Short stories of the Harlem Renaissance

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

NELSON MANDELA visits Harlem in 1990 (photo credit: REUTERS)
NELSON MANDELA visits Harlem in 1990
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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.