Book Review: Dust Tracks on a Road

March 3, 2010

So you will have to know something about the time and place where I come from, in order that you may interpret the incidents and directions of my life.

Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston is another book I chose specifically for the Women Unbound challenge.  I read Their Eyes Were Watching God in undergrad and some of her literary criticism in my lit theory classes, so I thought it befitting to read about her life in her own words.

This book was a lot of fun to read.  Unlike Angela Davis, Hurston is a novelist as well as a folklorist, so her autobiography is alive with characters and settings.  The first half or so is told chronologically and the second half includes her musings on her friends, religion, race, and reading.  Even though the second half is not story-like in its narration, it’s still an easy and relatively fast read because it’s easy to hear Hurston’s voice and imagine you’re just sitting down for a chat and she’s telling you what she thinks.

The version of the book I read has a foreword by Maya Angelou and an afterword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In the foreword, Angelou calls the book “puzzling” because, although the book was written 1940-1941, there are no mentions of unpleasant racial incidents and that the nicest people Hurston encountered were whites–one of whom cautioned her not to be a “nigger,” which Hurston notes does not mean race, but a contemptible person of any race.  Angelou wonders who the audience for the book is.  At the end, to sandwich it, Gates says that Hurston gives an account of a “writer’s life, rather than an account, as she says, of ‘the Negro problem'” because so much of the book is focused on her sources of language (294).  I only point it out because I find it fascinating to think about how to read the book, especially since race is certainly not absent in the book.  In fact, there’s a part where the men in Hurston’s town are pretty sure someone’s been lynched, though she doesn’t use that word.  What Hurston does, and pretty masterfully, I think is make this point:

Light came to me when I realized that I did not have to consider any racial group as a whole.  God made them duck by duck and that was the only way I could see them.  I learned that skins were no measure of what was inside people.

and also

I have no race prejudice of any kind.  My kinfolks, and my “skinfolks” are dearly loved.  My own circumference of everyday life is there.  But I see their same virtues and vices everywhere I look.

She shows most of her experiences as a young girl and young woman living in a world where people don’t ignore her race but she is not treated horribly because of it.  It makes sense that she would write the book this way.  Part of what incensed some of her contemporaries about her was her refusal to act differently around whites and her insistence on being fully herself.  No citation for that, but my professor told me so it must be true!  (It’s also mentioned in the afterword.)

In the latter half, she slams local politics, the way people relate to race.  She talks about love.  I found a lot of her conclusions interesting, mostly because she reminds me a lot of the character Temperance Brennan on Bones.  So, to that end, maybe it’s an anthropology thing?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that I found her critiques of government and religion fascinating.  Which makes sense since she’s fascinating.  I also think the appendix and the section on race are brilliant satire.  I almost didn’t read the appendix because I thought it was just repeating what was in the text, but the appendix shows different versions of some of the chapters.  So the appendix offers a more complete picture.

There is some (a lot!) of narrative distance here.  The writing is personally impersonal or impersonally personal in a lot of ways.  I do understand Hurston as a writer, but I was disappointed that she skimmed over her time doing research and her experiences when she won the Guggenheim, etc., but it may be because she felt her contemporaries were familiar enough with her work.

What the book did do is make me want to go back and read some of her literary criticism.  While she makes a case for individualism, she obviously supports honest and authentic portrayals of culture as evidenced in her writing, and so I want to go back and read what she says about writing outside of the autobiography.

Women Unbound: 3/8; POC Challenge:  2/15

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  1. susan

    I have a few books of criticism on Hurston. I’ll gladly loan them to you if you’re interested.

    The criticism of race and politics about Hurston runs deep I think. I have had this book for years. Maybe it’s time to read it.


  2. susan


    Were contemporaries incensed by her refusal to act differently or was it she refused to acknowledge how racism affected blacks and whites.

    She was one of the privileged blacks that was supported and praised by whites but that isn’t a valid argument to say blacks as a group paid too much attention to race and discrimination. When I studied her in school, a large part of the criticism was her refusal to acknowledge race was an issue.
    .-= susan´s last blog ..COLA: Debbie Reese =-.

    • Akilah

      I think the two things are related, don’t you?

      Hurston enjoyed a special kind of privilege, since she came from a world where blacks could do and be anything, so her experiences with racism would be a lot different than her contemporaries.

      It has been a long, long time since I’ve read or discussed her views in an academic setting (freshman year! maybe, sophomore!), so I can’t remember all of the sticking points, but it is very interesting that she left out any real kind of discussion of her years in New York as part of the literary scene.

  3. Emily

    Thanks so much for this review, Akilah. Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of my top novels of all time, and I’ve been meaning to read Hurston’s autobiographical stuff. This is a great reminder to get to it.

    Can’t speak directly to the issues you and Susan are addressing above, but I always find it odd that Their Eyes attracted controversy for its depiction of black people being less-than-enlightened to each other. In the trial scene and elsewhere Hurston certainly doesn’t shy away from addressing black/white racist structures, but she also casts an honest eye on dynamics within the black community in Florida…which, to me, leads to such vivid and memorable characters. Anyway, thanks for reminding me to seek out more Hurston!
    .-= Emily´s last blog ..The Confidence Man =-.

    • Akilah

      It’s been so long since I’ve read Eyes that I can’t really comment on the trial scenes, but she does talk a little bit about her time writing the novel in her autobiography. It’s brief, but decent. My main complaint about Dust Tracks is that she doesn’t talk about her time on the literary scene.


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