Zora Neale Hurston recreates Eatonville, FL, the oldest incorporated African town in America

Listen Siblings, I come in peace,

“Envious greed must govern to possess and ambition must possess to govern.” — African Proverb (Ancient KMT)

While weaving a wonderful narrative on African womanhood following Emancipation, Zora Neale Hurston recreates her native Eatonville, Florida, in “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” injecting her protagonist Janie Crawford into a marriage with an ambitious Jodie Starks; a man who hears of the all-Black town, travels there and eventually incorporates it, becoming its first Mayor. There’s so much to learn from the book, but Chapter 5 especially has passages through which African readers at home and abroad can benefit.

Ashamedly though, one problem with our race comes in the shape of, even if our ancestors write nuggets to us, now, even in this digital world, or this mass-media frenzy, we’re reluctant to repeat their wisdom. So for instance, unfortunately, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” which is in our curricula, praised by a plethora of readers, and considered one of the most important works of twentieth century literature, is neither digitized by us nor digitized period. Therefore, the following excerpts are hand-written by me, an assignment which Europeans would compensate or at least organize (see Project Gutenberg), which we as Africans take for granted, not realizing how much we’re missing for it, or how much one sacrifices to give to us freely (though transcribing could be an educational employment for text-and-tech-savvy African youth.)

On topic, the following excerpts start with Coker explaining to Hicks how Hicks had no chance wooing Janie as Janie was married to Jody Starks. Jody had come to town earlier, asking around for the Mayor and boasting to the people how he would buy more land to expand Eatonville. We see the conversation between Coker and Hicks doubting Jody’s merit. Later we read of Jody’s ambition to build a store and sell more lots of the town which quickly returns his money. I skip the ceremony granting him the Mayoral title but return to after he’s established himself as an authority in town. There you gain insight into the costs of creating something.

What’s especially interesting in these selections is how Jody reasons creating a store first and foremost. He reasons that a Town needs a center. At the African Blood Siblings, we similarly reason that a Community needs a Center; therefore we undertake to organize African Blood Siblings Community Centers (ABSCC) all over the world, much like Garvey had organized Liberty Halls all over the world. People need a center! But who among us will heed the ancient Wisdom laid out? This Newsletter is a compendium of worthwhile lore to accomplishing a perfect fate for our race but where are the bold men and women to write our offices and deliver to us that hopeful future? Is it you reader? Do you think of yourself as one with your ancestors?

(Note: Eatonville has a Denton Johnson Community Center, what’s mostly a sports facility, very different from an ABSCC, but still a showing for African capabilities.

It takes active membership to create for our people a Center of study, planning and society, equipped with Ancient and Contemporary Wisdom, where activities are geared toward Political, Economical and Cultural Independence, but at least this shows you the possibility.)

It’s worth noting that the beginnings laid out by Zora Neale Hurston may not be exact, but Eatonville, Florida does make the claim today that it is “The Oldest Incorporated African American Municipality in America.” It today has roughly two-thousand people. It’s ninety-percent African. African people can do things! It only takes an Organization. Tell the bravest, most intelligent Africans you know to write the African Blood Siblings. Subscribe, share, love.

Excerpts from Chapter 5, pages 38-41 and 46-50, emphasis mine,
of “Their Eyes Were Watching God”
By Zora Neale Hurston

“You oughta know you can’t take no ‘oman lak dat from no man lak him. A man dat ups and buys two hundred acres uh land at one whack and pays cash for it.”

“Naw! He didn’t buy it sho nuff?”

“He sho did. Come off wid de papers in his pocket. He done called a meetin’ on his porch tomorrow. Ain’t never seen no sich uh colored man befo’ in all mah bawn days. He’s gointuh put up uh store and git uh post office from de Goven’ment.”

That irritated Hicks and he didn’t know why. He was the average mortal. It troubled him to get used to the world one way and then suddenly have it turned different. He wasn’t ready to think of colored people in post offices yet. He laughed boisterously.

Y’all let dat stray darky tell y’all any ole lie! Uh colored man sittin’ up in uh post office!” He made an obscene sound.

“He’s liable tuh do it too, Hicks. Ah hope so anyhow. Us colored folks is too envious of one ‘nother. Dat’s how come us don’t git no further than us do. Us talks about de white man keepin’ us down! Shucks! He don’t have tuh. Us keeps our own selves down.

“Now who said Ah didn’t want de man tuh get us uh post office? He kin be de king uh Jerusalem fuh all Ah keer. Still and all, ’tain’t no use in telling lies just ’cause uh heap uh folks don’t know no better. Yo’ common sense oughta tell yuh de white folks ain’t goin’ tuh ‘low him tuh run no post office.

“Dat we don’t know, Hicks. He say he kin and Ah b’lieve his know whut he’s talkin’ ’bout. Ah reckon if colored folks got they own town they kin have post offices and whatsoever they please, regardless. And then agin, Ah don’t speck de white folks way off yonder give uh damn. Less us wait and see.”

“oh, Ah’m waitin’ all right. Specks tuh keep on waitin’ till hell freeze over.”

“Aw, git reconciled! Dat woman don’t want you. You got tuh learn dat all de women in de world ain’t been brought up on no teppentine still, and no saw-mill camp. There’s some women dat jus’ ain’t for you tuh broach. You can’t git her wid no fish sandwich.”

They argued a bit more then went on to the house where Joe was and found him in his shirt-sleeves, standing with his legs wide apart, asking questions and smoking a cigar.

“Where’s de closest saw-mill?” He was asking Tony Taylor.

“‘Bout seben miles goin’ t’wards Apopka,” Tony told him. “Thinkin’ ’bout buildin’ right away?

“I god, yeah. But not de house Ah specks tuh live in. Dat kin wait till Ah make up mah mind where Ah wants it located. Ah figgers we all need uh store in uh big hurry.”

“Uh store?” Tony shouted in surprise.

Yeah, uh store right heah in town wid everything in it you needs. ‘Tain’t uh bit uh use in everybody proagin’ way over tuh Maitland tuh buy uh little meal and flour when they could git it right heah.”

“Dat would be kinda nice, Brother Starks, since you mention it.”

“I god, course it would! And then agin uh store is good in other ways. Ah got tuh have a place tuh be at when folks come tuh buy land. And furthermo’ everything is got tuh have uh center and uh heart tuh it, and uh town ain’t no different from nowhere else. It would be natural fuh de store tuh be meetin’ place fuh de town.”

“Dat sho is de truth now.”

“Oh, we’ll have dis town all fixed up tereckly. Don’t miss bein’ at de meetin’ tuhmorrow.”

Just about time for the committee meeting called to meet on his porch next day, the first wagon load of lumber drove up and Jody went to show them where to put it. Told Janie to hold the committee there until he got back, he didn’t want to miss them, but he meant to count every foot of that lumber before it touched the ground. He could have saved his breath and Janie could have kept right on with what she was doing. In the first place everybody was late in coming; then the next thing as soon as they heard where Jody was, they kept right on up there where the new lumber was rattling off the wagon and being piled under the big live oak tree. So that’s where the meeting was held with Tony Taylor acting as chairman and Jody doing all the talking. A day was named for roads and they all agreed to bring axes and things like that and chop out two roads running each way. That applied to everybody except Tony and Coker. They could carpenter, so Jody hired them to go to work on his store bright and soon the next morning. Jody himself would be busy driving around town to town telling people about Eatonville and drumming up citizens to move there.

Janie was astonished to see the money Jody had spent for the land come back to him so fast. Ten new families bought lots and move to town in six weeks. It all looked too big and rushing for her to keep track of. Before the store had a complete roof, Jody had canned goods piled on the floor and was selling so much he didn’t have time to go off on his talking tours. She had her first taste of presiding over it the day it was complete and finished. Jody told her to dress up and stand in the store all that evening. Everybody was coming sort of fixed up, and he didn’t mean for nobody else’s wife to rank with her. She must look on herself as the bell-cow, the other women were the gang. So the put on one of her bought dresses and went up the new-cut road all dressed in wine-colored red. Her silken ruffles rusted and muttered about her. The other women had on percale and calico with here and there a headrag among the older ones.

. . .

Janie soon began to feel the impact of awe and envy against her sensibilities. The wife of the Mayor was not just another woman as she had supposed. She slept with authority and so she was part of it in the town mind. She couldn’t get but so close to most of them in spirit. It was especially noticeable after Joe had forced through a town ditch to drain the street in front of the store. They had murmured hotly about slavery being over, but every man filled his assignment.

There was something about Joe Starks that cowed the town. It was not because of physical fear. He was no fist fighter. His bulk was not even imposing as men go. Neither was it because he was more literate than the rest. Something else made men give way before him. He had a bow-down command in his face, and every step he took made the thing more tangible.

Take for instance that new house of his. It had two stories with porches, with banisters and such things. The rest of the town looked like servants’ quarters surrounding the “big house.” And different from everybody else in the town he put off moving in until it had been painted, in and out. And look at the way he painted it–a gloaty, sparkly white. The kind of promenading white that the houses of Bishop Whipple, W.B. Jackson and the Vanderpool’s wore. It made the village feel funny talking to him–just like he was anybody else. Then there was the matter of the spittoons. No sooner was he all set as the Mayor–post master–landlord–storekeeper, than he bought a desk like Mr. Hill or Mr. Galloway over in Maitland with one of those swing-around chairs to it. What with him biting down on cigars and saving his breath on talk and swinging round in that chair, it weakened people. And then he spit in that gold-looking vase that anybody else would have been glad to put on their front-room table. Said ti was a spittoon just like his used-to-be bossman used to have in his bank up there in Atlanta. Didn’t have to get up and go to the door every time he had to spit. Didn’t spit on his floor neither. Had that golded-up spitting pot right handy. But he went further than that. He bought a little lady-size spitting pot for Janie to spit in. Had it right in the parlor with little sprigs of flowers painted all around the sides. It took people by surprise because most of the women dipped snuff and of course had a spit-cup in the house. But how could they know up-to-date folks was spitting in flowery little things like that? It sort of made the rest of them feel that they had been taken advantage of. Like things had been kept from them. Maybe more things in the world besides spitting pots had been hid from them, when they wasn’t told no better than to spit in tomato cans. It was bad enough for white people, but when one of your own could be so different it put you on a wonder. It was like seeing your sister tun into a ‘gator. A familiar strangeness. You keep seeing your sister in the ‘gator and the ‘gator in your sister, and you’d rather not. There was no doubt that the town respected him and even admired him in a way. But any man who walks in the way of power and property is bound to meet hate. So when speakers stood up when the occasion demanded and said “Our beloved Mayor,” it was one of those statements that everybody says but nobody actually believes like “God is everywhere.” It was just a handle to wind up the tongue with. As time went on and the benefits he had conferred upon the town recede in time they sat on his store porch while he was busy inside and discussed him. Like one day after her caught Henry Pitts with a wagon load of his ribbon cane and took the cane away from Pitts and made him leave town. Some of them thought Starks ought not to have done that. He had so much cane and everything else. But they didn’t say that while Joe Starks was on the porch. When the mail came from Maitland and he went inside to sort it out everybody had their say.

Sim Jones started off as soon as he was sure that Starks couldn’t hear him.

“It’s uh sin and uh shame runnin’ dat po’ man way from here lak dat. Colored folks oughtn’t tuh be so hard on one ‘nother.

“Ah don’t see it dat way atall,” Sam Watson said shortly. “Let colored folks learn to work for what dey git lak everybody else. Nobody ain’t stopped Pitts from plantin’ de cane he wanted tuh. Starks give him uh job, what mo’ do he want?”

“Ah know dat too,” Jones said, “but, Sam, Joe Stars is too exact wid folks. All he got he done made it offa de rest of us. He didn’t have all dat when he come here.

“Yeah, but none uh all dis you see and you’se settin’ on wasn’t here neither, when he come. Give de devil his due.”

“But now, Sam, you know dat all he do is big-belly round and tell other folks what tuh do. He loves obedience out of everybody under de sound of his voice.”

“You kin feel a switch in his hand when he’s talkin’ to yuh,” Oscar Scott complained. “Dat chastisin’ feelin’ he totes sorter gives yuh de protolapsis uh de cutinary linin’.”

“He’s uh whirlwind among breezes,” Jeff Bruce threw in.

“Speakin’ of winds, he’s de wind and we’se de grass. We bend which ever way he blows,” Sam Watson agreed, “but at dat us needs him. De town wouldn’t be nothin’ if it wasn’t for him. He can’t help bein’ sorta bossy. Some folks need thrones, and ruling-chairs and crowns tuh make they influence felt. He don’t. He’s got uh throne in de seat of his pants.”

“Whut Ah don’t lak ’bout de man is, he talks tuh unlettered folks wid books in his jaws,” Hicks complained. “Showin’ off his learnin’. To look at me you wouldn’t hink it, but Ah got uh brother pastorin’ up round Ocala dat got good learnin’. If he wuz here, Joe Starks wouldn’t make no fool outa him lak he do de rest uh y’all.”

“Ah often wonder how dat lil wife uh hisn makes out wid him, ’cause he’s uh man dat changes everything, but nothin’ don’t change him.”

“You know many’s de time Ah done thought about dat mahself. He gits on her ever now and then when she make little mistakes round de store.”

“Whut make her keep her head tied up lak some ole ‘oman round de store? Nobody couldn’t git me tuh tie no rag on mah head if Ah had hair lak dat.”

“Maybe he make her do it. Maybe he skeered some de rest of us mens might touch it round dat store. It sho is uh hidden mystery tuh me.”

“She sho don’t talk much. De way he rears and pitches in de store sometimes when she makes uh mistake is sort of ungodly, but she don’t seem to mind at all. Reckon dey understand one ‘nother.”

The town had a basketful of feelings good and bad about Joe’s position and possessions, but none had the temerity to challenge him. They bowed down to him rather, because he was all of these things, and then again he was all of these things because the town bowed down.

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