Sunday, June 28, 2020

Drenched in Light

Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960)
From Zora Neale Hurston: Novels & Stories

Zora Neale Hurston and three boys in Eatonville, Florida, 1935. Photograph taken during Lomax-Hurston-Barnicle recording expedition to Georgia, Florida, and the Bahamas. Library of Congress.
“I was born in a Negro town,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston in her memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road.
I do not mean by that the black back-side of an average town. Eatonville, Florida, is, and was at the time of my birth, a pure Negro town—charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all. It was not the first Negro community in America, but it was the first to be incorporated, the first attempt at organized self-government on the part of Negroes in America.
The year of her birth was 1901, she would later claim, or sometimes 1903, or even (on her second marriage license) 1910. In fact, she was born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, the fifth of Lucy Ann Potts and John Hurston’s eight children. Her family moved to Eatonville, five miles north of Orlando, when she was just three years old, and her father was elected mayor within three years after their arrival. The town would loom large in her life and in much of her fiction.

“I used to take a seat on top of the gate post and watch the world go by,” she remembered. “One way to Orlando ran past my house, so the carriages and cars would pass before me. The movement made me glad to see it. Often the white travelers would hail me, but more often I hailed them, and asked, ‘Don’t you want me to go a piece of the way with you?’ . . . My grandmother worried about my forward ways a great deal. She had known slavery and to her, my brazenness was unthinkable.” The memory of that dusty road, the obliging white travelers, and her disapproving grandmother inspired her to write “Drenched in Light,” which became the first of her stories to be published in a national publication when it appeared at the end of 1924 in Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, a literary monthly sponsored by the National Urban League.

When Zora was thirteen, her mother died and the happy childhood in Eatonville was abruptly shattered. On the night of the funeral, “all of Mama’s children were assembled together for the last time on earth,” she recalled in her memoir. Zora was packed off to a boarding school in Jacksonville soon after. “I was on my way from the village, never to return to it as a real part of the town,” and she heard from her sister a few months later that her father had remarried. Her new home was a world away from the community of Eatonville; “Jacksonville made me know that I was a little colored girl.” Her tuition and expenses were often in arrears, forcing Zora to do custodial work to help pay the bill or leaving her stranded on the premises when school was not in session. For the rest of her life, Hurston blamed her stepmother for the dispersion of the family.

“Drenched in Light,” then, is a nostalgic glance back at an idyllic time that suddenly ceased to exist when its author became a teenager. It is also, as many scholars and commentators have since pointed out, a portrait of the artist as a young Black woman, whose uninhibited dancing finds a ready supporter in a well-to-do traveler passing through Eatonville on the way to the outskirts of Orlando. “Walking the thin line between fetish and agent,” notes literary scholar Ayesha K. Hardison, “Isie gets a patron for her art and the white woman gets an opportunity to absorb authentic black folk culture.”

Notes: A hasion is a mischievous or unruly child; mommuk (a variant of “mommick”) is dialect for chop up or mangle.

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“You Isie Watts! Git 'own offen dat gate post an' rake up dis yahd!" . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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