Dust Tracks on a Road #BlackLit #Autobiography

Dust Tracks on a Road is Hurston’s autobiography, though it doesn’t read like a traditional autobiography. The book is broken into sections. First, it reads like the story of her life, but then she moves into chapters about friendship, collecting folktales in the Caribbean, bringing “true Negro dancing” to the the U.S., and what it means to be an individual instead of a member of a race. Hurston died in obscurity in (1891- 1960). As scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. notes in the afterward:

Hurston’s fame reached its zenith in 1943 with a Saturday Review cover story honoring the success of Dust Tracks. Seven years later, she would be serving as a maid in Rivo Alto, Florida; ten years after that she would die in the County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce, Florida.

How could the recipient of two Guggenheims and the author of four novels, a dozen short stories, two musicals, two books on black mythology, dozens of essays, and a prize-wining autobiography virtually “disappear” from her readership for three full decades?

Zora maid

In 1975, Alice Walker (the author best know for The Color Purple) wrote an essay about Hurston, which was published in Ms. magazine. The article launched a Hurston revival, and more people have read Their Eyes Were Watching God between 1975 and today than did between 1937 and 1975.

Dust Tracks on a Road begins with a bit about the development of Eatonville, Florida, starting with two Brazilians. For reasons not fully clear to me, black and whites worked together to help black folks create Eatonville, which is sort of attached to Maitland, Florida (the geography is confusing). Hurston explains, “Eatonville, Florida, is, and was at the time of my birth, a pure Negro town — charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all.” For this reason, Hurston is not aware of racism to the extent that other black Americans are; not once to my memory does Hurston mention an incident involving race in this book.

Unexpectedly, I visited Eatonville a few weeks ago. I visited my ol’ Granny for spring break, leaving behind the mushy Indiana weather. One day at breakfast, while wearing my “Zora t-shirt,” I began to discuss the writer and explain her hometown. A quick tango with Google revealed we were only about an hour from Eatonville, so we made the trip.

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We didn’t stay too long, but we ate Jamaican lunch at Momz’s, visited the Zora Neale Hurston museum, and tried some key lime cake at Be Back Gordon’s Fish House (don’t you love that name??). Some things had a Maitland address, while others were Eatonville, though all locations were within blocks of each other. Everyone simply calls it Eatonville.

 

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Understanding Eatonville is key to understanding Dust Tracks on a Road. It’s also important to know about “the Dozens,” which Hurston doesn’t explain in detail, but is a game played in black communities that has become part of the culture. I cover “the Dozens” when I teach African American literature. “The Dozens” is cleverly insulting someone, and while the person doing the insulting may not have any formal education, people get creative. When Hurston first goes north, she learns that she is different. Southern children are “raised on simile and invective. They know how to call names.” Here is a great passage that may help you next time someone has it coming:

It is an every day affair to hear somebody called a mullet-headed, mule-eared, wall-eyed, hog-nosed, gator-faced, shad-mouthed, screw-necked, goat-bellied, puzzle-gutted, camel-backed, butt-sprung, battle-hammed, knock-kneed, razor-legged, box-ankled, shovel-footed, unmated so and so! Eyes looking like skint-ginny nuts, and a mouth looking like a dishpan full of broke-up crockery!

There is a mean little person in me that loves this list, mainly because I have learned from my own story-driven kinfolks that name-calling is one of the richest places to get inventive. Hurston uses idioms the entire book, making it a rich read.

zora laughing
Hurston has a book titled I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…& Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive (ed. by Alice Walker)

This is an autobiography full of storytelling, because that’s the heartbeat of her community. One time, her “Aunt Cal’line” tripped a lady off the church steps to see if she was wearing underwear; the woman was not, so Aunt Cal’line spit on her naked bits and rubbed the spit in with her foot. One time, Hurston tried to kill her stepmother with an ax. One time, Hurston interviewed one of the last living slaves who came from Africa. He was in his 90s and wondered if his kinfolk in Africa still missed him. Sadly, Hurston’s studies revealed that whole village had been murdered the day he was captured by a rival African village and sold into slavery.

It’s possible that Hurston’s unique upbringing is what makes her one of the most independent thinkers I’ve ever read about. She fits with almost no one from her time. When other blacks in America (and not all are African American, hence I use “black”) are fighting for equality, Hurston sympathizes with the black man who owns a barbershop that served only whites. One day, a black man comes in and demands to be served, but everyone throws him out. If rumor got around that the owner had served another black man, his white clients would not only ruin his business, but he would have to close the 6 other shops he owned. Hurston argues that helping one black man achieve equality wasn’t worth all the jobs the black employees had.

In fact, Hurston took a while to even begin writing a book because she was told “Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem.” She argues she doesn’t want to talk about the “Race Problem” and spends an entire chapter explaining why — mainly that she judges folks individually, not as a group. Hurston gives explains the feeling of “hopeless resignation”:

For example, well-mannered Negroes groan out [“My people! My people!] when they board a train or a bus and find other Negroes on there with their shoes off, stuffing themselves with fried fish, bananas and peanuts, and throwing the garbage on the floor. . . . Now, the well-mannered Negro is embarrassed by the crude behavior of the others. They are not friends, and have never seen each other before. So why should he or see be embarrassed?

Hurston goes on to argue that the “well-mannered Negro” feels so badly because people focus on race instead of pointing to the folks dumping the trash on the ground as problematic individuals. I know that this viewpoint will cause a lot of discussion on the pros and cons of race solidarity, but I applaud Hurston for arguing her point carefully. She has an entire chapter entitled “My People! My People!” in which she discusses what she calls race pride, race prejudice, race man, race solidarity, race consciousness, and race. “My people” is always said with an “ermehgerd” sort of tone, as if the person can’t believe how embarrassing other people in their race can be.

Overall, whether you agree with her opinions or not, Hurston brought African dance, music, and stories into the United States. She made it okay for black men and women to write using their own tongues (dialect, idioms, words that live under the words) when many authors thought they had to write in Standard English to be accepted (I wonder if some of those writers thought, “my skinfolks but not my kinfolks — my people!” about Hurston…).

If you love language, you have to read Zora Neale Hurston. If you love independent women, you have to read Hurston. My only regret is that I can’t describe and quote everything I highlighted. I’ll end with a Fun Fact:

This independent lady was a writer and an anthropologist, and it was rumored that when she would hang out with famous poet Langston Hughes in Harlem, she would stop random people and ask if she could measure their skull circumference.

Extra Goody: listen to this five minute interview in which Hurston describes what a zombie is. She met them in Haiti, you know…

zora tada

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47 thoughts on “Dust Tracks on a Road #BlackLit #Autobiography

  1. I’d be terrified if someone stopped me and asked to measure my skull. That being said, that fact alone is enough to make me want to read this book. It sounds great. And it’ll be interesting to read something that isn’t about rAce.

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  2. Fascinating stuff! When I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, there were some afterwords from people discussing her place in literature, and how she was kinda put down by black writers of her time for not addressing questions of race. The feminist afterword writers were basically claiming her as finding the black woman’s voice in literature, but reading this makes me suspect she may not have relished that description over much. Personally I felt they were over-doing it too – if I had a criticism of the book it was that she painted a very unflattering portrait of the black community, of Eatonville and elsewhere. Is Eatonville still mainly black, or has it become more mixed now?

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    1. When we were in Eatonville, I only saw one other white person, so I’m guessing it’s still a sturdy black community. Other black writers, especially Richard Wright, didn’t like being associated with Hurston, even though people said if Hurston had an equal, it was Wright. We’re also talking about a group of people who are funded by white patrons, mostly Carl Van Vechten, so writers had to appease those patrons. Hurston had her own patron (Charlotte Osgood Mason), and from what I can tell, Hurston’s patron let Hurston write whatever she wanted. The claim that Hurston is the voice of black women’s literature refers to her willingness to write in dialect and use idioms, whereas other black writers saw Hurston as one of “those people,” the ones bringing down the race for making other black people look illiterate (though Hurston was well read, she wrote in her natural voice). I think it’s her natural voice (in addition to her desire to be herself, and her pride in herself) that makes me love her writing so much.

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        1. The dialect is much, much stronger in her other works. It’s probably the least noticeable in Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is her most celebrated book today. I’m going to read her anthropology research about finding folktales in Haiti, Florida, and Jamaica. I haven’t read much in the way of fiction lately, but that suits me right now, for some reason. Some people lead lives that are more interesting than fiction.

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  3. Oh, I love this review! I still haven’t read anything by Hurston, but now I’m thinking I might like to start with this autobiography.
    She sounds like an amazing, independent thinker!
    I enjoyed hearing about your trip to Eatonville, and I’d love to try a slice of that cake.
    It seems so sad and crazy to me that after all of her work she would die in obscurity.

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    1. It’s painful to think about this famous writer with a list of credentials as long as my arm working as a maid, dying in a poor folks home, being thrown into an unmarked hole in the ground…I’m so glad Alice Walker found her and researched more of Hurston so that we can all enjoy this amazing woman’s books.

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  4. I love reading autobiographies. It’s so much more powerful to hear a woman explain her own thoughts, actions, and life choices than listening to someone else explain and analyze them. I haven’t read any Hurston, but Their Eyes Were Watching God has been on my TBR since high school.

    It’s so sad that Hurston’s vanished into obscurity, but reviews like this keep her alive. It sounds like she is an amazing story-teller! Do you have a favorite story/essay/chapter? I’m glad you got to visit Eatonville. That key lime cake looks astounding! Was it super yummy?

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    1. The key lime cake was fantastic. I was skeptical. I hate key lime pie, and we had been sent to the restaurant to get the red velvet cake. Hurston’s come back since 1975. I know a lot of colleges teach Their Eyes Were Watching God now. Do you like audio books? If you want to read Their Eyes but don’t have time to “read” it, I recommend the audio book, narrated by Ruby Dee, who most famously played Ruth in A Raisin in the Sun alongside Sidney Poitier. She’s FANTASTIC.

      Some of my favorite sections of Dust Tracks would be “My People! My People!” in which she explains why she wants to be her and not a member of the black race because it’s such a heavy responsibility to feel accountable for everything everyone who is black does. There are funny anecdotes in that section. However, early on, “My Folks” has several anecdotes about the life in Eatonville, which included the story of Aunt Caroline spitting on a woman’s naked behind. Also, Hurston says her dad learned to hit her mom because he had a brother-in-law who would hit his wife and had a heap of trouble! The story is quite funny, actually, because the brother-in-law thought he was being sneaky when he saw the mistress, but the wife found him and cut the damn clothes off his back — with an ax.

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      1. How did you end up with Key Lime Cake if you went for Red Velvet Cake? Fascinating.

        I love audiobooks! That’s a perfect recommendation to me. Lately, I’ve run through a slew of terrible narrators, so this hits close to home. I’ll definitely check out the audiobook. Thank you!

        Okay, your comments about “My People! My People!” and “My Folks” just make me want to read this more. Dark humor really slays me (bah-dum-ching!). Plus, I completely relate to the heavy responsibility of being lumped in a group. Race or not, that can certainly be a heavy burden. It’s like no one stops to think about it. Ever. What’s up with that?

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        1. I got the key lime because the red velvet was all gone. I think people were so mad at Hurston for not being a race writer because we’re talking the days of lynching, still, so anyone who won’t join the cause seems traitorous.

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  5. This is on my April stack too; I have been doing a fine job of collecting her but I’ve only read two and they’re SO good that that just doesn’t make sense. But you know how it happens, right? It had never occurred to me to search for interview material: thank you SO much for sharing that link!

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      1. It’s not necessarily an aspect of culture that interests me specifically (although it doesn’t NOT either – just in the middle somewhere, I guess) but I loved hearing her voice, getting a measure of her delivery. I think it will influence the way I hear her words on the page next time! Are you keenly interested in the walking dead theme?

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        1. The Walking Dead as in the show/comic book? No, not really. I really like Night of the Living Dead for it’s social commentary and Dawn of the Dead for its new perspective. Hurston’s zombies interest me because they are defined differently than in popular culture and she actually met them in Caribbean countries.

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          1. Yes, that was fascinating! (That’s the first I heard of it.) I just meant the idea of the living dead in general, but I guess it’s hard to separate that nomenclature from the KIrkman series now. Which, BTW, does have a pretty neat social commentary aspect to it as well, if you can find the editons with his introductions (comics, not TV, from before the show, not that I’m dissing the show) and his thoughts on characterization and apathy and that kinda thing. Back to ZNH thought, there is also a picture book called Zora which I’m itching to read, as well as the other biographical stuff that’s come out since Alice Walker first went hunting for her gravestone. She is so interesting!

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            1. Aww, I’ve never heard of the picture book! And no, I haven’t read TWD comics, though I do know the premiss is commentary on the zombie genre itself and how the zombie narrative ends, whereas if zombies are real the horror would go on and on and on.

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  6. What an extraordinary woman but how odd that she should disappear from our consciousness and end up in that home. Did you get any insight from the book into why that happened.

    I loved that name calling extract – so much more creative than the insults you hear bandied about on the streets today by people thinking they are so clever…..

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    1. No insight on why Zora became destitute. This book doesn’t go that far. I do know that she always did things her own way, which could factor into it. Fame requires working well with others.

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  7. ‘Ol Granny…….I love it, and you. I loved all three of the Hurston books that I bought that day. I’m ready to read more. Very much enjoyed your synopsis of this incredible lady. Thank you for introducing her to me. ❤

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    1. Thanks, Liz! I’ll check it out. I think I’m just “hillbilly” enough to get the dialect, and then I read so much of it that it comes second nature to me. I do know that when I teach stories with black dialect my students become very intimidated.

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  8. My knowledge of Hurston and her works is limited to Their Eyes were Watching God which I truly loved. I didn’t know much about the author until this review but I am definitely intrigued. Tripping someone to see if they are wearing underwear…lol and then spitting on their bits…good Lord. I hope to read this one soon. Nice to know that you managed to visit the town which helped you enjoy the book even more. Great review as always.

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  9. Loved the review. Loved the comments, and the apparent pleasure you got in responding to them. I’m sure I’ll love the book and the author. I’ll see if I can get the audio book online (I usually get them as CDs). What a nuanced insight into race relations! And what excellent writing.

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  10. I’ve never read Their Eyes Were Watching God, but I’ve heard a lot about it. This book sounds incredible as well. Loved the pictures from Eatonville! The passage about the “well mannered Negroes” reminds me a lot of what it feels like to be a “foreigner” sometimes; the second hand embarrassment. Hope you are doing well! It has been a while!

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    1. Ah, yes, I’ve read a lot about children born in the U.S. who are ashamed of their parents, who are so unlike others around them, but still human beings trying to raise respectable kids. That’s an excellent comparison, NS. It HAS been a while! I’ve missed you, but I still follow your blog and look for any updates 🙂

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