Any serious reader of literature knows the writers Toni and Maya by their first names alone. Such is the fame of the Nobel Prize winners Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou.
But there is a third African American woman who belongs in that pantheon of first-name-only authors: Zora Neale Hurston.
Some of you may have read her best-selling classic, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” If you haven’t, and you aren’t familiar with her work, let me introduce you to one of the most productive and influential writers during the Harlem Renaissance. a period of intellectual, social and artistic expression from that blossomed during the 1920s.
Centered in Harlem in New York City, and producing such luminaries as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson, those were years known as a Golden Age of African American culture.
And Zora was right in the middle of the movement, as a writer of four novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography, and over 50 short stories, essays and plays. Most in this new collection of stories were written after Hurston left Howard University and moved to New York City in 1925, where she enrolled as Barnard College’s only black student.
None other than Toni Morrison called her “one of the greatest writers of out time.”
I was introduced to Zora way back in the mid-’80s, when I took a literature class during a sabbtical year at the University of Michigan, and read “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
Published in 1937, the novel focuses on the experiences of Janie Crawford, a beautiful and determined fair-skinned black woman, who returns to Eatonville, Florida, after several years gone, and finds herself the object of gossip. Seems that Janie, a recent widow, had left town with a younger man of lower social status named Tea Cake. Complications ensued.
I loved the book. Yet I hadn’t read anything more by Zora — until now.
So imagine my delight when I came upon the newly released “Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick.” The hard-cover book was calling out to me in pristine condition from a Free Little Library box just around the corner and up the street.
It’s a collection of 21 Harlem Renaissance stories penned by Hurston from 1921 to 1934, gathered in one volume for the first time. Several of the stories were only recently discovered in black periodicals and archives, never before published in the mainstream.
Presented in chronological order, the first few stories are set in Eatonville, the Florida town where Hurston grew up, and are strongly rooted in the Black folk culture of the Deep South. They are followed by eight “lost” pieces that Hurston wrote about middle-class characters in Harlem adapting to urban life during The Great Migration, when more than 2 million African Americans left the rural South between 1910 and 1940 for industrialized northern cities.
The contrast in settings is vivid but the thematic content is consistent. As explained in a lengthy introduction by the book’s editor, Genevieve Ward, Hurston wrote about the politics of race, gender and class, as well as love and marriage. Flirting and romance pop up often, as do lying and cheating, domestic violence and revenge.
In her Harlem stories, Hurston goes further, as her characters confront issues of identity, just as their real-life counterparts did in trying to build new lives as northern migrants.
As West notes, they faced collective and individual challenges as they encountered new expectations for dress, speech, education, religious practice, and entertainment. What clothes should they wear? How should they speak? How should they adapt, finding themselves jostling among strangers on bustling city streets rather than gathering languidly with familiar faces on a front porch in a country town?
The Eatonville stories read like cultural anthropology come alive. The characters’ language reflects the folk traditions and regional dialect of those times — something that Hurston chose to present despite criticisms that doing so furthered stereotypes of African Americans.
The book title itself is just one example of the idioms found throughout these stories. “Hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick” means to achieve a goal that seems to be in contradiction to the means by which it was accomplished.
In one of her stories, Hurston describes it as “making a way out of no-way” or “(w)inning the jack pot with no other stake but a laugh.”
Another of her stories begins with a woman yelling at her young granddaughter to help with chores.
“You Isie Watts! Git ‘own offen dat gate post an’ rake up the yahd!”
“Lawd-amussy!” she screamed, enraged — “Heah Joel, gimme dat wash stick. Ah’ll show dat limb of Satan she kain’t shake huhself at me. If she ain’t down by de time Ah gets dere, Ah’ll break huh down in de lines” (loins).
But Hurston also writes with simple, descriptive details that bring her scenes to life, as she does in describing “a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement.”
“(T)here was something happy about the place. The front yard was parted in the middle by a sidewalk from gate to door-step, a sidewalk edged on either side by quart bottles driven neck down into the ground on a slant. A mess of homey flowers planted without a plan but blooming cheerily from their helter-skelter places. The fence and house were whitewashed. The porch and steps scrubbed white.
“The front door stood open to the sunshine so that the floor of the front room could finish drying after its weekly scouring. It was Saturday. Everything clean from the front gate to the privy house. Yard raked so that the strokes on the rake would make a pattern. Fresh newspaper cut in fancy edge on the kitchen shelves.”
I’ll be honest. The quality of stories in this volume is uneven, as they are bound to be in any collection by a single author. But, considering these stories were written nearly a century ago, Zora has my complete admiration. How much racism and sexism and financial obstacles do you suppose a black woman faced anywhere in America in the 1920s, let alone in a publishing industry dominated by white men?
These days it seems like everyone with a conscience is reading something written by a Black author. Better late than never, I say.
But I think there’s something rich to be gained by reading the stories imagined decades ago by a pioneering Black woman. They are sad and funny, poignant and political. They are of a specific time and place that deserve to be remembered. In fact, they were written in the years just before Maya (1928) and Toni (1931) were even born.
Sadly, Hurston died penniless and in obscurity at age 69 in 1960. However, the writer Alice Walker, who grew up in nearby Georgia and won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Color Purple,” was so moved by her predecessor’s work that she commissioned a memorial stone at Zora’s gravesite.
Engraved are the words: “A Genius of the South.”