Zora Neale Hurston was a prolific writer—of novels, short stories, plays, essays and anthropological texts. From her arrival on the Harlem Renaissance scene in 1925 to the political articles she published in the early 1950s, Hurston was always working, always collecting, always writing, always sparring.
Much of her work celebrated the African-American community, and the rites and rituals of that community, particularly the African-American town of Eatonville where she grew up. From the opening scenes of Spunk and Color Struck, both written in 1925, to the opening scene of Mules and Men (1935) and Their Eyes were Watching God (1937), Zora Neale Hurston’s writings, whether fiction or non-fiction, novel-length or shorter, have one constant: they are nearly always filled with portraits of the African American community, particularly but not exclusively, in the South.
The play, Color Struck, opens in a “Jim Crow railway coach,” which despite the oppressive politics indicated by the setting is filled with “loud laughter, many people speaking at once, goodnatured shreiks (sic), strumming of stringed instruments, etc.”
Color Struck will go on to reveal one woman’s internalized color-consciousness as the tragic flaw that will ruin her life, but it begins within the Black community at its most joyful and excited; the group in the railway car are on the way to a cakewalk contest.
Similarly, Mules and Men, Hurston’s anthropological, slightly autobiographical non-fiction text, opens with Hurston’s return to her hometown, Eatonville Florida, which Hurston tells us in Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), “is, and was at the time of my birth, a pure Negro town–charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all. It was not the first Negro community in America, but it was the first to be incorporated, the first attempt at organized self-government on the part of Negroes in America.”
The first sentence of Mules and Men plunges the reader into the heart of Eatonville, the porch of Joe Clark’s store, which figures in many of her short stories, her novels (JGV and TEWWG), and her memoir. Hurston begins:
“As I crossed the Maitland-Eatonville township line I could see a group on the store porch. I was delighted. The town had not changed. Same love of talk and song. So I drove on down there before I stopped. Yes, there was George Thomas, Calvin Daniels, Jack and Charlie Jones, Gene Brazzle, B. Moseley and “Seaboard.” Deep in a game of Florida-flip. All of those who were not actually playing were giving advice-“bet straightening” they call it.”
These men on the porch will occasionally have different names, but Joe Clark’s store porch (Or Joe Starks, as he becomes in Their Eyes Were Watching God), and the men on it, trading insults, stories, and jokes, playing games and gossiping, will provide an important backdrop in much of Hurston’s work. The porch is a much-used device for Hurston to depict and highlight a sense of Black community, in its eloquence and fun as well as its shortcomings. Arguably, revealing the art and value of this community is the first priority of all of Hurston’s work.
In Color Struck, the “Jim Crow” railway car takes the place of the porch, but while the main story of human frailty, jealousy, love lost, and even intra racial prejudice is told, the railway car and the site of the cakewalk provide a similar backdrop of song, dance, and playing the dozens. In ‘The Country in the Woman’ (1927), the setting becomes “the poolroom at 132nd and Seventh.”
In all of Hurston’s work, she highlights the community “swapping lies,” what she called the “rich metaphor and simile” of the dialogue, the back and forth, give and take of insults, and storytelling. Some stories from the porch seem to have pleased Hurston so much that she tries them out in various genres. Aunt Caroline and her revenge on her philandering husband shows up as “Sister Cal’line Potts” in The Eatonville Anthology (1926), in “The Country in the Woman” (1927), “She Rock” (1933), and in Dust Tracks on A Road (1942). And one line insults and jokes often appear in various forms in more than one text, from the simple line, “y’all wanta heah some lies?” which appears in every fictional form in which Hurston writes, to the “she’s-so-ugly” one-liners, “She look lak de devil ground up in pieces.”
From book to book, the major characters and plot lines change, but from Eatonville, to Harlem, to Louisiana, to Haiti, from the railway car to the “jook” to the porch, the African-American community remains. While we care about characters like John (Jacob’s Gourd Vine 1934) and Janie (Their Eyes Were Watching God) and Big Sweet (Mules and Men), what we remember most vividly, perhaps, from Hurston’s work is the community in which it takes place– flawed and joyous, full of unseen sorrow and raucous laughter.