Ever heard of the Harlem Renaissance? Hint: it's not a spinoff of the Harlem Shake.
Rather, it was an artistic and literary movement rooted in New York City's Harlem neighborhood during the 1920s. We're still talking about it today because it marked the first major, centralized outpouring of African American creative expression in American history. Seriously, this was a big deal—especially if you consider the fact that slavery had been abolished in the south only fifty years earlier, and it would still be another forty years until the Civil Rights Movement rid the country of institutionalized segregation and discrimination. That's a bit more impressive than a silly dance, right?
Amidst all this action, an author named Zora Neale Hurston rose to prominence as one of the most celebrated writers to come out of that literary movement. She wrote short stories and novels—some of which have been turned into films and plays—and also managed to become a well-known presence in the Harlem social circuit, which was really popping at the time.
Let's not forget—being a respected African American, female author in 1920s America was no small feat. Women weren't guaranteed the right to vote until 1920, and at this time black Americans faced routine discrimination in almost all aspects of life. On top of all that, Hurston mainly wrote about the experiences of southern African Americans—a segment of the population that remained largely disenfranchised until at least the late 1960s.
We should also mention, Hurston was casually the first black graduate from Barnard College, with a bachelor's degree in anthropology. Okay, now we're just gushing. If you can't tell, we think she was pretty darn cool.
Hurston often used the small town of Eatonville, Florida as the setting for many of her stories, including "Sweat." Eatonville was the first all-black town to incorporate in the U.S. and was the childhood stomping grounds for the author. In 1935, she described it as a "city of five lakes, three croquet courts, 300 brown skins, 300 good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools and no jailhouse." Sounds like a good time, if you ask us.
Attention to small town details, local color and dialect are important in "Sweat," but at the heart of the story is an unhappily married couple: Delia and Sykes Jones. Sykes is horribly abusive and goes so far as to bring a snake home to intimidate his wife. We know—what a loser. There's heartbreak, suspense and miraculous acts aplenty in one of Hurston's most widely read short stories, as well as a twisted ending that we can't help but love.
The Germans have this awesome word—schadenfreude—that describes the pleasure we derive from the misfortune of others. It might sound kind of brutal, but we all know the feeling. It's like watching the elevator doors close in front of the guy who took your parking spot the day before. Sucks for him, but he totally deserved it. While we don't always want to feel pleased at other people's expense, when someone is truly in the wrong and get what they have coming, it can give us a pretty great feeling. It's part of why we love stories of revenge so much. If you've ever seen Kill Bill, then you know what we're talking about.
We don't want to give away too much about "Sweat," but let's just say—we felt a little schadenfreude-y by the end of the story (yes, we just made up that word.). Trust us, this story is worth reading just for the ending. It's that good.
"Sweat" follows the life of Delia Jones and her husband, Sykes. In it, Hurston touches on some pretty important issues—stuff involving gender discrimination, marriage, abuse, and faith—and even though the story was written in the 1920s, there's a lot we can totally still relate with today.
Now, you may be thinking, "Gender discrimination was an issue then, but not anymore, right?"
Just watch the news and you'll realize that although we've come a long way—women can vote, they can file for divorce, they can even be CEO's—there's still a lot to improve. Sorry to burst the bubble, but women are paid less across the board, and they are super minorities in politics. Yeah, we still have a ways to go until we get to true gender equality.
In "Sweat," a lot of these issues are brought front and center, without the same kind of sugarcoating we might be used to. We know that Delia is abused by Sykes physically, emotionally, and verbally. We know that he's cheating on her—and not only do we know, everyone in town knows.
It's only through a mix of patience, faith, and inner strength that Delia is able to make it through to the end of the story. We can learn a lot from Delia's experience—and revel in the schadenfreude Hurston doles out in the end. Get ready, Shmoopers, we're gonna make you sweat.
Black Cultural Travel and Zora's House!
Get info on Hurston and see pictures of her childhood home in Eatonville, Florida.
Arts, Culture and ZORA!
The festival was created to make Eatonville internationally recognized and to highlight the life and work of Hurston.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Okay, it's not "Sweat," but you'll get a nice taste of Hurston's words turned to film. Plus, Halle Berry.
The Story of Zora Neale Hurston
An uplifting and charming story of the woman who created Delia and Sykes.
An interview with Hurston's niece, Lucy Ann, who wrote Speak, So You Can Speak Again.
Sound of 1930s Florida Folk Life
A cool bit on Hurston and her days as a recordist.
And She Sings, Too!
Ever wondered what Hurston sounds like speaking? How about singing?
Sing It Again, Zora!
Here's another goodie—Zora singing "Mule on the Mountain."
It's said that Hurston was a looker, and we have to admit, she's got it going on. A taste for fashion helps, too.
Portrait of a Super Fly Writer
Shot by Carl Van Vechten, a Harlem Renaissance photographer.