One of the greatest writers of the century. Mules and Men (1935) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) are beyond question two of the finest achievements in African American literature. She liked to keep the specifics of her life a mystery and she was rather eccentric. Born in Eatonville, Florida, the first black township to be incorporated in the U.S. Being so, there was no racism and people felt free to express themselves. Her father was mayor and helped make the laws.
Her father was constantly cheating on her mother and Hurston’s mother died when Zora was thirteen. Hurston never got along with her stepmother so she took to the road where she helped an actress in a traveling theatrical troupe. Earned high school degree then took sporadic classes at Howard. She came to know some movers and shakers in the literary world who encouraged her to submit work. Migrated to New York.
Hurston then became one of the brightest young talents in Harlem. Her writings caught the attention of people who helped her publish and attend Barnard College.
While a student at Barnard, one of her papers was passed on to Franz Boas, a leading anthropologist, who encouraged her to take graduate courses at Columbia. She was granted money to follow her interests down south.
She produced Mules and Men, generally regarded as the first collection of African American folklore to be compiled and published by an African American. The work opened to mixed reviews. She joined the Works Progress Administration in 1935 and then wrote Tell My Horse (1938). In the second book, she focused less on folktales and more on comparisons between American and Caribbean blacks, much to the dismay of audiences.
During her research in the Caribbean, she completed her second novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Her first novel was Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) and was well received. The book was loosely based upon the antics of her father. Their Eyes Were Watching God celebrates one individual’s triumph over the limitations imposed on her mainly by sexism and poverty. The story explores how romance can blind women to the necessity of seeking emotional and intellectual independence as individuals in a complex world.
During the 1930s Hurston worked intermittently on musical productions. In 1939 she began working as a drama instructor at the North Caroline College for Negroes at Durham. It was during this time she produced her third book, Moses, Man of the Mountain. People couldn’t tell if she were re-telling a biblical tale, or making fun of it.
Her novel Seraph on the Suwanee (1948) was an experiment in which Hurston took on the role of a white woman. She didn’t like the rule that black people couldn’t write about white people.
In 1942 Hurston kept up controversy with her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road. She had to take out some material regarding the hypocrisy and racism of whites before it was published. The book won the Anisfield-Wold award for its contribution to the amelioration of race relations. The critics felt Hurston wore rose-colored glasses when discussing the black woman’s role in America. She was being asked to write for many periodicals, but her views were often contradictory.
Even though there was lack of evidence, Hurston was arrested in 1948 for lewd acts with a minor. She was humiliated. For the last twelve years of her life, she never rebounded from this incident. She died poor and her grave went unmarked until the 1970s. Even though critics didn’t know what to make of her at the time, Hurston is still gaining an audience today.
Sweat [short story. Combination Standard English and vernacular]
Delia Jones is a washerwoman. Most of the time she doesn’t know where her husband, Sykes, may be…usually with another woman. Sykes plays a prank on his wife by throwing his riding-whip over her shoulder knowing she will think it is a snake. He laughs when she is scared. He disparages the washing Delia brings home. He focuses on the wash being the clothes of white people rather than the money the washing brings in which they desperately need. He is unwilling to work hard enough for the both of them. Delia reminds him that it is her sweat that keeps them going. Sykes goes off with his other woman.
“She had brought love to the union and he had brought a longing after the flesh. Two months after the wedding, he had given her the first brutal beating.”
“Too late for everything except her little home. She had built it for her old days, and planted one by one the trees and flowers there. It was lovely to her, lovely.” Delia believed that someday, Sykes would get his comeuppance.
The town gossips know everything. They say Delia used to be a looker, but she’s been beat down for so long that it shows. Clarke spoke for the first time. “Taint no law on earth dat kin make a man be decent if it aint in ‘im. There’s plenty men dat takes a wife lak dey do a joint uh sugar-cane. It’s round, juicy an’ sweet when dey gits it. But dey squeeze an’ grind, squeeze an’ grind an’ wring tell dey wring every drop uh pleasure dat’s in ‘em out. When dey’s satisfied dat dey is wrung dry, dey treats ‘em jes lak dey do a cane-chew. Dey throws ‘em away. Dey knows whut dey is doin’ while dey is at it, an’ hates theirselves fuh it but they keeps on hangin’ after huh tell she’s empty. Den dey hates huh fuh bein’ a cane-chew an’ in de way.”
Sykes goes around with his mistress. He makes sure Delia sees him buying his lover whatever she wants at the store. Sykes is even paying Bertha’s rent. Bertha will go to Delia’s house to ask if Sykes is around.
To amp up the abuse, Sykes captures a rattlesnake and keeps it in a box by the kitchen door. Delia and Sykes have gotten to the point where they can’t stand each other.
One night Delia finds the snake in her laundry.
[reader’s note: The entire story is setting up for a tragedy. I kept being worried that Sykes and Bertha were going to gang up on Delia, steal her house and bury her in the back yard or something. You gotta read the end! I was cheering and clapping. Just desserts for an evil man!]
The Gilded Six-Bits
[Question: Is there a chinaberry tree in every Hurston story?]
The story opens with a very house-proud description of a black couple’s yard and house. Everything, including Missie May, the woman, is scrubbed to a fine finish. It is a joyful Saturday ritual in which her husband, Joe, throws silver dollars in the open doorway before he hides and she chases him. Joe fills his pockets with fun things for his wife to find: candy, gum, soap, handkerchiefs. They have dinner and Joe says he wants to take Missie May to the new ice cream shop. They discuss Otis D. Slemmons who is a “fancy” man who opened the shop. Joe feels he doesn’t compare to a businessman like that. Slemmons has been telling people how much money and women he has. Joe wants to show off his woman to Slemmons. The ice cream shop owner compliments Joe’s wife.
Joe works the night shift and comes home every morning. They’ve only been married a year, but Joe is ready for children. He arrives home to find Missie May in bed with Slemmons! In the fight to get Slemmons out the door, Joe ends up with Slemmons’s gold watch. Joe, overwhelmed with feelings, put the money in his pocket without thinking and goes to bed.
Joe doesn’t throw her out but loses his fire. They don’t play, joke or touch. He keeps the gold piece he took off Slemmons in his pocket. It works like a void between the couple.
After months, they finally make love and Joe goes to work. Missie May finds the gold piece beneath her pillow. As Missie studied the gold, she found it was not true; it was a gilded half dollar. That is why Slemmons never allowed anyone to touch his “gold.” Did Joe leave the fake money there for her to find just like Slemmons had?
Missie May is pregnant. Joe is losing his health, but they are still making a go of it. They have a baby boy. Joe’s mother tells him the baby looks just like him.
Now the couple knows that Slemmons was a fake all along. They work hard, but take the misstep in their stride. Joe takes the fake money one day to the candy store where he hasn’t been in a long time. He shows the candy man the fake money and tells him of the loser he beat up to end up with it. He spends the (proper amount) of money all on candy kisses for his wife and baby. When he gets home he begins tossing silver dollars into the front room.
Summary notes and possible class assignments on
“What White Publishers Won’t Print” by Z. N. Hurston
- Whites lack of interest in internal lives/emotions of non-white peoples blocks understanding and increases fear
- Lack of lit about the higher emotions of love life and upper class Negroes and the minorities in general
- Publishers and producers only put forward those products that will make them money. Shy away from romantic life of Negroes and Jews
- Public lack of interest–why?
- Answer lies in THE AMERICAN MUSEUM OF UNNATURAL HISTORY: built on folk belief
- All non-whites are simple stereotypes
- There are no internal workings
- Dedicated to the convenient “typical”
- The public willingly accepts the untypical in Nordics, but feels cheated if the untypical is portrayed in others
- Urgent to realize minorities do think–and about more than race. Internally like everyone else
- Difference = bad. As long as the majority believes non-whites do not feel as they do they will continue the pattern of faulty thinking
- We must believe we have something in common.
- Evidence of high/complicated emotion ruled out which leads to lack of interest in romance without racial strife
- “Reversion to type”: no matter how high we may seem to climb, put us under pressure and we revert to type–to the bush, the jungle
- Necessary to know how the average behaves and lives
- Literature and art should mirror nature
Possible teaching ideas for this work:
- Thinking back on books you have been assigned so far, which cultural voices have you not heard?
- Think about authors from other cultures. Choose a culture you know little about. Research authors that are well-known within that culture. Write a bio on this author which includes a picture and a list of their works.
- Think about your own society: family, school, work. Who are the people you see frequently but do not know? Write an essay on what you may think of this person with the knowledge that you do not know them personally. We’ll follow by a question/answer session within class on what we think vs. what we know with classmates.
- What is an issue that you have explored within yourself that you have never/rarely seen discussed through media?