Once again, Zora Neale Hurston, who died in 1960, has been published. She’s like the literary Tupac these days. Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick is a collection of short stories Hurston wrote between 1921 and 1937 (which is when her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God was published). According to the introduction, eight stories within the collection were “lost,” though I’m not sure why lost is in quote marks. That’s not explained.
Much like Bleak House by Charles Dickens is improved by knowing how English law worked at the time, it’s important to know the context of black Americans during the 1920s to understand the importance of Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick. Harlem went through a renaissance of art, music, writing, dance, and theater, all done by black artists. Looking down upon their “ignorant” brethren in the Southern states, artists in Northern states fought to create art that represented “The New Negro,” a person who was intelligent, avoided reinforcing stereotypes of minstrel shows and the easily fooled individual who dare believe in conjuring, and most definitely not an embarrassment to his race.
But Zora Neale Hurston disagreed with the movement. She suggested that to get into the thick of a culture, one had to represent that culture faithfully because trying to be impressive (i.e. act white) was impossible with power differences between races. Where other Harlem Renaissance writers felt Hurston’s characters were embarrassing “low-down folks,” she saw them as complex people. This is her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, she’s writing about, not a concept. Thus, Hurston was despised by many Harlem artists.
For a collection that is purported to focus on Harlem writing, Hurston doesn’t make much of Harlem as a place in her stories. Oftentimes, someone who has been up north returns to the south and tells folks that Harlem was so wonderful, a place where there’s nice clothes and women and dancing. Upon getting to Harlem, characters quickly learn they don’t fit in any better than a horse at an auto garage. Though Hurston touches on the culture shock of the two million black Americans who participated in the Great Migration, it isn’t fully explored how they made that transition.
Instead, the stories are about what it means to be a man. Hurston is most famous for her strong, amazing female characters, and although resolute women appear throughout, it’s more how those women shape guys into MEN either directly or indirectly. In “Muttsy,” the title character makes a living as a gambler. But when he meets a young woman newly migrated from the south who doesn’t believe gambling is decent, he quits to find an “honest” job so he can marry her and be a real man. When Muttsy’s old gambler friends get jealous, they try to lure him away from his new life. Is a man one who cares decently for a woman, or one who makes his own choices?
A similar theme appears in “John Redding Goes to Sea.” A young man vows to follow the local river out to the sea to explore the world for two years, an opportunity his father missed. But when his mother badgers him for trying to leave her, he stays and marries. Again the urge to travel arises, but now he has a wife and mother shaming him for trying to follow his dreams. Although the ending is a bit saccharine, it’s also poignant and suggests that no woman controls a man’s dreams through manipulation.
A man having choices doesn’t mean he just be selfish. He has to consider his situation. When the husband in “The Country in the Woman” moves from the southern states to Harlem, he decides Harlem is such a big place that he can easily court girlfriends and his wife will never notice. Upon the wife’s arrival to the big city, she stands out — like every horror the subscribers of “The New Negro” fear — with her clodhopper slang and in homespun clothes, and her willingness to make a scene in public. Like when she finds her husband flirting with other women. If he wants to hold onto his image as a refined Harlem man, he has to consider his wife, too.
This wouldn’t be a Zora Neale Hurston book if it wasn’t painfully funny. I’ve never seen someone take a story about migrating from the southern to the northern states, but use phrasing from the Bible, and to such hilarious effect. One such Biblical/1920s mash-up describes a man who thinks he knows all about women, until he realizes no woman wants him. But there is one special lady:
“And in that same year a maiden gazeth upon his checkbook and she coveted it. . . . Then did he make a joyful noise, saying, ‘Behold, I have chose a wife, yea verily a maiden I have exalted above all others, for see I have wed her.'”
Not all stories are written in this playful Biblical style. Classic Hurston means dialect and idioms. And that may turn off many readers. Take the title, which is an idiom: Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick. If you’re struggling to figure out what that means, you’ll likely be challenged by any Hurston you read. The dialect can be learned, and I’ve been working on it for years. Continuing to practice helps, and I also spent a few years going through Paul Laurence Dunbar’s entire collected poems (available for free on Project Gutenberg). He writes about 50/50 in dialect and standard English. Here is a challenging example from Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick:
“No, but ah’d jes lufter go.”
“Git yer bunnet an’ we’ll jues run eround dere dis ehenin.”
What’s a good way to practice with dialect from black writers around the the late 1800s to early 1900s? Try some Dunbar poems, as I mentioned, and also get the audiobook and physical copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God and read along as Ruby Dee narrates.
My verdict? Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick feels like a book for hardcore fans like myself. Some stories read as incomplete and more amateur than I’m used to from Hurston, but these were her first years as a writer, so it’s to be expected. Plus, she’s writing her way around (using that crooked stick) racism and sexism. While it’s enjoyable, I could see Hurston basically writing her way through ideas that would later make up her future successful novels.