Saturday, April 27, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 4: Zora Neale Hurston, Story in Harlem Slang (#118)

Zora Neale Hurston, "Story in Harlem Slang" (1942) from Zora Neale Hurston:
"Story in Harlem Slang" is more slang than story; and if you wanted to make an argument about how Zora Neale Hurston sold blackness to mainstream white audiences, you could put this story up front. The story involves one gigolo nicknamed Jelly--because he gives the sweetness to women--who meets another named Sweet Back, and they engage in a little semi-serious insult war; until they each try to pick up a woman so that she can buy the lucky guy a meal and/or some reefer.

In the grand tradition of "hey, what are those people over there doing?" reportage, Hurston provides an extensive glossary for the story--three pages of closely packed early jive, some of which is still in use today (only more widespread, of course). I could imagine black Americans of the 40s reading this and not being thrilled with Hurston's subject matter, but the story really seems like an excuse for the glossary. In fact, the story isn't enough of an excuse, since the glossary includes several terms/ideas not present int he story. Reading this story today, I'm less bothered by the depiction of black men as shiftless (still with us) than I am by the pervasive hierarchy of color, the distinction between good and bad hair, etc. (also, still with us), which is very much on display in the story and the glossary.

There's also a Hurston quick shift at the end: from the omniscient/80s stand-up routine ("this is how black guy's talk"), Hurston's final line is a melancholy remembrance by one of those gigolos of how good he had it back down South.

Curiously, while the characters' speech patterns are very distinct from the presumed audience of the American Mercury (white people who want to thrill at Mencken's insouciance), they are all very similar to each other. Just one more piece of evidence that the main thrust of this piece is as a linguistic exploration of Harlem slang--in case you didn't get that from the title. I almost wish this sort of sketch was still in fashion.

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