’ di­a­logue in pho­net­i­cally spelled di­alect, like one char­ac­ter’s com­ment on an­other’s fierce wife: “I’m glad to hear dat ‘cause there ain’t no more like her nowheres. Naw sir! Folks like her comes one at a time – like lawyer go­ing to Heaven.”

TO CON­TEM­PO­RARY read­ers, that di­a­logue might seem stereo­typ­i­cal or even of­fen­sive, but Hurston, in an­thro­pol­o­gist mode, wanted to cap­ture the fla­vor of lan­guage. (Her in­sis­tence on ver­nac­u­lar di­a­logue was one rea­son that Bar­ra­coon, her biog­ra­phy of an el­derly, for­merly en­slaved man, was turned down by pub­lish­ers and didn’t see print un­til 2018, 87 years af­ter she wrote it.)

In the fore­word to Hit­ting a Straight Lick, Ta­yari Jones, au­thor of An Amer­i­can Mar­riage, writes, “Hurston cap­tured the lan­guage of her com­mu­nity pho­net­i­cally, so that none of the mu­sic and magic would be lost in the alchemy from breath to ink.”

In the di­a­logue and every­place else, there is plenty of mu­sic and magic in th­ese sto­ries. Even the ear­li­est one, John Red­ding Goes to Sea, shows Hurston’s as­sur­ance in the sad, eerie tale of a young man who wants to travel the world be­yond his Florida home.

Drenched in Light is the story of a young girl named Isis who also dreams of es­cape on the “white shell road” in front of her home. Much of the story is a funny ac­count of her mis­chief, like try­ing to shave her sleep­ing grand­mother’s chin whiskers, which takes a chill­ing turn at the end.

Hurston writes of­ten about mar­riage. Some­times the sto­ries are grisly, like

Spunk, about a woman who’s wid­owed twice in short or­der, and Sweat, in which an ill-treated woman whose hus­band tries to run her out of her own house gets ironic re­venge.

Mag­no­lia Flower is a spooky fa­ble with a sweet end­ing. Un­der the Bridge is a heart­breaker about an older man, his young wife and his beloved only son. They all grow to love one an­other, and it’s not a good thing.

Other mar­riage sto­ries are hi­lar­i­ous, like The Coun­try in the Woman. It’s one of sev­eral in which Hurston traces the Great Mi­gra­tion, in this case with a cou­ple from Ea­tonville who move to Har­lem. Mitchell Potts is in his el­e­ment in the city, where he finds plenty of women to chase, but his for­mi­da­ble wife, Caro­line, hasn’t changed much. Back in Florida, she was fa­mous for her in­ter­ven­tions in her hus­band’s af­fairs. In one case, she ac­costed one of his “side gals” out­side church, knocked her down and re­moved the fancy un­der­wear Mitchell had bought her. Then Caro­line “had seen fit to have her pony make the homeward trip with its hindquar­ters thrust into Del­phine’s rav­ished clothes.” Har­lem does not cramp Caro­line’s style.

The fun­ni­est sto­ries in the book are four writ­ten in mock-bib­li­cal style, Book of Har­lem, The Book of Har­lem, Mon­key Junk and She Rock. The first three are tales of young men who come to Har­lem from the coun­try, and the last is a retelling of the Caro­line epic.

Hurston goes be­yond fa­ble and com­edy in one touch­ing mar­riage story, The Gilded Six-Bits, about a happy young cou­ple torn apart by be­trayal. It’s one of the later sto­ries, and its char­ac­ter devel­op­ment is more re­al­is­tic than comic – no ponies in bloomers here – as Joe and Missie May find their long, hard way to for­give­ness and candy kisses.

(McNimee/Reuters)

NEL­SON MAN­DELA vis­its Har­lem in 1990.

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