January 20, 2008

Martin Luther King Day

I'm celebrating a day early with some commentary on Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. The last book I read was Patrick Smith's A Land Remembered. There is some overlap in theme but a very different style.

A bit from page 16 of the 1998 Perennial Classics edition, spoken by Janie's grandma, "Nanny":

"Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin' on high, but they wasn't no pulpit for me. Freedom found me wid a baby daughter in mah arms, so Ah said Ah'd take a broom and a cook-pot and throw up a highway through de wildernness for her."

What a great expression of the American dream, a sort of feminine stylizing of the classic plea for "40 acres an a mule" after the Civil War, told in the folksy drawl unique to Eatonville, Florida.

Maybe it's just my habit to look for the authorial voice in fiction, but I wonder if Nanny doesn't channel more than a few of Hurston's thoughts on the world. Another of Nanny's aphorisms relates that black women are by necessity and tradition the "mules of the world." That might explain the title of another of Hurston's books, Mules and Men. Nanny wants her granddaughter Janie to marry up into the world and have more than her ancestors did. She's lost hope for Janie's mom and wants to see Janie happy before she dies.

I can't help but be reminded of Barack Obama's life story when I read Nanny's--the opportunities he has enjoyed since his boyhood in Hawaii and the Ivy League path that has put him within earshot of the White House.

As the Republican presidential candidates turn to Florida, I suspect most will descend on the I-4 corridor to canvass for votes. Already pundits have declared rural North Florida Huckabee country, veteran enclaves in Jacksonville and Tampa for John McCain, Palm Beach for Giuliani, Ft. Myers and Sarasota for Romney. They've carved out the "states within a state," with Governor Crist's endorsement still up for grabs.

By the the Florida primary, the Martin Luther King Day festivities will be over. The quotes from the "I Have a Dream" speech and Hurston's books will be dispensed with. Wouldn't it be interesting if one the presidential candidates saw something in the Sunshine State more than selling sand? I doubt a candidate in U.S. history has ever stumped in Eatonville, except perhaps Bob Graham. But the symbolism surely would count for a couple thousand votes.

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