This comprehensive study examines the ways Hurston circumvented the constraints of the white publishing world and a predominantly white readership to critique white culture and its effects on the black community.
Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick is the first single-authored book-length study of Zora Neale Hurston and provides the most thorough and meticulous examination of her full body of work. A number of earlier critics have concluded that Hurston simply capitulated to external demands, writing stories white people wanted to hear. Susan Edwards Meisenhelder, however, argues that Hurston's response to her situation was much more sophisticated than her detractors have recognized. Meisenhelder suggests, in fact, that Hurston's work, both fictional and anthropological, constitutes an extended critique of the values of white culture and a rejection of white models for black people. Repeatedly, Hurston's work shows the divisive effects that traditional white values, including class divisions and gender imbalances, have on blacks.
While Hurston openly criticized white culture in letters, in articles for black publications, and in the manuscript version of her autobiography, her attack is more indirect in most of her work, which was largely published by white publishers and in white periodicals. Meisenhelder convincingly demonstrates that Hurston, drawing a lesson from African American folk tales dealing with black survival in a white world, plays the role of the artful trickster in such publications. In the tales of Daddy Mention, High John de Conquer, and other figures that she recorded and commented on in her anthropological works, Hurston found models of black people self-consciously donning a mask of subservience, even living up to racist stereotypes, to make fun of and win something from whites. Seeing Hurston as such a trickster figure in her writing invites substantial reinterpretation of many of her works.
Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick is a ground-breaking study valuable for classroom use and recommended for all academic libraries—undergraduate, graduate, and research.
Susan Meisenhelder is Professor of English at California
State University-San Bernardino.