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  • Shamoria “Mori” Johnson

Hurston Critiques Black Male Fragility in “Sweat” (1926)

Kickstarting Black History Month and my New Year’s Resolution of reading more African-American literature, I decided to re-read a piece of work by my favorite author of the Harlem Renaissance through a different lens than the typical Hurston analysis.

If you are not familiar with Zora Neale Hurston, all you really need to know is that many consider her the Mother of Black Literature. She was a Harlem Renaissance writer whose stories stretched way beyond the neighborhood of Harlem; she wrote stories about Black Southerners without a political stance, just people being people. Hurston’s famous works Their Eyes Were Watching God and “Sweat” are revolutionary in their feminist themes of portraying strong-willed Black women. But what Hurston does best is capture real-life cultural issues in a way that connects deeply with the reader even nearly 100 years later.

While Zora Neale Hurston swiftly tackles the intersectionality of being an African-American woman in her unparalleled 1926 short story “Sweat”, it is also important to note Hurston’s critique on a certain kind of Black masculinity rooted in insecurity through the actions and consequences of the character Sykes.

Through analyzing Sykes, it can be seen that fragile masculinity mixed with cultural stigmas results in an internally small male that hurts women as a means to feel powerful. It is important to critique this kind of masculinity to understand the significance of Black men’s personalities and feelings being heard, acknowledged, and validated to achieve emotional balance.

When looking at Hurston’s piece from this lens, the term “fragile masculinity” must first be defined. It is a phrase used to describe a state of anxiety felt by men who feel as if they are not living up to the standards of manhood, and often project their own insecurities onto their romantic partners. It is unsurprising for men to have these feelings, as traditional gender roles often perpetuate stereotypes or standards that are almost impossible to meet in today’s world whether due to the ever-fluctuating economy or the drastic difference in women’s roles in society.

Being strong and stoic, protector of the household, and the sole breadwinner are just a few of the expectations one might consider to define a man during the 1920’s setting of “Sweat”. When someone with a fragile masculinity’s manhood is challenged, such as Sykes when Delia is fed up after fifteen years of abuse and states, “Mah tub of suds is filled yo’ belly with vittles more times than yo’ hands is filled it. Mah sweat is done paid for this house and Ah reckon Ah kin keep on sweatin’ in it,” their actions may reflect a defensive stance or their internal feelings about themselves as they are not able to provide their wife the livelihood they wish they could (2).

Combining a toxic mindset on manhood with the generational trauma subjected onto an entire race of men to convince them that they are inferior to another race creates the very specific type of fragile masculinity that is Black Male Fragility. Hurston draws attention to this theory as the community chorus discusses the nature of some Black men, “Taint no law on earth dat kin make a man be decent if it aint in ‘im. There’s plenty men dat takes a wife lak dey do a joint uh sugar-cane,” meaning they suck their wife dry for their own benefit until she is empty and they toss her out (4).

Being a Black man at this time was synonymous with animal-like dominance and hyper-sexuality, and it is unsurprising for some men to establish their identity through these in an attempt to smother their untreated fragility due to feelings of not being as good as the White Man. One can argue that this is the basis of Sykes’s entire character arc as he is the embodiment of Black Male Fragility.

As seen through Sykes's character, the consequence of such deep unacknowledged insecurities is the creation of a manipulative, abusive, and downright horrible human being. Sykes, who is notorious for charming women only to use them for sex, inflicted physical and verbal abuse onto Delia for fifteen years as she worked to maintain a living for them.

One important thing to note in Sykes’s character is the shift from physical to mental abuse. In an attempt to regain control over Delia (or at the very least, her property), Sykes uses her phobia of snakes against her to bring her mental turmoil; the text highlights this as Delia states, “You done starved me an’ Ah put up widcher, you done beat me an Ah took dat, but you done kilt all mah insides bringin’ dat varmint heah,” (6). Hurston acknowledges power being the sole motivation for men like this, drawing attention to Sykes’s attempt to silence or run Delia away following her resistance to his abusive ways.

It is a continuous cycle that leaves women hurt and stretched to their wit’s end, which is why it is crucial to critique this kind of Black masculinity. Raising Black boys with a softer definition of masculinity will create emotionally intelligent men unlike those “Sweat” warns the reader about through Sykes. With Sykes’s overdue demise at the end of the short story, one can conclude that Hurston is calling for an end to Black Male Fragility, though it is still prevalent almost 100 years later.

I hope you enjoyed this literary analysis of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat”! I plan to write more of these the more I read and especially with this being Black History Month, I want to focus on historically significant Black authors. I will also be reading at least one novel written by a Black author a month, with plans to discuss the book upon completion and post them here for you guys to join in! For the month of February I will be reading Some People, Some Other Place by J. California Cooper, and I would love if you read along :)

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