photo montage of zora neale hurston by lyne lucien
Lyne Lucien
Lyne Lucien
Culture

Forgotten Short Stories of Zora Neale Hurston

A new collection unearths hidden gems and revisits old favorites from one of the most beloved and gifted authors of the Harlem Renaissance.

Zora Neale Hurston readers can’t wait to get their hands on Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick (Amistad/HarperCollins). The collection of recovered works from the legendary Hurston will be available on January 14. The 20th century novelist, folklorist and anthropologist was “one of the greatest writers of our time,” according to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, who passed away in August 2019.

The collected stories explore love, loss, relationships, racism and migration — topics that are still meaningful today. Eight “lost” stories are included here, recovered from obscure magazines and archives, along with 13 other timeless, short works. They were all written between 1921 and 1937, the height of the Harlem Renaissance, during which Hurston and other notable African American artists, such as her friend Langston Hughes, were residents of the New York City neighborhood.

Hurston’s bold and free-spirited writing style reflects what we know of her Harlem lifestyle. I can imagine her, fedora tipped to one side, wearing bold lipstick (as we often see her depicted in photos) and smartly debating at a café or making guests laugh late into the night at a speakeasy.

Hurston’s writing — described by her publisher as honest, clever and witty — tackles tough topics in an intimate way. Reading her can feel like listening to your grandmother talk about her past. For instance, Hurston penned several lighthearted short profiles and anecdotes about the poor, colorful and quirky characters of the small South Florida town of Eatonville, where she grew up. The town shopkeeper and his wife, a beggar, a vamp, a thief and others are comically interconnected and vividly drawn. These works, originally published in Messenger magazine in 1926 as “The Eatonville Anthology,” form a collection-within-a-collection at the heart of Straight Lick.

In “The Gilded Six-Bits,” a young couple allows true love and happiness to overcome infidelity and unforgiveness. In “Under the Bridge,” a young man lets his mother’s selfish love smother his only dream to leave their small town and see the world. These works reveal the tensions between love and pain.

“Drenched in Light” is the story of a poor yet imaginative child whose joyful spirit touches everyone she meets. However, it takes a stranger to help her grandmother see the child as anything more than a lazy daydreamer.

Hurston’s work can have particular resonance with Black women. Tracy Sherrod, editorial director of Amistad Books, said about the collected stories, “After our hugely successful publication of Barracoon in 2018, the trust of Zora Neale Hurston presented us with eight stunning lost stories. Immediately, we could see their importance in order for readers to fully understandZora’s literary legacy.”

Today, Hurston is perhaps best known for her classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God(1937), as well as two other fiction works, Moses, Man of the Mountain(1939) and Seraph on the Suwanee(1948). She also published a collection of African American folklore, Mules and Men,in 1935, her popular autobiography Dust Tracks on a Roadin 1942 and over 50 short stories, essays and plays. Her first book, Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”was finished in 1927 but was not published until 2018.

From humble beginnings to graduating from Barnard College in New York (the first Black student to do so),to becoming a published Black female author, Hurston has a real legacy. Published almost 100 years after her first short story, Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stickcelebrates her contribution to American literature.

Alice Walker, who names Hurston as the inspiration for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple, placed a headstone at Hurston’s grave in 1973. It reads: “Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South.”

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photo montage of zora neale hurston by lyne lucien
Lyne Lucien