Zora Neale Hurston: Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick

“One of the greatest writers of our time,” Toni Morrison

“Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick” is a collection of short stories written by Hurston between 1921 and 1937 shows the genius of the woman who wrote “Their Eyes Were Watching God” in 1936. Several of the 21 short stories are considered “lost” because they were published during the Harlem Renaissance and later “found” by researching academics.

The majority of the stories in this collection are set either in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida or in Harlem. Most of the stories are about male – female relationships, but romance can not be used as a description. I was struck by how negatively Hurston presented the the majority men in her stories as gamblers, cheaters and/or abusers. This sent me down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out who she was describing and why she had such a low opinion of men.

Zora was born in 1891 in Alabama. Her family moved to Eatonville, Florida when she was three-years-old. Several of the short stories mention a preacher that owns the store and is the mayor. That was her father. The men that hung out on the porch of the store are the Greek chorus of Eatonville. They know about how badly a woman is being abused by her man, but they never do more than comment amongst themselves about the abuse. They are amused by fights between wives and girlfriends or a wife retaliating against a cheating or abusive man. It is clear that a woman’s worth is set by her appearance. The young lookers that become girlfriends typically are not treated badly by men. Revenge by jilted or long suffering woman another common thread in these stories.

In 1904, 13-year-old Zora’s mother died. Her father quickly married the woman who had probably been his girlfriend. She and Zora did not get along with and there was a nasty physical altercation. From here her biography gets fuzzy saying she lived with other family members or was in and out of school. She does not reappear until 1917 in Baltimore where she takes 10 years off of her age to attend high school. As so much of her writing is autobiographical, I really wonder if she wasn’t married during the undocumented 13 years and if this marriage wasn’t the basis for many of the short stories. I also wonder if her mother was one of the married women who lit into a girlfriend to the amusement of the men on the store’s porch. One story gives a brief glimpse of how the storekeeper cruelly treats his wife. Was that Zora’s mother or the second wife?

My two favorites in the collection are also very different than the majority of the collection. “John Redding Goes to Sea” is about a young man who longs to see the world but gives up is chance to join the Navy. “Magnolia Flower” is told as an epic myth of true love with race cast as a central theme.

Another that stood out to me is “The Gilded Six-Bits.” This story is the opposite of both the Great Migration theme with the city man coming to a small town and Zora’s usual take on marriage and infidelity. Another rarity is that this story has a white person speaking to a main character. His few words offer a glimpse of the opinions and stereotypes held in Orlando.

It was interesting to see both Black culture and the time period through Zora’s eyes. Eatonville was an all-Black, self-governed town that has now been gobbled up by Orlando. Zora’s writing focus solely on Black characters, language and experiences. Her interest in folklore shows in several stories and specially the ones with the “hoodoo man.” By writing in dialect, Zora gives the stories a realistic and lyrical quality, though at times it was challenging for me to decipher some language. I found it fascinating that many of the Harlem stories were written in the same format as scripture.

I was curious if and how Langston Hughes fit into her short stories. She moved to Harlem in 1924 where she met Langston, W.E.B Du Bois, Countee Cullen and other writers and leaders of the time. She definitely knew him when she was writing these stories. There was a man in one of Harlem stories that made me wonder if he was based on Langston, but I just don’t know enough about him to make that case. It is interesting how history has remembered Langston yet she died in obscurity only to be rediscovered by the general reading public when Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Oprah touted her work.

While I have more reading to do, I wonder if Langston was not a part of tarnishing her reputation and helping send her to obscurity. Their break up was over a play the were working on jointly, “Mule-Bone.” While I have yet to read any of that work, I find it interesting that one short story, “The Bone of Contention” is about an assault with a mule bone.

Rabbit Hole Articles

In the Company of Good Things https://www.oxfordamerican.org/magazine/item/937-in-the-company-of-good-things

By Yuval Taylor while he was doing research for his recently published book “Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal”

About Zora Neale Hurston | Zora Neale Hurston https://www.zoranealehurston.com/about/

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