Saturday, March 31, 2012

Story in Harlem Slang

Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960)
From Zora Neale Hurston: Novels & Stories

Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston, 1938, by American photographer Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Van Vechten Collection.
In 1942 Zora Neal Hurston published her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road and enjoyed a brief period of mainstream success. The book sold well, “most critics liked it, and it won the Saturday Review’s $1,000 Anisfield-Wolf Award for its contribution to the field of ‘race relations,’” writes biographer Robert Hemenway. “More than at any point in her life, Zora became a black spokesperson, whose opinions were sought by a white reading public.”

During the next three years she published seven pieces in national magazines, including “Story in Harlem Slang,” which appeared in American Mercury in July 1942. Yet Hurston had to make a number of compromises to achieve that fame; her memoir had been seriously watered down to make it palatable and inoffensive to white audiences—and she was criticized for selling out. Arna Bontemps, another writer prominent during Harlem Renaissance, wrote pointedly in his review of Dust Tracks, “Miss Hurston deals very simply with the more serious aspects of Negro life in America—she ignores them.”

Hurston would never again achieve the kind of recognition she enjoyed during the early 1940s; she died in 1960 in relative obscurity and was buried in an unmarked grave. Her works were largely forgotten until the late 1970s, when a number of scholars and writers began rescuing them from oblivion after Alice Walker published an appreciation in Ms. magazine. The Library of America published the restored and unexpurgated text of Dust Tracks on a Road in 1995.

In “Story in Harlem Slang”—the only piece of fiction she published during her brief period in the limelight—Hurston uses her career as a folklorist to celebrate the community’s linguistic expression. For her non-Harlem (and mostly white) audience, she included an appendix at the end of the story, reprinted as the last three pages of the selection below. In an anthology published in 1990, Alan Dundes remarks on “how a good many of the slang items are still current” and notes that one reason is that it has often taken decades for slang from Harlem to reach “middle-class white Americans.” Since the emphasis is on wordplay and banter, the story’s plot is simple: a man named Marvel (nicknamed Jelly), originally from Alabama, runs into his friend Sweet Back, and the two boast and joke around a bit before encountering a young woman from Georgia. One theme of the story, notes Hemenway, recurs in much of Hurston’s writing: “that the North was no utopia, just as the South was not necessarily hell.”

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Wait till I light up my coal-pot and I'll tell you about this Zigaboo called Jelly. Well, all right now. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.