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Dust Tracks on a Road #BlackLit #Autobiography

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.


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.


IMG_20170316_143257703 (1)

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

Zombie Days, Campfire Nights

Zombie Days, Campfire Nights
Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

I’m always trying to keep up with content here at Grab the Lapels. A review per week is my goal, and when the mid-semester grading load gets heavy, I usually switch over to graphic novels by folks who identify as women. I love them; I love graphic novels. Yet, for Halloween I wanted to deliver on a scary tale for you. I watched Night of the Living Dead (1968) and thought about how scared Barbara was, and how grossed out viewers must have been watching those zombies eat what are obviously turkey legs and deli sausage. But zombie stories aren’t about the dead; they’re about human nature and how the living continue their days. Directors and writers like to have rules for zombies, though. George A. Romero once said that zombies cannot run because they are decaying flesh. No one is speedy when they’re rotting! Then again, those zombies in Night of the Living Dead use tools. It’s going to be inconsistent when you’re making it all up.

Zombie DaysLeah Rhyne’s novel Zombie Days, Campfire Nights (MuseItUp Publishing, 2012) is the first in the Undead America trilogy. In the first novel, three story lines are followed, though the biggest focus is on Jenna Price. She’s a teenager who believes losing her virginity is what caused the zombie apocalypse (I know—teenagers, right? So dramatic!). There are familiar tropes in this novel: family members trying to reach each other, power-hungry bad guys, sad deaths, and cannibalism. There is a city set up in New Orleans, and all roads lead there, whether the characters want them to or not. The guys inside, including front man Chase Franklin, control the fuel, electricity, and have a zombie vaccine. If you’ve seen or read The Walking Dead, things are, of course, not as peaceful as they seem.

There will be comparisons to The Walking Dead—young lovers separated from each other, parents separated from children. Chase Franklin is like the governor. And the “all roads point to ____” reminded me of Terminus. When Sam, from another story line, is forced to work with a group organized like the military despite his reservations, I was reminded of 28 Days Later. There is always a man with a gun who controls others for their own good (he thinks). Honestly, I expected all these things. Zombies have been done so much that you can’t get around comparisons, and naturally readers are going to make them. If you like zombies, just enjoy the story and look for the differences.

Jenna’s a bit different. She’s in high school, so her thinking and strategies often go to high school lessons, like comparing zombies to TB patients described in AP English class, trying de-stressing techniques learned in health class, and her friend Michael knowing what baseball bat to use because Michael worked in a sporting goods store after school. Jenna’s descriptions are appropriately juvenile, too: “He groaned. He lurched. He zombied.”

When Jenna and Michael see the announcement on TV that Chase Franklin is offering salvation, they respond appropriately for their age:

Michael looked back at me, his eyes wide. “What the fuck…”

“That?” I’d started to giggle. “That was Chase Franklin, of course. Didn’t you hear him?”

We both burst out laughing and Michael threw a pillow at my head. Still laughing, Michael said, “But seriously, what the hell is a Chase Franklin?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “A guy with too much makeup on? An Oompa Loompa [referring to Chase’s orange skin tone due to makeup] who wants to take over the world? If you ask me, he can have it.”

Another difference with Leah Rhyne’s novel is how much emphasis she places on smell. Living people without running water stink. They never advertise that fact in The Walking Dead show. Isn’t Maggie just the sexiest? Zombies smell, too. Sure, zombies ooze black goo, which gets repetitive and is too common a description, but the smells that choke the characters are a reminder that everyone who isn’t alive is, uh, dead. And decaying skin smells. BAD.

Lauren Cohan as Maggie Greene - The Walking Dead _ Season 5, Gallery - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Lauren Cohan as Maggie Greene – The Walking Dead _ Season 5, Gallery – Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

One thing that confused me was the way the story seemed to be told from the future. For instance, in the third story line, told by Lola, she is dragged from her apartment to safety by her domineering (and violent) brother. As they leave, she thinks, “It turned out to be the last time I’d ever see [my apartment].” Now, how does she know that unless the story is told from a future perspective? And why include this moment of reflection when it happens so rarely elsewhere in the novel? I wondered if this was a slip in the perspective, and if it wasn’t, there needed to be more reflection. Here’s a a strange comparison: in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm often points out how he worshipped his religious leader, but would one day (see, Malcolm’s in the future looking back) be let down by him, causing a spiritual crisis. He describes his hustler days in past tense, then adds that the only reason he didn’t die a Hustler in Harlem is because Allah was looking out for him (present-day Malcolm is religious; hustler Malcolm was not). Such reflections are sprinkled throughout the autobiography, not just 2-3 times in the whole book.

All in all, I enjoyed Zombie Days, Campfire Nights. It doesn’t bring anything new to the zombie genre, but it is a fun romp through the land of the undead that is sure to satisfy any fan of horror.

Furiously Happy

Furiously Happy

furiously-happyLast week, I reviewed Jenny Lawson’s first memoir, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir). Since then, my number of visitors to Grab the Lapels has increased by a lot (though I will admit someone was earnestly looking for “Steven Hawkings Wife” and found me). Like most people, I had to immediately get my hands on Lawson’s brand new memoir, Furiously Happy (Flatiron Books, Sept. 2015). On the cover, we get yet another taxidermied animal, this one named Rory. Some fans have taken to photoshopping Rory around and sharing him at #WheresRory. Honestly, I couldn’t quit calling the book FUR-iously Happy thanks to that thrilled corpse.

Last time, Lawson spent ten years composing a single memoir. This time, she got it down to somewhere around three. As a result, the stories are contemporary and do make reference to current cultural markers. Furiously Happy at times felt like commentary on what’s up with people today while remaining true to the memoir genre. Again, Lawson include fights with head-shaking husband Victor (I’m so glad they didn’t divorce; I was sure they would), and there are mentions of daughter Hailey, but Lawson respects her child’s privacy and mostly leaves Hailey out of it.

In my review of Let’s Pretend this Never Happened, I complained that Lawson mentioned huge topics (like anorexia) and then ran from them, like digging deep into a certain topic was too hard. It’s you’re going to write a memoir, though, readers are asking you to go to those hard places. And, in Furiously Happy, Lawson does. She spends much time talking about mental illness and embracing a diagnosis in a way that allows her to protect and understand herself and reach out to others. Lawson explains medicine:

The side effects and troubles with taking medication are very real and (if you have a chronic mental illness) are something you have to deal with for the rest of your life. Even if a drug is working for a while, it might stop working and you’ll have to start all over again with something new, which can be incredibly frustrating and disheartening.

Lawson also explains how mental illness is one that people don’t take seriously, which is unfair:

Clearly I wasn’t as sick as I said I was if the medication didn’t work for me. And that sort of makes sense, because when you have cancer the doctor gives you the best medicine and if it doesn’t shrink the tumor immediately then that’s a pretty clear sign you were just faking it for attention. I mean, cancer is a serious, often fatal disease we’ve spent billions of dollars studying and treating so obviously a patient would never have to try multiple drugs, surgeries, radiation, etc., to find what will work specifically for them.

By Shawnte Orion @ShawnteOrion

By Shawnte Orion

This sort of deep exploration of American’s understanding of metal illness and how that definition affects Lawson is a theme throughout the memoir. She brilliantly encourages readers to join the conversation in order to make mental illness less taboo, as many readers have already done at her blog and on Twitter. Lawson herself reaches out for help, sharing one pleading post from her blog as an example.

Even Victor prompts his wife to explore herself more deeply during a mock interview. Lawson admits that there were so many interviews after the success of Let’s Pretend this Never Happened that this time she’ll include interview Q & A in the book so she won’t have to suffer the crippling anxiety. Victor points out, “It seems like by this point in a book about depression you would have explained what depression is.” Lawson replies, “It’s hard to define.” Victor prods, “Well, this is a book, so maybe try.” Here, I applauded Victor for expressing my very thoughts while reading Let’s Pretend this Never Happened, and I was thrilled when Lawson tries again and again to define depression. Meanwhile, Victor says, “Hmm” and “So…?” and “I want to be helpful but I don’t know if that means that I should ask you to elaborate or tell you to stop elaborating.”

Of course, the main feature of Furiously Happy is how funny it is. Lawson combines her self-analysis with humorous storytelling. When it comes to beauty aids, Lawson doesn’t believe in adding to the body, like Botox or augmentations, but instead she is for stripping away. She writes, “Somehow that all seems healthier to me. Or at least more likely to make me less of who I am. Which is probably pretty unhealthy, now that I think about it.”

One of my favorites was when Lawson was missing, sending Victor into a panic. She can only explain how she was at a “surprise funeral”:

In a nutshell, I stopped at a nearby cemetery because I love the quiet, but unfortunately I unwittingly pulled into the cemetery minutes after a funeral procession had pulled in. I would have driven off…but when I turned to reverse I saw a line of cars right behind me and that’s when I realized I was fucked….I wanted to explain that I was just browsing but thought it would sound weird, so I just got out and went to the funeral, which was odd because I avoid most social occasions of people I know and love and here I was, willingly participating in the burial of a dead stranger.

It’s good to read that Jenny Lawson is still taking life one step at a time and promoting the #FuriouslyHappy way of thinking to combat all the assholes and bad days. I’m happy to know that Victor is still there, even when they seem so ill-matched (he has a retirement fund, whereas the author keeps change in a drawer–though not quarters; those are for gum). I was also pleased to see that while not in color, the photos were bigger/clearer this time. Overall, Furiously Happy is a much more introspective book that doesn’t lose the humor, and I recommend you read it.

By Manning The Merciless @pooinanalleyway

By Manning The Merciless

Santa’s Little Helper

Santa’s Little Helper

santas little helper“Beneath their feet, in the bowels of the earth, tucked away like the bodies of the deceased, something else waits…”

Santa’s Little Helper, a Christmas-themed horror novel by H.D. Gordon, is about the size of most Stephen King tales. At close to 400 pages, Gordon writes the stories of four children, all age five: Manny, Mikey, Emily, and Benny. Benny’s story is shared with his four-year-old brother, Tuck, so, really, there are five children total. Each child’s home receives a mysterious white box with no return address. Inside is an elf—quite possibly an Elf on the Shelf doll, though Gordon doesn’t outright say this—and a book describing how the elf is “Santa’s Little Helper,” a companion to watch children for Santa come Christmastime. But Satan’s—sorry, Santa’s—Little Helper isn’t what he seems. This elf is out to murder, and readers learn that this elf is an evil demon that sometimes appears in different forms, and has in the past…

Santa’s Little Helper has fairly an unusual narrator. At times, this limited omniscient storyteller takes on the language of the children, using words like “mommy” and “doggy.” In other places, the narrator has a very adult tone: “But if that list was handed over to anyone at all, it sure as shit wasn’t Santa. It wasn’t the Easter Bunny, either.” The narrator tells us what the children are thinking while assigning them words children wouldn’t know and then stating that of course a child wouldn’t know such words. In some sections, the narrator follows the thoughts of the children’s parents, describing the innate fear they feel that they can’t actually pinpoint, and the doubt most adults have about bad feelings and over-active imaginations. H.D. Gordon’s choice of narrator kept me engaged as a reader. I wasn’t stuck with one type of storytelling, and I really liked it when the narrator’s own personality came out (like saying “sure as shit”).

The narrator telling four separate main stories in which basically the same things happen to the children did get a bit repetitive. The story justifies four stories by giving each child has his/her own trait that makes the child special: Manny’s is observation, Mikey’s imagination, and Benny’s is courage. Emily’s trait isn’t given, but the author suggests that having a special trait is what made Santa’s Little Helper choose these children. Although Benny’s courage shines through as a direct result of his sense of duty to little brother Tuck, the rest of the children’s traits aren’t emphasized. I would have thought Mikey’s trait was intelligence, as he is always thinking, questioning, and working hard to learn to read. Manny, I would have guessed, would be defined by love, not only for his parents, but for a very special dog that stole my heart, as I read about his heroism and loyalty.

Elf knife

Get it? “Cut out” one of the children?

I wondered if H.D. Gordon could have cut out one of the children. I imagined the novel without Mikey. Manny seemed pretty close to Mikey’s personality. Tuck was also a thumb sucker, so he seemed similar to Mikey at times. Santa’s Little Helper would then lose Mikey’s mother, who was a writer, but one of the other children’s mothers could have been a writer. I didn’t see where, until the very end, that Mikey made a big impact, and his actions could have been done by others. Emily seemed necessary because she was the only girl, and her parents’ situation was unique and added a level of terror to the story. Benny and Tuck together had a nice brotherly-love thing going on, causing the boys to look out for each other and team up without their parents (as siblings often do). And Manny had his dog, who plays an important role.

While some of the physical descriptions of the children seemed a bit generic—missing front tooth, floppy curls, blond pigtails—other times a character was so real I could see what was going on:

“Mikey stuck his two middle fingers in his mouth, a habit he was slowly breaking because of being denied the pleasure during the long, long hours he spent at school. Callouses had formed on the knuckles of those two fingers, and his teeth set into the grooves of them perfectly, his mind taking more unregistered comfort in the feel of them there.”

On the other hand, the description of the elf was given over and over: the “oval-shaped plastic eyes, the wide, red-lipped grin, the gold bells on its shoes and hat.” There were also mentions of the elf’s green costume. Since there were four parallel stories in which characters are introduced to the elf doll, the description happens at a number that is, to be honest, annoying. Next, the four story lines had the elf moving and creeping around, so again we got the description of the doll. But then, about 2/3 through, something happened: Mikey decided to tell his mom the writer what was really going on:

The story [Mikey] was telling now was in no way lacking. It had everything: main characters, setting, a problem that grew and grew, building in tension and dread—which was something even good writers struggled with regularly. And if that were not amazing enough, the devil was in the details, almost literally. The way the boy was describing the happenings involving the elf doll—or Santa’s Little Helper, as Mikey called it in his telling—was chilling in its details. By the time he was nearing what she hoped was the end, Sarah-Lynn was more than ready for him to quit using the words red-lipped grin and tiny gold bells.

Damn you, H.D. Gordon! My first thought was “She be all up in my head!!!” I actually laughed when I read Mikey’s mom’s annoyance at the descriptions of the elf, and I totally forgave the author all her repetition in that moment. There were other places Gordon switched up the descriptions. When she imitated the sounds of an elf doll’s plastic feet heading toward a child in the dark (Click. Tink! Click. Tink! Clicktink! clicktink!), Gordon scared me! The image of the scary doll lost its effect, but here my fear was reignited by sound.

There are some really scary parts in Santa’s Little Helper, like a zombie that personifies Manny’s fears, the children’s teacher’s visit to the town witch, and the first instance of blood drawn. I like that the elf swears and is terrifying because I half expected the novel to be PG, as elves are related to children, and children are in this book. The violence doesn’t occur right away, but when it gets going, I had no doubt that death and terror were going to rain down upon the characters.

Santa’s Little Help is a fun, scary book that I would recommend to fans of horror by authors like Stephen King because the pacing is a bit slower than modern consumers want (think about how most American horror movies don’t even reach 90 minutes), but it’s a scary-good time!

*I want to thank H.D. Gordon for sending me a copy of her book. I have no professional, personal, or familial relationship with the author. You can learn more about H.D. Gordon by reading her Grab the Lapels “meet the writer” feature!

From STFU, Parents

From STFU, Parents

Science Fiction, Which Includes Zombies


A former colleague of mine gave me a copy of a science fiction book the other day. He’s slowly clearing out his shelves–I think he’s afraid that he’s getting old and doesn’t want to leave behind so many things. It’s got me thinking about science fiction and the way we often think of it in…what? Dorky terms? I mean, the ray guns and laser beams and aliens. But there is some beautiful science fiction out there, too, stuff that fascinates and even scares me. When you think about it, even zombie stories are science fiction (the virus/rage had to come from somewhere), though we lump them in post-apocalyptic.

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. I’m sure you all know it as the tale of a monster, one whom we mistakenly call Frankenstein. How many of you had to read this book in high school or college? Did your teacher focus on the “science” of this science fiction classic?

Judith Merril’s short story “That Only a Mother” is one of those terrifying tales about nuclear war that hits closer to home that one woman even realizes.

A story that I love to teach my students for its varied messages is “Cavemen in the Hedges” by Stacey Richter. Meet a woman who has been dating her boyfriend for a long time. They’ve developed from punks to grown ups, but that all changes when cavemen enter the landscape through a portal and take over the city.

Yesterday, I discussed the science fiction pioneer Octavia Butler.

Half Life by Shelley Jackson is a really tough read, but it is a novel of amazing effort. I did finish, but the story can get confusing, so here is a clear description: “The novel presupposes an alternate history in which the atomic bomb resulted in a genetic preponderance of conjoined twins, who eventually become a minority subculture” (Wikipedia). I do remember that the book follows conjoined twins. One of them has fallen asleep into a coma-like state, and the other plans to kill her sleeping sibling.

What about you, reader? What are your favorite science fiction stories and novels? How many are by women? Do you ever feel “shame” when you read science fiction instead of “proper literature”?