Sixty years after Zora Neale Hurston's death in relative obscurity, a new collection of short fiction by the legendary African-American author and anthropologist has arrived.
For readers more familiar with her novels, "Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick" will be a revelation not just in its celebration of Hurston's lesser-known efforts as a writer of short stories but also in the subjects and settings that it takes on. No longer can Hurston be considered a bard exclusively of the American South, as these narratives are set both in the rural South and in the Northeast, notably in Harlem.
One of the leading voices of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston received a renaissance of her own in the late 20th century due to black women writers and scholars who brought her work to prominence by writing about it, teaching it in university courses, getting her books back into print circulation and the like. Previously unpublished work, including "Barracoon: The Story of the Last 'Black Cargo,' " which was released in 2018, finally appeared in print. Leading these efforts were writers and editors such as Alice Walker. Like many writers of my generation, I have long genuflected at the altar of Hurston's work, starting with "Their Eyes Were Watching God" as a high school student, before discovering works like "Mules and Men" and "Jonah's Gourd Vine." Hurston's work has been a guiding light for my own writing, especially its radical insistence on the value of singular attention to black communities, the black vernacular and black oral traditions of speech and storytelling.
The more formally innovative stories in "Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick" are part of a series set in Harlem that includes "Book of Harlem," "Monkey Junk" and "She Rock," which are written in short, numbered verse like biblical psalms. "Monkey Junk" begins:
"1. And it came to pass in those days that one dwelt in the land of Harlemites who thought that he knew all the law and the prophets."
As in many of the stories collected here, and indeed across Hurston's body of work, the writer tells of people embroiled in the vicissitudes of romantic love, trying to make their way toward and occasionally away from each other amid cynicism, machismo, oppressive societal norms and betrayal. Here, Harlem is a battleground between men, who believe themselves to be wiser and more clever than their female counterparts, and the women who decide, sometimes quite literally, to cut them down to size. Remixing a biblical form for these tales of thwarted romance is not a purely stylistic choice but an intentional one that elevates everyday black men and women to the importance of biblical figures. Here we see not the cursed sons of Ham that American slavers purported African-Americans to be, but funny, clever and flawed humans whose dramas are worthy of a vaunted stage.
Hurston's stories do not merely document black experience in the early 20th century; they testify to larger truths about black life. The collection opens with "John Redding Goes to Sea," a tender and wry commentary on the limits of ambition for black youth, in which a young black man's dreams of traveling the world are only made possible in the afterlife. "Drenched in Light" on its face is a rather simple story about a feisty black child being adopted away from her family, but it leaves the reader wondering whether her new family might want to steal a piece of her soul. "Under the Bridge" is a gorgeously complicated narrative of a love triangle between an older man, his young wife and the man's son that adds nuance to the other romantic narratives presented here.
Fans and scholars of Hurston's work and the uninitiated alike will find many delights in these complex, thoughtful and wickedly funny portraits of black lives and communities. And the volume is richly complemented by a foreword from "An American Marriage" author Tayari Jones and an introduction by its editor, literary scholar Genevieve West. As we mourn the recent passing of literary giants such as Toni Morrison and Paule Marshall, this book is a significant testament to the enduring resonance of black women's writing.
Naomi Jackson is the author of "The Star Side of Bird Hill."
Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick
By: Zora Neale Hurston.
Publisher: Amistad, 304 pages, $25.99.
Coming Sunday: A review of “Apeirogon,” by Colum McCann.