At the center of the mystery in Zora and Me, someone is not being honest about who she is, and the effects of her lie ripple through both the black community of Eatonville and the white community of Lake Maitland.
When Zora and Carrie go with Mrs. Hurston into Lake Maitland, they see Mrs. Hurston present the situation with a little white lie, in order to fly under the radar of the white shopkeeper. And the girls encounter a woman named Gold. “She was the sun,” Carrie thinks. Gold makes a beeline for Zora and Carrie, and Carrie thinks, “Whatever it was that made her so beautiful must have been inside of us, too.” But Mrs. Hurston knows who she is even if, for her own protection, she presents a slightly different picture to the shopkeeper. Gold, however, lives a deception, and when she walks away from the girls, Mrs. Hurston says, “She best be careful about being too friendly with people she gave up her place with.”
I had a chance to talk with Victoria Bond and T.R. (Tanya) Simon about their process in writing this book. I found myself telling them about when the public schools started busing in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I was in third grade, just a little younger than Carrie and Zora in their novel. My best friend was a new girl who was bussed into South Westnedge School, Theresa. During one of our weekly Sunday visits, my grandfather said something about how “no granddaughter of mine is going to go to school with colored people.” I was eight years old, and I can still remember what I was wearing. I thought about that word, “colored.” I thought, “What does that mean?” And then, “Is Theresa colored?” And then it dawned on me: I could never tell Poppy about Theresa. I would have to keep her a secret.
When I told that story to Vicky and Tanya, they pointed out that this was a “passing story.” Vicky said, “With the introduction of race, we now have the introduction of a secret.” Tanya added, “And then you become involved in your own passing story. You pass as someone who holds values that you don’t actually hold in your heart. This is why there’s been the emergence of race studies, where white people suffer under racism as well as blacks. You always have to think, what happens to you at the point that you dehumanize a person?”
With Zora and Me as an entry point, children can talk about what happens to us at the point that we dehumanize a person, and what it feels like to be deprived of humanity. Only by talking about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways people look past or ignore each other can we begin to see and appreciate one another fully. By discussing a fiction, we can get at the truth.