Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Chapter 1: My Birthplace
Zora Neale Hurston introduces herself briefly before delving into the history of Eatonville, Florida, her hometown. To understand her life, she argues that the reader must first understand her roots.
Zora explains how Eatonville, the first American town governed completely by blacks, came to exist. After the Civil War ended, three white veteran officers decided to settle in southern Florida. These men established the town of Maitland, Florida, bringing friends and family to help populate the area and former slaves to help develop the area. Black men performed much of the labor required to advance Maitland: chopping trees, constructing buildings, and laying down railroad tracks.
As the railroad pumped travelers and tourists through Maitland, the town’s wealth and prosperity grew. Black and white people lived harmoniously in the town, though most of the black population lived in shacks near a tiny lake called St. John’s Hole, while white people lived along the three-mile stretch of glorious Lake Maitland.
The town’s first mayor was a black man named Tony Taylor. Another black man, Joe Clarke, assumed the role of town marshal. Clarke proposed to Maitland’s founders that the black people there should have their own town. The founders agreed and purchased a strip of land just west of Maitland for that purpose.
On August 18, 1886, the black town of Eatonville was established. At the close of this chapter, Zora muses that white Maitland and black Eatonville coexisted peacefully for fifty-six years before “the stars fell,” alluding to the start of World War II in 1942.
Chapter 2: My Folks
Zora introduces readers to her parents. Her father, John Hurston, was a “mulatto” man who grew up in poor conditions—“over the creek,” Zora notes, “which was just like saying on the wrong side of the railroad tracks”—in Alabama. Dreaming of a better life for himself and his wife, Lucy, the couple moved to Florida and settled in Eatonville.
Zora was born into a family of eight children in Eatonville. She lived on a beautiful piece of land with “two big chinaberry trees shading the front gate and Cape jasmine bushes with hundreds of blooms on either side of the walks.” The sights and sounds of nature left indelible marks on her memory, but while making memories of the lush outdoors, Zora was also making memories of social dynamics, including observations of the people she knew.
Mama was a petite and strong-willed woman, and Papa was a proud and boastful man. The two fought often, and at times it seemed their marriage was crumbling, but they never divorced. Mama taught the eight Hurston children at home, passing on the grammar and arithmetic lessons she’d learned as a child. She encouraged her children to “jump at de sun,” meaning they should be their own people and set their sights high. Papa wasn’t as encouraging as Mama was; he had his career as a traveling minister and his role as a community influencer to occupy him.
Chapter 3: I Get Born
When it came time for Mama to give birth to Zora, the midwife (known as Aunt Judy) was nowhere to be found. Mama labored and gave birth to Zora alone, but shortly after Zora entered the world, a white man heard a baby crying and stopped in to check on the Hurston family. He cut Zora’s umbilical cord with his knife and assisted with other tasks until the midwife finally arrived.
At age one, Zora still could not walk. That changed one day when Mama left Zora alone in the house, on the kitchen floor. A large sow wandered...
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in, prompting baby Zora to pull herself up to her feet beside a chair. After the incident with the sow, which could have proven fatal for Zora if the sow had been so inclined, Zora recalls that she “took to wandering.” She muses that from then on, it seemed that she never stopped wandering.
Chapter 4: The Inside Search
Zora revels in memories of the rich make-believe world she lived in as a child. Everyday experiences became fascinating narratives. For instance, Zora loved the moon and believed that it followed her everywhere. Zora’s friend Carrie Roberts challenged that belief, insisting that the moon followed her and not Zora. The girls decided to run a race to determine who the moon loved more. In the end, Zora realized that she was not the center of the moon’s attention. “The unfaithfulness of the moon hurt me deeply,” she recalls.
Zora also remembers scheming with Carrie to travel to the edge of the earth. Carrie eventually bowed out of that quest, leaving Zora alone in her mission. Christmas was just around the corner, and Papa asked the children what they wanted from Santa Claus. Zora asked for a fine black riding horse, thinking she could use the horse to ride to the edge of the earth. Papa scolded her for “always trying to wear de big hat”; he felt that Zora was asking too much from life. He chased her and threatened to whip her when Zora said she didn’t want anything if she couldn’t have her horse.
Zora was “driven inward” by these and other events in her life. She bonded with nature and chose one tree in particular, nicknamed the “loving pine,” as her special nonhuman friend. She recalls one important person who always brought her joy, though: the “robust, gray-haired man who had helped me get into this world.” This was the white man who cut Zora’s umbilical cord minutes after she was born. The pair spent a lot of time together, bonding and chatting and fishing. He advised her on her playground scuffles and social affairs. Unfortunately, the man died when Zora was ten years old. The “hard-riding, hard-drinking, hard-cussing, but very successful man” was thrown from a horse. The loss robbed Zora of her mentor and friend, who is never named in the book.
Two other significant figures from Zora’s childhood were Mrs. Johnstone and Miss Hurd, women who observed Zora performing well in school and took a special interest in her. The women bestowed Zora with gifts that included books, clothing, and a roll of pennies. Shortly after meeting the women, Zora experienced a series of twelve premonitory visions, which she says made her feel a “cosmic loneliness” and effectively ended her “real childhood.” At the end of the chapter, she reveals that each of these visions came to pass just as she expected they would.
Chapter 5: Figure and Fancy
Community life in the town of Eatonville shaped Zora in her growing years. Perhaps the most influential public spot was Joe Clarke’s store, described by Zora as “the heart and spring of the town.” Men traded gossip and tall tales on the porch of the store. Zora loved to dawdle and listen, fascinated by the character sketches and plot twists these men uttered.
Zora began developing character sketches and plots of her own. She shared some of her stories with her mother. Once, she told Mama, a beautiful bird with a colorful tail flew down and had a chat with Zora. Another time, Zora had a conversation with the lake in which the two of them discussed walking on water. The lake assured Zora that she would not drown. Mama accepted these fictions as “play,” even as Zora’s grandmother accused her of telling lies.
Using items from around her home, Zora created an elaborate soap opera starring an ear of corn named “Miss Corn-Shuck,” a bar of soap named “Mr. Sweet Smell,” and a host of other sundries. This cast of characters saw the rise and fall of Corn-Shuck and Sweet-Smell’s romance, along with other dramatic twists. The homegrown toys kept Zora entertained and served as an outlet for her wild imagination.
Zora reflects on the end of her childhood play, saying, “There is an age when children are fit company for spirits.” As inanimate objects ceased to thrill her, people and animals from the real world became fodder for her fictions. An Eatonville man named Mr. Pendir lived a secret life as an alligator, according to Zora’s fantasies: “In my imagination, his work-a-day hands and feet became the reptilian claws of an alligator.” When an Eatonville woman, Old Lady Bronson, disappeared mysteriously, Zora fantasized that Mr. Pendir and his alligator minions had captured her in the lake.
When Mr. Pendir died an “ordinary death,” the people of Eatonville had no idea what this quiet man had been to Zora. Even after he died, she would find herself searching for his sloughed-off gator hides at the lake. “My fantasies,” she recalls, “were still fighting against the facts.”