Zora Neal Hurston Jumps at the Sun
Eatonville commemorates its most celebrated child, whose life and casting of the Black American heritage continues to ascend.
It takes a few minutes to drive along Eatonville’s main and partly cobbled strip, start to end. From mid-morning to dusk, the small historic town sops Central Florida’s sunny tinge—a nostalgic carroty at its best, under a baby blue sky and brightly lit clouds. Cozy eateries, a post office, a church here and there, a barber shop, library, school…
The gouache would pass as any other tiny township in America’s Sunshine State if it were not for its very “own way of saying” in the voice of Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960).
Eatonville does well in commemorating each January its most notable daughter, the seminal intellect in black culture whose Floridian flair steamed the Harlem Renaissance. One needs only to thumb through the pages of her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), to realize how much she loved her home turf, and how much soul-tempering significance bloomed from her memories of it.
Hurston’s autobiography leaps slightly off the genre. The warp and woof of its narrative is that of a voice with a penchant for those random details on which memory clinches most. “But the thing that held my eyes were their fingers,” she writes about the two women who gave her “candies, clothes and books to read.” “They were long and thin, and very white, except up near the tips. There they were baby pink.”
The moment, an inverted epiphany of her blackness (“I had never seen such hands”), also inverted the dour, self-fulfilling prophecy that weighted upon her people. “…I picked up the reflections of life around me with my own instruments, and absorbed what I gathered according to my inside juices.” However she fancied calling it, she could not but wring that inner substance from her home place.
Hurston would spend most of her life distilling her belonging from the expected sulk and petted lips. “I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife,” she would riposte. Readers of her autobiography may sense that “strange distance,” as Maya Angelou has remarked. “Certainly,” she adds, “the language is true and the dialogue authentic, but the author stands between the content and the reader. It is difficult, if not impossible, to find and touch the real Zora Neale Hurston.”
The protagonist in Dust Tracks on a Road blurs behind the hankering for her Eatonville. She laughs, often with a wide-mouth crackle, but never in that compensatory gibe with which those who find themselves shortchanged on their dignity incur at the cost of further self-degradation. If there is anything she berates, these are the people of “My race but not My taste.”
Hurston’s impulse did not sit well with the sterile dichotomies of her times, and which still plague a fair categorization of her stances. Freedom reigns creativity, the only force capable of stirring nature’s whims to favor our humankind. In her take, even the urban Neo-negritude intellectualism was nothing more than another shackle that robbed blacks of their originality.
Hurston laughed whenever she felt rejected. “How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me,” she shrugs, and waddles back to her Eatonville. That is the main character, forever reminisced and jarred, in Dust Tracks on a Road. She deciphered an authentic future in its “own way of saying.” There her mama told her to “jump at the sun,” and she did. Today Eatonville also feels closer to the sun.
[January 23, 2011]
Top image: Woodland Berry by Paul Klee, 1921
Photo: Library of Congress, 1937