Dust Tracks on a Road

by Zora Neale Hurston
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 247

Dust Tracks on a Road is Zora Neale Hurston's autobiography, chronicling her early childhood in the rural South, but mainly focusing on her adult experiences of being a woman, an African-American, and an aspiring artist. These identities inform Hurston's attitude as she moves from the Jim Crow law South to New York City, where she becomes a key figure in the revolutionary, predominantly African-American intellectual and cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston interprets much of her artistic spirit as a natural, defensive reaction to the oppression of black narratives.

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Heavily censored by its publishers, the autobiography's original form constituted an excoriation of ideological and physical colonialism levied by a white nationalist United States on both domestic and foreign cultures. Using her platform not mainly for self reflection, but rather for the recollection of observations about race-related historical and cultural oppression, Hurston shifts somewhat unpredictably between objects of criticism. She goes from condemning hate crimes and systemic injustices against people of color in the United States to the country's assertion of exploitative and imperialist agendas in Asia.

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Much analysis of Dust Tracks on a Road can be done not only on its content, but on its status as a living document, having been both effaced and restored by various publishers and other parties over the 60+ years since its 1952 publication. The history of the modifications made to the original text have formed a kind of literary sediment that reflects America's ever-shifting and self-concealing forms of ideological suppression.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625

Zora Neale Hurston’s life has been surrounded by questions and controversy. Although Dust Tracks on a Road is Hurston’s official autobiography, many of these questions, especially about her adult life, are not answered in this work. While parts of Hurston’s personality and life will always remain elusive, she has selected certain experiences and images that appear repeatedly in her novels and nonfictional works, most notably in her anthropological work Mules and Men (1935) and in her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). These experiences and perceptions, many of them written in African American dialect, reappear in Dust Tracks on a Road, her last fully completed work, and disclose much of her personality. Hurston thus reveals much more of herself than she probably intended. While her narration is written in an informal, conversational style, her point of view is definitely feminist—or, according to fellow African American writer Alice Walker, “womanist.” The womanist stance in Hurston’s works became an inspiration and a model for a new generation of African American women writers in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Dust Tracks on a Road begins with the courtship and marriage of Hurston’s parents and ends with Hurston’s move to California in 1940. Her mother, Lucy Potts, was reared in Georgia but left for Florida when she married a penniless “over-the-creek” black man who was not acceptable to her family. Hurston’s father built a home in the town of Eatonville, Florida, and soon became its mayor and the minister of the Macedonian Baptist Church. Hurston was thus born in the all-black town of Eatonville in 1891. Although she was somewhat late in learning to walk, her audacious personality emerged when she finally started. She claims that once she began walking, she simply could not stop. Her feet “took to wandering,” she had an urge to go places, and her spirit moved to the horizon. Her life was dramatically changed by the death of her mother when Hurston was only nine years old; she considered this event to be a turning point in her life. The loss of a possible matriarchal world and the consequences of that loss reverberate throughout Hurston’s writings.

Hurston’s determination to succeed, to become educated, and to write also echoes throughout her account. In the second half of her autobiography, Hurston writes of research, love, religion, her books, and her race. She details her struggle for an education and names the people who helped her attain one. She describes her role in the Harlem Renaissance and how and why she wrote her novels, stories, and anthropological works. Her autobiography is the account of a writer’s life. The obstacles that she faced would have been insurmountable for a less determined, less talented writer because Hurston lived and wrote as a woman in a male-dominated society and as a black in a racist world.

Although Hurston wanted to speak her mind, her publishers and the white reading public limited how freely she could speak in print. Critic Claudine Raynaud states that Hurston’s self-consciousness about her white audience led her to create another voice. For example, she does not give the name of her first husband in her autobiography, nor does she mention that she married Albert W. Price III. Despite the significant difference in age between Hurston and Price, Hurston instead credits the demands made by her career for the demise of their relationship. Price once told her that his wife would not work, and he deeply resented her commitment to intellectual pursuits. Even though Hurston is silent about many aspects of her life and is somewhat ambivalent about the society in which she lived, her autobiographical work is a tribute to her womanist artistry.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 266

Despite physical and financial hardships, Hurston wrote and researched for thirty years. In that time, she published four novels; two books of folklore; numerous stories, articles, and plays; and her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. Her works went out of print and remained almost forgotten until Alice Walker discovered her autobiographical narratives, placed a marker on her forgotten grave, and excavated her buried life. Since then, Hurston’s work has been read and reinterpreted by a new generation of readers and literary critics. Dust Tracks on a Road is one of the important literary narratives that constitute Hurston’s autobiography. Hurston’s autobiography has had a tremendous impact on African American feminist theory.

In all Hurston’s literary works, her nonfiction as well as her fiction, she presents the same personality in the same language. She also presents the same issues. In Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston calls attention to the male practice of objectifying women. Her depiction of porch tales or “lyin’” sessions carries a double message. While Hurston applauds the creative aspect of the “John de Conquer” and mule stories, she also criticizes the community that allowed males to set the boundaries of discourse. She informs her reader that women only “visited” the store’s porch to “have it proven” that their husbands were good providers. Hurston, on the other hand, disrupted the boundaries of male-generated discourse and spoke out against the objectification of women. Hurston’s free spirit and audacity have inspired a generation of African American women writers, including Walker, Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, and Terry McMillan.

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Dust Tracks on a Road commences with a description of Eatonville, Florida: its history, traditions, and inhabitants. Eatonville provides the setting for Hurston’s childhood. As a central feature of the community, Joe Clarke’s back porch provides a source for the collection of folktales. While Zora’s mother encourages her to “jump at de sun,” her father warns her that she will be shot for her sassiness. Her unabated childhood curiosity suggests that her mother was the stronger influence: She climbs trees to catch a glimpse of the end of the world, plays with “Mr. Corn-Shuck” and “Mr. Sweet Smell,” and tells tales about alligator men. Her recitation of classical myths so impresses visitors to her school that she is invited to their home, asked to read, and given a roll of pennies, books, and clothes.

The security of this childhood world is destroyed when Zora’s mother dies. Although she is only nine when this tragedy occurs, it has lasting effects: It reinforces her commitment to “jump at de sun” and gives her some ideas of how to do so. On her deathbed, her mother asks Zora to intervene against custom—to prevent the turning of the bed and the removal of the pillow at the moment of death. Zora says her mother depended on her for “a voice,” but the elders ignore her pleas, and Zora feels she has betrayed her mother: “I was old before my time with grief of loss, of failure, and of remorse.” Although she is unable to fulfill her mother’s request, her determination to stay in school and to become a writer reflects her unshakable promise to be a voice, to speak for her mother and her community. After her mother’s death, Zora is sent to Jacksonville to attend school. Shortly thereafter, her father remarries, and Zora begins ten years of wandering and homelessness. At fourteen, she gets a job as a domestic, but she acts more like a family member than a maid. The other servants, envious of her favored position, complain and cause her termination. One day she discovers in the garbage a copy of John Milton’s complete works. She recalls the incident, proud that she can read work of such difficulty and proud that she liked it before she knew of its reputation: “So I read Paradise Lost and luxuriated in Milton’s syllables and rhythms without ever having heard that Milton was one of the greatest poets in the world. I read it because I liked it.” Her next job as a maid with a repertory company touring the South assists in the cultivation of her tastes, so that she decides that her next stop is school, no matter what.

After a frightening attack of appendicitis, Zora enrolls at Morgan College, where caring teachers help Zora support herself. She wins oratory competitions and begins the first school publication on the blackboard. Friends encourage her to attend Howard University, so she moves to Washington, D.C., and works part-time as a manicurist in a barbershop. She joins the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority and The Stylus, a literary organization. Charles S. Johnson expresses interest in her writing and publishes “Drenched in Sunlight” and “Spunk” in Opportunity magazine. With his encouragement, she moves to New York and gets a scholarship to attend Barnard College and a job as secretary to Fannie Hurst. After graduation, Franz Boas gets her money to research folklore in the South. When this money is exhausted, Mrs. R. Osgood Mason takes over the task of supporting Zora’s research. Zora then travels to the Bahamas to record the events and stories of sawmill camps, “jooks,” and porches. Her mingling of anthropology and storytelling, fact and fiction, makes her work unique. She returns to New York with musicians and dancers and several volumes of folklore. This material becomes the basis for a show at the John Golden Theatre and for her book Mules and Men (1935). As Zora’s story moves closer to the present, the narrative shifts from descriptions of specific events to ruminations about friendship, love, and religion. At the close of the chapter “Love,” Zora recalls a whimsical folk saying: “Love is a funny thing; Love is a blossom;/ If you want your finger bit, poke it at a possum.”

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543

In Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography, Zora Neale Hurston writes about her struggle as a writer, a woman, and an African American, rising from rural poverty to become a prominent American literary figure of the twentieth century. The book was written at the height of her popularity, and it shows Hurston’s own personal interpretation of the events that shaped her career as a writer and anthropologist. The first nine chapters are recounted in chronological order, beginning with the stories of Hurston’s birthplace and early years through her graduation from Barnard College in 1928. The rest of the book, chapters 10 through 16, is really a series of essays in which Hurston discusses the importance of different themes in her life, from the roles of love and friendship in her artistic life to her controversial views on race and society.

Hurston began her life in the all-black, incorporated town of Eatonville, Florida. She describes the impact of her early years with warmth and emotion, telling of her devotion to her mother, who brought her up to speak her mind, and of her uneasy relationship with her father, an alderman and three-time mayor of Eatonville. Her mother’s death, which occurred when Hurston was nine years old, was a major turning point in her life, ultimately leading to her break with her father and marking the beginning of her wanderings.

The next few years consisted of school interrupted by work as a baby-sitter, house-keeper, waitress, manicurist, and lady’s maid. By the time that she completed high school in Baltimore, Hurston had teachers and friends who recognized her talents and directed her toward college study, which she began at Howard University. She ultimately was graduated from Barnard College in New York, where she found a way to combine her fascination with language, the stories that she had heard in the South, and her love of writing. Studying anthropology with Dr. Franz Boas, she learned to collect and analyze folklore and dialects. On her graduation, she headed back to Eatonville to collect African-American folklore under a grant arranged by Boas, her mentor, and with funding support from a wealthy patron, her “godmother,” Mrs. Rufus Osgood Mason.

At this point in her narrative, Hurston shifts her focus from a chronological recounting to essays on important aspects of her life. The impact of her life of research and writing on her relationships shines through the next chapters. The reader learns of her friendships with colleagues, with close women friends, and with the men she loved who had to learn that her work came first for her. She discusses, for example, the experience of writing her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), in a seven-week spurt as a way to recover from a recent love affair. Her research took her to Harlem, Florida, Jamaica, and Haiti, and her writings were both academic folklore studies and fiction that incorporated the stories that she had learned. The most controversial of her writings deals with her discussion of race in chapter 12, “My People! My People!” where she claims that racial clichés do not mean anything to her. The book closes with her summation, looking back over her life to that point and looking ahead to what may come.


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Bloom, Harold, ed. Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Excellent collection of essays on of Hurston’s life and work. Contains early commentary by Franz Boas and Langston Hughes.

Bone, Robert. The Negro Novel in America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958. Landmark study that contains a chapter devoted to Hurston.

Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2002. Detailed biography of Hurston, covering her personal and professional lives and relating them to the major historical events through which she lived.

Duck, Leigh Ann. The Nation’s Region: Southern Modernism, Segregation, and U.S. Nationalism. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006. Uses Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the “chronotrope” to analyze Hurston’s representations of the South.

Feracho, Lesley. Linking the Americas: Race, Hybrid Discourses, and the Reformulation of Feminine Identity. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. International study of four women writers in the Americas. Compares Dust Tracks on a Road to novels by Clarice Lispector, Julieta Campos, and Carolina Maria de Jesus. Argues that each novel is itself a hybrid of various discourses, as well as contributing to a larger hybrid structure of American female writing.

Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. A close study of Hurston’s life and writings that includes a discussion of their historical context and Hurston’s contribution to the Harlem Renaissance.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Edited by Carla Kaplan. New York: Doubleday, 2002. A collection of more than five hundred letters, annotated and arranged chronologically.

Lionnet, Françoise. “Autoethnography: The An-Archic Style of Dust Tracks on a Road.” In Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian, 1990. Discusses Hurston’s voice, tone, and literary objectives. Suggests that Dust Tracks on a Road is an oral as well as a literary text and examines the parallels of author and storyteller.

Walker, Alice. “Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View.” In In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. An essay that chronicles Walker’s discovery of and interest in Hurston. Walker discusses key events in Hurston’s life, the history of critical responses to Hurston’s work, and her own contributions to the preservation and celebration of Hurston’s work.

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