Her dissertation committee was waiting for her, two men, sitting at a table with the chair, a woman, sitting in the middle. There was a podium and water in a pitcher with a glass on a shelf below. When they said they were ready she came in. Her hand was in her pocket where it gripped a clear film canister filled with dirt.
She walked across the floor to the podium, a bag over her shoulder, the canister in her right and her left hand across her abdomen, swelled by pregnancy. She set the bag down and once she reached the podium, then she removed her hand with the canister from her pocket.
“Thank you for being here,” the chair said. “Take your time getting set up.”
“Thank you,” she said. “It’ll just be a minute.”
She took the canister and emptied it into the glass and poured water into it. It roiled like a dust storm in the glass. She lifted the glass to her lips and took a long drink. Then she filled the glass again and drank it the same way until all the water and sand were gone.
“I’m ready,” she said with a smile.
“You may begin with a general introduction,” said the chair. The members of the committee each wore glasses and they peered over them without irony.
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” she began, quoting the opening of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
“For some they come in with the tide,” she went on but paused.
Now she went on at length.
“For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.”
She stopped for a second or two. Then she read on from the book.
“Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”
“These words are the opening to, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” she said. “The odyssey of a young black woman early in this century, in Florida, on the adventure of traveling from girlhood to womanhood, from being a victim to being in charge.”
She turned the page of her handwritten notes.
“Arma virumque cano,” she said. “Of arms and the man I sing.”
“Musa, mihi causa memora,” she read.
“The Aeneid’s opening is simple but opens the story of a man, blown about the Mediterranean at the whims of a woman, a goddess and the very story itself is conjured up by the muse, a woman, musa, who guides Virgil’s hand in the telling of the origin of a new empire.”
“This following passage is from Cabeza de Vaca, presenting his adventure in unexplored America, to the King of Spain in his Relacion.”
“Solo puedo prestar este servicio: para llevar a Su Majestad un recuento de lo que aprendí y vi en los diez años que vagé perdido y desnudo por muchas y muy extrañas tierras, señalando la ubicación de las tierras y provincias y las distancias entre ellas como así como el sustento y los animales producidos en cada uno, y las diversas costumbres de los muchos y muy bárbaros pueblos con los que entré en contacto y viví, y todos los demás detalles que pude observar y conocer, para que Su Majestad sea servida en de alguna manera por esto.”
She turned the page again. The men had their arms folded. The chair, her advisor had a slight smile on her face.
“He goes on,” she said, reading from her notes. “For although I always had very little hope of escaping from them, I always took great care and diligence to remember the particulars of everything, so that if at some time God our Lord wished to bring me to the place where I now am, I could give witness to my will and desire to serve Your Majesty.’”
“De Vaca tells his story of his trip from Florida to Texas and beyond,” she said. “Perhaps he is the first anthropologist. He survives because he is observant. He learns the subtlety of body language, of action and inaction. He ends up and is forced to have, even as a colonist, through his new status as a victim of the unknown and harsh world he sailed into with the intention of subduing it, compassion and understanding.”
The room was silent. She stopped. She looked at the committee. Her advisor was leaning forward. The men were moving around in their wooden chairs. She felt a kick. And another. And another. She smiled to herself and turned the page of her notes.
She felt nauseous. This really was like the audition scene in Flashdance, she thought. She was dancing for her life like the movie she loved as a kid. But it wouldn’t be like that. She was a mess. Would the needle come off the record. This wasn’t ready. She wasn’t ready. “What a feeling!” Yeah, what a feeling.
“As for De Vaca,” she said stiffening herself, “We pay attention — I pay attention — to Estebanico, the black man who is among the four survivors in De Vaca’s party that explore and engage the American continent.”
“Janie, Aeneas, and Estebanico,” she said, pausing again. “I can go on all morning about their similarities. About the common and uncommon geographies they faced, literally and figuratively.”
“My work has been on the the themes of adventure, water, and soil through these characters as reference points for an obscure myth that Estebanico is the so called ‘Black Christ’ of the Americas.”
“How did an image of a black Christ, on a cross, find its way from Guatemala to a grave in Chimayo, New Mexico? How did I find myself, a girl from Kansas, at the same place?”
“In everything I’ve done, I’ve endeavored to learn more about local stories and myths. And everywhere I looked in seeking connections, I found men and women trying to resolve the deep dissonance between masculine and feminine, between sea and land, and between love and isolation.”
“We’ll never know the true origins of the Christ figure revered in Guatemala and New Mexico,” she said. “What I can say is that to know culture in the Southwest United States, one must know the story of the hero and the sea; rain and dust; one must know running away; one must know mystery; one must know soil and dirt; and one must be willing to give stories the same weight as experience and data, even when the story doesn’t make any sense.”
She stopped. She felt a though she herself had just made no sense. Was she just a story teller? She reached into her bag and found a tape recorder. She pressed play. The voice was an old lady, an old lady she’d known since her first trip to New Mexico, the lady that told her about the dirt. The recording echoed but was clear.
“Su nombre era Estabanico. Él vino mucho antes que el hombre de Guatemala. Hizo milagros aquí. Hubo muchas curaciones”
She heard herself asking a question.
“Quien era él”
“Él vino de al otro lado del mar. La gente aquí pensaba que él era Dios o Jesús. Así que hicieron una figura de cristo que se parecía a él.”
Image: Author Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) at a book fair, New York