There is a woman every reader should know, and her story was not a happy one at the beginning, and neither did it end happily. Her name is Zora Neale Hurston, and like the prophets of old, she was much more honoured after her death than when she was alive. She is the inspiration behind Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and other influential African American writers.
Dust Tracks on a Road, is her very vivid recount of her life, from childhood to adulthood. She describes the Negro town where she was born and where her father was the mayor, and at the first pages of the book, describes how the town came to being and the history of the land-fights between White Americans and Native Americans with African Americans caught in between.
What is lovely about the book is the candid honesty that Zora has with herself. You get to realise that she was an exceptionally brilliant woman with an unfettered imagination, something that her father at one point says her freewill thinking will only end up seeing her hanged. The father actually begs the mother to whip her but her mother restrains from doing so.
The most painful part of the biography is where she describes her mother’s death, about her mother calling her to the bedside and telling her that no one should remove the pillow she is lying on when she passes on, something that the adults around disagree with despite Zora adamantly screaming that no one should take the pillow away.
I loved the bits about her imagination, how she always thought the moon was following her wherever she went and getting very angry actually when a friend laughs off at the idea; how she makes up a story about a lady (who in reality was nothing more than a corn cob dressed in rags) and the relationship between that corn knob and the door handle.
She goes on to describe her teenagehood, How she fights with her step mother with unrestrained fury, drawing blood, Her first encounter with books and how she devours the Greek tragedies, Norse Tales and Shakespearean works. She works as a waiter and at the theatre, meets a lot of wierd men and women along that path, and finally ends up at university at Howard where she takes a degree in Anthropology.
It is here that she was able to write the lasting works of her legacy, brilliant books such as Their Eyes Were Watching God, Mules and Men, Jonah’s vineyard and countless others. She did not restrain herself to write in standard English and introduced African American dialects in her speeches giving her stories authenticity and a fresh breath.
It is a great tragedy that and something difficult to reconcile that such a brilliant young woman, who spoke her mind and preserved African American folklore, would die poor in a welfare home. It was Alice Walker who discovered her unmarked grave in the 1970s and brought out her rich writing back to the literary world.
Here is a glimpse of some of her beliefs, directly quoted from the book.
As for me, I do not pretend to read God’s mind. If he has a plan for the universe worked out to the smallest detail, it would be folly for me to presume to get down on my knees and attempt to revise it. That, to me seems the highest form of sacrilege. So i do not pray. I accept the means at my disposal for working out my destiny. It seems to me that i have been given a mind and will-power for that very purpose. I do not expect God to single me out and grant me advantages over my fellow man. Prayer is for those who need it. Prayer seems to me a cry of weakness, and an attempt to avoid, by trickery, the rules of the game as laid down. I do not choose to admit weakness. I accept the challenge of responsibility. Life, as it is, does not frighten me, since I have made peace with the universe as i find it, and bow to its laws.
And a last quote, my best one, something that I have turned to be my signature:
You who play the zig-zag lightning of power over the world, with the grumbling thunder in your wake, think kindly of those who walk in the dust. And you who walk in humble places, think kindly too of others.