Like many of Zora Neale Hurston's stories and novels, "The Gilded Six-Bits" (1933) is set in Eatonville, Florida—which just so happened to be the first all black town to incorporate in the USA. The story follows a young, recently wed couple—Joe and Missie May. All seems fine and dandy at first; Joe buys her presents and Missie cooks up scrumptious feasts. But then a new guy, Otis D. Slemmons, shows up in town from Chicago to open up an ice cream parlor and wreak havoc on the marriage.
You know this is going to be good.
While the story is set in the south, Hurston herself spent much time in New York and played an important role in the Harlem Renaissance—a time when black music, art and writing was alive with promise and talent. The big, bold thing about Hurston is that she didn't ignore her roots, but rather, flaunted them. In "The Gilded Six-Bits" we see her background come out in setting, characters and the language they use.
In a place like New York and at a time when she was surrounded by other progressive black writers, it wasn't exactly en mode to write about small town folk—talk about un-cosmopolitan. It also especially wasn't cool to write in black vernacular, which many wrongfully thought of as low, crass, and uneducated. If you ask us, we'd describe the language as expressive, vibrant, and rich—and we're willing to bet that once you read this story, you'll be on team Hurston, too.
It should be noted, though, that back in the 1930s, people (both white and black) often used different terms to refer to African Americans/black Americans than they do today. "Negro" was especially popular, for example, as were some other more controversial and offensive terms (like the N-word).
Don't say we didn't warn you.
"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." (23)
Marriage, love, betrayal, forgiveness. Let's face it: when it comes to relationships, there's no such thing as perfect. There's no such thing as a Hollywood romance in real life—no singing atop elephants or chance encounters in jewelry stores, and nobody can get along all day, every day. In the "Gilded Six-Bits," we get to spend time with one of the least perfect but most engaging couples: Joe and Missie May.
We don't know about you, but when we think of marriage, we try really, really hard not to think of adultery. Unfortunately, it seems to happen a lot in both fiction and real life: take Tiger Woods, Bill Clinton, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, just to name a few. Still, most of the time we hear about the men who cheat—rarely do we see a woman being unfaithful. We're not fans of cheating, but we think it was pretty bold for Hurston to tackle the theme, especially during the 1930s.
When a new guy (Slemmons) comes into town, flashing gold and fancy clothes, we have to admit—we don't think much of it. In spite of ourselves, we tend to think of women as being more virtuous, more faithful, and more goddess-like than men. So when Missie May cheats on Joe, we're a tad shocked. The wife cheated on the man? That never happens! Women don't do that. Right? Or totally wrong?
All we can say is touché, Hurston, touché. She successfully bets on readers not expecting the worst of Missie to surprise and invite us to examine the structure of marriage, of faith and forgiveness, of communication. Through Missie May, Hurston both warns and reminds readers that women will not only react when burned, but they also have the power to burn.
Zora Neale Hurston: The Website
Here you'll find a biography of the author, books and audio, news and much more.
In the Days Before Disneyworld: Florida, Memory, and Hurston
Clips of audio, images and essays by Zora Neale Hurston.
The Gilded Six-Bits
A 2001 short film version of Zora Neale Hurston's short story.
Jump at the Sun
Provides background information about Jump at the Sun, a film about Zora Neale Hurston and her life, and links to other websites about her.
Bay Bottom News
Producer/Writer Kristy Anderson produced Jump at the Sun. This is another great website about the film and Hurston.
A Gilded Bit
Here's a clip from Jump at the Sun.
"Zora Neale Hurston, Through Family Eyes"
Lucy Ann Hurston, niece of Zora, talks about her famous aunt on NPR.
Black and white sketch of the author.
Black and white photo of the author.
A black and white photo of a sawmill in Eatonville, Florida.