What does "Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston reveal about Delia and Sykes' social and economic contexts?

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The first part of the story "Sweat" reveals that Delia and Sykes live in poverty. Because Delia is black, she is economically exploited, working seven days a week as a laundress. Delia, as a woman, is subordinate to Sykes although her income supports him. Church is a social mechanism that helps her cope with her life. As the story opens, she is beginning to fight back against Sykes's abuse.

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Delia and Sykes, as revealed in the first part of the story, are poor. Delia works seven days a week as laundress, taking in white people's laundry. At the time the story was written in the 1920s, this was among the least desirable domestic labor. It involved the hard work of sorting, treating stains, bluing, bleaching, scrubbing, hanging, ironing, and folding. Delia also has to deliver the finished laundry to her clients. Delia toils on Sundays sorting and soaking laundry until two hours past her bedtime so as to make the rest of her work week possible.

Delia and Sykes, as black people, are victims of racism that keeps them in poverty. Sykes is angry at how hard Delia works to wash white people's clothes, since it is degrading for her to be so exploited. Delia accepts the injustices of the system. She sees no alternative. Church is part of her social world and helps her accept her reality.

In addition to being exploited by the racial hierarchy of white supremacy, Delia's social world also includes female subordination to males. We learn that Sykes started beating Delia two months after they were married. Delia also puts up with him sleeping with other women and spending her earnings. Delia supports herself and Sykes, as she points out, paying for their humble home and putting food on the table.

As the story opens, we are told Delia is for the first time starting to fight back against Sykes's abuse in words that reveal how hard her life has been:

Delia's habitual meekness seemed to slip from her shoulders like a blown scarf. She was on her feet; her poor little body, her bare knuckly hands bravely defying the strapping hulk before her.

"Looka heah, Sykes, you done gone too fur. Ah been married to you fur fifteen years, and Ah been takin' in washin' for fifteen years. Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!"

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Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat” takes place in Eatonville, Florida, an all-black town. Across the railroad tracks is the white town that employs the black women.  Delia Johnson is a wash woman and takes pride in her work.  Working for the white people is not shameful to her.  It is her job and her means of surviving.

 Delia begins her work week on Sunday evening after church.  She picks up the clothes on Saturday and on Sunday she soaks the white clothes after she gets home from night time Sunday church. Then on Monday morning she is ready to begin her week. She divides her clothes in piles to begin the wash. 

As she hums a sad tune, she wonders where Sykes has taken her horse and buckboard.  To frighten her, Sykes throws a bullwhip over her shoulder to scare her because of her fear of snakes. 

Sykes says to her: “Ah done tole you time and again to keep them white folks’ clothes outs dis house.”

What a ridiculous statement since this is how Delia supports him.  He further threatens her that the next time he would throw the clothes out of the house. As he leaves the room, he steps roughly on her white clothes.  

“Looka heah, Sykes, you done gone too fur…Ah been takin’ in wahin’fur fifteen years.   Sweat, sweat, sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat pray and sweat! Mah tub of suds is filled yo’ belly with vittles more times than yo’hands is filled it.  Ma sweat is done paid for this house and Ah reckon  ah kin keep on sweatin’in it?”

For the first time, Delia stood up to Sykes. 

    After the work week on Saturday, Delia delivers her clothes in her horse and wagon and  picks up the next week’s work.  Delia endures an unsatisfactory life filled with never ending work and torment from Sykes.   

She attends church regularly, and washes white people’s clothes.  Delia can be seen as the giver of life in her house because she is the head of the household.  The money she earns washing clothes helps to pay for the house that Sykes wants to give Bertha, his mistress.  Delia, being Christian, is against divorce, and stays with Sykes even though he has a mistress whom he openly dates.

In the early 1900s, economically Delia was poor.  The black woman historically has been employed in a subservient role in a white world---maids, cooks, cleaning women, and wash women.  The things that Delia has belong to her because she has supported her family.  

Delia has a strong work ethic which means that if a person works hard, she will be able to buy what she wants. Sykes has tried to make Delia submissive to him…he thinks that he has beaten her in to submission…on this day, she has had enough and tells him to leave her alone. 

At one time, Delia was a pretty woman. After fifteen years, Delia has had the life wrung out of her.  She had loved Sykes, but Sykes was not satisfied with just one woman.  It was too late now…all that mattered to her was her work and her home. She wants to leave her alone.

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