In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens

Photo taken by Christopher Peace during ZORA! Festival.

“It is one of the blessings of this world that few people see visions and dream dreams.”

–Zora Neale Hurston

I arrived in Eatonville, Florida, in December 2018 to work as the first graduate intern for the 30th annual ZORA! Festival of the Arts and Humanities. I had crossed such a boundary—from the scholar I thought I was becoming to a hands-on practitioner– when Dr. Graham, Director of the Project on the History of Black Writing, asked if I would be interested in working directly in Eatonville for the festival.  I was excited for the opportunity and overjoyed to walk the very streets and inhabit the spaces where Hurston had been. People there call her Zora. I’d been reading about this place since the ninth grade when we were assigned Their Eyes Were Watching God. Why the book stuck with me, I don’t know.  But by the time I was ready to write a master’s thesis years later, I knew that I wanted to explore Hurston’s ethnographic novels and her methods of crossing cultural boundaries to collect and preserve cultural memes.

Once I placed my clothes in the drawers of a dresser at my host family’s house, I felt as if I was integrated in the culture that Hurston spent her life preserving. “Two breaths that way, and you’re out of Eatonville,” said NY Nathiri, the executive director for P.E.C (Association for the Preservation of the Eatonville Community), the parent organization for the festival. Eatonville’s small size belies its historic importance as the oldest Black municipality in the United States, a community held together by the material significance of cultural preservation and folk stories. NY, as everyone calls her, was born there, too, and she is committed to the preservation of the town and its people, just as Zora was.

I quickly adjusted to the role of the festival intern.  It was my job to compile the main program guide for every activity of the ZORA! Festival, while attending city hall meetings, engaging with the spatial parameters of the festival, creating signs and maps for special events and organizing data for graphic design and digitization. Being in such close proximity with several museum and festival staff allowed me to form connections with people in the field who gave me an insider’s view on the ways in which oral histories and cultural preservation sustain a community.

My interests in African-American folklore and the rhetoric of space and place were tested during the 5 weeks.  I was in real-world contexts, seeing the ways in which places and towns serve as rhetorical agents and create social identity. My “Public Genres and Social Action” professor asked me to take notes of the discourse and genres I encountered during the festival. Although I was very busy from sunup to beyond sundown, I noticed several genres that lead to social action during the festival, one being what I would call “car talk.” When I picked up several distinguished professors in the field of African American literature, our conversations revolve around Hurston, culture, food, locations, program activities, directions and locations, and my own scholarly interests. Dr. Trudier Harris of the University of Alabama had an interesting story about cooking cornbread and collard greens she shared with me. Dr. Cheryl Wall of Rutgers University introduced me to her most recent book on the African American essay as a genre. Dr. Ruth Sheffey, a long-time professor at Morgan State University, told me personal stories about Zora that I would have never known. I listened closely; being in this cherished space offered me information that semester of instruction could not have taught me in a classroom.

I was asked to drive Alice Walker to Zora’s gravesite in Fort Pierce, Florida. Although I was somewhat nervous, we arrived safely to the site, some two hours outside of Eatonville. It took us around 20 minutes to find the proper cemetery, and I cracked a joke that we were still in search of our mother’s gardens. Because Walker recorded her search for Hurston’s unmarked gravesite in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983), being with her in this place was a transformative moment that I could have only dreamed about had it not been for my involvement with the festival.

I continue to use this experience in my scholarly and professional development after the end of this year’s festival. For example, in my “Public Genre and Social Action” class, I am usually on the festival’s Facebook page to complete a genre system analysis on the activities that occur on the page. Being selected as a HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) Scholar at KU gives me the space to combine my interests in African-American folklore and digital humanities, while using Eatonville as a digital project. During the festival, I met and learned from Dr. Julian Chambliss, a member of the steering committee for HASTAC, who also happens to be on the national planner committee for the ZORA! Festival. He and others gave me valuable sources to help me combine my spatial interests to digital humanities. Over the course of these two years, I plan to use digital humanities resources to create a digital interactive map of the town of Eatonville, and possibly other Black settlements in the United States. Historic Black Towns and Settlements Alliance, Inc. (HBTSA) was a major collaborator in this year’s festival, and their goals of promoting heritage, history, and culture inspired me to work with historical towns such as Eatonville. P.E.C. has a paper version of a walking tour for Eatonville, but I think digitizing resources would aid the organization in practical ways. My studies in rhetoric and composition allow me the space to examine certain written and digital genres that the festival and other cultural practices produce, just as the town of Eatonville helps me understand the sacredness of place and the richness of folkloric heritage.

One of the greatest impressions I have from my experience at the festival is that place matters; its history has a material weight that bears on the land. People ritualize territories through cultural practices that seek to preserve and expand culture while reaffirming their identity.

Eatonville is the only place in the South that could teach me the value of oral histories and the preservation of a people through the lens of Hurston’s tradition.

Chris is a doctoral student at the University of Kansas, Christopher Peace holds a B.A. in Writing from Mississippi College and a M.A. in Literature from Jackson State University, where he completed his thesis entitled, “Zora Neale Hurston’s Conjure Memes: A Post-structuralist Analysis of Mules and Men and Tell My Horse.” Some of his academic interests include African Diaspora spiritual systems, ecocomposition, and African American folklore.