Saturday, January 28, 2012

With Zora in Eatonville

On the porch of the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Eatonville, Florida, today, a group of teens performed James Weldon Johnson's poem "The Creation" with choral recitation, drums, and dance--and it was very good. Street vendors hawked shea butter, colorful hats, African masks, and music that inspired an impromptu dance in the middle of the street, where children and youths and gray-haired grannies shook and shimmied and showed off fancy steps. It's the final weekend of the annual Zora Neale Hurston festival, a sort of homecoming for all who celebrate the author and the town she put on the map.

I lived not far from Eatonville until 1980 but I don't recall ever hearing Hurston's name until a few years later in grad school; today, though, I doubt that anyone could grow up in central Florida without being aware of the cosmic Zora. The Eatonville she described so lovingly in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Dust Tracks on a Road, and other works has been bisected by an interstate highway, but if you step down a sandy side street past tiny houses and look on Lake Sybelia, it's easy to imagine Janie and Tea Cake bringing in a stringer of catfish and sharing a feast.

I ate some fried fish with beans and rice beneath an oak tree that must have been here in Hurston's time. The woman sitting next to me claims that she danced in one of Hurston's stage shows, and who knows? She may be right. The spirit of Zora lives in the energy of the street dance, the elegance of the hats, and the memories of the residents; it shines in the eyes of teens performing James Weldon Johnson's words and sizzles in the big pots of beans and rice. I kept expecting to see her laughing and singing and dancing with the crowd--and who knows? Maybe I did.

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