Dust Tracks on a Road Characters
The main characters in Dust Tracks on a Road are Zora Neale Hurston, Mama, and Papa.
- Zora Neale Hurston, the author and narrator, is a black writer and anthropologist.
- Mama is Zora’s mother, a positive force in Zora’s life who passed away when Zora was nine.
- Papa, a preacher and Zora’s father, was neglectful of her, especially after Mama’s death.
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston is the author of the 1942 autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, which examines her life thus far. A writer, folklorist, and anthropologist who rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston is best-known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Dust Tracks on a Road recounts her childhood of poverty growing up in a family of eight children in rural Florida and follows her to the present day.
As a child, Zora was highly imaginative and hungry to learn about the world and understand people’s unique cultural perspectives. Zora grew up relatively isolated, in an all-black community, but she had a deep-seated need to explore the world around her and expand her horizons. She developed in interest in documenting the lives of people by observing groups of men at the local store, where they gathered to talk about race, politics, and religion. She also developed a love for books, particularly myths and folklore from other cultures.
After years spent working and finishing school, Zora developed a respected writing career, spending time with black artists and writers and learning under the tutelage of anthropologist Franz Boas. While working with Boas, Zora continued building her skills as a writer and an observer of people and cultures. Her anthropological research and fiction often examine the lives and stories of black people in Southern and Caribbean communities.
Mama was a positive and accepting force in Zora’s life. She encouraged Zora to pursue her dreams and didn’t criticize her endless storytelling, whereas Zora’s grandmother and father condemned her creative inclinations. The heaviness of Mama’s death changed Zora’s life, and it marked the beginning of an era in which Zora had to fight for her survival.
The fact that Mama frequently quarreled with Papa symbolizes the contrasting messages Zora received from each of her parents. Whereas Mama encouraged Zora, Papa discouraged her. Somehow, Mama loved and stayed married to Papa in spite of their differences. Her commitment to Papa may have enabled Zora to develop empathy, understanding, and forgiveness for those who were not like her.
Without Mama’s encouragement, Zora may not have lived such a successful life. Regardless, it is clear that Zora’s formative years were bolstered by her matriarch—and that Zora emulated Mama’s strength throughout her own life.
Papa was an influential father figure for Zora, but not in a positive way. He frequently belittled Zora and clearly preferred her other siblings, particularly her sister Sarah. Papa was a preacher who rained fire and brimstone from the pulpit. Zora was at once drawn to the dramatic flourishes and repelled by the rigid teachings of the church. Her disdain for organized religion may be synonymous with her disdain for her unloving father, although Zora does not speak much ill of him in this autobiography.
Papa rejected Zora on multiple occasions. Two of the most memorable rejections occurred when Papa refused to pick Zora up from boarding school and when he sided with his second wife over the issue of Mama’s featherbed. These rejections prompted Zora to leave home, which caused her much heartache but eventually led her to academic success.
Papa died while Zora was away at Morgan College. His death is mentioned in the book as an afterthought. This stands in contrast to the much larger segment of the book devoted to describing Mama’s death and Zora’s grief over the loss.
Zora’s sister Sarah is a minor character that serves mostly as a symbol of Papa’s disdain for Zora. Sarah was Papa’s favorite daughter, and he didn’t try to hide this...
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fact from Zora.
Several incidents illustrate the contrast between the way Papa treated Sarah and the way he treated Zora. Even though Sarah wasn’t interested in music, Papa bought her an organ for her birthday. When Zora asked for music lessons, though, Papa said it was out of the question. When Sarah asked to return home early from boarding school, Papa obliged. When it came time for Zora to return home from school, Papa refused to pick her up.
Zora does not speak badly of her sister, and the relationship between them seems to have been a positive one. It is possible that Zora included Sarah in her autobiography chiefly to illustrate the difference between the way the two girls were treated by their father in childhood.
Mr. Pendir was a citizen of Eatonville. Zora never knew him personally, but she created a fascinating alter ego for him in her imagination. In Zora’s storyteller mind, Mr. Pendir lived a secret life as an alligator. By day, he was a regular man, but at night, “a tough, knotty hide crept over him, and his mouth became a huge snout with prong-toothed, powerful jaws.”
Mr. Pendir illustrates Zora’s strong interest in everyday people and symbolizes the depth of her imagination. She fictionalized many of the things she saw in her childhood, but he stands out as one of the most colorful and memorable.
Mrs. Johnstone and Miss Hurd
Throughout her life, Zora had many academic mentors. The first two were Mrs. Johnstone and Miss Hurd, a pair of women who observed young Zora in the classroom in Eatonville. They took a special interest in Zora and invited her to their hotel room, where they asked her to read aloud and rewarded her performance with food and money. Later, more gifts arrived in the mail, including reading material and clothing.
Zora does not explain precisely whom these women were or why they bestowed so many gifts upon her. However, their appearance in the autobiography lets the reader know that Zora was academically gifted from an early age.
Novelist Fannie Hurst was an employer, mentor, and friend to Zora. She hired Zora to serve as her personal secretary while Zora attended Barnard in New York City. Zora’s portrayal of Hurst serves as a fascinating character study. The author was both childlike and serious, impulsive and focused.
It is interesting to see that, over time, Zora Neale Hurston joined the ranks of Fannie Hurst in celebrity. Both women were self-made, though Hurst was white and Zora was black. We know that Zora had many friends, but she devotes half of a chapter to her friendship with Hurst, stating that life would be far more difficult if she hadn’t been blessed with such a good ally.
Dr. Franz Boas was an influential anthropologist. As a professor at Barnard, he helped Zora secure a fellowship to study black folklore. She describes him as the “king of kings” in academia. Boas referred to Zora as his daughter, and she referred to him as “Papa Franz.” Although his role in the book is relatively small, Boas is notable because he became a father figure to Zora, giving her the approval and nurturing that Papa didn’t provide.
A.W.P. was the romantic love of Zora’s life. In this autobiography, she does not confirm whether she married him. Most of the text devoted to A.W.P. explores the glorious yet tortured love affair they shared. The reader is left to wonder if the relationship ever worked out.
A.W.P. symbolizes a difficulty Zora had integrating her personal life with her professional goals. He wanted to settle down with Zora and support her; like many men of the day, he didn’t want his wife to work. Though she loved him, Zora was unable to do this. The two broke up several times over their differences but always got back together due to their passion for one another.
A.W.P. may also symbolize a more modern issue faced by women: the struggle to maintain both a family and a professional career. If Zora had married A.W.P. and settled down, perhaps she would not have written Their Eyes Were Watching God and other influential works. In essence, she was forced to choose between a life with A.W.P. and her career, although Zora would probably say that it wasn’t a matter of choice; she followed her heart.