Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Chapter 6: Wandering
The moment of her mother’s death was “the end of a phase of my life,” Zora recalls. Mama grew sick and died at home when Zora was nine years old. Zora characterizes death as a creature with “soft feet” and “square toes” who had been secretly living in her yard all along, just waiting to claim a soul.
Extreme guilt mingled with grief when Zora was unable to fulfill Mama’s final requests of her. The first request was that no one remove the pillow beneath Mama’s head as she lay dying. The second request was that the clock and mirror in the room of her death remain uncovered. In spite of Zora’s protestations, the adults in the room insisted on observing both of these death rituals. Zora grappled with guilt for years afterward.
As a traveling preacher, Papa felt unable to care for Zora by himself, so he shipped her off to boarding school in Jacksonville with her siblings Sarah and Bob. As Zora motored the winding road to Jacksonville, her first childhood premonition—driving along a curved road and drowning in grief—came true.
In Jacksonville, Zora felt a separateness due to her race that she hadn’t experienced in Eatonville. She didn’t make friends, but she thrived academically. Nevertheless, she missed home and dreamed longingly of “the loving pine, the lakes, the wild violets in the woods and the animals I used to know.”
Zora concludes the chapter by recounting a time when she thought she saw Mama sitting on a porch in Jacksonville. Her heart fluttered at the thought that maybe there had been a mistake and Mama was still alive. She soon realized that she was incorrect and states, “I accepted my bereavement.”
Chapter 7: Jacksonville and After
Sarah had always been the favored sister, Zora remembers. Even though Sarah wasn’t interested in music lessons, Papa bought her an organ. When Zora asked for music lessons, Papa told her to “dry up” or she’d be whipped.
In Jacksonville, Sarah’s grief over Mama was too much to bear, and she soon departed for home. Her homesickness soured, however, when she discovered that Papa had already remarried. Zora remained at school even after an administrator, whom she calls “the Second in Command,” informed her that Papa hadn’t paid her tuition. To stay on, Zora worked for her room and board, scrubbing floors and working in the kitchen.
Zora fell in love with the school president when he congratulated her for winning a spelling bee. “He had such a big laugh that I made up my mind to hurry up and get grown and marry him,” she recalls. To subsidize her fantasy, Zora composed fictional letters from the president to herself that brought her to tears. The one-sided love story fizzled one day when the president spanked Zora for placing a wet brick in the bed of one of her teachers.
When school let out, Zora waited for Papa to come get her, but he never did. Instead, he informed the school that they could adopt her. This wasn’t possible, so the Second in Command placed boat and train fare in Zora’s hand and sent her home. Zora fell in love with the excitement of the boat and train rides.
When she finally arrived home, Zora became enraged when she realized that her stepmother was sleeping in Mama’s featherbed. She felt that Mama’s featherbed belonged to her, not the stepmother. The stepmother encouraged Papa to beat Zora over the issue: “She thought a good beating for me ought to settle ownership once and for all.” Zora’s brother John stood...
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up to defend his sister, but the struggle prompted Zora to move out of the house. At this point, her second premonition, in which she was “homeless and uncared for,” came true.
Chapter 8: Backstage and the Railroad
Cast off by Papa and his new wife, Zora drifted between the homes of relatives and friends for a while. At age fourteen, she sought work. She tried many live-in jobs washing dishes, cleaning, and taking care of children and the elderly, but none of them lasted long.
She recalls one job in particular at the home of Mrs. Alice, Mr. Ed, and their two daughters. Zora was to care for the girls so that Mrs. Alice could enjoy free time. Zora enjoyed playing and tussling with the girls, but the “president of the kitchen,” another live-in helper named Aunt Cally, sabotaged Zora’s job by complaining about her until she was fired.
Zora moved through several more jobs. Finally, she found a suitable role in a doctor’s office. The doctor liked her and suggested she become a nurse, but fate pulled Zora away from the medical field when her brother Bob made an offer she couldn’t refuse: he’d pay for Zora’s schooling if she would come live with him and his wife and help raise their children.
Zora boarded the train for her brother’s house, giddy at the thought of going to school and living in a loving home again. She recalls a vivid image of “the red ball of the sun” hanging on the horizon as she traveled that evening, and the moment imprinted itself in her memory. “There have been other suns that set in significance for me,” she says, “but that sun! It was the book-mark in the pages of a life.”
Once Zora arrived, Bob told her that he couldn’t put her in school right away. Instead of going back to school or staying with Bob and his family, Zora took a job as a lady’s maid for a professional singer, Miss M——, who was touring as the soprano lead with a production of HMS Pinafore. Miss M—— was bubbly and fun, and she offered to pay Zora ten dollars per week to go on tour with her.
Zora thrived in this new role, which she later realized was a very important part of her education. It wasn’t formal schooling, but the people she met, the music she heard, and the life experiences she gained proved invaluable.
Her stint with the touring company and Miss M—— ended on good terms, and Zora decided it was time to go back to school. Six of the premonitions she’d had as a child had “passed me and bowed,” and the seventh was also behind her. Zora recalls her determination to succeed: “I took a firm grip on the only weapon I had—hope—and set my feet.”
Chapter 9: School Again
Zora enrolled in night high school in Baltimore, where she met English teacher Dwight O. W. Holmes. She praises her mentor, saying, “There is no more dynamic teacher anywhere under any skin.” With Holmes’s encouragement, she advanced to Morgan College, where she completed high school under the wing of another mentor, Dean William Pickens.
At Morgan, Zora fell in with a class of “pretty girls and snappy boys.” She owned just one dress, but her friends embraced her for who she was. Sometimes, in jest, a friend would ask, “Zora, what do you think you’ll wear to school tomorrow?” So many schoolmates clamored to loan her clothing for special events, in fact, that she had more offers than she needed. “I would have to take it in rotation to keep from causing hard feelings,” she recalls.
Twins Bernice and Gwendolyn Hughes were two of Zora’s closest friends, and through an acquaintance of theirs, Zora learned about the prestigious Howard University in Washington, DC. Of Howard, Zora says, “It is to the Negro what Harvard is to the whites.” Zora attended Howard and flourished there, supporting herself as a manicurist in a barbershop. At the barbershop, she crossed paths with important journalists and politicians who shared personal and professional information with her. “Zora knows how to keep a secret. She’s all right,” the men would say.
Zora describes a racial incident at the barbershop in which she and her black coworkers refused service to a black customer on the basis of his skin color. It felt right at the moment, because to serve a black customer was to jeopardize her own employment. Later, however, Zora reflected on the incident and wondered if she had done the right thing: “I was giving sanction to Jim Crow, which theoretically, I was supposed to resist.”
At Howard, Zora’s literary career took flight, and she published several short stories in magazines. When funds ran out, she had to drop out of school. Zora moved to New York in 1925 with “$1.50, no job, no friends, and a lot of hope.” In New York, she won a prize for her writing and accepted a job as secretary for writer Fannie Hurst.
Zora’s school career wasn’t over. A woman named Annie Nathan Meyer secured a scholarship for Zora to Barnard College in New York City. Zora studied anthropology at Barnard and graduated in 1928. After Barnard, she received a fellowship to study black folklore in the South. She joined the American Folklore Society and reunited with family members, including her brother Bob. At this point in the autobiography, she mentions that Papa had been killed in an auto accident while she was at Morgan College. No more is said about it.