“Ain’t ain’t a word, so I ain’t gonna use it.”
I heard this phrase countless times growing up — from teachers, from adults, even from other Black kids.
It was one of many such admonishments meant to shame and correct the “improper English” that I and other Black youth had grown up speaking.
We were told to enunciate our dropped consonants and lose our universal “they” pronoun and resurrect the “is” and “are” linking verbs that we’d so efficiently eliminated from our sentences. And, of course, that four-letter word, “ain’t,” was the greatest dishonor one could inflict on “proper” English.
For most of my formal education, I studiously practiced “proper English” and was ashamed when evidence of this “improper English” crept out of my mouth.
It wasn’t until almost 10 years later, in a college linguistics course, that I would learn that Black Vernacular English (BVE) was a legitimate form of English with its own grammar and rules. Of course, linguists still argue over its origins. I’m particularly fond of the theory that it is rooted in the creative ways enslaved Black people, forced to abandon their native languages, adapted and mixed the sounds, rhythms and meanings of their myriad native languages with Standard American English (SAE) to create a unique English vernacular.
Regardless of its origins, the knowledge of its legitimacy as a form of English complete with its own grammar was my first wake-up call to the ways my formal education had taught me my Blackness was essentially “wrong.”
And then I encountered Zora Neale Hurston.
Like most students in the U.S., I had read “Their Eyes Were Watching God” in high school, one of maybe two books we read in my school that was written by a Black woman.
But armed with new knowledge about BVE, when I encountered Hurston’s ethnographic folklore collection “Mules and Men,” I began to understand that many of the behaviors, foods, linguistic quirks and stories of my youth made up a culture worthy of study and respect in its own right.
When you grow up in any culture, it can be difficult to understand you are part of a culture at all, because for you, it is simply the norm. Usually, it is not until you encounter another culture that you can compare differences and come to appreciate your own culture’s unique traits. When you grow up immersed in Black culture, your first encounters with white cultures tell you that the normal you grew up living is wrong, inferior, debased.
Hurston’s cultural work and writing defied this systemic inferiority complex.
In “Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick,” a new collection of Hurston’s stories (including eight Harlem-set stories found in the archives of periodicals from the 1920s and 30s that were since long forgotten), some of the best of this defiant work is on display.
With the careful, and respectful, examination of a scholar, she celebrates the diversity and dynamism of the Black vernacular of her time, how its rhythms and phrases differ between the northeastern U.S. and the South, between social classes and over generations.
The collection’s title, which author Tayari Jones reluctantly interprets into a less magical translation — “to achieve a goal that seems to be in contradiction to the means by which it was accomplished” — honors Hurston’s work in showing off the beauty and versatility of Black forms of English.
In “Muttsy,” a young Black girl from the South finds herself lost among the speech of Harlem men trying to win her over.
“Ma’am, also Ma’am, ef you wuz tuh see me settin’ straddle of uh Mud-cat leadin’ a minner whut ud you think?” one man flirts. The girl is embarrassed that she doesn’t understand, and replies, “I -er, oh, I don’t know, suh. I didn’t know you-er anybody could ride uh fish.”
Hurston insisted on letting the characters in her story tell their stories in their own voices.
As a trained anthropologist, Hurston traveled down the East Coast and sat on stoops and corners, the storytelling stages and communal gathering spaces of Black communities, where, with academic rigor and a loving gaze, she listened, studied and collected the stories Black folk tell.
“John Redding Goes to Sea,” the beautiful first tragedy in this collection, gets at the heart of Hurston’s own pursuit as a writer and anthropologist — to open the world up a little more and show humanity in all its hues.
“If it’s travellin’, ‘twont be for long. He’ll come back tuh us bettah than when he went off. Anyhow he’ll learn dat folks is human all ovah de world. Dats worth a lot to know, an’ it’s worth going a long way tuh fin’ out.”
Hurston’s work defied academic, social and literary convention that deemed Black culture “primitive” or lesser (though some criticized her as perpetuating these stereotypes) and elevated Black stories into their own canon.
Reading Hurston’s writings that captured the culture, folklore and mythologies of Black folk, I saw Blackness without the admonishing white gaze and understood for the first time that I had a culture, not just behaviors and “bad English” that needed to be corrected.
In Hurston’s universe, “ain’t” is a word, and she is sure going to use it. In the stories she tells, gatherings on the corner-store stoop are sacred community forums, as honorable a literary instrument as the Greek chorus.
Hurston was an avid student of her people, and it made her a master of her art.
That mastery is on full display in “Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick” as she deftly captures whole lives, tragedies and romances in a matter of pages, crafts epics from the thousands of stories that made up the Great Migration, and extracts familiar mythologies from the stories Black folk have been telling from unadorned stoops and porches for centuries.
An ostracized young man with an itch to travel the world, a poor charmer who tries to better himself for the love of a woman, a young girl who chafes at the structures of what’s “proper” for girls. These are Hurston’s heroes in this collection. In them you can see the makings and reflections of Janie Starks, the heroine of Hurston’s canonical “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
Though these stories uplift Black culture and Black language, they do not shy away from the realities of white supremacy, nor away from the ways white supremacy and misogyny intersect to doubly oppress Black women.
In these stories, you might struggle to find a blatantly evil or villainous, racist white man. Rather, you will find something much closer to reality, as her stories reflect the more insidious ways white supremacy and misogyny infiltrate the everyday lives and minds of Black folk.
In “The Conversion of Sam,” a well-meaning white man offers the title character a home and all of his old furniture to help him settle down. But when Sam disappoints, the man declares “I treated you white, but you didn’t appreciate it.”
Hurston captures how white supremacy could appeal even to good-natured or “well-meaning” white people. The existence of demeaned and subservient Black people makes their charity and goodwill feel even greater, further aggrandizing their sense of self-worth, of moral superiority. This is not the white supremacy of hooded racists. This is the more insidious liberal white supremacy that one may uncomfortably recognize in action today.
In “Drenched in Light,” Hurston achieves an opus’s worth of discomfort in just a few sentences when she describes the almost carnivorous hunger a white character has for interactions with Blackness.
After paying a young, rambunctious Black girl’s grandmother to let the girl come with her and entertain her, the white character “looked hungrily ahead of her and spoke into space rather than to anyone in the car. ‘I want a little of her sunshine to soak into my soul. I need it.’”
Yet even when Hurston invokes the presence of the white gaze, her stories are not told with the white gaze in mind. This may be part of the reason some criticized her for her portrayals of Black people. But Hurston rejects the misinterpretations that come with that gaze.
“The villagers knew,” she writes in the story “Black Death,” about how white people at the time would dismiss Black people’s stories about Hoodoo (Voodoo) conjuration and West African-based spiritual traditions. “White folks are very stupid about some things. They can think mightily, but cannot feel.”
As a writer myself, I am often keenly aware of that gaze and how depictions of Black people and Black language may be seen as confirmation of demeaning stereotypes by white readers. Hurston defiantly writes without cowing to such worries. She tells Black stories with Black voices for Black people. In a world that polices Black language, criticizes Black hair as “unprofessional” and Black fashion as “criminal…” In a world where Black people are constantly policing themselves under the white gaze to make sure we don’t scare white people or make them uncomfortable with the ways we may speak or look or act, it is liberating to see Black culture depicted on the page without concern for the dangers of the white gaze.
Zora was one of the original carefree Black girls, and reading these stories feels like permission to drop your consonants, wear your hair big and use “ain’t” all you want.