“Book Review: I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive”
Reviewed by Joe Walters
A celebration of the life and work of a deeply undervalued literary icon, the great Zora Neale Hurston
I first read Zora Neale Hurston in college—a short story called “The Gilded Six Bits”—and I was kind of blown away by it. There’s this one scene where a husband returns home after work and tosses his hard-earned coins at the front door, followed by a laugh-filled chase around the house. It’s a gentle routine between husband and wife; it’s a glimpse into the joy a marriage can hold.
The conversation in my class the next day ended up being an equally enjoyable time. We talked about Hurston’s use of Black Southern dialect and the gut-wrenching twist in the latter end of the story, but one thing we didn’t talk about was that Zora Neale Hurston died without a penny in her name. What we didn’t talk about was how, during her lengthy prime, she still had to submit her books through an unsolicited slush pile, despite a novel that would soon become a classic (Their Eyes Were Watching God) and stories or essays gracing the pages of The Saturday Evening Post and The American Mercury. After all, she was a Black woman writing between 1925 and 1960 about Black lives.
I didn’t learn about these issues in class; I learned about them during my recent read of I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…And Then Again When I Am Mean and Impressive.
This book is labeled as a “Zora Neale Hurston Reader,” meaning it is both a collection of Hurston’s work (both fiction and nonfiction) as well as outside essays and introductions from writers like Alice Walker and Mary Helen Washington. It’s an opportunity both to get to know how others have perceived (and continue to) perceive Hurston and to get to know Hurston through her own work.
Here are a few pieces you’ll encounter in this book:
- An introduction by Mary Helen Washington called, “Zora Neale Hurston: A Woman Half in Shadow”
- An excerpt from Hurston’s autobiography Dust Tracks on the Road
- An excerpt from Hurston’s collection of Black Southern mythology, as told by real people on stoops, Mules and Men
- Lasting essays like “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” and “Crazy for this Democracy”
- The short story, “The Gilded Six Bits,” which I fell in love with all over again during my re-read
- An excerpt from her novel Moses, Man of the Mountain, which rewrites the Book of Exodus from an African American perspective.
- An excerpt from Their Eyes Were Watching God that chronicles the story of the first Black man to begin a government in the all-Black town of Eatonville, Florida in the early 20th century.
- An afterword by Alice Walker, about visiting Hurston’s dilapidated grave site called, “Looking for Zora”
Throughout each of Hurston’s works in this reader, you’ll see what makes her special. I know I did. Beyond a dialect that drops you into each scene, she’s also able to infuse nearly each excerpt, story, or essay with humor and zeal. There’s a particular honesty about her work, perhaps shining brightest in the excerpt from Mules and Men, where she roams the streets of her old town striking conversation with the townspeople, celebrating their humor through seemingly unfiltered dialogue and their morals through the stories they tell. We have the opportunity to sit on the porch with Zora, listen closely to the people who infuse their folk tales with genuineness and meaning. Not each folk tale comes with a neat bow-tie ending, making this reader glad that Zora told the stories as they were, honestly, as opposed to putting her own storytelling flair to it. This excerpt feels real. It feels intimate. It feels like something I want more of. Luckily, Bookshop has me covered.
Another sure-fire favorite of mine from this reader is her essay “Crazy for This Democracy.” It’s four pages of passion grounded in the fact that “They tell me this democracy form of government is a wonderful thing. It has freedom, equality, justice, in short, everything!…I want to see how it feels,” and yet, Zora still has to put what’s in front of American leaders in the spotlight, namely The Jim Crow Laws in this essay. After offering that the Jim Crow laws must come to an end now, “Not in another generation or so. The Hurstons have already been waiting 80 years for that,”she goes on to equate racism to the disease it is:
“The patient has the smallpox. Segregation and things like that are the bumps and blisters on the skin, and not the disease, but evidence and symptoms of the sickness. The doctors around the bedside of the patient are desperately picking bumps. Some assume that the opening of one blister will cure the case. Some strangely assert that a change of climate is all that is needed to kill the virus in the blood!
“But why this sentimental over-simplification in diagnosis? Do the doctors not know anything about the widespread occurrence of this disease?
“…So why the waste of good time and energy, and further delay the recovery of the patient by picking him over bump by bump and blister to blister? Why not the shot of serum that will kill the thing in the blood? The bumps are symptoms. The symptoms cannot disappear until the cause is cured” (162).
I’ve always had a soft spot for Zora Neale Hurston, but the spot has gotten softer after I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…. If you haven’t read all of Hurston (or any of her), this reader is a special opportunity to see firsthand not only how talented the undervalued Hurston was but also the impact that she’s left on us forever.
Publisher: Feminist Press
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