For many writers, Zora Neale Hurston’s work has been a guiding light. Now there’s even more to read

Naomi Jackson

THE WASHINGTON POST – 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 who are more familiar with Hurston’s novels, the collection Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick is 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 Previously unpublished work, including Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’, which was released in 2018, finally appeared in print.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.

As in many of the stories collected, 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 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 historical figures. Here we see not the cursed sons of Ham that American slavers purported African Americans to be, but funny, clever and flawed human beings 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 travelling 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.

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.