Hundreds of writers and artists lived in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s and were part of a vibrant, creative community that found its voice in what came to be called the “Harlem Renaissance.” Alain Locke’s 1925 collection The New Negro—a compilation of literature by and essays about “New Negro” artists and black culture—became a “manifesto” of the movement. Some of black America’s foremost writers contributed stories and poems to the volume. The work of these artists drew upon the African-American experience and expressed a new pride in black racial identity and heritage. Zora Neale Hurston—novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist—was known during the Harlem Renaissance for her wit, irreverence, and folk writing style. She won second prize in the 1925 literary contest of the Urban League’s journal, Opportunity, for her short story “Spunk,” which also appeared in The New Negro.
A giant of a brown-skinned man sauntered up the one street of the Village and out into the palmetto thickets with a small pretty woman clinging lovingly to his arm.
“Looka theah, folkses!” cried Elijah Mosley, slapping his leg gleefully. “Theah they go, big as life an' brassy as tacks.”
All the loungers in the store tried to walk to the door with an air of nonchalance but with small success.
“Now pee-eople!” Walter Thomas gasped. “Will you look at 'em!”
“But that’s one thing Ah likes about Spunk Banks—he ain’t skeered of nothin‘ on God’s green footstool—nothin’! He rides that log down at saw-mill jus‘ like he struts ’round wid another man’s wife—jus‘ don’t give a kitty. When Tes’ Miller got cut to giblets on that circle-saw, Spunk steps right up and starts ridin'. The rest of us was skeered to go near it.”
A round-shouldered figure in overalls much too large, came nervously in the door and the talking ceased. The men looked at each other and winked.
“Gimme some soda-water. Sass’prilla Ah reckon,” the newcomer ordered, and stood far down the counter near the open pickled pig-feet tub to drink it.
Elijah nudged Walter and turned with mock gravity to the new-comer.
“Say, Joe, how’s everything up yo‘ way? How’s yo’ wife?”
Joe started and all but dropped the bottle he held in his hands. He swallowed several times painfully and his lips trembled.
“Aw ‘Lige, you oughtn’t to do nothin’ like that,” Walter grumbled. Elijah ignored him.
“She jus‘ passed heah a few minutes ago goin’ theta way,” with a wave of his hand in the direction of the woods.
Now Joe knew his wife had passed that way. He knew that the men lounging in the general store had seen her, moreover, he knew that the men knew he knew. He stood there silent for a long moment staring blankly, with his Adam’s apple twitching nervously up and down his throat. One could actually see the pain he was suffering, his eyes, his face, his hands and even the dejected slump of his shoulders. He set the bottle down upon the counter. He didn’t bang it, just eased it out of his hand silently and fiddled with his suspender buckle.
“Well, Ah’m goin‘ after her to-day. Ah’m goin’ an' fetch her back. Spunk’s done gone too fur.”
He reached deep down into his trouser pocket and drew out a hollow ground razor, large and shiny, and passed his moistened thumb back and forth over the edge.
“Talkin‘ like a man, Joe. Course that’s yo’ fambly affairs, but Ah like to see grit in anybody.”
Joe Kanty laid down a nickel and stumbled out into the street.
Dusk crept in from the woods. Ike Clarke lit the swinging oil lamp that was almost immediately surrounded by candle-flies. The men laughed boisterously behind Joe’s back as they watched him shamble woodward.
“You oughtn’t to said whut you did to him, Lige—look how it worked him up,” Walter chided.
“And Ah hope it did work him up. 'Tain’t even decent for a man to take and take like he do.”
“Spunk will sho' kill him.”
“Aw, Ah doan’t know. You never kin tell. He might turn him up an‘ spank him fur gettin’ in the way, but Spunk wouldn’t shoot no unarmed man. Dat razor he carried outa heah ain’t gonna run Spunk down an‘ cut him, an’ Joe ain’t got the nerve to go up to Spunk with it knowing he totes that Army 45. He makes that break outa heah to bluff us. He’s gonna hide that razor behind the first likely palmetto root an‘ sneak back home to bed. Don’t tell me nothin’ 'bout that rabbit-foot colored man. Didn’t he meet Spunk an‘ Lena face to face one day las’ week an‘ mumble sumthin’ to Spunk ‘bout lettin’ his wife alone?”
“What did Spunk say?” Walter broke in—“Ah like him fine but ‘tain’t right the way he carries on wid Lena Kanty, jus’ cause Joe’s timid ‘bout fightin’.”
"You wrong theah, Walter. ‘Tain’t cause Joe’s timid at all, it’s cause Spunk wants Lena. If Joe was a passle of wile cats Spunk would tackle the job just the same. He’d go after anything he wanted the same way. As Ah wuz sayin’ a minute ago, he tole Joe right to his face that Lena was his. ‘Call her,’ he says to Joe. ‘Call her and see if she’ll come. A woman knows her boss an’ she answers when he calls.‘ ’Lena, ain’t I yo‘ husband?’ Joe sorter whines out. Lena looked at him real disgusted but she don’t answer and she don’t move outa her tracks. Then Spunk reaches out an‘ takes hold of her arm an’ says: ‘Lena, youse mine. From now on Ah works for you an’ fights for you an‘ Ah never wants you to look to nobody for a crumb of bread, a stitch of close or a shingle to go over yo’ head, but me long as Ah live. Ah’ll git the lumber foh owah house to-morrow. Go home an‘ git yo’ things together! '
" ‘Thass mah house,’ Lena speaks up. ‘Papa gimme that.’
"‘Well,’ says Spunk, ‘doan give up whut’s yours, but when youse inside don’t forgit youse mine, an’ let no other man git outa his place wid you!'
“Lena looked up at him with her eyes so full of love that they wuz runnin‘ over, an’ Spunk seen it an‘ Joe seen it too, and his lip started to tremblin’ and his Adam’s apple was galloping up and down his neck like a race horse. Ah bet he’s wore out half a dozen Adam’s apples since Spunk’s been on the job with Lena. That’s all he’ll do. He’ll be back heah after while swallowin‘ an’ workin‘ his lips like he wants to say somethin’ an' can’t.”
“But didn’t he do nothin‘ to stop ’em?”
“Nope, not a frazzlin‘ thing—jus’ stood there. Spunk took Lena’s arm and walked off jus‘ like nothin’ ain’t happened and he stood there gazin‘ after them till they was outa sight. Now you know a woman don’t want no man like that. I’m jus’ waitin‘ to see whut he’s goin’ to say when he gits back.”
But Joe Kanty never came back, never. The men in the store heard the sharp report of a pistol somewhere distant in the palmetto thicket and soon Spunk came walking leisurely, with his big black Stetson set at the same rakish angle and Lena clinging to his arm, came walking right into the general store. Lena wept in a frightened manner.
“Well,” Spunk announced calmly, “Joe come out there wid a meatax an' made me kill him.”
He sent Lena home and led the men back to Joe—Joe crumpled and limp with his right hand still clutching his razor.
“See mah back? Mah cloes cut clear through. He sneaked up an‘ tried to kill me from the back, but Ah got him, an’ got him good, first shot,” Spunk said.
The men glared at Elijah, accusingly.
“Take him up an‘ plant him in ’Stoney lonesome,”‘ Spunk said in a careless voice. “Ah didn’t wanna shoot him but he made me do it. He’s a dirty coward, jumpin’ on a man from behind.”
Spunk turned on his heel and sauntered away to where he knew his love wept in fear for him and no man stopped him. At the general store later on, they all talked of locking him up until the sheriff should come from Orlando, but no one did anything but talk.
A clear case of self-defense, the trial was a short one, and Spunk walked out of the court house to freedom again. He could work again, ride the dangerous log-carriage that fed the singing, snarling, biting, circle-saw; he could stroll the soft dark lanes with his guitar. He was free to roam the woods again; he was free to return to Lena. He did all of these things.
“Whut you reckon, Walt?” Elijah asked one night later. “Spunk’s gittin' ready to marry Lena!”
“Naw! Why, Joe ain’t had time to git cold yit. Nohow Ah didn’t figger Spunk was the marryin' kind.”
“Well, he is,” rejoined Elijah. “He done moved most of Lena’s things—and her along wid ‘em—over to the Bradley house. He’s buying it. Jus’ like Ah told yo‘ all right in heah the night Joe wuz kilt. Spunk’s crazy ’bout Lena. He don’t want folks to keep on talkin‘ ’bout her—thass reason he’s rushin‘ so. Funny thing ’bout that bob-cat, wan’t it?”
“What bob-cat, ‘Lige? Ah ain’t heered ’bout none.”
“Ain’t cher? Well, night befo‘ las’ was the fust night Spunk an‘ Lena moved together an’ jus‘ as they was goin’ to bed, a big black bob-cat, black all over, you hear me, black, walked round and round that house and howled like forty, an‘ when Spunk got his gun an’ went to the winder to shoot it he says it stood right still an‘ looked him in the eye, an’ howled right at him. The thing got Spunk so nervoused up he couldn’t shoot. But Spunk says twan’t no bob-cat nohow. He says it was Joe done sneaked back from Hell! ”
“Humph!” sniffed Walter, “he oughter be nervous after what he done. Ah reckon Joe come back to dare him to marry Lena, or to come out an' fight. Ah bet he’ll be back time and agin, too. Know what Ah think? Joe wuz a braver man than Spunk.”
There was a general shout of derision from the group.
“Thass a fact,” went on Walter. “Lookit whut he done took a razor an‘ went out to fight a man he knowed toted a gun an’ wuz a crack shot, too; ‘nother thing Joe wuz skeered of Spunk, skeered plumb stiff! But he went jes’ the same. It took him a long time to get his nerve up. ‘Tain’t nothin’ for Spunk to fight when he ain’t skeered of nothin‘. Now, Joe’s done come back to have it out wid the man that’s got all he ever had. Y’ll know Joe ain’t never had nothin’ nor wanted nothin‘ besides Lena. It musta been a h’ant cause ain’ nobody never seen no black bob-cat.”
“‘Nother thing,” cut in one of the men, “Spunk wuz cussin’ a blue streak to-day ‘cause he ’lowed dat saw wuz wobblin‘—almos’ got ‘im once. The machinist come, looked it over an’ said it wuz alright. Spunk musta been leanin‘ t’wards it some. Den he claimed somebody pushed ’im but ‘twant nobody close to ’im. Ah wuz glad when knockin' off time come. I’m skeered of dat man when he gits hot. He’d beat you full of button holes as quick as he’s look etcher.”
The men gathered the next evening in a different mood, no laughter. No badinage this time.
“Look, ‘Lige, you goin’ to set up wid Spunk?”
“New, Ah reckon not, Walter. Tell yuh the truth, Ah’m a lil bit skittish. Spunk died too wicket—died cussin' he did. You know he thought he wuz done outa life.”
“Good Lawd, who’d he think done it?”
“Joe Kanty? How come? ”
“Walter, Ah b’leeve Ah will walk up theta way an' set. Lena would like it Ah reckon.”
“But whut did he say, 'Lige?”
Elijah did not answer until they had left the lighted store and were strolling down the dark street.
“Ah wuz loadin‘ a wagon wid scantlin’ right near the saw when Spunk fell on the carriage but ‘fore Ah could git to him the saw got him in the body—awful sight. Me an’ Skint Miller got him off but it was too late. Anybody could see that. The fust thing he said wuz: ‘He pushed me, ’Lige—the dirty hound pushed me in the back!‘—He was spittin’ blood at ev’ry breath. We laid him on the sawdust pile with his face to the East so’s he could die easy. He heft mah hen‘ till the last, Walter, and said: ’It was Joe, ‘Lige—the dirty sneak shoved me . . . he didn’t dare come to mah face . . . but Ah’ll git the son-of-a-wood louse soon’s Ah get there an’ make hell too hot for him. . . . Ah felt him shove me. . .!' Thass how he died.”
“If spirits kin fight, there’s a powerful tussle goin‘ on somewhere ovah Jordan ’cause Ah b’leeve Joe’s ready for Spunk an‘ ain’t skeered any more yes, Ah b’leeve Joe pushed ’im mahself.”
They had arrived at the house. Lena’s lamentations were deep and loud. She had filled the room with magnolia blossoms that gave off a heavy sweet odor. The keepers of the wake tipped about whispering in frightened tones. Everyone in the village was there, even old Jeff Kanty, Joe’s father, who a few hours before would have been afraid to come within ten feet of him, stood leering triumphantly down upon the fallen giant as if his fingers had been the teeth of steel that laid him low.
The cooling board consisted of three sixteen-inch boards on saw horses, a dingy sheet was his shroud.
The women ate heartily of the funeral baked meats and wondered who would be Lena’s next. The men whispered coarse conjectures between guzzles of whiskey.
Source: Zora Neale Hurston, “Spunk,” in Alain Locke, ed., The New Negro (New York: A and C Boni, 1925), 105–111.
See Also:The Harlem Renaissance: George Schuyler Argues against "Black Art"
"If We Must Die": Claude McKay Limns the "New Negro"