The Gilded Six-Bits

by Zora Neale Hurston

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Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 267

By the time Hurston wrote and published “The Gilded Six-Bits,” she had clearly mastered the short-story genre. This story was her last published short work before she turned to the novel as her preferred genre. Its length, greater than many of her other stories, suggests she was ready to tackle a longer narrative. In this story, Hurston provides an adequate exposition of the facts and then spends most of her time examining the complex realities of the aftermath of the marital betrayal. As usual, she is adept at portraying the emotional responses of both the male and female protagonists, a skill not often recognized by her critics.

As with all of her works, Hurston approaches “The Gilded Six-Bits” with much regard for her setting, her characters, and her subject matter. Therefore, while she foregrounds the black folk, she does so with care and compassion that underscores her ability to portray them in a realistic fashion. Dialect and colorful turns of phrase are used to illuminate character and culture but are never used to condescend to or condemn. Although the events in the story run the gamut from comic to tragic, Hurston uses this range of emotions to further her argument that such responses are human and common, even in the lives of black folk. On another level, the reader can readily ascertain Hurston’s fascination with the culture of black folk, as seen, for example, in Missie May’s adornment of her kitchen and her garden in a way that becomes an important aspect of Hurston’s cultural theory of the African American’s desire to adorn.

Historical Context

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Eatonville, Florida
‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ is set in Eatonville, Florida, which was the first incorporated all-black town in the United States and also Hurston's real-life hometown. Such voluntarily segregated towns, growing out of a post-Civil War phenomenon known as ‘‘race colonies,’’ offered blacks the opportunity for political independence and some measure of freedom from the oppression of the wider racist culture. The area—now part of Orange County, Florida—was developed largely by white Northern veterans of the Civil War, with blacks coming there initially for work opportunities. A few progressive whites sold small parcels of land to African Americans with the purpose of allowing them to build their own, new community. Twenty-seven founders incorporated Eatonville as a town in 1887. It was designed with civic and community principles in mind, with a school and church at the town's symbolic center. Though racial segregation was the norm across the United States, Eatonville was exceptional because it was segregated by the choice of its own citizens, with the intention to empower them. In the words of Hurston biographer Robert Hemenway, Eatonville ‘‘existed not as the ‘black backside’ of a white city, but as a self-governing, all-black town, proud and independent, living refutation of white claims that black inability for self-government necessitated the racist institutions of a Jim Crow South.’’

Hurston lived in Eatonville only sporadically after age nine, but it remained central to her sense of self and to her vision as an artist. ‘‘This community affirmed her right to exist, and loved her as an extension of itself,’’ writes Alice Walker in her foreword to Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Walker asks, ‘‘For how many other black Americans is this true?’’ Oral traditions thrived in Eatonville, where storytelling ‘‘lying sessions'' on the porch of the general store were part of the texture of everyday life. Hurston made the oral culture of Eatonville the subject of her first anthropological study of folklore, Mules and Men. The tales, sensibilities, and language of Eatonville ‘‘lying sessions’’ are also essential to her fiction. ‘‘Hurston came to know that her parents and their neighbors perpetuated a rich oral literature without self-consciousness,’’ Hemenway writes, ‘‘a literature illustrating a creativity seldom recognized and almost universally misunderstood.’’ Through both anthropology and fiction, Hurston preserved the unique oral creativity of the Eatonville community in print form and tried to make its value understandable to the wider world. ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ celebrates the integrity of the Eatonville community and the power of its indigenous form of expression.

The Harlem Renaissance
After college, Hurston headed for Harlem, a historically black neighborhood in New York City. She was part of a large demographic shift of African Americans moving from the rural South to the urban North, and of a more specific cultural phenomenon that centered in Manhattan, known as the Harlem Renaissance. While ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ is set far from the sophisticated world of 1930s Harlem, the influences of the cultural movement afoot there contributed to the circumstances of its writing.

Harlem was referred to as ‘‘the Negro capital of America.’’ Two-thirds of all black New Yorkers lived there, and it was a popular entertainment spot for blacks and whites alike. In the early stages of the Harlem Renaissance starting about 1917, white artists and intellectuals began to collect, write about, and imitate African-American folk art forms. Later, in the 1920s, a small group of talented and well-educated blacks living in Harlem—often supported and promoted by white benefactors—became visible as they started to create art based on African-American folk culture for themselves.

Hurston was one such promising black talent when she came to New York in 1925. An extraordinary storyteller and wit, Hurston fit the image of the colorful and folksy Negro that had become so popular. She was embraced by members of the black and white intelligentsia alike as a representative of the ‘New Negro.’ But in the 1930s tensions between white patrons and black artists grew. Many black artists began to criticize the condescending and controlling attitudes of their white benefactors. Their writing became more overtly political, and they began to portray the psychological damage caused by racism in their works. Hurston was an exception to this trend, content to work the system for whatever benefits she could gain and continuing to write about the black experience in ways that, for the most part, did not focus on white stereotypes or oppression. Criticized by her peers during her lifetime, she was embraced by a later generation of black writers for representing a vision of African-American self-love and psychic health. A heartwarming story set in an all-black town where racism exists only at a distance, ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ is a clear example of these qualities.

Literary Style

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Setting
Hurston begins the story with description of its setting that uses the same adjective repetitively: ‘‘It was a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement.’’ Such deliberate emphasis underscores the ‘blackness’ of the community (which is later named as Eatonville, Hurston's real-life hometown), defining how it is seen from the outside. Once the story gets underway, the characters’ race is not mentioned, though it remains implicitly significant. ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ takes place in a community that is all black, thus racial difference is not much of an issue—quite an exceptional situation in the United States, especially during the race-conscious 1930s when Hurston wrote. Instead, Hurston addresses the issue of race through celebrating the integrity and cultural richness of the all-black community. Because she often chose such happily segregated settings, Hurston's black literary peers sometimes criticized her for failing to address racism. The issue of the community's insularity is explored in ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ through the device of a disruptive worldly outsider, Slemmons, who is impressive to Missie May and Joe largely because he is from ‘‘spots and places—Memphis, Chicago, Jacksonville, Philadelphia and so on.’’ Hurston also offers the nearby city of Orlando as a contrast to Eatonville. Joe goes there to shop and chats with a white clerk in a friendly way, only to be called a ‘‘darky’’ as soon as he leaves. Hurston portrays the small all-black town as a harmonious haven that shields its inhabitants from the deceptions and prejudices of the larger society.

Narration
‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits’’ is narrated in the third person, from the perspective of someone who is not a participant in the events. The narrator is omniscient, with access to some of Missie May and Joe's inner thoughts, though, for the most part, the story is narrated in a straightforward and objective way. Perhaps the most striking feature of the story's narration is Hurston's use of dialect in the quoted speech of her characters. This sets up a contrast between the standard English of the exposition and the imaginative, vivid language of the characters. While, in the history of American literature until that point, dialect had been used in a way that reduced its speakers to stereotypes of ignorance, Hurston gloried in the expressiveness of African-American oral traditions. As a folklorist, she appreciated her people's dialect as a unique and often beautiful aspect of their culture. Missie May's good clothes are ‘‘Sunday-go-to-meetin’ things,’’ and Slemmons is capable of lying because ‘‘his mouf is cut cross-ways, ain't it?’’ Hurston also shows African-American dialect as particularly rich with metaphorical expressions of love. ‘‘God took a pattern after a pine tree and built you noble,’’ says Missie May. ‘‘Ah'd ruther all de other womens in de world to be dead than for you to have de toothache,’’ Joe tells her. Dialect is central to the story's literary power.

Symbolism
The set of symbols Hurston employs in the story are connected through the concept of value. The story opens with Joe returning home with his weekly pay and a few small gifts for his wife. When he rolls the coins in the door, they stand not for Joe's economic earning power, but instead a playful and erotic ritual through which the couple celebrates the beginning of their free time together. The dollars Joe rolls in the door are a sign of the homecoming that he regards as the happiest aspect of his life and a symbol of how much he values Missie May. The candy kisses hidden in his pockets represent both affection and eroticism. In contrast, the coins that Slemmons wears as jewelry represent the display of wealth for wealth's sake. ‘‘Whut make it so cool,’’ Joe says, duly impressed with Slemmons's gold, ‘‘he got money ‘cumulated.’’ But when Slemmons's coins enter the Banks's house (their surname itself being a pun on money), their happiness is disrupted. His coins, which he wields as a form of power, especially over women, end up being worthless. They do not win Missie May from Joe but remain as a sign of the mistake she made over what to value. When Joe trades Slemmons's gilded trinket for a huge quantity of candy kisses at the end of the story, this refers back to the celebratory opening scene and suggests that, with the baby, Joe's faith has been restored, and his joy has been redoubled. The candy kisses symbolize what is truly valuable to the happy couple.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1930s: The U.S. economy suffers from a crippling economic depression. Older industries, such as the automotive, railroad, steel, textiles, and agriculture, are stagnant. New, service-based industries hold promise for economic development, but low wages and extremely high unemployment delay their growth. The national income is cut in half between the stock market crash (1929) and 1932.

    1990s: The country enjoys the longest period of economic growth in history. The Dow Jones Industrial Average breaks the ten-thousand mark for the first time. Unemployment is at a record low. A booming high-tech industry fuels the economy, leading to higher wages and more disposable income. This, in turn, supports a service-based consumer economy. Despite prosperity, consumer debt is at a record high. The average family spends more than it earns in a given year.

  • 1930s: The average family income in the United States is in the range of $500 to $1,500 per year. Most families have $20 to $25 per week to meet food, clothing, and housing expenses.

    1990s: At the end of the decade, the median family income is approximately $47,000 per year in the United States, leaving just under $4,000 per month for expenses.

  • 1930s: Men's roles are more disrupted by the Depression than women's, since men's status as breadwinners is undermined, while women's roles in maintaining the household remain largely intact. Relatively few women work outside of the home, even in working-class families. In the face of economic insecurity, most couples try to preserve traditional gender roles.

    1990s: A two-income family, with both husband and wife working, has become the norm in both middle-class and working-class families, for both social and economic reasons. The women's movement has led to greater opportunities for women in the workplace, and economic pressure makes two incomes necessary for most families.

  • 1930s: Discrimination against African Americans is generally accepted in the highly segregated mainstream American culture. Public spaces are segregated, many African Americans are deprived of the right to vote, and a dozen or more lynchings still occur each year. Politicians begin to identify the issue of civil rights as a national problem, but take little legislative action.

    1990s: In the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, racism is much less overt in many sectors of American society. However, more subtle forms of racism still plague the nation. President Clinton names racism as a pressing national problem. Public spaces are integrated and the program of Affirmative Action has led to greater integration in the workplace as well, but blacks and whites often have separate cultural and social lives, and significant economic disparities still exist.

Media Adaptations

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  • ‘‘The Gilded Six-Bits,’’ read by Renee Joshua-Porter, is included on an audiocassette entitled Stories by Zora Neale Hurston, recorded in 1996 by Audio Bookshelf.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Burris, Andrew. Review, reprinted in Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. Amistad, 1993, pp. 6-8.

Felton, Estelle. Review, reprinted in Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. Amistad, 1993, pp. 4-5.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Introduction to Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. Amistad, 1993.

Greuning, Martha. Review, reprinted in Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. Amistad, 1993, pp. 3-4.

Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Staples, Brent. ‘‘In Short,’’ in New York Times Book Review, August 11, 1985.

Walker, Alice. Foreword to Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, by Robert Hemenway. University of Illinois Press, 1977.

Wallace, Margaret. Review, reprinted in Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. Amistad, 1993, pp. 3-4.

Further Reading
Gates, Jr., Henry Louis, and K. A. Appiah, eds. Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present. Amistad, 1993. This volume collects reviews and criticism on Hurston's work from 1934 to 1992, offering a useful historical perspective on Hurston's literary reputation. Some of the more recent scholarly essays may be too specialized for the general reader.

Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. University of Illinois Press, 1977. Hemenway offers an authoritative account of Hurston's life based on sensitive insights on her various writings. This scholarly book is long and detailed, but accessible to the general reader.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road, with an introduction by Maya Angelou. HarperCollins, 1992. Hurston's breezy and possibly inaccurate memoir, originally published in 1942, describes the author's rise from poverty and her experiences as a darling of the Harlem Renaissance.

Lewis, David Levering. When Harlem was in Vogue. Oxford University Press, 1981. This thorough and readable analysis of the cultural phenomenon that was the Harlem Renaissance offers a useful context for Hurston's work.

Nathiri, N. Y., ed. Zora! A Woman and Her Community. Sentinel Books, 1991. Editor Nathiri, a fellow native of Eatonville, takes a personal approach to Hurston's life and work, creating an adoring ‘‘family album’’ for her. Includes biographical information, interviews with her relatives and background on Eatonville.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 247

Awkward, Michael, ed. New Essays on “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Campbell, Josie P. Student Companion to Zora Neale Hurston. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Croft, Robert W. A Zora Neale Hurston Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Cronin, Gloria L., ed. Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998.

Grant, Nathan. Masculinist Impulses: Toomer, Hurston, Black Writing, and Modernity. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004.

Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. Reprint. London: Camden Press, 1986.

Hill, Lynda Marion. Social Rituals and the Verbal Art of Zora Neale Hurston. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1996.

Hurston, Lucy Anne. Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Doubleday, 2004.

Jones, Sharon L. Rereading the Harlem Renaissance: Race, Class, and Gender in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Lyons, Mary E. Sorrow’s Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990.

McGlamery, Tom. Protest and the Body in Melville, Dos Passos, and Hurston. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Miles, Diana. Women, Violence, and Testimony in the Works of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: P. Lang, 2003.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Wright, Melanie J. Moses in America: The Cultural Uses of Biblical Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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