by Laura Jones
To find the real Florida, travel out I-4 from Orlando. Leave behind the strip malls, the $5 tee shirt shops, the theme parks offering byways into fantastic worlds. Sea World, Disney World, and all the lesser ones, the Wet ‘n Wilds, the Legolands, the Madame Tussaud’s. A few clicks east lies Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede, featuring waitresses dressed up like the country western star: blond wigs, jean shorts, red and white checked shirts tied beneath the breast, country girl style. Its across the street neighbor is the Holy Land Experience, a Christian amusement park with an exact replica of the Garden Tomb. Every day at 5 o’clock Christ is recruxified there to the horror and delight of visitors, hung up like a sopping wet towel in the streets of a cardboard Jerusalem.
The farther north you drive the more the land turns to what it’s always been. Hot stretches of green pastures, rippling with humidity. Trees garlanded in ash-gray Spanish moss. Reedy grass and shrubs gone wild with flowers. I-4 is just a flat highway through a flat world, no hills or rises, just horizon as far as the eye can see. The first piece of it was poured in 1959 to make travel easier for tourists, a freeway to sunshine, at a time when the state’s population was expanding at an astronomical rate. Florida’s always been the fastest growing area of the south, sometimes doubling in the course of a decade. Despite what those Midwesterners thought as they drove it, I-4 snaked through a state as southern as southern could get. White folks died here in the Civil War, enlisted in droves in the Confederate Army. They died to keep the orange groves ripe and producing and the cattle farms overrun with steer, all on the backs of men, women and children due no protection or rights.
Tallahassee was the only Confederate town not to fall during the Civil War. In the 1920s, the most lynchings committed in America were perpetrated in this state. “4.5 per 10,000 blacks, twice the rates in Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana, three times the rate in Alabama, six times the rate in South Carolina.” Yet Florida is still remembered for sunshine and hospitality. It’s never been perceived as part of the South. In the popular imagination, Florida was theme parks. Was white sandy beaches on Spring Break. These were the things people saw outside their car windows, heading back north up the highway, beach sand pooling in the nooks and crannies of floor mats and suitcases, gritting up the nails of children falling asleep in the back seat, weary from all-day swimming on family vacation.
Florida is more than that to the people that live there. It’s the interior, the hinterlands. Up I-4 you’ll pass the small towns people live in, parceled out amongst all those stretches of nature that can’t help but grow, seemingly in fast motion, amongst the heat rising up hazy off molten black cement. I was born in Fort Lauderdale, one of those tourist destinations. But at the age of fourteen, my family moved to a small town in the center of the state. I attended school at Eustis High School, west and north of Orlando, population 20,000, soaking wet. To get there, you had to pass ABC Liquors and Publix and Winn Dixie and churches, a whole mess of them. Southern Baptist, Evangelical, Seventh Day Adventists, and even the occasional Catholic steeple. My high school was one of many dotting each small town. A low slung two-story building squared off by a football field, bleached orange in the sun.
Near my town was one even smaller, Eatonville, the first incorporated black town, following emancipation, just 2,300 folks. Small as it was, it made history. The writer, anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston lived and wrote in this town and the stories she collected inscribed her own life. She was also to die there, a forgotten hero of the Harlem Renaissance, employed as somebody’s maid.
It’s hard to say what she thought about in those final years, rocking her chair on a neighbor’s front porch. If her stories surrounded her the way they had in 1935, when she wrote her book Mules and Men. Those tales hummed with meaning. Were filled with the mysteries and fears of being black at that time in history, read through the lens of myth, a portal to a world of signs. As a storyteller, Hurston’s love of story was born in Eatonville and the townspeople there who held what she called “lying sessions”. Stories of God, Devil, Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Sis Cat, Lion, Tiger, Buzzard and all the rest. These stories comprised her south, and it’s hard to see where Hurston’s own story begins and these stories end. Stories have a way of doing that, taking us up in them until we become just one more myth.
In the summer of 1987, I didn’t know who Zora Neale Hurston was. I was just sixteen years old, living in my own small town, trying to read the signs of how to survive life as a young lesbian in the south. I had no deep religious affiliations, but I showed up occasionally and sang in the choir at St. Mary’s church. I was just as likely to criticize the Bible at school, toss it haphazardly on a desk to make a point, to remind my fellow students it was “just a book”. For both acts – being Catholic and belligerent – the Baptists in town made sure I knew, I was destined to burn in hell. “The Son,” spelled s-o-n, “always rises in Lake County,” read a local billboard, and did its best each day to remind me, they were right.
In central Florida, Jesus didn’t like Catholics and Jesus didn’t like “homosexuals”. I lived then, I guess, in the closet, if there was such a thing at sixteen years old, in a place that refused to acknowledge the existence of people like me, beyond as tinder for the holy pyre. I kept my relationship with my high school girlfriend quiet, frantically counting who might know, how many, or how they might’ve found out. To be revealed in that place was certain social death, but also to live with the realization that you were something abject. Something wrong to yourself beneath your own skin. I could feel that cold panic living inside me most times of the day. I would put it to bed at night, and wake up to it, first thing in the morning. There would be birds outside my bedroom window and the first faint rays of light bleeding in through the blinds. There would be the softness of first waking, followed by that shock of ice water in the belly. I would remember: I was still this thing I could not stop being. That day, like every day, I had to make sure no one else knew.
To wake up black in a small southern town had its own set of fears. Whites and blacks in my town rarely mixed, except on the sports field. There were black girls I played volleyball with; good, strong players that kept like a triad all to themselves. I barely knew these girls. But then again, I barely knew anyone. During the long, post-game rides home at sunset, orange light would flood the bus, and the other girls would talk together about the match or bend their heads in quietude over their homework, monkish in their study. The triad would sit as one, legs stretched out on the seat next to them, bodies turned towards each other. I’d stare out the window at a passing lake or string of cars. I talked to almost no one; shared nothing of my protected inner world.
At school, the white kids sat on their side of the cafeteria. The black kids on theirs. I sat nowhere, preferring instead to roam the campus, or keep strained company with an overweight Algebra teacher discussing religion or politics, just about anything I could to stay away from my peers, so inept was I at connecting with those my own age. So certain they could stare right through me and read the alleged sins of my soul.
My sister was my mirror opposite. Popular, a cheerleader, the President of the Student Council. After I’d left for college, she’d broken that cafeteria line and dated an African American boy from school. It was more of a scandal than my rumored (true) affair with my female best friend.
I remember the part of town this young man lived in. I never had cause to go there, until I drove my sister a few times in the front seat of my beat green Mustang. There were rows of run down, small houses, crowded behind wire gates and fences, lined by cracked sidewalks out front. Young boys with agility and strength to spare would stand around outside in the late afternoon sun, with their shirts off, revealing thin, wiry muscles. They’d show off to each other by doing back flips from flat feet or running full down the road and tumbling into the air in perfect somersaults until their mothers yelled for them to stop playing and come on inside.
My sister would go after school to the boy’s house, and they’d hold hands or kiss out back beneath a sagging elm tree. On Saturday nights, they’d head to the Lakeside mall for a movie, causing a stir. They’d drink Orange Julius or do what everyone else did, just drive around. The boy was a good student. An athlete, well liked, handsome, in every way, a perfect match for my sister. They put up with the stares and the whispers done in plain sight. They didn’t break to the townfolks or the social pressure around being different. It was his mother that broke them up, quick as she could. At the time I had no more notion of why, than I had knowledge of Eatonville, of a storyteller named Zora Neale Hurston, who had once lived just a few miles away.
Looking back now it’s clear. A black boy in a small southern town dating a white girl he knew from school. It was the late 80s, but it still wasn’t done. The fear his mother must’ve felt — I can only imagine. I’m not sure it was my sister she distrusted, although maybe she did. Maybe she was afraid my sister would cry foul one night, turn on the boy if she was mad or jealous. Or perhaps his mother was afraid of the town. How could you trust a hinterland place like Eustis, Florida? White kids on one side of the cafeteria, black kids on the next. The memory of those lynchings lived deep in our interior and weren’t gone nor forgotten. Although to me and the other white kids, it was not something we knew about. It was a history that went untold.
That summer, Eatonville celebrated its 100th anniversary as the first black incorporated town. For months, we heard on the news that the city planned a grand parade. There was much to celebrate that Hurston had already proudly expressed in her work. Growing up in Eatonville, surrounded by “three hundred brown skins” that ran the schools and churches and banks, that like her father served as mayor, grew or sold food, owned homes, contributed to civic life, and as in Hurston’s case, powerfully told its stories, Hurston had never been indoctrinated as a young girl in the alleged “inferiority” of black people. If blacks were afforded the same and equal assets as whites, she felt, then there was a freedom in living separate and unmolested by them.
As the city ramped up preparations, one night the news reported the unthinkable: the Klu Klux Klan had petitioned to march in the Eatonville centennial parade. Their stated reason held an eerie echo of Hurston. They said they wanted to show support for black towns, separated from whites. It wasn’t an aggressive act, but one done in solidarity. Is it possible the petitioners had read Hurston’s August 1955 letter to the Orlando Sentinel, where she broke her silence and spoke out against the Supreme Court decision to end segregation in public schools? She’d written, “I regard the Supreme Court decision as insulting rather than honoring my race… if there are adequate Negro schools and prepared instructors and instructions, then there is no difference (in desegregation) except the presence of white people.” No part of me truly believed the Klan had real sympathies aligned with Hurston or Eatonville, only that they wanted to insinuate their evil on the back of the parade. I could feel the fear and anger smoldering from thirty miles away.
Public debate filled the airwaves. Many people in and outside Eatonville said there was no way the Klan should be permitted to march. They were co-opting the focus of a peaceful event meant to commemorate African Americans and all they’d survived. The KKK’s presence would instead emphasize their oppression and violence, slyly reasserting the ongoing possibility of both. Their march was a threat. Age-old Florida jumped up from the ashes. The real world risen from the theme parks.
Some residents suggested canceling the whole thing, even if it meant the KKK had won. The Mayor, Abraham Gordon, looked into legal action, but downplayed his concern to the media saying he worried about violence that would break out, but that he was also worried it “might rain and that the cold drinks (wouldn’t) get there on time.” In the end, it was decided the parade would go on and that the KKK’s participation was a First Amendment right. Anyone could march in a municipal parade, provided they’d filed the necessary paperwork, which the hate group had done. Eatonville had no choice. The KKK would march in their parade.
Every day, I checked the news. Every day, I felt this breathless waiting. I wondered if violence would erupt. There were all those southern people, each one of them with guns. In my mind’s eye, I pictured the parade down a main street much like my own. As the KKK rounded the square, I saw the people of Eatonville, their righteous anger exploding. I wondered too if the Klan’s presence might usurp the day, force pride to bend to power. If the dark cloud they brought with them would be all anyone remembered. These two outcomes were the only ones I could envision at the time.
Hurston’s father, John Hurston, first settled in Eatonville in 1902, the minister of the Macedonia Baptist Church. He helped create some of the city’s laws; instituted the first jail; and even served as mayor from 1912 to 1916. It’s possible that some of the civil obedience he brought to bear became the same that protected the Klan’s rights in 1987. That empowered the policeman to dress up in their blue uniforms, line the parade route, and protect the Klan. It was a bitter pill. Even though Florida had seen more black men lynched than any other state, the Klan, up until this point had left Eatonville, with its minority 1% white population, all alone.
But the late 80’s were a strange time for the town. In the earlier two decades, young African Americans had flooded Eatonville, looking for a better life for their children. By 1987, the dwindling economy had led them elsewhere. The fresh stream of families and finances dried up, despite the “rediscovery” of Hurston by Alice Walker in 1975. In an article for Ms. Magazine, Walker braved the hip-high cemetery grass that, as a fellow Southerner, she knew was filled with dangerous cottonmouths or canebreak rattlers, all to find Hurston’s unmarked grave and lay a stone on it in commemoration.
I learned of this later when I lived in New York and stumbled upon Hurston’s writings in my college classes. What struck me most about her was not Eatonville or her many accomplishments, but the deep, rich poetry of her words. They stuck deep inside me and conjured up our shared south and a language I instinctively understood. This language sang in my ear. It woke me as a writer; born in me art, which provided its own kind of identity and resistance. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, her main character Janie, “… waited a bloom time, and a green time and an orange time… She knew the world was a stallion rolling in the blue pasture of ether. She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonderful to see it take form with the sun and emerge in the gray dust of its making.”
I knew that green time she wrote of to be the lime green of the orchard leaves, waxy, riddled with ants, springing up and out of branches. I knew that orange time to mean the sunset, so brilliant over the Gulf, but also those mile of groves, alive with their fresh spritz of citrus. I knew the bloom time meant when they began as white flowers, with the bright smell of a stick of gum bursting out in the fresh morning air. Gardenias and jasmine and that soft drift of autumn, so small, you couldn’t place it if you hadn’t grow up in a place of constant, relentless sun.
Later, when I worked at Ms. Magazine, I sat in a office chair and answered a phone one day on the other side of which, turned out to be, Alice Walker, my conduit to Hurston. I held my breath and put Ms. Walker on hold. There was a moment before transferring her to the person she wished to speak to when I could keep her there, with her quiet, measured voice at the other end of the line, and believe that we two could have an actual conversation. I wanted to know her, to ask her about Hurston. I wished I’d known them both when I was living in the south, hiding who I was, alone.
The day for the parade arrived. It stepped off as scheduled with all the townspeople standing on the street and watching the homemade floats and open-topped convertibles and the crowned queen of Eatonville’s Centennial roll on by. There was a marching band from the high school and the mayor. There were displays of the great history of the town, and all that the people had accomplished in 100 years. Men and women lined the street, clapping and cheering. Children waved their tiny flags. Eatonville was alive to itself on this day.
Then it came time for the KKK to march by. They entered the main space of the parade route, turning into it. Whether from fear of reprisal, or lack of follow through, their group consisted of just three sorry white boys and a couple of hand painted signs. They did their best to cause commotion anyway. They cackled and jeered. They called out and waved to the crowd, as though they were the celebrants here. But the people of Eatonville didn’t lose their cool. They simply turned their backs and looked away as the KKK walked by. There was no violence and no confrontation. They refused to give those boys their attention, as though there was nothing about them worthy of Eatonville’s time.
I watched it on the news and felt elated. My body jumped alive with thrill, instead of its typical dread. There was something I’d learned from Eatonville. Something deep. It would take me a couple more years to put my finger on it. I’d have to move away first. It might simply be identified as the new knowledge of living another way. There was something in that gesture – back turned, quietly, strongly, refusing to bend – there was the suggestion that a person could select another path, one most folks couldn’t even fathom.
[Check out Laura’s back porch wisdom here]
 Gannon, Michael. Florida: A Short History. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003.