Introduction

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography was written when Zora Neale Hurston was about fifty years old. The book poignantly describes what it was like to grow up poor, black, and female; it shows an energetic woman who overcomes odds to achieve a liberated, rewarding life. Hurston was born in Eatonville, Florida, America’s first incorporated black community. Her father was a driving force in the community; her mother died when she was nine. The liberating force for Hurston was her love of knowledge. While at the black grammar school, she won a reading contest, receiving books that ignited her imagination. In turn, she learned about real life at Joe Clarke’s store, the meeting place of the men in town.

After her mother’s death, she was moved from place to place. It was her own initiative that released her from her circumstances. When she learned that an actress in a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan troupe was looking for a lady’s maid, she approached the woman with “I come to work for you.” When her service ended—a service that had been a marvelous education in humanity and the arts—she went back to night high school, then to Howard University and Barnard College.

At Barnard, working under anthropologist Franz Boas, she studied the folklore of her people in Polk County, Florida. This began a lifelong interest in the roots of her people. Yet some of Hurston’s greatest friends and confidants were the upper-class whites she met both in...

(The entire section is 418 words.)

Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Though Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, was a success with the general public when it was first published, it has in many respects hurt her reputation in the long run because of its seeming inconsistencies. In part, the inconsistencies in the book’s tone come from Hurston’s uncertainty as to who her audience was. At times she seems to be addressing a predominantly black audience, as also seems to be the case in her best fiction. At other times, she seems to want to address a white audience, and the writing becomes stiffer, less lively, and less forthcoming.

The first half of the book, at least, shows Hurston’s writing at its best. She begins with descriptions of Eatonville and of her parents before introducing the story of her own birth in a chapter titled, logically enough, “I Get Born.” Beginning with the line, “This is all hearsay,” the chapter tells the story of Hurston’s birth being midwifed by a local farmer who happened to stop by while Hurston’s mother had sent one of her older children out to fetch the local midwife. It may not be entirely true, but that only makes it an appropriate birth for a woman who grew up to record the town’s folk tales, called “lies” by the tellers.

The chapters that follow chart her growth from young girlhood to young womanhood, and they are written with a zest for recalling herself and the people she knew. In one characteristic passage, recalling the richness of her inner life, she recalls her roughness with toys: “Dolls caught the devil around me. They got into fights and leaked sawdust before New Year’s . . . I wanted action.”

One of the early lessons she learns in the all-black Eatonville, and which she very much wants to communicate to her readers, is the importance of never seeing her blackness as an encumbrance or excuse. This is a position that has been both applauded and criticized. On one hand, her admirers point out the courage it took to adopt such a perspective in a society in which black children were often taught early not to forget their place; her detractors, meanwhile, have pointed out the extent to which this point of view led Hurston to underestimate the effect that the harsh political realities of her time had on shaping the lives of her fellow blacks.

One of the most...

(The entire section is 950 words.)