Discussing “The Story of Harlem Slang”

Published in 1942 in The American Mercury

The original version of this story is titled “Now You Cookin’ with Gas

Includes a “Glossary of Harlem Slang” which was originally call “Harlem Slanguage

The narrator begins telling us about Jelly. A young man who is a pimp. Now in 1942 the team pimp did not mean what it means today. A pimp in this story was a man who lived off the kindness of women due to his ability to romance and seduce them. I guess we would use the term Gigolo now.

The story starts with Jelly realizing that it has been a day or so since he had a free meal, and his stomach was growling. As Jelly is on his way to find a working woman to gift him with a meal, he runs into a fellow pimp named Sweet Back on 132nd street.

The two men engage in a battle of words and bluffs powered by egos that were not backed up by strength or money. The exchange between the two men is funny and tragic at the same time. The humor comes from the rhythm and poetry of the slang. The way they push up against the edge of a real confrontation while knowing that neither of them wants to really fight. Also, you realize early on that these two men are telling bigger lies that anyone ever told on the porch of Joe Clark’s store.

The tragic part of the story is the fact that these two men are unable to live a life half as big as their egos. The fact that they plan to live off the kindness of women has its own serious issues, but the fact that they seem to be executing their plan so poorly adds another level of sadness to their lives.

Hurston captures all this through the dialog between Jelly and Sweet Back. It really becomes apparent when they try to persuade a young lady who is passing by to join one of them for a meal. Of course, they needed her to pay for this meal. As you can expect, both men strike out.

Sweet Back tries to save face by implying that the young woman was not worthy of him. Jelly on the other had has a moment of reflection about his former life down south and his life choices in Harlem.

Both versions of this story are in “The Complete Stories” along with the two versions of the glossary. The glossary is a treasure to read on its own. While it was easy to grasp the meaning of the slang as you were reading, there were some words and phrased that stumped me. The glossary comes in handy.

I loved this story, and I preferred the original over the published version. Hurston captured the life and energy of the sporting life men of Harlem in her dialog. While neither Jelly nor Sweet Back were noble men, you still feel slightly sorry for them. Very slightly.

When reading this story, I could visualize these two men blowing smoke at each other knowing full well that they both had nothing to back it up. We see the same scene played out often in life when people will go through extraordinary measures to save face and protect their egos. I can recommend this story if you can put your 2021 mind on pause and see that Hurston is poking fun at male bravado. You will laugh at some parts and roll your eyes at others, but you will have an enjoyable read.

More discussions of Hurston's short stories.