We were visiting my mother-in-law in Florida last week, and, as I had been reading Their Eyes Were Watching God, I decided to take a short trip up to Fort Pierce to see the grave of Zora Neale Hurston in the cemetery where she was buried as penniless old woman in 1960.
I am not alone in the desire to see Zora’s grave, of course. A few years ago, Adam Graham wrote a piece for the New York Times entitled “Forgotten Florida, Through a Writer’s Eyes,” in which he chronicles a similar trek: he travels to the Orlando and the surrounding environs where some of Zora’s work is set to find remnants of the older African-American community that used to exist there (before the area became synonymous with safe suburban fun like “Sea World and Disney and Putt-Putt Golfing,” as the song goes in Book of Mormon), as well as to Fort Pierce.
The particular part of the Treasure Coast where Zora is buried is not especially safe and suburban. “Fort Pierce’s business district … resembles a colorful Caribbean town,” writes Graham. “Brightly painted storefronts like La Chic Beauty Salon, Shorty’s Cold Spot and Soul Fighters for Jesus Ministry, adorned with hand-painted signs, have a jumbled grace about them.” Waiting at one intersection for a stoplight, I noticed a few chickens and rooster in front of a dilapidated building. There’s a charm but also a sort of menace in this neighborhood. “17th Street?” says a man I talk to in a barber shop a few days later. “That’s a rough area. I don’t like to get out of the car up there, and I’m a probation officer.”
The Garden of Heavenly Rest cemetery is at the dead-end of the road, marked with palm trees and a low white wall that reads “Sarah’s Memorial Garden.” Inside there is a small brick parking lot and a walkway with bronze-decorated pillars that lead to the grave itself.
The pillars–the handiwork of furniture artist James Liccione— are striking, with images of women’s hats, et cetera, as well as a face that I take to be the likeness of Zora herself, which you can see up above
The gravesite itself is marked by one of the “Dust Tracks Heritage Trail” markers that Fort Pierce has erected throughout the neighborhood. Truthfully, there’s not much else to look at in this particular area–the cemetery was a potter’s field until the 1970s, until the prominent African-American author Alice Walker came here to find Zora’s unmarked grave and give her a proper memorial. She commemorates this search in a powerful essay called “Looking for Zora” that appeared in Ms. magazine in 1975.
The cemetery is well-maintained now, but in 1975 it was overgrown with weeds and crawling with snakes. Wading through it, Walker and a friend thought it might be impossible to locate the site:
Finding the grave seems positively hopeless. There is only one thing to do:
“Zora!” I yell, as loud as I can (causing Rosalee to jump). “Are you out here?”
“If she is, I sho hope she don’t answer you. If she do, I’m gone.”
“Zora!” I call again. “I”m here. Are you?”
“If she is,” grumbles Rosalee, “I hope she’ll keep it to herself.”
“Zora!” Then I start fussing with her. “I hope you don’t think I’m going to stand out here all day, with these snakes watching me and these ants having a field day. In fact, I’m going to call you just one or two more times.” On a clump of dried grass, near a small bushy tree, my eye falls on one of the largest bugs I have ever seen. It is on its back, and is as large as three of my fingers. I walk toward it, and yell “Zo-ra!” and my foot sinks into a hole. I look down. I am standing in a sunken rectangle that is about six feet long and about three or four feet wide. I look up to see where the two gates are.
“Well,” I say, “this is the center, or approximately anyhow. It’s also the only sunken spot we’ve found. Doesn’t this look like a grave to you?”
“For the sake of not going no farther through these bushes,” Rosalee growls, “yes, it do.”
Shortly thereafter, Walker went to a monument company and ordered the stone to be cut which you see below–“a genius of the South,” it says, a line from a poem of Jean Toomer. Beneath you can see the residue of the tape that once affixed a photo of the author to the stone.
By the tomb are various grave offerings–some yellow flowers, a bracelet with light purple beads, as well as two unopened bottles of Guinness and a large prayer candle.
What to make of these? The beer bottles remind me of items which I think I recall seeing at Marie Laveau’s tomb in New Orleans a few decades ago, and so I guess are associated with voodoo practices of the sort that Zora herself wrote about in Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. The Guinness reminds me of a conversation I had with a Jamaican cab-driver in Fort Lauderdale a few years ago about the aphrodisiac qualities of Gunness, and it’s not difficult to find descriptions of it as Liquid Viagra in parts of the Caribbean and Africa.
The candle I originally took to be a Roman Catholic votive object, such as you regularly find for the Virgin Mother in various parts of the world, but upon closer inspection, I see that it is dedicated to “the Seven African Powers” (as depicted to the left). I’m only half-right that it’s Catholic –the Seven African Powers are divine forces worshipped in the Santeria Church, a syncretistic religion that is made up of Catholic and Yoruban elements. In digging around a little online, I find that the pantheon of the Santerist gods known as the Orishas are spiritual guides with power of various elements of nature (or at least I think so, as there is a good deal of conflicting information). One scholar, Keith Cartwright, sees the Orishas –and particularly Oya the Rain-giver–as mythological figures informing much of Hurston’s work, including Their Eyes Were Watching God, which features significantly the protagonists encountering a deadly hurricane:
The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.
It’s an open question who He is, of course. The Christian God? Chango the Lord of Lightning whom we see on the candle associated with St. Barbara? Or an even more impersonal divine force? Their eyes are watching, Zora writes, but what is it exactly that they’re looking upon? As I leave the Garden of Heavenly Rest, it’s hard for me to say what the religious feeling of the place is.
You got tuh go there tuh know there, Zora writes toward the end of Their Eyes Were Watching God. I’m aware how out of place I feel, a classicist, not a professional reader of Af-Am lit or even American literature. Whil I’m never quite sure what draws me to an author’s grave, it seems strange to me to be making a pilgrimage to this tomb. The neighborhood makes me uncomfortable, and I’m angry at myself for feeling this way, a cultural by-product of racism, no doubt. I’m mad at myself, too, for my irrational fear of the neighboorhood’s tremendous poverty. But here I am, a middle-aged, middle-class white guy visiting and trying to make sense of this spot of earth marking with its exotic devotional practices the final resting place of a poor black woman who was indisputably a genius. Somehow, maybe, it seems OK to be here. As Their Eyes ends,
Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.