American Literature
Research and Analysis Web Site

This page was produced by the students at the University of South Florida in Fort Myers under the direction of Dr. Jim Wohlpart. For more information, please see the ALRA homepage Please send comments and suggestions to wohlpart@fgcu.edu.


Zora Neale Hurston
"The Gilded Six-Bits" and "Sweat"

 

Contents

  • The Harlem Renaissance: The Development of a New African-American Consciousness
  • "Sweat" and "The Gilded Six-Bits": Between Hurston's Biography and Education
  • The Text of "Sweat" with Anchors for Primary Symbols and Images
  • Fall From Eden: God's Judgment in Hurston's "Sweat"
  • The Text of "The Gilded Six-Bits" with Anchors for Primary Symbols and Images
  • Conceptual Terms in African-American Literature: W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and
  •  the Struggle for Identity
  • Between the Political and the Non-Political: Critical Readings of Hurston's "Sweat" and
  • "The Gilded Six-Bits"

    Project Leader: Barbara L. Williams


    The Harlem Renaissance:
    The Development of a New African-American Consciousness

    Angela Wiley

    In New York in 1905, after a successful real estate market had declined, landlords and developers attempted to entice African-American realtors and tenants. After and during World War I, thousands of blacks migrated from the South and other areas to look for jobs and, by 1923, the number of blacks in New York was estimated to be 183,428, nearly three times that reported in 1910. Two thirds of these people settled in Harlem which, at that time, was distinctively black (Lewis, "Harlem's First Shining" 57). In 1917, an intellectual movement, known as the Harlem Renaissance, began in Harlem and lasted until 1935. David Levering Lewis, in his introduction to The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, writes that:

    W.E.B. Du Bois described the leaders of the movement as the Talented Tenth, a few privileged professionals who were nearly all second generation college graduates. These intellectuals "perceived that, although the roads to the ballot box, the union hall . . . and the office were blocked" off, there were two paths that were not barred: arts and letters (Lewis, "Harlem's First Shining" 58). The Talented Tenth created a new ideology of racial assertiveness that was to be embraced by influential African-Americans, which included educated doctors, lawyers and businessmen. These people, as Du Bois theorized, would comprise ten percent of the total African-American population in 1920 (Lewis, Introduction xv). However, statistics show that there were by no means as many educated African-American leaders in 1920 as Du Bois had hoped.

    In the fall of 1917, the rediscovered African-American was publicly announced with Emily Hapgood's production of three one-act plays: The Rider of Dreams, Simon the Cyrenian, and Granny Maumee, all written by her husband, Ridgely Torrence. This production, presented at the Old Garden Street Theater near Broadway, was a significant event because the cast was all-black and the parts were dignified. The plays and the actors were both given high reviews, which helped propel African-Americans into the spotlight (Lewis, Introduction xx). Thus, African-Americans were beginning to assert themselves and to be recognized in the literary and artistic realms, which white Americans dominated at the time. Two years later, the Hapgood production was preceeded by the presentation of O'Neill's Emperor Jones and several other plays which featured black actors. The Harlem Renaissance, which would develop a new African-American consciousness, had officially begun and would continue until 1935.

    Acccording to David Levering Lewis, the literary movement was broken up into three phases: the Bohemian Renaissance, the era of the Talented Tenth, and the Negro Renaissance (Introducation xvii). Each phase had distinctly different influences and produced different writings. Phase one, the Bohemian Renaissance, spanning from 1917-1923, was dominated by white authors writing about black people. These authors, the Bohemians and Revolutionaries, were fascinated with the life of black people (Lewis, Introduction xvii). Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones was an example of a play, written by a white author, which featured a black man as a main character who was, in turn, played by a black actor, Charles Gilpin. Ironically, the play was not accepted by the Harlem community. "Although O'Neill's Harlem audience probably knew little, intellectually, of psychic journeys and racial unconscious, they knew that the jungle had no connection with their lives, and they recognized the stereotypes O'Neill was using" (Cooley 60). However, the play was a huge success outside of Harlem for many decades. In fact, Gilpin's superb acting and O'Neill's theatrical affects (gathered from "superficial contacts with black life") combined to produce a play that helped shaped the course of American Drama of the time (Cooley 60).

    The second phase, from 1924-1926, was presided over by the Civil Rights establishments of the National Urban League (NUL) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It was a "period of interracial collaboration between Zora Neal Hurston's 'Negrotarian' whites and the African American Talented Tenth" (Lewis, Introduction xvii). The dominant ideology of the third phase was the advancement of African-American civil rights through the creation of an artistic and literary movement (Lewis, Introduction xxxi). According to W.E.B. Du Bois, white people, who suggested that blacks quit complaining about not having recognition and start showing what they could do, helped create the second period of the Harlem Renaissance. Black writers, afraid to fight and allured by money and publicity, agreed and decided to show what they deserved and let the reward come to them (Du Bois 101).

    The NUL and NAACP, which propaganda had influenced, were the driving force in this phase of the Harlem Renaissance and dictated what should be written.

    The third and final phase, beginning before the second phase was complete, was called the Negro Renaissance. African-Americans themselves dominated the third phase of the Harlem Renaissance, which began in 1926 and ended with the Harlem riot of 1935 and was the longest-running of the three phases (Lewis, Introduction xvii-xviii). It was marked by a rebellion of writers and artists against many of the Civil Rights establishments. "Among some of the poets and writers there was simmering ingratitude and, finally, even open revolt against the high-toned artistic standards of the NAACP's and Urban League's distinguished directors" (Lewis, "Harlem's First Shining" 61). Writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurmon openly expressed their feelings and their identities without fear or shame. No longer looking for approval from whites, they only considered whether their works pleased African-Americans (Lewis, "Harlem's First Shining" 61). The black writers were reacting against the stereotypes of African-Americans and were attempting to maintain an art that was unique while also maintaining their self- and racial-identities (Cooley 62-63).

    As short as the literary period of the Harlem Renaissance was, a legacy was left that African-Americans today can be proud of. Although the uneducated workingman of Harlem knew little about the success of the black writers, studies estimate that, between 1919 and 1930, more black writers were published than in any other decade in American history prior to the 1960s (Hemenway 36). "America at large, if more by osmosis than conscious attention, was also the richer for the color, emotion, humanity and cautionary vision thrown up by Harlem during its Golden Age" (Lewis, "Harlem's First Shining" 92). The Harlem Renaissance created a new consciousness in both white and black Americans, and its importance lies more in the legacy it left behind of a new type of black fiction than in the actual socio-economic changes it incurred.

    Works Cited

    Cooley, John. "In Pursuit of the Primitive: Black Portraits by Eugene O'Neill and Other Village
    Bohemians." The Harlem Renaissance Re-examined.  Ed. Victor A. Kramer.
    New York: AMS Press, 1987. 51-63.

    Du Bois, W.E.B. "Criteria of Negro Art." The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader.  Ed. David

    Levering Lewis.  New York: Viking, 1994. 100-105.

    Hemenway, Robert E.  Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography.  Chicago: U of Illinois P,

    1977.

    Lewis, David Levering. "Harlem's First Shining." Modern Maturity 32.1. (Feb.-Mar. 1989):

    57-62 & 92.

    - - - . Introduction.  The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader.  Ed. David Levering Lewis.

    New York: Viking, 1994. xv-xliii.

    Return to Top


    "Sweat" and "The Gilded Six-Bits":
    Between Hurston's Biography and Education

    Jill Uppling
     

    Zora Neale Hurston was born in Eatonville, Florida, a small town inhabited primarily by African-Americans. Her mother died shortly after her birth leaving Hurston in the care of her father, who quickly married a woman who sent little Hurston to school in Jacksonville, providing her with her first glance at racial segregation. Hurston left school due to financial difficulties and family problems which led her to stay with her mother's friends. At age fourteen, she worked as a maid to earn money for her education but failed miserably. Hurston's first successful employment was with the Gilbert and Sullivan repertory company, which offered Hurston travel and reading time (Howard 13-16). When that job was exhausted, she worked as a waitress to get through school in Baltimore. She later attended Morgan Academy supported by employment with a clergyman. In the fall of 1918-1920 Hurston attended Howard University where she met and fell in love with Herbert Sheen, who she eventually married--a marriage that lasted only four years (Howard 17).

    Hurston's literary work captured the attention of Charles Spurgeon Johnson, founder of Opportunity Magazine. Based on the merit of her work, he invited Hurston to come to New York, which was her introduction to the Harlem Renaissance and which provided her with inspiration and opportunity in the literary world of African-Americans (Howard 17-19). Hurston's "Sweat" and "The Gilded Six Bits" were influenced by Hurston's life within the Harlem Renaissance.

    Hurston's "Sweat," written in 1926, portrays two primary influences in her life. The first influence was Hurston's childhood town of Eatonville and its economic situation (Lillios 13). Hurston's town was ideal for a young African-American girl in the early nineteenth century, providing a safe haven from restrictions of race (Howard 16). The town also preserved its African-American culture and history due to its seclusion from Winter Park (Seidel 110-111). "Sweat" reveals much of Hurston's nostalgic memories, though it primarily focuses on Eatonville's economic dependence on the neighboring town of Winter Park. When Hurston was growing up many of Winter Park's inhabitants were white snow birds with money. Like Delia in "Sweat," African-American residents of Eatonville made daily pilgrimages across the rail road tracks to clean houses, tend gardens, cook meals and watch the children of Winter Park. Hurston took advantage of this situation by working as a maid, though she failed by refusing to behave humbly and fought off sexual advances by her employers (Howard 16).

    "Sweat" is influenced not only by Hurston's childhood town but also by her relationship with her employer, Fannie Hurst (Seidel 117). Hurston met the writer Hurst at Opportunity's award dinner, May 1, 1925, one year prior to the writing of "Sweat." Hurst hired Hurston as a live-in secretary (Howard 19). Hurston felt dependent on Fannie Hurst's white patronage for recognition, much like Delia did in "Sweat," and saw her patron as a restriction to her art (Seidel 117).

    The "Gilded Six Bits," written in 1933, was influenced by Hurston's anthropological studies and her rocky relationships in marriage. Hurston first began her anthropological studies after she graduated with a B.A. Degree in 1928, from Barnard College. Hurston had been advised to take anthropology classes to broaden her education. Dr. Franz Boas, a professor of anthropology at Barnard, took Hurston under his wing and "made an anthropologist out of her," giving here analytical tools for returning south to gather black folklore (Howard 19). For this journey, which began in late Febuary 1927, Hurston was awarded a fellowship to study and collect southern folklore, a unique opportunity to compare her new home of New York city to her old home of Eatonville (Howard 20-21). "The Gilded Six Bits" focuses on this comparison, demonstrating that the promises of a city are often gilded and that life in quaint rural folk ways is life with value and strength (Howard 70).

    Hurston's difficulty in marriages was another contribution to Hurston's story. Hurston was married and divorced twice. Her first marriage, on May 19, 1927, was to Herbert Sheen, a jazz pianist, singer, and medical student; the two divorced shortly after on July 7, 1931 (Howard 18). Hurston's rocky marriage occurred just prior to the writing of "The Gilded Six-Bits" which portrays a marriage replete with infidelity and hatred (Howard 71). In "The Gilded Six-Bits," Missie's infidelity tests the strength of the marriage with Joe, a marriage which ultimately weathers the storm. Perhaps the marriage in "The Gilded Six-Bits" is spared because, despite Hurston's hardships in her own marriages, she saw marriage as an important institution capable of providing possibilities in life (Howard 71).

    Hurston's stories "Sweat" and "The Gilded Six-Bits" are influenced by her life as an African-American woman in the Harlem Renaissance. The greatest influence in Hurston's life for "Sweat" was the economical situation in her small childhood town of Eatonville and her relationship with her patron, Fannie Hurst. "The Gilded Six-Bits" was influenced by her educational endeavors in anthropology and her unsuccessful marriage with Herbert Sheen.

    Works Cited

    Howard, Lillie P.  Zora Neale Hurston.  Boston: Twayne, 1980.

    Hemenway, Robert E.  Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography.  Urbana: U of Illinois P,

    1977.

    Lillios, Anna. "Excursions into Zora Neale Hurston's Eatonville." Zora in Florida.

    Eds. Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel.  Orlando: U of Central Florida P, 1977.
    13-27.

    Seidel, Kathryn Lee. "The Artist in the Kitchen: The Economics of Creativity in Hurston's

    'Sweat.'" Zora in Florida.   Eds. Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel. Orlando: U
    of Central Florida P, 1977. 110-120.

    Return to Top


    Zora Neale Hurston's "Sweat"

    with anchors for the primary symbols and images
    Barbara L. Williams
     

    It was eleven o'clock of a Spring night in Florida. It was Sunday. Any other night, Delia Jones would have been in bed for two hours by this time. But she was a wash-woman, and Monday morning meant a great deal to her. So she collected the soiled clothes on Saturday when she returned the clean things. Sunday night after church, she sorted them and put the white things to soak. It saved her almost a half day's start. A great hamper in the bedroom held the clothes that she brought home. It was so much neater than a number of bundles lying around.

    She squatted in the kitchen floor beside the great pile of clothes, sorting them into small heaps according to color, and humming a song in a mournful key, but wondering through it all where Sykes, her husband, had gone with her horse and buckboard.

    Just then something long, round, limp and black fell upon her shoulders and slithered to the floor beside her. A great terror took hold of her. It softened her knees and dried her mouth so that it was a full minute before she could cry out or move. Then she saw that it was the big bull whip her husband liked to carry when he drove.

    She lifted her eyes to the door and saw him standing there bent over with laughter at her fright. She screamed at him.

    "Sykes, what you throw dat whip on me like dat? You know it would skeer me--looks just like a snake, an' you knows how skeered Ah is of snakes."

    "Course Ah knowed it! That's how come Ah done it." He slapped his leg with his hand and almost rolled on the ground in his mirth. "If you such a big fool dat you got to have a fit over a earth worm or a string, Ah don't keer how bad Ah skeer you."

    "You aint got no business doing it. Gawd knows it's a sin. Some day Ah'm goin' tuh drop dead from some of yo' foolishness. 'Nother thing, where you been wid mah rig? Ah feeds dat pony. He aint fuh you to be drivin' wid no bull whip."

    "You sho is one aggravatin' nigger woman!" he declared and stepped into the room. She resumed her work and did not answer him at once. "Ah done tole you time and again to keep them white folks' clothes outa dis house."

    He picked up the whip and glared down at her. Delia went on with her work. She went out into the yard and returned with a galvanized tub and set it on the washbench. She saw that Sykes had kicked all of the clothes together again, and now stood in her way truculently, his whole manner hoping, praying, for an argument. But she walked calmly around him and commenced to re-sort the things.

    "Next time, Ah'm gointer kick 'em outdoors," he threatened as he struck a match along the leg of his corduroy breeches.

    Delia never looked up from her work, and her thin, stooped shoulders sagged further.

    "Ah aint for no fuss t'night Sykes. Ah just come from taking sacrament at the church house."

    He snorted scornfully. "Yeah, you just come from de church house on a Sunday night, but heah you is gone to work on them clothes. You ain't nothing but a hypocrite. One of them amen-corner Christians--sing, whoop, and shout, then come home and wash white folks clothes on the Sabbath."

    He stepped roughly upon the whitest pile of things, kicking them helter-skelter as he crossed the room. His wife gave a little scream of dismay, and quickly gathered them together again.

    "Sykes, you quit grindin' dirt into these clothes! How can Ah git through by Sat'day if Ah don't start on Sunday?"

    "Ah don't keer if you never git through. Anyhow, Ah done promised Gawd and a couple of other men, Ah aint gointer have it in mah house. Don't gimme no lip neither, else Ah'll throw 'em out and put mah fist up side yo' head to boot."

    Delia's habitual meekness seemed to slip from her shoulders like a blown scarf. She was on her feet; her poor little body, her bare knuckly hands bravely defying the strapping hulk before her.

    "Looka heah, Sykes, you done gone too fur. Ah been married to you fur fifteen years, and Ah been takin' in washin' for fifteen years. Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!"

    "What's that got to do with me?" he asked brutally.

    "What's it got to do with you, Sykes? Mah tub of suds is filled yo' belly with vittles more times than yo' hands is filled it. Mah sweat is done paid for this house and Ah reckon Ah kin keep on sweatin' in it."

    She seized the iron skillet from the stove and struck a defensive pose, which act surprised him greatly, coming from her. It cowed him and he did not strike her as he usually did.

    "Naw you won't," she panted, "that ole snaggle-toothed black woman you runnin' with aint comin' heah to pile up on mah sweat and blood. You aint paid for nothin' on this place, and Ah'm gointer stay right heah till Ah'm toted out foot foremost."

    "Well, you better quit gittin' me riled up, else they'll be totin' you out sooner than you expect. Ah'm so tired of you Ah don't know whut to do. Gawd! how Ah hates skinny wimmen!"

    A little awed by this new Delia, he sidled out of the door and slammed the back gate after him. He did not say where he had gone, but she knew too well. She knew very well that he would not return until nearly daybreak also. Her work over, she went on to bed but not to sleep at once. Things had come to a pretty pass!

    She lay awake, gazing upon the debris that cluttered their matrimonial trail. Not an image left standing along the way. Anything like flowers had long ago been drowned in the salty stream that had been pressed from her heart. Her tears, her sweat, her blood. She had brought love to the union and he had brought a longing after the flesh. Two months after the wedding, he had given her the first brutal beating. She had the memory of his numerous trips to Orlando with all of his wages when he had returned to her penniless, even before the first year had passed. She was young and soft then, but now she thought of her knotty, muscled limbs, her harsh knuckly hands, and drew herself up into an unhappy little ball in the middle of the big feather bed. Too late now to hope for love, even if it were not Bertha it would be someone else. This case differed from the others only in that she was bolder than the others. Too late for everything except her little home. She had built it for her old days, and planted one by one the trees and flowers there. It was lovely to her, lovely.

    Somehow, before sleep came, she found herself saying aloud: "Oh well, whatever goes over the Devil's back, is got to come under his belly. Sometime or ruther, Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing." After that she was able to build a spiritual earthworks against her husband. His shells could no longer reach her. Amen. She went to sleep and slept until he announced his presence in bed by kicking her feet and rudely snatching the covers away.

    "Gimme some kivah heah, an' git yo' damn foots over on yo' own side! Ah oughter mash you in yo' mouf fuh drawing dat skillet on me."

    Delia went clear to the rail without answering him. A triumphant indifference to all that he was or did.

    *****
     

    The week was as full of work for Delia as all other weeks, and Saturday found her behind her little pony, collecting and delivering clothes.

    It was a hot, hot day near the end of July. The village men on Joe Clarke's porch even chewed cane listlessly. They did not hurl the cane-knots as usual. They let them dribble over the edge of the porch. Even conversation had collapsed under the heat.

    "Heah come Delia Jones," Jim Merchant said, as the shaggy pony came 'round the bend of the road toward them. The rusty buckboard was heaped with baskets of crisp, clean laundry.

    "Yep," Joe Lindsay agreed. "Hot or col', rain or shine, jes ez reg'lar ez de weeks roll roun' Delia carries 'em an' fetches 'em on Sat'day."

    "She better if she wanter eat," said Moss. "Syke Jones aint wuth de shot an' powder hit would tek tuh kill 'em. Not to huh he aint. "

    "He sho' aint," Walter Thomas chimed in. "It's too bad, too, cause she wuz a right pritty lil trick when he got huh. Ah'd uh mah'ied huh mahseff if he hadnter beat me to it."

    Delia nodded briefly at the men as she drove past.

    "Too much knockin' will ruin any 'oman. He done beat huh 'nough tuh kill three women, let 'lone change they looks," said Elijah Moseley. "How Syke kin stommuck dat big black greasy Mogul he's layin' roun wid, gits me. Ah swear dat eight-rock couldn't kiss a sardine can Ah done throwed out de back do' 'way las' yeah."

    "Aw, she's fat, thass how come. He's allus been crazy 'bout fat women," put in Merchant. "He'd a' been tied up wid one long time ago if he could a' found one tuh have him. Did Ah tell yuh 'bout him come sidlin' roun' mah wife--bringin' her a basket uh pecans outa his yard fuh a present? Yessir, mah wife! She tol' him tuh take 'em right straight back home, cause Delia works so hard ovah dat washtub she reckon everything on de place taste lak sweat an' soapsuds. Ah jus' wisht Ah'd a' caught 'im 'dere! Ah'd a' made his hips ketch on fiah down dat shell road."

    "Ah know he done it, too. Ah sees 'im grinnin' at every 'oman dat passes," Walter Thomas said. "But even so, he useter eat some mighty big hunks uh humble pie tuh git dat lil 'oman he got. She wuz ez pritty ez a speckled pup! Dat wuz fifteen yeahs ago. He useter be so skeered uh losin' huh, she could make him do some parts of a husband's duty. Dey never wuz de same in de mind."

    "There oughter be a law about him," said Lindsay. "He aint fit tuh carry guts tuh a bear."

    Clarke spoke for the first time. "Taint no law on earth dat kin make a man be decent if it aint in 'im. There's plenty men dat takes a wife lak dey do a joint uh sugar-cane. It's round, juicy an' sweet when dey gits it. But dey squeeze an' grind, squeeze an' grind an' wring tell dey wring every drop uh pleasure dat's in 'em out. When dey's satisfied dat dey is wrung dry, dey treats 'em jes lak dey do a cane-chew. Dey throws em away. Dey knows whut dey is doin' while dey is at it, an' hates theirselves fuh it but they keeps on hangin' after huh tell she's empty. Den dey hates huh fuh bein' a cane-chew an' in de way."

    "We oughter take Syke an' dat stray 'oman uh his'n down in Lake Howell swamp an' lay on de rawhide till they cain't say Lawd a' mussy.' He allus wuz uh ovahbearin' niggah, but since dat white 'oman from up north done teached 'im how to run a automobile, he done got too biggety to live--an' we oughter kill 'im," Old Man Anderson advised.

    A grunt of approval went around the porch. But the heat was melting their civic virtue, and Elijah Moseley began to bait Joe Clarke.

    "Come on, Joe, git a melon outa dere an' slice it up for yo' customers. We'se all sufferin' wid de heat. De bear's done got me!"

    "Thass right, Joe, a watermelon is jes' whut Ah needs tuh cure de eppizudicks," Walter Thomas joined forces with Moseley. "Come on dere, Joe. We all is steady customers an' you aint set us up in a long time. Ah chooses dat long, bowlegged Floridy favorite."

    "A god, an' be dough. You all gimme twenty cents and slice way," Clarke retorted. "Ah needs a col' slice m'self. Heah, everybody chip in. Ah'll lend y'll mah meat knife."

    The money was quickly subscribed and the huge melon brought forth. At that moment, Sykes and Bertha arrived. A determined silence fell on the porch and the melon was put away again.

    Merchant snapped down the blade of his jackknife and moved toward the store door.

    "Come on in, Joe, an' gimme a slab uh sow belly an' uh pound uh coffee--almost fuhgot 'twas Sat'day. Got to git on home." Most of the men left also.

    Just then Delia drove past on her way home, as Sykes was ordering magnificently for Bertha. It pleased him for Delia to see.

    "Git whutsoever yo' heart desires, Honey. Wait a minute, Joe. Give huh two bottles uh strawberry soda-water, uh quart uh parched ground-peas, an' a block uh chewin' gum."

    With all this they left the store, with Sykes reminding Bertha that this was his town and she could have it if she wanted it.

    The men returned soon after they left, and held their watermelon feast.

    "Where did Syke Jones git da 'oman from nohow?" Lindsay asked.

    "Ovah Apopka. Guess dey musta been cleanin' out de town when she lef'. She don't look lak a thing but a hunk uh liver wid hair on it."

    "Well, she sho' kin squall," Dave Carter contributed. "When she gits ready tuh laff, she jes' opens huh mouf an' latches it back tuh de las' notch. No ole grandpa alligator down in Lake Bell ain't got nothin' on huh."

    *****
     

    Bertha had been in town three months now. Sykes was still paying her room rent at Della Lewis'--the only house in town that would have taken her in. Sykes took her frequently to Winter Park to "stomps." He still assured her that he was the swellest man in the state.

    "Sho' you kin have dat lil' ole house soon's Ah kin git dat 'oman outa dere. Everything b'longs tuh me an' you sho' kin have it. Ah sho' 'bominates uh skinny 'oman. Lawdy, you sho' is got one portly shape on you! You kin git anything you wants. Dis is mah town an' you sho' kin have it."

    Delia's work-worn knees crawled over the earth in Gethsemane and up the rocks of Calvary many, many times during these months. She avoided the villagers and meeting places in her efforts to be blind and deaf. But Bertha nullified this to a degree, by coming to Delia's house to call Sykes out to her at the gate.

    Delia and Sykes fought all the time now with no peaceful interludes. They slept and ate in silence. Two or three times Delia had attempted a timid friendliness, but she was repulsed each time. It was plain that the breaches must remain agape.

    The sun had burned July to August. The heat streamed down like a million hot arrows, smiting all things living upon the earth. Grass withered, leaves browned, snakes went blind in shedding and men and dogs went mad. Dog days!

    Delia came home one day and found Sykes there before her. She wondered, but started to go on into the house without speaking, even though he was standing in the kitchen door and she must either stoop under his arm or ask him to move. He made no room for her. She noticed a soap box beside the steps, but paid no particular attention to it, knowing that he must have brought it there. As she was stooping to pass under his outstretched arm, he suddenly pushed her backward, laughingly.

    "Look in de box dere Delia, Ah done brung yuh somethin'!"

    She nearly fell upon the box in her stumbling, and when she saw what it held, she all but fainted outright.

    "Syke! Syke, mah Gawd! You take dat rattlesnake 'way from heah! You gottuh. Oh, Jesus, have mussy!"

    "Ah aint gut tuh do nuthin' uh de kin'--fact is Ah aint got tuh do nothin' but die. Taint no use uh you puttin' on airs makin' out lak you skeered uh dat snake--he's gointer stay right heah tell he die. He wouldn't bite me cause Ah knows how tuh handle 'im. Nohow he wouldn't risk breakin' out his fangs 'gin yo' skinny laigs."

    "Naw, now Syke, don't keep dat thing 'roun' heah tuh skeer me tuh death. You knows Ah'm even feared uh earth worms. Thass de biggest snake Ah evah did see. Kill 'im Syke, please."

    "Doan ast me tuh do nothin' fuh yuh. Goin' roun' trying' tuh be so damn asterperious. Naw, Ah aint gonna kill it. Ah think uh damn sight mo' uh him dan you! Dat's a nice snake an' anybody doan lak 'im kin jes' hit de grit."

    The village soon heard that Sykes had the snake, and came to see and ask questions.

    "How de hen-fire did you ketch dat six-foot rattler, Syke?" Thomas asked.

    "He's full uh frogs so he caint hardly move, thass how. Ah eased up on 'm. But Ah'm a snake charmer an' knows how tuh handle 'em. Shux, dat aint nothin'. Ah could ketch one eve'y day if Ah so wanted tuh."

    "Whut he needs is a heavy hick'ry club leaned real heavy on his head. Dat's de bes 'way tuh charm a rattlesnake."

    "Naw, Walt, y'll jes' don't understand dese diamon' backs lak Ah do," said Sykes in a superior tone of voice.

    The village agreed with Walter, but the snake stayed on. His box remained by the kitchen door with its screen wire covering. Two or three days later it had digested its meal of frogs and literally came to life. It rattled at every movement in the kitchen or the yard. One day as Delia came down the kitchen steps she saw his chalky-white fangs curved like scimitars hung in the wire meshes. This time she did not run away with averted eyes as usual. She stood for a long time in the doorway in a red fury that grew bloodier for every second that she regarded the creature that was her torment.

    That night she broached the subject as soon as Sykes sat down to the table.

    "Syke, Ah wants you tuh take dat snake 'way fum heah. You done starved me an' Ah put up widcher, you done beat me an Ah took dat, but you done kilt all mah insides bringin' dat varmint heah."

    Sykes poured out a saucer full of coffee and drank it deliberately before he answered her.

     

    "A whole lot Ah keer 'bout how you feels inside uh out. Dat snake aint goin' no damn wheah till Ah gits ready fuh 'im tuh go. So fur as beatin' is concerned, yuh aint took near all dat you gointer take ef yuh stay 'roun' me."

    Delia pushed back her plate and got up from the table. "Ah hates you, Sykes," she said calmly. "Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat Ah useter love yuh. Ah done took an' took till mah belly is full up tuh mah neck. Dat's de reason Ah got mah letter fum de church an' moved mah membership tuh Woodbridge--so Ah don't haf tuh take no sacrament wid yuh. Ah don't wantuh see yuh 'roun' me atall. Lay 'roun' wid dat 'oman all yuh wants tuh, but gwan 'way fum me an' mah house. Ah hates yuh lak uh suck-egg dog."

    Sykes almost let the huge wad of corn bread and collard greens he was chewing fall out of his mouth in amazement. He had a hard time whipping himself up to the proper fury to try to answer Delia.

    "Well, Ah'm glad you does hate me. Ah'm sho' tiahed uh you hangin' ontuh me. Ah don't want yuh. Look at yuh stringey ole neck! Yo' rawbony laigs an' arms is enough tuh cut uh man tuh death. You looks jes' lak de devvul's doll-baby tuh me. You cain't hate me no worse dan Ah hates you. Ah been hatin' you fuh years."

    "Yo' ole black hide don't look lak nothin' tuh me, but uh passle uh wrinkled up rubber, wid yo' big ole yeahs flappin' on each side lak uh paih uh buzzard wings. Don't think Ah'm gointuh be run 'way fum mah house neither. Ah'm goin' tuh de white folks bout you, mah young man, de very nex' time you lay yo' han's on me. Mah cup is done run ovah." Delia said this with no signs of fear and Sykes departed from the house, threatening her, but made not the slightest move to carry out any of them.

    That night he did not return at all, and the next day being Sunday, Delia was glad she did not have to quarrel before she hitched up her pony and drove the four miles to Woodbridge.

    She stayed to the night service--"love feast"--which was very warm and full of spirit. In the emotional winds her domestic trials were borne far and wide so that she sang as she drove homeward.

    She came from the barn to the kitchen door and stopped.

    "Whut's de mattah, ol' satan, you aint kickin' up yo' racket?" She addressed the snake's box. Complete silence. She went on into the house with a new hope in its birth struggles. Perhaps her threat to go to the white folks had frightened Sykes! Perhaps he was sorry! Fifteen years of misery and suppression had brought Delia to the place where she would hope anything that looked towards a way over or through her wall of inhibitions.

    She felt in the match safe behind the stove at once for a match. There was only one there.

    "Dat niggah wouldn't fetch nothin' heah tuh save his rotten neck, but he kin run thew whut Ah brings quick enough. Now he done toted off nigh on tuh haff uh box uh matches. He done had dat 'oman heah in mah house, too."

    Nobody but a woman could tell how she knew this even before she struck the match. But she did and it put her into a new fury.

    Presently she brought in the tubs to put the white things to soak. This time she decided she need not bring the hamper out of the bedroom; she would go in there and do the sorting. She picked up the pot-bellied lamp and went in. The room was small and the hamper stood hard by the foot of the white iron bed. She could sit and reach through the bedposts--resting as she worked.

    "Ah wantah cross Jurden in uh calm time," she was singing again. The mood of the "love feast" had returned. She threw back the lid of the basket almost gaily. Then, moved by both horror and terror, she sprang back toward the door. There lay the snake in the basket! He moved sluggishly at first, but even as she turned round and round, jumped up and down in an insanity of fear, he began to stir vigorously. She saw him pouring his awful beauty from the basket upon the bed, then she seized the lamp and ran as fast as she could to the kitchen. The wind from the open door blew out the light and the darkness added to her terror. She sped to the darkness of the yard, slamming the door after her before she thought to set down the lamp. She did not feel safe even on the ground, so she climbed up in the hay barn.

    There for an hour or more she lay sprawled upon the hay a gibbering wreck.

    Finally, she grew quiet, and after that, coherent thought. With this, stalked through her a cold, bloody rage. Hours of this. A period of introspection, a space of retrospection, then a mixture of both. Out of this an awful calm.

    "Well, Ah done de bes' Ah could. If things aint right, Gawd knows taint mah fault."

    She went to sleep--a twitch sleep--and woke up to a faint gray sky. There was a loud hollow sound below. She peered out. Sykes was at the wood-pile, demolishing a wire-covered box.

    He hurried to the kitchen door, but hung outside there some minutes before he entered, and stood some minutes more inside before he closed it after him.

    The gray in the sky was spreading. Delia descended without fear now, and crouched beneath the low bedroom window. The drawn shade shut out the dawn, shut in the night. But the thin walls held back no sound.

    "Dat ol' scratch is woke up now!" She mused at the tremendous whirr inside, which every woodsman knows, is one of the sound illusions. The rattler is a ventriloquist. His whirr sounds to the right, to the left, straight ahead, behind, close under foot--everywhere but where it is. Woe to him who guesses wrong unless he is prepared to hold up his end of the argument! Sometimes he strikes without rattling at all.

    Inside, Sykes heard nothing until he knocked a pot lid off the stove while trying to reach the match safe in the dark. He had emptied his pockets at Bertha's.

    The snake seemed to wake up under the stove and Sykes made a quick leap into the bedroom. In spite of the gin he had had, his head was clearing now.

    "'Mah Gawd!" he chattered, "ef Ah could on'y strack uh light!"

    The rattling ceased for a moment as he stood paralyzed. He waited. It seemed that the snake waited also.

    "Oh, fuh de light! Ah thought he'd be too sick"--Sykes was muttering to himself when the whirr began again, closer, right underfoot this time. Long before this, Sykes' ability to think had been flattened down to primitive instinct and he leaped--onto the bed.

     

    Outside Delia heard a cry that might have come from a maddened chimpanzee, a stricken gorilla. All the terror, all the horror, all the rage that man possibly could express, without a recognizable human sound.

    A tremendous stir inside there, another series of animal screams, the intermittent whirr of the reptile. The shade torn violently down from the window, letting in the red dawn, a huge brown hand seizing the window stick, great dull blows upon the wooden floor punctuating the gibberish of sound long after the rattle of the snake had abruptly subsided. All this Delia could see and hear from her place beneath the window, and it made her ill. She crept over to the four-o'clocks and stretched herself on the cool earth to recover.

    She lay there. "Delia. Delia!" She could hear Sykes calling in a most despairing tone as one who expected no answer. The sun crept on up, and he called. Delia could not move--her legs were gone flabby. She never moved, he called, and the sun kept rising.

    "Mah Gawd!" She heard him moan, "Mah Gawd fum Heben!" She heard him stumbling about and got up from her flower-bed. The sun was growing warm. As she approached the door she heard him call out hopefully, "Delia, is dat you Ah heah?"

    She saw him on his hands and knees as soon as she reached the door. He crept an inch or two toward her--all that he was able, and she saw his horribly swollen neck and his one open eye shining with hope. A surge of pity too strong to support bore her away from that eye that must, could not, fail to see the tubs. He would see the lamp. Orlando with its doctors was too far. She could scarcely reach the Chinaberry tree, where she waited in the growing heat while inside she knew the cold river was creeping up and up to extinguish that eye which must know by now that she knew.

    1926

    Major Images Found in Hurston's "Sweat"

    Delia: Baum associates the name with the Biblical Delilah who emasculated her Samson, because Delia supports Sykes by doing white folk's laundry (106). Return to Text

    bull whip: 1. "the Satanic object associated with a snake" (Seidel 118); 2. a phallic symbol, in Sykes case, an "overcompensation for his 'emasculated' condition as a dependent of his wife" (Seidel 112). Return to Text

    snake: 1. "satanic object of destruction" (Seidel 118). 2. A phallic symbol linked to the bull whip and thus, in Sykes's case, an "overcompensation for his 'emasculated' condition as dependent of his wife" (Seidel 112 ). 3. The snake represents the evil Sykes (Baum 105). 4. "In the context of Delia's unremitting faith, the snake comes to represent the evil that lives inside [Delia] despite her Christianity, a force she knows and is afraid of, but which Sykes's cruelty will not permit her to overcome" (Hemenway 72). Return to Text

    whitest pile of things: according to Seidel, the whiteness suggest Delia's "innate goodness as opposed to the evil darkness of Sykes's snake." The whiteness is symbolic of the 'tabula rasa' that Delia's life and work represent as she awaits personal fulfullment (Seidel 117). Return to Text

    sweat: 1. "the traditional work ethic" (Seidel 112) 2. Sweat represents the laborious effort Delia has made into perfecting her work. The high quality of Delia's work is an extension of her creative self; it is thus the "the corporal medium of her [Delia's] art" (Seidel 116). Return to Text

    iron skillet: "a female object used for creation . . . [which] can be used destructively but is intended primarily to be positive, that is, to cook and create a meal. Thus, women can use their creative power to defend themselves against the destruction that is the only intended use of male power" (Seidel 118). Return to Text

    trees and flowers: 1. "Delia has created her [own] small world; she has lovingly planted trees and flowers in the garden around her house. . . . Hurston presents Delia's portion of Eden/Eatonville as a female-created place, ordered and beautiful because of the efforts of a woman" (Seidel 116). 2. One of these trees is the chinaberry tree, symbolic of Eden's Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Lupton 51). Return to Text

    baskets of clean laundry: 1. The laundry itself represents the "artistic object" created by Delia (Seidel 116). In the basket the laundry becomes the"object Delia protects and to which she devotes her time, her attention, and her body. . . [it] thus functions as a cherished child. . . . [but] the baby is not Delia's; it is a white person's baby. . . . She is its mammy . . ." (Seidel 117-118). "The laundry created by Delia does not belong to her. The laundry, her creation, belongs to the white people of Winter Park, her patrons, who will be the ultimate inscribers of it; they will turn the laundry into clothes. Delia has prepared the perfect canvas for her patrons, but she is not able to participate in the use, evaluation, or assignment of worth to the creation. Like Hurston as an artist, Delia depends ultimately on the white patron for recognition" (Seidel 117). 2. The laundry image also represents Delia herself (Baum 105). 3. It is associated in Sykes' mind with "the oppressive world of the white man" (Baum 106). Return to Text

    Chinaberry tree: 1. Delia "ends the story holding to a chinaberry tree, a rigid, linear symbol that provides rootedness in a world of slithering sinuosity. . . . The phallic resonates in this imagery . . . . Delia is frightened of Sykes not only because of his cruelty; he also represents male sexuality ominous in its desire" (Hemenway 73). 2. A type of Eden's Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. "'Sweat' is an Adam and Eve in reverse, a very unblissful bower which is made peaceful when the snake . . . bites the man . . . . Delia (Eve) stops at the Chinaberry tree and gains knowledge . . ." (Lupton 50-51). Return to Text
     
     

    Works Cited

    Baum, Rosalie Murphy. "The Shape of Hurton's Fiction." Zora in Florida.  Eds. Steve Glassman
    and Kathryn Lee Seidel.  Orlando: U of Central Florida P, 1991. 94-109.

    Hemenway, Robert E.  Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography.   Urbana: U of Illinois

    P, 1977.

    Lupton, Mary Jane. "Zora Neale Hurston and the Survival of the Female." Southern Literary

    Journal 15.1 (Fall 1982): 45-54.

    Seidel, Kathryn Lee. "The Artist in the Kitchen: The Economics of Creativity in Hurston's

    'Sweat.'" Zora in Florida. Eds. Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel. Orlando: U
    of Central Florida P, 1991. 110-120.

    Return to Top


    Fall From Eden: 
    God's Judgment in Hurston's "Sweat"

    Barbara L. Williams

    Because of its semi-tropical climate and its idealistic mission, Eatonville is an appropriate background for Hurston's Edenic imagery in "Sweat." The basic reference to the black/white and male/female conflict is very much at home within a tale whose foundational images underscore marital and moral tension. While both the Hurston story and its Biblical counterpart deal with the interraction of three protagonists, the Hurston story closely associates the two male characters, Sykes and the snake. Sykes, as a type of Adam, is destroyed by his own sin and his last moments find him "creeping" in a "fallen" state and doomed to death by his own depravity (Baum 101). Unlike Adam, Sykes identifies himself so closely with the evil image of the snake that the two almost seem to blend into one being (Hemenway 72). Aside from his propensity for the physical snake and bull whip as instruments of torture, he embodies a chilling evil which flaunts itself in waste, adultery, violence, terrorism, and attempted murder.

    The female character, Delia, who is set in opposition to the malevolent duo of man and snake, is represented by the pristine laundry, an image of unspoiled innocence. Seidel reads the whiteness as a symbol of Delia's "innate goodness as opposed to the evil darkness of Sykes's snake" (Seidel 117). As God's creation of light allowed all subsequent biological creation to exist, so Delia is co-creator in her world, which she has "planted [with] trees and flowers in the garden around her house; her home and garden are 'lovely, lovely' to her" (Seidel 116). Her creative effort echoes the Genesis story as God "planted a garden eastward in Eden" (Genesis 2:7), and, reviewing each act of creation, "saw that it was good" (Gen. 1). Lupton reads the story as "Adam and Eve in reverse, a very unblissful bower which is made peaceful when the snake . . . bites the man"; Lupton's Delia is an Eve who "stops at the Chinaberry tree and gains knowledge" (50-51).

    The foremost edenic image of the story, however, is in the title itself. "Sweat," in the primary text, represents the physical and emotional investment of Delia who is resigned to satisfy all of her economic and aesthetic needs herself. While it is foundational to the plot and to character development that Delia's only source of satisfaction comes from her labor, a more important correlation exists between this image and the fall of man. God, as Righteous Judge, sentenced fallen man to a lifetime of hard labor: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground"; the implicit first death sentence follows: "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Gen 3:19). Hurston's characters are caught up in the repetitious drama of the depravity of man; hatred, oppression, murder, and the like are as old as mankind. Neither the failures of the villains and the hardships of the victimized can be attributed to a simple, single cause, such as slavery, or modern American society; these ills exist because of original sin.

    In this sense, Lupton's reading of the "cold river" as foreshadowing the devastating flood of Their Eyes Were Watching God is entirely appropriate (50). Hurston personalizes this image by suggesting an alternative Biblical water image: Sykes's eye is extinguished by a "cold river," the exact description in Delia's (and many others') spiritual, "I want to cross Jurden in a calm time" (emphasis added). As the body of water that stood between the children of Israel and Canaan, the crossing of Jordan has become a standard lyrical representation of life's final journey, death, an image that is echoed in the mythological river Styx. The crossing of the metaphorical river will come to all; the only variables are how, when and with what perils it is crossed. In the last line of the story, Hurston has pronounced God's judgment on Sykes as he must die as a result of his own wickedness; Delia has been, at least for the present, released from the fear of death by domestic violence. They will both cross the river, Delia, hopefully, in a "calm time"; Sykes's passing will be a rough one.

    Works Cited

    Baum, Rosalie Murphy. "The Shape of Hurton's Fiction." Zora in Florida.   Eds. Steve Glassman
    and Kathryn Lee Seidel.  Orlando: U of Central Florida P, 1991. 94-109.

    Hemenway, Robert E.   Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography.   Urbana: U of Illinois

    P, 1977.

    Lupton, Mary Jane. "Zora Neale Hurston and the Survival of the Female." Southern Literary

    Journal 15.1 (Fall 1982): 45-54.

    Seidel, Kathryn Lee. "The Artist in the Kitchen: The Economics of Creativity in Hurston's

    'Sweat.'" Zora in Florida.   Eds. Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel.  Orlando:
    U of Central Florida P, 1991. 110-120.

    Return to Top


    Zora Neale Hurston's "The Gilded Six-Bits"

    with anchors for the primary symbols and images
    Michael S. Jardine
     

    It was a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement that looked to the payroll of the G. and G. Fertilizer works for its support.

    But there was something happy about the place. The front yard was parted in the middle by a sidewalk from gate to doorstep, a sidewalk edged on either side by quart bottles driven neck down into the ground on a slant. A mess of homey flowers planted without a plan but blooming cheerily from their helter-skelter places. The fence and house were whitewashed. The porch and steps scrubbed white.

    The front door stood open to the sunshine so that the floor of the front room could finish drying after its weekly scouring. It was Saturday. Everything clean from the front gate to the privy house. Yard raked so that the strokes of the rake would make a pattern. Fresh newspaper cut in fancy edge on the kitchen shelves.

    Missie May was bathing herself in the galvanized washtub in the bedroom. Her dark-brown skin glistened under the soapsuds that skittered down from her washrag. Her stiff young breasts thrust forward aggressively, like broad-based cones with the tips lacquered in black.

    She heard men's voices in the distance and glanced at the dollar clock on the dresser.

    "Humph! Ah'm way behind time t'day! Joe gointer be heah 'fore Ah git mah clothes on if Ah don't make haste."

    She grabbed the clean mealsack at hand and dried herself hurriedly and began to dress. But before she could tie her slippers, there came the ring of singing metal on wood. Nine times.

    Missie May grinned with delight. She had not seen the big tall man come stealing in the gate and creep up the walk grinning happily at the joyful mischief he was about to commit. But she knew that it was her husband throwing silver dollars in the door for her to pick up and pile beside her plate at dinner. It was this way every Saturday afternoon. The nine dollars hurled into the open door, he scurried to a hiding place behind the Cape jasmine bush and waited.

    Missie May promptly appeared at the door in mock alarm.

    "Who dat chunkin' money in mah do'way?" she demanded. No answer from the yard. She leaped off the porch and began to search the shrubbery. She peeped under the porch and hung over the gate to look up and down the road. While she did this, the man behind the jasmine darted to the chinaberry tree. She spied him and gave chase.

    "Nobody ain't gointer be chunkin' money at me and Ah not do 'em nothin'," she shouted in mock anger. He ran around the house with Missie May at his heels. She overtook him at the kitchen door. He ran inside but could not close it after him before she crowded in and locked with him in a rough-and-tumble. For several minutes the two were a furious mass of male and female energy. Shouting, laughing, twisting, turning, tussling, tickling each other in the ribs; Missie May clutching onto Joe and Joe trying, but not too hard, to get away.

    "Missie May, take yo' hand out mah pocket!" Joe shouted out between laughs.

    "Ah ain't, Joe, not lessen you gwine gimme whateve' it is good you got in yo' pocket. Turn it go, Joe, do Ah'll tear yo' clothes."

    "Go on tear 'em. You de one dat pushes de needles round heah. Move yo' hand, Missie May."

    "Lemme git dat paper sak out yo' pocket. Ah bet it's candy kisses."

    "Tain't. Move yo' hand. Woman ain't got no business in a man's clothes nohow. Go way."

    Missie May gouged way down and gave an upward jerk and triumphed.

    "Unhhunh! Ah got it! It 'tis so candy kisses. Ah knowed you had somethin' for me in yo' clothes. Now Ah got to see whut's in every pocket you got."

    Joe smiled indulgently and let his wife go through all of his pockets and take out the things that he had hidden for her to find. She bore off the chewing gum, the cake of sweet soap, the pocket handkerchief as if she had wrested them from him, as if they had not been bought for the sake of this friendly battle.

    "Whew! dat play-fight done got me all warmed up!" Joe exclaimed. "Got me some water in de kittle?"

    "Yo' water is on de fire and yo' clean things is cross de bed. Hurry up and wash yo'self and git changed so we kin eat. Ah'm hongry." As Missie said this, she bore the steaming kettle into the bedroom.

    "You ain't hongry, sugar," Joe contradicted her. "Youse jes' a little empty. Ah'm de one whut's hongry. Ah could eat up camp meetin', back off 'ssociation, and drink Jurdan dry. Have it on de table when Ah git out de tub."

    "Don't you mess wid mah business, man. You git in yo' clothes. Ah'm a real wife, not no dress and breath. Ah might not look lak one, but if you burn me, you won't git a thing but wife ashes."

    Joe splashed in the bedroom and Missie May fanned around in the kitchen. A fresh red-and-white checked cloth on the table. Big pitcher of buttermilk beaded with pale drops of butter from the churn. Hot fried mullet, crackling bread, ham hock atop a mound of string beans and new potatoes, and perched on the windowsill a pone of spicy potato pudding.

    Very little talk during the meal but that little consisted of banter that pretended to deny affection but in reality flaunted it. Like when Missie May reached for a second helping of the tater pone. Joe snatched it out of her reach.

    After Missie May had made two or three unsuccessful grabs at the pan, she begged, "Aw, Joe, gimme some mo' dat tater pone."

    "Nope, sweetenin' is for us menfolks. Y'all pritty lil frail eels don't need nothin' lak dis. You too sweet already."

    "Please, Joe."

    "Naw, naw. Ah don't want you to git no sweeter than whut you is already. We goin' down de road a lil piece t'night so you go put on yo' Sunday-go-to-meetin' things."

    Missie May looked at her husband to see if he was playing some prank. "Sho nuff, Joe?"

    "Yeah. We goin' to de ice cream parlor."

    "Where de ice cream parlor at, Joe?"

    "A new man done come heah from Chicago and he done got a place and took and opened it up for a ice cream parlor, and bein', as it's real swell, Ah wants you to be one de first ladies to walk in dere and have some set down."

    "Do Jesus, Ah ain't knowed nothin' bout it. Who de man done it?"

    "Mister Otis D. Slemmons, of spots and places--Memphis, Chicago, Jacksonville, Philadelphia and so on."

    "Dat heavyset man wid his mouth full of gold teeths?"

    "Yeah. Where did you see 'im at?"

    "Ah went down to de sto' tuh git a box of lye and Ah seen 'im standin' on de corner talkin' to some of de mens, and Ah come on back and went to scrubbin' de floor, and he passed and tipped his hat whilst Ah was scourin' de steps. Ah thought Ah never seen him befo'."

    Joe smiled pleasantly. "Yeah, he's up-to-date. He got de finest clothes Ah ever seen on a colored man's back."

    "Aw, he don't look no better in his clothes than you do in yourn. He got a puzzlegut on 'im and he so chuckleheaded he got a pone behind his neck."

    Joe looked down at his own abdomen and said wistfully: "Wisht Ah had a build on me lak he got. He ain't puzzlegutted, honey. He jes' got a corperation. Dat make 'm look lak a rich white man. All rich mens is got some belly on 'em."

    "Ah seen de pitchers of Henry Ford and he's a spare-built man and Rockefeller look lak he ain't got but one gut. But Ford and Rockefeller and dis Slemmons and all de rest kin be as many-gutted as dey please, Ah's satisfied wid you jes' lak you is, baby. God took pattern after a pine tree and built you noble. Youse a pritty man, and if Ah knowed any way to make you mo' pritty still Ah'd take and do it."

    Joe reached over gently and toyed with Missie May's ear. "You jes' say dat cause you love me, but Ah know Ah can't hold no light to Otis D. Slemmons. Ah ain't never been nowhere and Ah ain't got nothin' but you."

    Missie May got on his lap and kissed him and he kissed back in kind. Then he went on. "All de womens is crazy 'bout 'im everywhere he go."

    "How you know dat, Joe?"

    "He tole us so hisself."

    "Dat don't make it so. His mouf is cut crossways, ain't it? Well, he kin lie jes' lak anybody else."

    "Good Lawd, Missie! You womens sho is hard to sense into things. He's got a five-dollar gold piece for a stickpin and he got a ten-dollar gold piece on his watch chain and his mouf is jes' crammed full of gold teeths. Sho wisht it wuz mine. And whut make it so cool, he got money 'cumulated. And womens give it all to 'im."

    "Ah don't see whut de womens see on 'im. Ah wouldn't give 'im a wink if de sheriff wuz after 'im."

    "Well, he tole us how de white womens in Chicago give 'im all dat gold money. So he don't 'low nobody to touch it at all. Not even put day finger on it. Dey told 'im not to. You kin make 'miration at it, but don't tetch it."

    "Whyn't he stay up dere where dey so crazy 'bout 'im?"

    "Ah reckon dey done made 'im vast-rich and he wants to travel some. He says dey wouldn't leave 'im hit a lick of work. He got mo' lady people crazy 'bout him than he kin shake a stick at."

    "Joe, Ah hates to see you so dumb. Dat stray nigger jes' tell y'all anything and y'all b'lieve it."

    "Go 'head on now, honey, and put on yo' clothes. He talkin' 'bout his pritty womens--Ah want 'im to see mine."

    Missie May went off to dress and Joe spent the time trying to make his stomach punch out like Slemmons's middle. He tried the rolling swagger of the stranger, but found that his tall bone-and-muscle stride fitted ill with it. He just had time to drop back into his seat before Missie May came in dressed to go.

    On the way home that night Joe was exultant. "Didn't Ah say ole Otis was swell? Can't he talk Chicago talk? Wuzn't dat funny whut he said when great big fat ole Ida Armstrong come in? He asted me, 'Who is dat broad wid de forte shake?' Dat's a new word. Us always thought forty was a set of figgers but he showed us where it means a whole heap of things. Sometimes he don't say forty, he jes' say thirty-eight and two and dat mean de same thing. Know whut he told me when Ah wuz payin' for our ice cream? He say, 'Ah have to hand it to you, Joe. Dat wife of yours is jes' thirty-eight and two. Yessuh, she's forte!' Ain't he killin'?"

    "He'll do in case of a rush. But he sho is got uh heap uh gold on 'im. Dat's de first time Ah ever seed gold money. It lookted good on him sho nuff, but it'd look a whole heap better on you."

    "Who, me? Missie May, youse crazy! Where would a po' man lak me git gold money from?"

    Missie May was silent for a minute, then she said, "Us might find some goin' long de road some time. Us could."

    "Who would be losin' gold money round heah? We ain't even seen none dese white folks wearin' no gold money on dey watch chain. You must be figgerin' Mister Packard or Mister Cadillac goin' pass through heah."

    "You don't know whut been lost 'round heah. Maybe somebody way back in memorial times lost they gold money and went on off and it ain't never been found. And then if we wuz to find it, you could wear some 'thout havin' no gang of womens lak dat Slemmons say he got."

    Joe laughed and hugged her. "Don't be so wishful 'bout me. Ah'm satisfied de way Ah is. So long as Ah be yo' husband. Ah don't keer 'bout nothin' else. Ah'd ruther all de other womens in de world to be dead than for you to have de toothache. Less we go to bed and git our night rest."

    It was Saturday night once more before Joe could parade his wife in Slemmons's ice cream parlor again. He worked the night shift and Saturday was his only night off. Every other evening around six o'clock he left home, and dying dawn saw him hustling home around the lake, where the challenging sun flung a flaming sword from east to west across the trembling water.

    That was the best part of life--going home to Missie May. Their whitewashed house, the mock battle on Saturday, the dinner and ice cream parlor afterwards, church on Sunday nights when Missie outdressed any woman in town--all, everything, was right.

    One night around eleven the acid ran out at the G. and G. The foreman knocked off the crew and let the steam die down. As Joe rounded the lake on his way home, a lean moon rode the lake in a silver boat. If anybody had asked Joe about the moon on the lake, he would have said he hadn't paid it any attention. But he saw it with his feelings. It made him yearn painfully for Missie. Creation obsessed him. He thought about children. They had been married more than a year now. They had money put away. They ought to be making little feet for shoes. A little boy child would be about right.

    He saw a dim light in the bedroom and decided to come in through the kitchen door. He could wash the fertilizer dust off himself before presenting himself to Missie May. It would be nice for her not to know that he was there until he slipped into his place in bed and hugged her back. She always liked that.

    He eased the kitchen door open slowly and silently, but when he went to set his dinner bucket on the table he bumped it into a pile of dishes, and something crashed to the floor. He heard his wife gasp in fright and hurried to reassure her.

    "Iss me, honey. Don't git skeered."

    There was a quick, large movement in the bedroom. A rustle, a thud, and a stealthy silence. The light went out.

    What? Robbers? Murderers? Some varmint attacking his helpless wife, perhaps. He struck a match, threw himself on guard and stepped over the doorsill into the bedroom.

    The great belt on the wheel of Time slipped and eternity stood still. By the match light he could see the man's legs fighting with his breeches in his frantic desire to get them on. He had both chance and time to kill the intruder in his helpless condition--half in and half out of his pants--but he was too weak to take action. The shapeless enemies of humanity that live in the hours of Time had waylaid Joe. He was assaulted in his weakness. Like Samson awakening after his haircut. So he just opened his mouth and laughed.

    The match went out and he struck another and lit the lamp. A howling wind raced across his heart, but underneath its fury he heard his wife sobbing and Slemmons pleading for his life. Offering to buy it with all that he had. "Please, suh, don't kill me. Sixty-two dollars at de sto'. Gold money."

    Joe just stood. Slemmons looked at the window, but it was screened. Joe stood out like a rough-backed mountain between him and the door. Barring him from escape, from sunrise, from life.

    He considered a surprise attack upon the big clown that stood there laughing like a chessy cat. But before his fist could travel an inch, Joe's own rushed out to crush him like a battering ram. Then Joe stood over him.

    "Git into yo' damn rags, Slemmons, and dat quick."

    Slemmons scrambled to his feet and into his vest and coat. As he grabbed his hat, Joe's fury overrode his intentions and he grabbed at Slemmons with his left hand and struck at him with his right. The right landed. The left grazed the front of his vest. Slemmons was knocked a somersault into the kitchen and fled through the open door. Joe found himself alone with Missie May, with the golden watch charm clutched in his left fist. A short bit of broken chain dangled between his fingers.

    Missie May was sobbing. Wails of weeping without words. Joe stood, and after a while he found out that he had something in his hand. And then he stood and felt without thinking and without seeing with his natural eyes. Missie May kept on crying and Joe kept on feeling so much, and not knowing what to do with all his feelings, he put Slemmons's watch charm in his pants pocket and took a good laugh and went to bed.

    "Missie May, whut you cryin' for?"

    "Cause Ah love you so hard and Ah know you don't love me no mo'."

    Joe sank his face into the pillow for a spell, then he said huskily, "You don't know de feelings of dat yet, Missie May."

    "Oh Joe, honey, he said he wuz gointer give me dat gold money and he jes' kept on after me--"

    Joe was very still and silent for a long time. Then he said, "Well, don't cry no mo', Missie May. Ah got yo' gold piece for you."

    The hours went past on their rusty ankles. Joe still and quiet on one bed rail and Missie May wrung dry of sobs on the other. Finally the sun's tide crept upon the shore of night and drowned all its hours. Missie May with her face stiff and streaked towards the window saw the dawn come into her yard. It was day. Nothing more. Joe wouldn't be coming home as usual. No need to fling open the front door and sweep off the porch, making it nice for Joe. Never no more breakfast to cook; no more washing and starching of Joe's jumper-jackets and pants. No more nothing. So why get up?

    With this strange man in her bed, she felt embarrassed to get up and dress. She decided to wait till he had dressed and gone. Then she would get up, dress quickly and be gone forever beyond reach of Joe's looks and laughs. But he never moved. Red light turned to yellow, then white.

    From beyond the no-man's land between them came a voice. A strange voice that yesterday had been Joe's.

    "Missie May, ain't you gonna fix me no breakfus'?"

    She sprang out of bed. "Yeah, Joe. Ah didn't reckon you wuz hongry."

    No need to die today. Joe needed her for a few more minutes anyhow.

    Soon there was a roaring fire in the cookstove. Water bucket full and two chickens killed. Joe loved fried chicken and rice. She didn't deserve a thing and good Joe was letting her cook him some breakfast. She rushed hot biscuits to the table as Joe took his seat.

    He ate with his eyes in his plate. No laughter, no banter.

    "Missie May, you ain't eatin' yo' breakfus'."

    "Ah don't choose none, Ah thank yuh."

    His coffee cup was empty. She sprang to refill it. When she turned from the stove and bent to set the cup beside Joe's plate, she saw the yellow coin on the table between them.

    She slumped into her seat and wept into her arms.

    Presently Joe said calmly, "Missie May, you cry too much. Don't look back lak Lot's wife and turn to salt."
    The sun, the hero of every day, the impersonal old man that beams as brightly on death as on birth, came up every morning and raced across the blue dome and dipped into the sea of fire every morning. Water ran downhill and birds nested.

    Missie knew why she didn't leave Joe. She couldn't. She loved him too much, but she could not understand why Joe didn't leave her. He was polite, even kind at times, but aloof.

    There were no more Saturday romps. No ringing silver dollars to stack beside her plate. No pockets to rifle. In fact, the yellow coin in his trousers was like a monster hiding in the cave of his pockets to destroy her.

    She often wondered if he still had it, but nothing could have induced her to ask nor yet to explore his pockets to see for herself. Its shadow was in the house whether or no.

    One night Joe came home around midnight and complained of pains in the back. He asked Missie to rub him down with liniment. It had been three months since Missie had touched his body and it all seemed strange. But she rubbed him. Grateful for the chance. Before morning youth triumphed and Missie exulted. But the next day, as she joyfully made up their bed, beneath her pillow she found the piece of money with the bit of chain attached.

    Alone to herself, she looked at the thing with loathing, but look she must. She took it into her hands with trembling and saw first thing that it was no gold piece. It was a gilded half dollar. Then she knew why Slemmons had forbidden anyone to touch his gold. He trusted village eyes at a distance not to recognize his stickpin as a gilded quarter, and his watch charm as a four-bit piece.

    She was glad at first that Joe had left it there. Perhaps he was through with her punishment. They were man and wife again. Then another thought came clawing at her. He had come home to buy from her as if she were any woman in the longhouse. Fifty cents for her love. As if to say that he could pay as well as Slemmons. She slid the coin into his Sunday pants pocket and dressed herself and left his house.

    Halfway between her house and the quarters she met her husband's mother, and after a short talk she turned and went back home. Never would she admit defeat to that woman who prayed for it nightly. If she had not the substance of marriage she had the outside show. Joe must leave her. She let him see she didn't want his old gold four-bits, too.

    She saw no more of the coin for some time though she knew that Joe could not help finding it in his pocket. But his health kept poor, and he came home at least every ten days to be rubbed.

    The sun swept around the horizon, trailing its robes of weeks and days. One morning as Joe came in from work, he found Missie May chopping wood. Without a word he took the ax and chopped a huge pile before he stopped.

    "You ain't got no business choppin' wood, and you know it."

    "How come? Ah been choppin' it for de last longest."

    "Ah ain't blind. You makin' feet for shoes."

    "Won't you be glad to have a lil baby chile, Joe?"

    "You know dat 'thout astin' me."

    "Iss gointer be a boy chile and de very spit of you."

    "You reckon, Missie May?"

    "Who else could it look lak?"

    Joe said nothing, but he thrust his hand deep into his pocket and fingered something there.

    It was almost six months later Missie May took to bed and Joe went and got his mother to come wait on the house.

    Missie May was delivered of a fine boy. Her travail was over when Joe come in from work one morning. His mother and the old woman were drinking great bowls of coffee around the fire in the kitchen.

    The minute Joe came into the room his mother called him aside.

    "How did Missie May make out?" he asked quickly.

    "Who, dat gal? She strong as a ox. She gointer have plenty mo'. We done fixed her wid de sugar and lard to sweeten her for de nex' one."

    Joe stood silent awhile.

    "You ain't ask 'bout de baby, Joe. You oughter be mighty proud cause he sho is de spittin' image of yuh, son. Dat's yourn all right, if you never git another one, dat un is yourn. And you know Ah'm mighty proud too, son, cause Ah never thought well of you marryin' Missie May cause her ma used tuh fan her foot round right smart and Ah been mighty skeered dat Missie May wuz gointer git misput on her road."

    Joe said nothing. He fooled around the house till late in the day, then, just before he went to work, he went and stood at the foot of the bed and asked his wife how she felt. He did this every day during the week.

    On Saturday he went to Orlando to make his market. It had been a long time since he had done that.

    Meat and lard, meal and flour, soap and starch. Cans of corn and tomatoes. All the staples. He fooled around town for a while and bought bananas and apples. Way after while he went around to the candy store.

    "Hello, Joe," the clerk greeted him. "Ain't seen you in a long time."

    "Nope, Ah ain't been heah. Been round in spots and places."

    "Want some of them molasses kisses you always buy?"

    "Yessuh." He threw the gilded half dollar on the counter. "Will dat spend?"

    "What is it, Joe? Well, I'll be doggone! A gold-plated four-bit piece. Where'd you git it, Joe?"

    "Offen a stray nigger dat come through Eatonville. He had it on his watch chain for a charm--goin' round making out iss gold money. Ha ha! He had a quarter on his tiepin and it wuz all golded up too. Tryin' to fool people. Makin' out he so rich and everything. Ha! Ha! Tryin' to tole off folkses wives from home."

    "How did you git it, Joe? Did he fool you, too?"

    "Who, me? Naw suh! He ain't fooled me none. Know whut Ah done? He come round me wid his smart talk. Ah hauled off and knocked 'im down and took his old four-bits away from 'im. Gointer buy my wife some good ole lasses kisses wid it. Gimme fifty cents worth of dem candy kisses."

    "Fifty cents buys a mighty lot of candy kisses, Joe. Why don't you split it up and take some chocolate bars, too? They eat good, too."

    "Yessuh, dey do, but Ah wants all dat in kisses. Ah got a lil boy chile home now. Tain't a week old yet, but he kin suck a sugar tit and maybe eat one them kisses hisself."

    Joe got his candy and left the store. The clerk turned to the next customer. "Wisht I could be like these darkies. Laughin' all the time. Nothin' worries 'em."

    Back in Eatonville, Joe reached his own front door. There was the ring of singing metal on wood. Fifteen times. Missie May couldn't run to the door, but she crept there as quickly as she could.

    "Joe Banks, Ah hear you chunkin' money in mah do'way. You wait till Ah got mah strength back and Ah'm gointer fix you for dat."

    1933
     

    Major Images Found in Hurston's "The Gilded Six-Bits"

     

    Opening Paragraph: Baum writes: "Here Hurston plays with the physical borders of the yard, the economic borders of a laborer's payroll, and the conceptual borders of a limited way of life. The passage frames in, but also frames out, a huge amount of human experience. The opening with the neuter (nonhuman) word 'it,' the generative rhetoric of the predicate nominative, and the repetition of the word 'Negro' surely makes a political statement" (102). Return to Text.

    something happy: Baum reads this description as a counterpoint to the naturalism of the first paragraph (the first paragraph suggests a circumscription of life) (102); thus, the text is set up to dramatize the "assertions of meaning in a world that carries the threat of nonmeaning . . . and, perhaps even more significantly, of meaning in a literary world that has largely adopted the naturalistic view that man is fatally circumscribed and knowledge is elusive" (106). Return to Text.

    shelves: "The description of yard and house . . . attests to order, beauty and care by both husband and wife" (Baum 102). Return to Text.

    Joe: "Joe, the husband of Missie May, represents the simple and the peaceful" (Evora W. Jones 316-317). Return to Text.

    joyful mischief: "The first scene of interaction for the protagonists in the story, the scene that defines their marital happiness, is one of 'joyful mischief,' with Joe throwing silver dollars at the door for Missie May . . . . Thus, the opening frame of 'The Gilded Six-Bits' complements the framed 'joyful mischief' of this young couple, emphasizing the richness of their lives before Missie May's fall" (Baum 102). Return to Text.

    play-fight: "It is the 'play-fight' of an innocent young man and innocent young woman who love each other deeply and take great joy in both life and their relationship, which they hope will soon include a child" (Baum 102). Return to Text.

    Otis D. Slemmons: 1. "Hurston brings Otis D. Slemmons into the story by showing him as a stranger to this quiet, rural town. The introduction of Slemmons is at once a contrast to the tone and quality of life into which Joe and Missie May have securely and so happily nestled" (Evora W. Jones 320-321). 2. Bone claims that "This bastard is cut off from the past and from tradition; there is no ancestral fortune to sustain him; he is entirely on his own, and must survive as best he can" (qtd. in Evora W. Jones 320). 3. "While Slemmons should not be labeled a hero, he can be seen as one who moves from traditional society to adventure . . . . The mobility of Slemmons indicates a series of adventures. Slemmons' haste in opening the ice cream parlor speaks of the ease with which he quickly settles in one place after the other. The adventuresome spirit is in direct contrast to Joe's life . . ." (Evora W. Jones 320). Return to Text.

    rich white man: "Otis D. Slemmons, the city entrepreneur, represents the powerful and sophisticated" (Evora W. Jones 317). Return to Text.

    into the bedroom: "The single scene in which Joe finds his wife in bed with Slemmons is doubly framed, architecturally by the doorway and perceptually by Joe's gradual sensual awareness. When Joe makes his surprise visit home and steps over the doorsill of his bedroom, he slowly realizes what is happening and, framed by the doorway, feels 'eternity' stand 'still'" (Baum 101). Return to Text.
    laughed: "Because this is not the expected response--the reaction and emotion seem contradictory--it deepens our sense of the emotion . . ." (Gayl Jones 41). Return to Text.

    somersault: "This, for Slemmons, is a dying process, for the type of man symbolized by Slemmons is one who is ultimately defeated. The manipulative schemes, the flamboyant attire and accessories, bespeak an experience leading to defeat" (Evora W. Jones 320). Return to Text.

    turn to salt: "The deterioration of Missie May caused primarily by worry and respect, evidences the need for society to adopt wise, accountable codes of behavior . . . . Missie May learns to differentiate between the valued and the valueless. This, for Missie May, is a maturation process, a journey" (Evora W. Jones 319-20). Return to Text.

    sun: 1. In this story "there is no question that Hurston is flirting with naturalistic tendencies at the same time that she is, ultimately rejecting them. The sun of 'The Gilded Six-Bits' . . . makes that very clear. The oppressive world of the white man exists . . . . but it is not decisive . . . . The world of the American Dream--with its signs of plenitude--surrounds these blacks in their modest homes. But that world also is not decisive" (Baum 105-6). 2. "Nature's way of soothing the soul is symbolized and exalted in the sun. Nature tempers disappointments and pain" (Evora W. Jones 317). Return to Text.

    gilded half dollar: 1. "For Missie May, the journey begins with the onset of supposing what life would be like for her and her husband if they owned the kind of 'gold' that the city man flaunted; the journey ends with the realization that fleeting, gilded tokens are cheap, useless, and even damaging when one's life is traded for illusion" (Evora W. Jones 319). "Hurston's symbolic reference to the illusion versus reality through the feigned significance to the gold coin is a direct reference to illusion versus reality in the altered behavior of people who have digressed from the moral tenor of their culture as a result of the temptations of the turpitude of other cultures" (Evora W. Jones 323). 2. "She and Joe realize that Slemmons has no riches; they do" (Baum 104). Return to Text.

    the baby: "The story is, at its core, one of a woman saved from destruction and tarnish with the birth of a son who looks like her husband, Joe, and by the forgiving heart of this husband" (Evora W. Jones 321). Return to Text.

    Nothing worries 'em: 1. "The sophisticated city life is depicted with a kind of deceptiveness and shallowness in the conversation between Joe and the store clerk in the candy store in Orlando . . . . The simple life is meaningful to the inhabitant, not to the observer, for as the clerk erroneously sums up Joe's life . . . he fails to locate the true pulse of simplicity, serenity, and peace of mind inherent in the rural life of Joe and Missie May. The real pulse of simplicity is feeling--experience--sublimity" (Evora W. Jones 317-318). 2. Here, "the narrator makes a very strong political statement when he recounts the comment of the unthinking and unknowing clerk in the candy store about the anguished Joe . . ." (Baum 104). Return to Text.

    crept: "The closing scene, similar to yet strikingly different from the earlier one, clearly offers a metonymic indication of the current relationship between the two. There probably can never again be innocent romps. But Missie can move from creeping to walking to running; gradually her physical strength will return, as will the strength of their love. Someday there can again be laughter, bantering and, at least, bittersweet romps" (Baum 102). Return to Text.

    Works Cited

    Baum, Rosalie Murphy. "The Shape of Hurston's Fiction."  Zora in Florida.   Eds. Steven
    Glassman and Kathy Seidel. Orlando: U Central Florida P, 1991. 95-108.

    Jones, Evora W. "The Pastoral and the Picaresque in Zora Neale Hurston's 'The Gilded Six- Bits.'"

    College Language Association Journal 35 (March 1992): 316-324.

    Jones, Gayl. "Breaking Out of The Conventions of Dialect: Dunbar and Hurston." Presence

    Africaine 144 (1987) : 32-46.

    Return to Top


    Conceptual Terms in African-American Literature:
    W. E. B. DuBois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and the Struggle for Identity

    William H. Reese
     

    W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Laurence Dunbar were two African-American authors who worked to improve the quality of life for black Americans at the turn of the century. Through their writing, these men led blacks into the twentieth century with a vision of freedom and equality that gained strength from reflection on the heartbreak of the past. The works of these men were concerned with two topics: offering pathways to an identity for African-American readers and changing the white man's attitudes and actions toward African-Americans. The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois and "We Wear the Mask" by Paul Laurence Dunbar defined several concepts, including the veil, double-conciousness, the mask, and the Talented Tenth, that are a part of African-American's struggle for an identity and their attempt to educate the attitudes of the white world.

    In "Of Our Spiritual Strivings," the first chapter in The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois unfolds the concept of the veil that existed between black people and the white world. In describing a childhood experience, where a white classmate rejects his card in a schoolroom visiting-card exchange, DuBois introduces the term:

    Du Bois effectively illustrates his own sudden disillusionment upon the revelation that he is different from the others and his awareness that, although he is allowed to be with them, he will never be wholly accepted in their world. The Veil refers to a transparent barrier that separates black Americans from the white man's world. The veil is transparent because blacks can see the prosperity of whites through it, yet, at the same time, they are denied entrance into the white world of opportunity.

    Later in the book, in a passage from chapter thirteen, titled "Of the Coming of John," the protagonist, John, experiences the veil on his way home from attending the Wells Institute, in New York, where he has been for a long period of time. He had left for school with the intention of bettering himself and his race, but during the course of acquiring an education, he discovered that this dream was futile. As he is about to leave New York, he allows himself to be rushed along with a crowd and ends up inside of a concert hall. As the music begins, a white patron complains that John has been admitted, and he is subsequently ushered out: "A deep longing swelled in all his heart to rise with that clear music out of the dirt and dust of that low life that held him prisoned and befouled" (252). The clear music is a symbol for the freedom that the whites casually enjoyed. When he is politely asked to leave, he is reminded that he cannot be a part of the "clear music" of the white world. Ironically, he never stops hearing the music from the concert playing in his head until the end, when he dies. In this story, W. E. B. Du Bois suggests that the veil held black men separate from the white world, denying them not only the prosperity of that world, but also the ability to gain an identity.

    In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois suggests that African-Americans see themselves through the white man's world, that is, from the other side of the veil. Du Bois develops the idea in chapter one, titled "Of Our Spiritual Strivings":

    The Double-Conciousness is the idea that African-Americans, who live on the margins of white society, percieve themselves through the white man's world and language. Du Bois suggests that African-Americans had no true self-conciousness or sense of identity because they saw themselves through the eyes of whites. Because the only language they had to describe themselves was borrowed from their oppressors, African-Americans had to develop a language of their own in order to define their uniqueness.

    As a consequence of the institutionalized denial of humanity, African-Americans had to conceal their identity, wearing a mask in order to conceal their inner struggles. The Mask refers to the apparently sincere, but actually pretended, happiness and dedication of slaves to their masters, or of blacks toward white people in general. Dunbar's poem "We Wear the Mask" most poignantly defines the nature of the mask, and how it denies self-definition. The poem opens with a description of African-American's lack of identity:

    The mask hides the inner feelings of African-Americans, feelings that cannot be openly expressed. Indeed, blacks must communicate through "myriad sublties," that is, they must communicate indirectly and in different forms such as folktales. Dunbar further relates how the mask is used to hide the inner struggle of seeing the world through a veil: "We sing, but oh the clay is vile / Beneath our feet, and long the mile; / But let the world dream otherwise, / We wear the mask!" (499). In order for the long journey to be successful, the inner turmoil and struggle through the "vile clay" had to be hidden.

    Because the journey towards identity had to be concealed, blacks who worked to educate themselves had to prepare, very carefully, the mask they presented to the world. Du Bois makes a strong statement about the importance of education in the African-American's struggle for an identity in chapter six from The Souls of Black Folk, titled "Of the Training of Black Men": "The foundations of knowledge in this race, as in others, must be sunk deep in the college and university if we would build a solid, permanant structure" (137). Du Bois further explains his goal:

    The Talented Tenth refers to the educated "men" who would help blacks pull themselves up from oppression. In W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat, Manning Marable defines the idea in this way: "The Talented Tenth theory was a strategy to win democracy for all black Americans. The burden of struggle resided upon those of the race best prepared, educationally and economically, to lead that fight" (51). It was an incredible burden on the ten-percent of African-Americans who were prepared to be expected to lead the fight to educate the other ninety-percent.

    The terms that Du Bois and Dunbar originated to describe the African-American experience played an important role in educating both blacks and whites. They successfully captured the experiences of the past and defined these experiences in order to help future generations in their struggle to gain an identity.

    Works Cited

    DuBois, W.E.B.   The Souls of Black Folk.   New York: Penguin, 1995.

    Marable, Manning.   W.E.B. DuBois: Black Radical Democrat. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

    Return to Top


    Between the Political and the Non-Political:
    Critical Readings of Hurston's "Sweat" and "The Gilded Six-Bits"

    Ellen Chaikin
     

    Because Hurston's work reveals the multiplicity of life issues that exist in African-American experiences, the themes of her stories are similar to that of other black writers. These stories utilize the processes of folkloric transmission, primarily by emphasizing the ways of thinking and speaking which grew from the folk environment, which were conveyed by recreating the folktales' "easy narrative element, its story-telling, yarn-spinning quality" (Carley; qtd in Baum 96). Although criticism of Hurston's "The Gilded Six-Bits" and "Sweat" agree that these stories are clearly in the tradition of folktale, opinion is divided as to whether they are nonpolitical, existing only within a specific black culture and thus unconcerned with and transcending the oppression of white culture, or whether they are political, concerning themselves with challenging the dominant culture around them.

    Philosophical truths are evident throughout "The Gilded Six-Bits," and Hurston's skillful treatment of these truths affirms her genius. Evora W. Jones, in "The Pastoral and the Picaresque in Zora Neal Hurston's 'The Gilded Six-Bits,'" focuses on the way in which Hurston's use of the pastoral and picaresque traditions reveals basic values that transcend politics. For instance, to Jones, Hurston's symbolic reference to the theme of illusion verses reality, represented through the feigned significance of the gold coin, "is a direct reference to the illusion verses reality in the altered behavior of people who have digressed from the moral tenor of their culture as a result of the temptations of the turpitude of other cultures" (323). Evora W. Jones concludes that "The Gilded Six-Bits" "intensifies the history and the truth of Eatonville, Florida, a truth so complex that it could be of any time and any place. The author's mastery of myth, tale, and legend transcends Eatonville; it goes around the world without leaving the story's setting, for out of that setting is borne an understanding of human nature and its culture" (324).

    In the article "What Goes Around, Comes Around: Characterization, Climax and Closure in Hurston's 'Sweat,'" Miles Raymond Hurd analyzes the morality of the main characters' actions and interactions. "[B]y analyzing this folk parable in light of its treatment of sexuality in a religious context and the Eatonville code of morality that serves as its superstructure" (14), Hurd suggests that "there is no doubt that the protagonist was intended to be an exemplar of virtue from its first scenes to its closure. Unfortunately, these overlapping contexts encourage readers striving for interpretive accuracy to look outside the text to explain why, as its conclusion, Delia's passivity is both aesthetically and morally appropriate" (9). But according to Hurd the polarization of good and evil throughout the story, a polarization that renders Sykes's evil character more memorable than Delia's pure character, makes this conclusion difficult to maintain. Hurd concludes that "the attempt to identify an emerging evil coexisting with Christian faith in Delia's characterization results from the discomfort of many readers in her being upstaged by Sykes, a more dramatically compelling antagonist. And such readers overeagerly expect Delia to counter his evil, rather than allow herself to be repeatedly buffeted by it" (14).

    Jones and Hurd read Hurston's works outside of a political framework in ways that transcend their specific historical settings. Yet according to Barbara Johnson "Hurston's work is often called non-political simply because readers of Afro-American literature tend to look for confrontational racial politics, not sexual politics" (qtd. in Baum 94). Indeed, Rosalie Murphy Baum, in "The Shape of Hurston's Fiction," focuses on Hurston's use of both realism and naturalism in order to assert the limitations and the possibilities of her characters' lives. Baum suggests that Hurston "most asserts her zest for life, a black life, by creating short stories with all the potential for reducing her characters to mere [ciphers] . . . while refusing . . . to allow the naturalistic strategies she flirts with to render her character's lives insignificant or contemptible" (96). After a detailed analysis of the counterbalancing of realism and naturalism, Baum concludes that a tension exists between the black characters' attempts to assert meaning in their lives and the white world's oppression of those lives. "Hurston's assertion . . . is of a promising world outside the dominant culture, a world created by human beings as a stay against confusion, as a potent denial of sacrifice and suffering" (107).

    In "'Beginning to See Things Really': The Politics of Zora Neal Hurston," David Headon suggests that while Hurston did not measure herself against the white world, she was concerned with a far-reaching political agenda. Headon suggests that Hurston's "Sweat" is a response to Langston Hughes's essay "Racial Mountain" that implores a change in "the old whisper 'I want to be white,' hidden in the aspirations of the black middle class of the twenties, to 'Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro--and beautiful'" (32). Because Hurston's works centered on the "feminist questions concerning the exploitation, intimidation, and oppression inherent in so many relationships," they are an "integral part of the political agenda of black literature of this century" (32). Through her analysis of sexual politics, Hurston establishes a strong indictment of all oppression: "it is not the civil rights of Du Bois and Crisis, but it is civil rights nonetheless" (32-33).

    In "The Artist in the Kitchen: The Economics of Creativity in Hurston's 'Sweat,'" Kathryn Lee Seidel focuses on the economic disparity between the black people of Eatonville and the whites of Winter Park, where all black domestics labored tending houses and children of wealthy white habitants. According to Seidel, the tale "presents a radical transformation of an oppressed black domestic worker who attempts to envision her work as a work of art" (110). While the narrator and the economic context are naturalistic, suggesting Delia's inability to attain an identity, the transformation of work into art makes a thoroughgoing political statement about the "economic and personal degradation of marriage in a racist and sexist society" (110). As Seidel demonstrates, Delia's artistic endeavors allow her to challenge this oppression: "As a female artist figure, Delia represents the power of the female artist who must adopt strategies that directly and violently bring change and allow her art to thrive. . . . Hurston's story suggests that women artists must be free to create art and to contribute to a harmonious, ordered world" (119).

    While many critics perceive Hurston's work as apolitical, transcending the concerns of racial and economic oppression, others suggest that they are filled, not only with sexual and economic politics, but also a strong civil rights message. By recreating these "folktales" Hurston was able to combine her literary aspirations and her highly individual sense of social commitment.

    Works Cited

    Baum, Rosalie Murphy. "The Shape of Hurston's Fiction." Glassman and Seidel 94-107.

    Glassman, Steve and Kathryn Lee Seidel, eds.  Zora in Florida.  Orlando: U of Central

    Florida P, 1991.

    Headon, David. "'Beginning to See Things Really': The Politics of Zora Neale Hurston."

    Glassman and Seidel 28-36.

    Hurd, Myles Raymond. "What Goes Around Comes Around: Characterization, Climax, and

    Closure in Hurston's 'Sweat.'" The Langston Hughes Review 12 (Fall 1993): 7-15.

    Jones, Evora W. "The Pastoral and the Picaresque in Zora Neale Hurston's 'The Gilded Six-Bits.'"

    College Language Association Journal 3 ( March 1992): 316-24.

    Seidel, Kathryn Lee. "The Artist in the Kitchen: The Economics of Creativity in Hurston's 'Sweat.'"

    Glassman and Seidel 110-120.

    Return to Top



    This page was last updated on 30 July 1996.
    Please send questions and comments to Dr. Jim Wohlpart at USF Fort Myers.
    This page has been accessed  times since it was originally created in July of 1996.
     

    Return to Top