Dust Tracks on a Road Themes
The main themes in Dust Tracks on a Road are hope, racial hypocrisy, and religion and God.
- Hope: Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography highlights the importance of determination and continued hope for the future.
- Racial hypocrisy: Zora describes discrimination within the black community and shares her belief that all humans are the same, regardless of race.
- Religion and God: Though she does not adhere to an organized religion, Zora considers religion often and has faith in meaning after death.
Hope, for Zora Neale Hurston, was a life strategy. She used it to get what she wanted. She learned about hope from Mama, a central figure in Zora’s young life who encouraged Zora to “jump at de sun.” In other words, Mama told Zora to follow her dreams regardless of how impossible they seemed.
Mama embodied hope, and the relationship between Mama and Zora was a close one. Papa, on the other hand, embodied discouragement. He disparaged Zora’s dreams, refusing to give her music lessons when she asked for them and accusing her of “always trying to wear de big hat” when she requested a horse for Christmas. Papa felt that Zora, as a black girl, should only aspire to a certain level and then stop. Not surprisingly, the relationship between Papa and Zora was a strained one.
Although Mama died when Zora was just nine, Zora held on to Mama’s encouraging words throughout life. Her dreams propelled her forward, and she fulfilled each one: attending high school, finishing college, researching black folklore, putting on a concert of authentic black music, writing short stories and books. Readers see Zora reach for a serving of hope whenever she struggles. For example, when Zora’s tour with Miss M—— came to an end, she “took a firm grip” on hope, calling it “the only weapon that I had.” When she dropped out of Howard University for lack of funds and moved to New York City with “$1.50, no job, no friends, and a lot of hope,” she was again drawing on the gift Mama imparted to her as a child: the gift of hope.
Hope didn’t always have a positive outcome, but Zora still used it to move forward. As a student in Jacksonville, she thought for a brief moment that a woman she saw rocking on a porch was Mama. She allowed herself to hope, for just a sliver of time, that Mama wasn’t really dead. This hope was dashed, of course, but in her disappointment, Zora managed to move forward. She says that “the hope that the woman really was my mother passed. I accepted my bereavement.” By accepting her mother’s death, Zora was able to move on with her own life and continue pursuing her dreams.
Zora struggled with the hypocrisy she saw in the black community over the value of her race. According to her definition of “Race Solidarity,” black people should stick together, defending one another and shielding each other from oppression. Zora looked closely and saw that this was not the case. She laments in the chapter “My People! My People!” that black people often did more to tear each other down than to build each other up.
As a youngster, Zora heard black men in her community give speeches about the nobility of their race. She heard other black people praise these speeches. The problem was, these same people would turn around and talk about blacks in a derogatory manner, calling them “niggers” and “monkeys.” She could not make sense of the hypocrisy.
Zora was still struggling with the issue when she first thought to write Jonah’s Gourd Vine. She wanted to write a novel characterized not by race but by the humanity of its characters. She says, “What I wanted to tell was a story about a man, and from what I had read and heard, Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem. I was and am thoroughly sick of the subject.”
As a black writer wanting to stray from themes of racism and injustice, Zora felt intimidated by...
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her own literary goals. She procrastinated writing the book for three years and busied herself with another project. Eventually, though, she wrote the book.Jonah’s Gourd Vine was published by Lippincott, and it paved the way for her to publish another novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Both of these novels are character-driven rather than being centered around race and injustice.
As she aged, Zora made peace with the racial hypocrisy she saw. Yes, black people continued to speak out of both sides of their mouths, both extolling their race and putting it down. Zora solved the problem for herself by taking the view that all humans are the same. This view became a mantra for life and the only way she could make sense of the hypocrisy.
Religion and God
A thoughtful person, Zora found herself grappling with inner struggles throughout life. Religion was one of her biggest struggles. What should she believe? Her father was a preacher, and she grew up with “God in the house.” Still, she questioned the Christian tenets of the church.
Zora discovered at an early age that she could not voice her questions aloud because Papa would get angry. As a result, she kept them to herself. Why did people die? Why did preachers think sin was such an important issue? Why did religious people make “passionate declarations of love” for an unseen being?
She speaks of God often and seems to take comfort in Him, even if her beliefs aren’t like Papa’s were. She claims not to pray because prayer is a sign of weakness, but she admits that she whispered to God right before having emergency appendix surgery. When she talks about the plight of black people and proclaims that success is up to the individual, she says that this is “one of the strongest laws God ever made.” Her reference to God amidst this philosophical struggle implies that, though she is not religious in a church sense, she believes God to be in control of life’s most important events.
In the chapter titled “Religion,” Zora concedes that after a lifetime of pondering, she still finds herself searching for truth. Along her journey, she worked hard to quench her inner thirst. For example, she wrote the book Their Eyes Were Watching God, which follows the life and quests of a woman much like Zora herself. God seems to be a constant force in her life, even though she does not follow conventional religion.
When Zora talks about death at the end of the “Religion” chapter, it is evident that she has found some peace with her struggle. Zora says she is not afraid of dying because she views herself as “one with the infinite.” When it comes to her thoughts on one of life’s biggest religious questions—what happens to a person when they die—she insists that she doesn’t need the reassurance that organized religion provides.