Zora’s Immortal South

by Alexandra W. Pecci

Eatonville, Florida has one main street, with dusty sidewalks, drooping Spanish moss, and sad, tin-roofed houses of faded stucco. Blink and you may miss it: the total land area is just about a mile. Yet for admirers of Zora Neale Hurston and her classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Eatonville is the home of tall tales, true love, and a vibrant culture that seeps from real-life onto the page.

Although she is best known for her fiction, Hurston traveled throughout the American South conducting ethnographic fieldwork and capturing the stories, songs, folklore, dance, and dialect of African Americans. She studied anthropology at Howard University and Barnard College, published several collections of folklore, and worked with the Works Progress Administration during the Depression.

She then lived in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, but returned to Eatonville to conduct fieldwork for the WPA. Although folk life was dying fast in much of the country, Hurston recognized that in Florida and Eatonville there was “still an opportunity to observe the wombs of folk culture still heavy with life.”

Much of Hurston’s work in Florida is documented in the Library of Congress’ “Florida Folklife from the WPA Collection,” which is available online and offers access to 376 sound recordings of traditional songs and folktales, as well as 106 accompanying materials, such as transcriptions, letters, and essays.

During her time in Florida, Hurston became an active participant in the culture that she recorded and performed many of songs in the WPA collection herself. When listening to these works, there is a sense of experiencing something fleeting, like watching a firefly in a jar. Each sound recording or letter offers glimpses into a long-passed and nearly forgotten way of life.

In the tiny audio of the sound recordings, Zora’s high, sharp voice swoops through songs like “Mama Don’t Want No Peas, No Rice” and “Po’ Gal” with melodies that sway like palm trees or pound like spikes into the railroad. One such rail lining song in the collection is “Dat Old Black Gal,” which Hurston learned from a railroad man in Miami. The slow, bluesy tune is punctuated between stanzas by rhythmic pounding that seems to echo the hammering of spikes. Many of the songs in the collection are ones that were sung while working on railroads, lumberyards, or turpentine camps. Others were party songs, sung for dancing or gambling in “jook joints.”

Zora incorporated much of this folk life into her fiction. Like the real-life people she observed, the characters in Their Eyes Were Watching God sit on the porch of the town store and tell incredible stories, flirt and joke, laugh and sing. The store’s porch became a portal to the outside world for the novel’s heroine, Janie, a place where she could escape the confines of her marriage into freewheeling stories and songs. The author also depicted “lyin’ sessions” in which the townspeople would regale one another with tall tales, each trying to outdo the last with a more fantastic yarn, a more unbelievable feat. These “lies” were stories of creation and nature where the devil outwits God or a slave gets the best of his master.

Additionally, she painstakingly recorded the exact vernacular that she heard African American Southerners speak and incorporated it into the dialogue of her fiction and nonfiction. Her use of that dialect drew criticism from other black scholars and writers of the age, who accused Hurston of pandering to white audiences and contributing to a minstrel show image of African Americans. In his review of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Richard Wright wrote that “her dialogue manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that’s as far as it goes.”

Hurston would not change her methods, and her lyrical, evocative writing preserves the culture and affirms the legitimacy of the language and lore of Southern African Americans. Despite her vigilance, the literary establishment never again embraced Hurston. She died in 1960, poor and nearly forgotten, her work out of favor, her novel out of print.

It was not until the early 1970s, through the efforts of Alice Walker, that Hurston and her work experienced a “Renaissance” of sorts. Not surprisingly, Zora was correct in her assertion that anthropologists should record the folk culture in Florida before it becomes diluted by the wider world and eventually disappears.

The Eatonville of today lies about 10 miles northeast of Orlando, home of Walt Disney World and Shamu, a vacation spot for millions of people from around the world. Most tourists will never know that not far from the hotels, theme parks, and manicured streets, lies little Eatonville, home to a luminary of the Harlem Renaissance and to a culture as deep and complex as the Florida swamps.

Little remains in present-day Eatonville of the porch that Hurston immortalized in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Where it once stood, there is now a vacant lot, commemorated by a marker explaining the site’s historical significance. Eatonville is dotted with such markers and empty sites, part of a walking tour of the tiny town that is recognized as the first incorporated African American municipality in the United States. Although few of the original structures from Hurston’s day remain, Eatonville keeps her at the forefront of its identity. One of the many Zora-themed sites and events is the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities, which the town hosts each January. It is a three-day celebration of African American art and culture that attracts thousands of visitors and guests such as Maya Angelou and Ruby Dee.

One of the loveliest Hurston sites in Eatonville is also one of the most unassuming. Tucked off the main street, between palm fronds and marble benches, sits a large, misshapen rock bearing a plaque that reads, “She jumped at the sun.” Like Zora herself, Eatonville and its rich culture were nearly forgotten. Just as Hurston once worked to preserve Eatonville, her hometown is now returning the favor.

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