Review of Dust Tracks on a Road
The Saturday Review, November 28, 1942
By Phil Strong
Zora Neale Hurston’s father was the preacher and chief factotum of Eatonville, Fla., one of the few villages of, for, and by Negroes in the United States. The old man was a powerful preacher and also a powerful man and husband; as a slave, says Zora, with the charming practicality which marks the manner of the whole book, he would have fetched a high price for stud stock. He could flatten people to the floor either with his big fists or his hellfire eloquence.
Zora had a good deal of her father’s violence and more of her tiny mother’s sensitivity, intelligence, and determination. These got her through school, after a bitter struggle, then through Howard University and Barnard, and finally made her what she is, an outstanding anthropologist in the field of Negro folklore and other Negro cultures. She has surveyed everything from Afro-American songs to voodoo and left a mark on modern American music and reasonable accounts of the over-romanticized magic of the Haitians.
This book is more of a summary than the autobiography it advertises itself as being. It is a delightful one and a wise one, full of humor, color, and good sense. It is told in exactly the right manner, simply and with candor, with a seasoning - not overdone - of the marvelous locutions of the imaginative field nigger. Miss Hurston explains that there are white niggers and black niggers; being a nigger is a matter of character rather than color among the Negroes.
After Zora’s mother died her father married a fat shrew who wanted to make the social jump of being the preacher’s wife. The stepmother was jealous of the children and drove them from home, one by one, including Zora who was still in her earliest teens. The girl held “maiding” jobs but very briefly because of her fondness for books and children. These tastes conflicted with her allotted labors virtually to the exclusion of the latter; and Zora moved on and on. Finally, she caught on as a maid to the leading in a touring comic opera company, learned manicuring, and manicured her way through Howard.
She had learned that if you wanted to go to school the thing to do was to go to school, so she went on to Barnard, became Fanny Hurst’s secretary and a favorite of Franz Boas, and thereafter made her way in research on fellowships and the five books which precede this one. She might have taken either of two attitudes from these experiences; either an arrogant, self-made Negro attitude, or the conventional bitter and downtrodden one. She takes neither because she does not see that she was under any special disadvantage, and in the end she has no reason for bitterness. This text indicates that anyone that tries to downtread Zora Neale Hurston had better wear thick-soled boots.
The race consciousness that spoils so much Negro literature is completely absent here. Miss Hurston is less impressed by her own color than most Aryan redheads. She gives one chapter to “My People” - perhaps the most sensible passage on the subject that has ever been written. She agrees with Booker T. Washington that if the stuff is in you it is likely to come out and this it is isn’t it doesn’t make any difference whether you are white, black, green, or cerise. Some people, she says, have made a whole career out of moaning, “My people! My people!” She thinks that would have been better engaged in some useful labor. The only thing she claims for the Negro is perhaps a little more capacity for fancy and enthusiasm than the average white man possesses.
The most amusing chapter is Miss Hurston’s delightfully frank treatise on love. It makes sense, but few people have had the reckless heroism to come out with it. She has had one “great” love and still has it; she doesn’t know yet how it is going to come out, since the chosen gentleman is jealous of her work, as well as of all other gentlemen discovered in even remote proximity to Zora. Miss Hurston, with a prescience of trouble, has tried to break herself of the man several times without success. Occasionally she feels like being in love with someone else, incidentally - and is, briefly. When these unfortunate swains remind her of tender passages she is all too often feeling like “a character member of the Union League Club” (this may be a slander) and the recalled endearments are “the third day of Thanksgiving turkey hash.”
The conclusion is:
Love is a funny thing; love is a blossom -
If you want your finger bit poke it at a possum.
It may be judged that the book is rich in humor and this is true; it is real humor - and humor of character, from the old deacon who prays, “Oh, Lawd, I got something to ask You, but I know You can’t do it,” to Zora’s own feud, nourished through the years and beyond all scholarship and honors, with her gross stepmother. The old lady, at last reports, was in the hospital with some malignant growth on her neck - Miss Hurston says, quite frankly and honestly, that she wishes the woman had two necks.
She has, too, a philosophic feeling for the statement of her friend, Ethel Waters, “Don’t care how good the music is, Zora, you can’t dance on every set.”
It is a fine, rich, autobiography, and heartening to anyone, white, black, or tan.