M Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction are some of my Literary Interests

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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Zora Neale Hurston: Two Stories-"Black Death" and "A Story in Harlem Slang"

"Black Death"  (1928, 4 pages)
"A Story in Harlem Slang"  (1930, 2 pages)


Two Stories by Zora Neale Hurston
Harlem Renaissance 

Zora Hurston (1881 to 1960-Alabama, USA) was one of the leading writers of the  Harlem Renaissance.   Hurston had a very interesting life.     Born in relative poverty she attended   Howard University until she was offered a scholarship  to attend Barnard college, an elite women's college at which she was the only person of color in attendance at the time.    She graduated, along with her very famous co-student Margaret Mead, with a degree in anthropology.     Her anthropological focus was on  the customs and speech of African-Americans living in the rural south of the USA.    Hurston studied and wrote about people from small towns in the Alabama and Florida very much as her mentor and former professor, Ruth Benedict did in her famous studies of the customs of the people of Polynesia.    Hurston also wrote and published a number of short stories, and novels.    Her most famous work was her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. ( Halle Barry played the lead character in a recent movie based on this novel.    It is too bad Hurston who died in poverty did not live to see this movie made!)   She co-wrote a play with Langston Hughes.  

In February of this year I read and posted on "Spunk", my first reading of Zora Hurston.   Yesterday I read two more of her short stories.   

If "A Story in Slang Harlem" was written by a writer who was not of African-American background it would be seen as a racist story playing up standard stereotypes.   In my post read research I found that Hurston was the subject of criticism for her treatment of rural impoverished African Americans.     I have said before I do not normally like attempts to recreate  rural or "country" dialects in the literature I read.    I find it breaks  the rhythm of my reading and it very often comes across as patronizing on the part of the author.   Here is a sample of what I mean from "A Story in Harlem"

""Who? Me? Long as you been knowing me, Sweet Back, you ain't never seen me with nothing but pe-olas. I can get any frail eel I want to. How come I'm up here in New York? You don't know, do you? Since youse dumb to the fact, I reckon I'll have to make you hep. I had to leave from down south'cause Miss Anne used to worry me so bad to go with me. Who, me? Man, I don't deal in no coal. Know what I tell 'em? If they's white, they's right! If they's yellow, they's mellow! If they's brown, they can stick around. But if they come black, they better git way back! Tell 'em bout me!"

I found this story of interest mainly to see if I could figure out what the characters in the story were saying.   

Hurston studied the customs of African Americans in rural Florida in much the same way her Bernard Professor Ruth Benedict studied the customs of Polynesians.     "Black Death" is about beliefs in witch doctors and such among African Americans.   (I found it kind of interesting that the story is set in the area of Orlando Florida now the home of Disney World.)   It is about much feared man who can, for a fee, place curses on your enemies.    


"In the swamp at the head of the lake, she saw Jack-O-Lanterns darting here and there and three hundred years of America passed like the mist of morning. Africa reached out its dark hand and claimed its own. Drums, tom,tom,tom,tom,tom,beat in her ears. Strange demons seized her. Witch doctors danced before her, laid hands upon her alternately freezing and burning her flesh. She cried out in formless terror more than once before she found herself within the house of Morgan."


This story could be seen as respecting the origins of African Americans or it could also be seen as reducing them to caricatures right out of the play book of racists.


Both of these stories can be read HERE.


These stories can be read in just a few minutes.   I am glad I read these stories even though I am made a bit uneasy by them.   They could easily be seen as pandering to the prejudices of the time.    I would sort of characterize the stories as "curiosity reads".


Mel u

1 comment:

Suko said...

Mel, thanks for the links. I just read the first story, about Jelly--I'm not sure what to think. I've also read the novel, Their Eyes were Watching God.