“Story in Harlem Slang” by Zora Neale Hurston is written entirely in Harlemese. It contains a three-page appendix, at the end of the story, with the translated slang she used to aid the reader. Harlemese is used to describe things taking place in Harlem and to create a sense that Harlem is its own place, almost a country inside of a country for Blacks. During this time many Blacks believed that living in the North was much better than living in the Jim Crow consumed south. The idea that Zora Neale Hurston centers the story around is the idea that the North is not necessarily better than the South for blacks for various reasons like poverty and other hardships Blacks encountered by “Russian” or running to the North. “Story in Harlem Slang” begins with Jelly who is a pimp. A pimp in Zora Neale Hurston’s slang is a male prostitute. Jelly is all about pleasuring women in exchange for food, money and weed. Because pimping is not easy and it is hard for him to find food Jelly wakes up late to avoid “dirtying plates”. Jelly throws on his zoot suit and heads to the corner where he proceeds to find women to pleasure so he can feed himself and his desire for “scrap-iron” and “reefer” which are liquor and weed respectively. Jelly spots one of his “colleagues” on the street and thinks he can get some weed out of him if he brags about his success on the street correctly to him. His colleague is Sweet Back who is also a Harlem pimp. Sweet Back and Jelly compete with each other for women who bring them business. Jelly and Sweet Back go back and forth trying to outcompete each other. They go on about the women they have gotten with and the payments they have received constantly trying to one up each other. Zora Neale Hurston references My People, My People multiple times in the story. Jelly and Sweet Back spot a domestic headed home from work and they both attempt to talk to her. Unknowingly to both of the pimps the girl has seen them before and calls them out. She says she saw them almost get beat by a cop and makes both of them feel silly for even coming up to her. In the end after Jelly and Sweet Back talk to the girl from Georgy, Jelly is reminded of everything he left behind in Alabama and forgets to act rich in front of Sweet Back. He realizes the life he left behind and how bad his life is currently in Harlem working as a pimp as opposed to home.
Zora Neale Hurston addresses the idea of the North is not necessarily better than the South for Blacks by creating characters that are poor and male prostitutes that get with women for food, money and weed. This image she creates with the characters and the Harlemese they use to describe things in their lives gives the reader a sense of the poverties of Harlem during this time and how people would do anything for food and money. The slang is used to describe the issues that many people encountered when arriving in Harlem from the South in ways normal wordplay cannot. There is also a reference to the drug problem in Harlem during this time with Jelly and Sweet Back’s crave for reefer almost as much as food. The language created by the residents of Harlem gave them an identity that they could claim as theirs. During the Harlem Renaissance there were many advances in Black life, but there were also people still struggling. Zora Neale Hurston focuses on this aspect during the Harlem Renaissance that readers don’t read about as much as the progressions.
While reading I was able to recognize and understand some of the Harlemese used in the story, but still