This is my last review specifically for Black History Month, though I still have some African American books to read and review – a book about the African Americans who have served in the White House kitchens, and a book about Southern Food Culture, among others.
Zora Neale Hurston’s most famous work is Their Eyes Were Watching God, which I read in high school – and hated. I also strongly disliked The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, and unfortunately I have blended the two in my mind so much that I can’t remember what I hated about which book. I think it was The Color Purple that was written in a strong vernacular, but I’m not positive of that. It was twenty years ago!
Anyway. So I knew I didn’t like her fiction, but memoirs can be very different from fiction so I thought I’d give this a go. I didn’t hate this. But I didn’t like it, either. Hurston rambles from one subject to the next, going into so much imaginative detail at times that I have to skip back to pick up the line of actual story again. She has some questionable ideas about racial discrimination, seeming to ignore the idea of institutional racism, and dismissing the notion that white people are responsible for what their ancestors did. Or at least that individuals – even individuals as closely related as grandchildren – could be held individually responsible for their slave-owning grandparents. She even trotted out the “I wasn’t even born then, how could I be responsible?” that is the cry of many white people today who deny their privilege.
Maya Angelou, in her foreword, mentions this briefly – that Hurston had lived through race riots, and Jim Crow, but doesn’t mention any unpleasant racial incidents in her book, which is very odd. She does mention one – but it’s perpetrated by a black man, when he comes into the barber shop/salon that Hurston worked at and demanded to be served. (Only white people were served at this particular shop, but the owner had another shop uptown that served black people.) Hurston largely takes a stand against the black customer, complaining that had they served him, the owner (another black man) would have been driven out of business, and all his black employees with him, so how dare the customer value equality over all those jobs? Which is a decent point, but ignores that it’s white people that would have wrongly put them out of business for the so-called crime.
I was very disappointed that Hurston never really talked about the Jim Crow era in her book. I would have liked to see that from her perspective. I do think I’d like to read more memoirs from that era, as Hurston makes it seem largely peaceful and happy. And I’m pretty sure that’s not the case.
It’s an interesting book, but it seems Hurston is at least a slightly unreliable narrator. So take that into account if you read it, and remember it was published in the 1940s, so the way she talks about the “primitive Negro” and the ease with which she tosses around the N word (including from white people) is a product of its time.
This is my PopSugar 2018 Challenge pick for the prompt “an author from a different ethnicity than you.”
From the cover of Dust Tracks on a Road:
First published in 1942 at the crest of her popularity as a writer, this is Zora Neale Hurston’s imaginative and exuberant account of her rise from childhood poverty in the rural South to a prominent place among the leading artists and intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance. The very personal, perhaps larger-than-life portrait that Hurston paints of herself offers a rare, poignant, and often audacious glimpse of the public and private persona of a very public and private artist, writer, anthropologist, and champion of black heritage. Dust Tracks on a Road is a book full of the wit and wisdom of a proud and spirited woman who started off low and climbed high: “I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows with a harp and a sword in my hands.”