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"Why Cat's Have Nine Lives," and Other Eatonville folktales

You've got Mail...the old fashioned kind
You've got Mail...the old fashioned kind
Do you know why cat's have nine lives -- or did you ever wonder why people say they do? Well, let me tell you. A very hungry cat entered a house one day and found a plate of nine fish that were going to be eaten for dinner by the nine starving children who lived there. The cat was feeling a little selfish that day and ate up all of the fish in nine quick bites. With no food on the table, the nine starving children died of hunger the very next day, along with the cat who died from eating WAY too much. When the cat went up to heaven and spoke with God, God was so angry with the cat that he threw him out of heaven and made him fall for nine days all the way back to earth. To this day, the cat still holds the nine lives of the starving children in his belly, which is why he must die nine different times before he will stay dead.

How do I know that, you ask? Well, I recently took a trip to Eatonville, a town just north of Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Eatonville is the first incorporated, individually governed black town in the United States. When I was there, walking around the quiet streets, I talked to some people who told me some stories about a very famous woman who once grew up there-Zora Neale Hurston. Zora, it turns out, was an influential African-American writer who became famous during the early parts of the 20th century for her narratives about southern black folklore, of which the story about a cat's nine lives is a part.

Cartwheeling through Eatonville!
Cartwheeling through Eatonville!
Zora Neale Hurston spent her early years in Eatonville, sitting on the front porch of a local store and listening to the local townsmen swap family stories and ancient legends. The townsfolk of Eatonville were - and for the most part, still are - the direct descendants of slaves. Way back when, after the Seminole Indians had stolen many black slaves from southern plantations, some freed blacks occupied the territory in central Florida and helped to clear lands in the area for a group of white settlers. While helping these settlers develop the territory, a black community where the workers lived sprang up beside the town they built. The officers of the town called Maitland were former abolitionists. They were committed to the freedom of blacks and did not dream of excluding them from participating in political processes. When they were presented with the request to give this community of blacks an official city status, the officials did not hesitate in thinking that the community could govern itself. The officials of Maitland sponsored a charter for the new town, and a little over a year later, in 1886, Eatonville received its status as an incorporated municipality.

As self-governing citizens, the all-black townsfolk of Eatonville had an invested interest in the development of their own community life. In fact, members of the community donated land to develop their own all-black school. At one time, the school occupied the space of almost 500 football fields and attracted southern blacks from Alabama, Georgia, and North and South Carolina!


Dubya???!!!....What the heck does that mean?!

Unlike many blacks at the time, the townsfolk in Eatonville never lived with the constant harassment of discrimination from neighboring whites. Girls such as Zora Neale Hurston grew up surrounded by a rich culture of self-sufficient black people. At a time when many blacks believed their race was a hardship, Zora was proud of her black heritage.

After her mother died, Zora left Eatonville and began work with a traveling theater group. She ended up in New York City, where she eventually graduated from high school and received her college degree in anthropology. The only black student at Barnard College, Zora jumped at the opportunity to return to Eatonville to document southern black culture through the folktales she had heard as a child.
The Mosely Home is an Eatonville original
The Mosely Home is an Eatonville original
From the stories I heard while I was in Eatonville, its pretty clear to me that Zora was a smart woman. Although she received some pretty impressive scholarships (for example, the Guggenheim Fellowship!) to research black folklore, she did much more than simply collect the folktales of her youth. She wove them into stories, organized them into books such as Mules and Men. She also introduced African American folk history (animal tales, religious stories, and voodoo practices, for example) into one of the greatest artistic movements of the 20th century, the Harlem Renaissance.

The Harlem Renaissance was a period in U.S. History when the 10 percent of all African Americans living in the northeast, most of whom were professionals and artists, could represent the disenfranchised and voiceless majority of blacks still living in the deep South. Writers, painters, and musicians used their resources to advance a cultural awareness of the African American experience and to create an image and feeling for their race. Zora wanted to tell the story of black America through their own stories and folklore. She did not speak for the culture, like many of the artists at the time. Instead, she listened to its stories, heard its voices, and let southern black culture speak for itself.

When she was in New York, Zora's sassy style of dress and joyous sense of humor made her popular among the Harlem crowds she frequented. Because of her creative spirit, Zora became so popular within the Renaissance atmosphere that she became known as the "Queen of the Niggerati."
The path of Eatonville's historic preservation
The path of Eatonville's historic preservation
Zora's experience in Harlem was not all sunshine and lemonade, however. She actually received a lot of criticism. Many people found her work offensive because it portrayed a backward, rather than progressive, image of black culture. Others felt that when she portrayed black characters as capable, successful people rather than as victims of society, she was ignorant of social realities. Eventually, the criticisms affected her popularity. Then, in the 1960s, Zora's literary works were rediscovered and are now among the most widely read pieces of African-American literature in the U.S.

When Stephanie and I were trekking through Harlem, digging up stories on the Harlem Renaissance, we stopped into the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture and talked with cultural historian Chris Moore. It turns out that he is a huge Zora Neale Hurston fan. One reason why Chris Moore likes Hurston SO much is because she listened to, and learned from, the people around her. She believed everyone has a story and she was dedicated to bringing it out of them. In so doing, she made anthropology interpretive and literature, historical. She changed the way we remember history, and she kept African American culture alive.

Zora fans, Chris Moore and Trekker Stephen, unite
Zora fans, Chris Moore and Trekker Stephen, unite
Indeed, Hurston taught us that history is just that-a story-and that, like most stories, there are many different ways to tell it. Hurston's approach to using folklore to teach African American history shows us that there are new ways to remember our past, and that history does not have to be just about books. History is about culture, music, and art. It can be retold in as many ways as it is created.

P.S. Even today, people celebrate the life and influence of Zora Neale Hurston. In Eatonville every year, the still all-black town hosts the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities. More than 100,000 people attend speeches and street festivals, eat African food, and compete in artistic competitions. May the Renaissance continue!!!


Please email me at: stephen@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Springfield's massacre: the 1908 Race Riots Part I
Irene - Strung up, cut up, and set on fire
Stephen - "I'm African! No, I'm American! No, I'm African!" No, I'm American!
Stephanie - Poetry to stir the soul and inspire a nation
ick - How the government ground down a community
Rebecca - More rage against our neighbors: the 1908 Race Riots Part II
Making A Difference - If you are dark of skin, you are guilty as sin
Irene - The largest racial killings in American history
Stephanie - Two nations, one country