The Gilded Six-Bits by Zora Neale Hurston
By Sarah Wyman | On | Comments (0)
In “The Gilded Six-Bits,” a short story, as well as her other works of fiction and essays, one sees Zora Neale Hurston’s wide scope as a writer. She takes on various topics from marital bliss to the national welfare, writing as a gifted author of fiction, a knowledgeable anthropologist, and a rigorous critic. Hurston was a key player in the Harlem Renaissance. Her membership there, however, was never secure. Langston Hughes, once a friend and collaborator, became one of her bitterest detractors.
Always unconventional, she struck many as overly conservative, as she actually promoted southern segregation for a while, arguing that forced integration was an insult to the African-American community. She died penniless and nearly forgotten. Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple) receives credit for tracking down Hurston’s lost grave and bringing her celebrated works back to the public eye.
Today, Hurston is probably the most famous writer from that movement (along with Langston Hughes) and second only to Toni Morrison as a highly acclaimed black woman writer. She published her canonical novel Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937.
A Ritual of Love
In “The Gilded Six-Bits” (1933), Missie May and Joe carry out a playful ritual of tossing the week’s pay in silver coins down the hall and hiding candy kisses in pockets, solidifying their connection and expressing their deep affection for one and other. Their bond is strengthened each week by this predictable game of hide-and-seek that ends with sweetness and a “rough and tumble.”
Both characters are entranced by an outsider, a glamorous, if physically unappealing man who comes into town dripping with gold that proves to be nothing but gilded, nearly worthless coins. The destruction Otis D. Slemmons wreaks on their marriage nearly drives Missie May and Joe apart permanently. Motifs of light, silver coins, the gilded “gold” coin, candy kisses, and the laugh, take on special meaning and hold this story together.
A simple, linear plot line and vernacular language
Hurston, like the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, was celebrated for writing what people considered an authentic, African-American version of English. Thus, an invaluable aspect of black culture was preserved and publicized. Writing this way could be both a gift and a liability. When this one expressive mode was promoted or required by publishers at the exclusion of African-American works in “standard” English, this fed stereotypical depictions of an entire race and restricted the freedoms of black writers to express themselves however they wished.
The simple, linear plot and the vernacular language mask the complexity of Hurston’s text. When Joe claims, “Ah know Ah can’t hold no light to Otis D. Slemmons,” he foreshadows the awful moment when, coming home early from work, he will illuminate, with a match, the scene of betrayal in which he finds Missie May and Slemmons in bed together.
The omniscient narration reveals much more of Joe’s thought and motivation than it does Missie May’s. Walking home from work where “a lean moon rode the lake in a silver boat,” Joe craves fatherhood and imagines Missie May “making little feet for shoes.” Hurston also incorporates biblical references, authenticating the discourse community she illustrates. Within the linear narration, whole stories open up with a shared set of illusions: “Ah could… drink Jurdan [river] dry.” Bringing a comic edge to a scene of tragedy, Hurston uses the mock-heroic mode with her high-flying diction: “The great belt on the wheel of Time slipped and eternity stood still.”
This sounds as though the narrator describes the epic world of Greek gods (at a mechanic’s shop) instead of a mundane scene of adultery. In a similar metaphorical depiction of the agonies of time, Hurston writes, “The hours went past on their rusty ankles” (94) as Joe and Missie May live through the excruciating crisis in their marriage.
This apparently straightforward story holds various ambiguities. Why did Missie May betray Joe, after all? Was it for money for Joe, a lust for gold, or naive curiosity about an outsider? Was Missie May as lowly as her mother-in-law believed her to be? Did she “fan her foot” (flirt) like her own disreputable mother? Hurston complicates the tale with her open-ended approach.
Through her story, she has dismantled the racist stereotype of the “happy darky” by presenting Joe, a fully drawn, complex character, deeply in love with his wife, somewhat flawed in his vindictive impulses (when he leaves the coin under her pillow as though she were a prostitute), who deals with a horrible situation. She has delivered what William Faulkner demands in his 1950 Nobel Prize for literature address, stories of “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
In “The Gilded Six-Bits,” Zora Neale Hurston offers a story of normal, African-American people dealing with typical human concerns of intimacy, hope, betrayal, and forgiveness. Their dilemmas are universal, in that people from any culture, ethnicity, state of health, sexual orientation, profession, fashion category, or social class, etc., can relate to them.
Hurston’s story is just the type of literature she calls for in her editorial, “What White Publishers Won’t Print” (1950) published in I Love Myself When I am Laughing … And Then Again When I am Looking Mean and Impressive, edited by Alice Walker (Feminist Press, 1979). In this article, she argues that U.S. publishing companies only publish books by African-Americans that “treat the race problem.” Why? Well, because stories of racial tension sold well in the 1950s just before the rise of the Civil Rights movement.
Hurston argues, in a risky and provocative way, that these typical texts promote negative stereotypes of African-Americans and other non-white segments of the population. The lack of knowledge that North Americans have about each other is deeply divisive, truly a national crisis when post-WWII U.S. needed to come together. She warns, “Man, like all the other ani.mals fears and is repelled by that which he does not understand, and mere difference is apt to connote something malign.”
See also: I Love Myself When I am Laughing …
Hurston demands, “For the national welfare, it is urgent to realize that the minorities do think, and think about something other than the race problem.” Her works constitute a marvelous effort to address this need for everyday stories about everyday people who are not white.
At the very end of the story, the question of race does come up, but on Hurston’s terms. Joe resumes the bonding ritual with Missie May by spending his silver coins at the candy store. The white store clerk’s ignorant and stereotypical comment, “Wisht I could be like these darkies. Laughin’ all the time. Nothin’ worries ‘em,” evokes the “sambo” stereotype of the happy, carefree black man. With great dramatic irony, the clerk enacts the misreading of a stranger while the reader understands that Joe is far deeper than a surface caricature. He has suffered tremendous loss, conflict, and heartache, and is in the process of forgiving his wife, accepting their son, and healing their marriage.
— Contributed by Sarah Wyman, Associate Professor of English, SUNY-New Paltz, © 2018
Zora Neale Hurston, The Complete Stories, Harper, 1995.
Zora Neale Hurston, I Love Myself When I am Laughing…And Then Again When I am Looking Mean and Impressive, edited by Alice Walker (Feminist Press, 1979).