Velvet Coats and Manicured Nails: The Body Speaks Resistance in Dust Tracks on a Road
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Velvet Coats and Manicured Nails:
The Body Speaks Resistance in Dust Tracks on a Road

Zora Neale Hurston’s supposed opposition to making race politics an integral part of her texts has caused critics and literary figures from her time to the present to brand her as a race traitor and a sellout. Richard Wright condemned Hurston’s writing for lacking activism and pandering to the whims of white Americans. In a 1934 review of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Wright charged that the novel “carries no theme, no message, no thought,” that it was merely a “minstrel technique” whose objective was to make white folks laugh (qtd in Washington 18). Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), was also criticized by many reviewers who felt that Hurston idealized the relationship between white and black folks without an appropriate critique of race relations. Harold Preece’s 1943 review denounced Dust Tracks on a Road as “the tragedy of a gifted, sensitive mind, eaten up by an egotism fed on the patronizing admiration of the dominant world”; even longtime Hurston admirer Alice Walker commented on its lack of accountability, writing that it was “the most unfortunate thing that Zora ever wrote” (qtd in Meisenhelder 145). Prevalent in both Wright’s and Preece’s reviews is the contention that Hurston did not contribute significantly to the project of “racial uplift” during the 1930s and 1940s, a period during [End Page 73] which leading African American writers used their craft to reveal and condemn social injustice.

Despite scathing reviews of Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston did address concerns relating to race, class, and gender within the frame of her memoir. I apply elements of narrative theory to focus on the economics of the body and the extent to which the double-voiced discourse of the text subverts Hurston’s happy-go-lucky bildungsroman, transforming it into a pastiche that subverts social structures and norms even as it seems to project a frictionless portrait of black-white relations. The child narrator Zora’s fascination with fashion may seem trivial, but it reveals a desire to reshape her identity from that of a poor, black girl into a more distinguished woman of stature and leisure. Continual mention of clothing draws sly attention to the economics of the body in terms of class and racialized difference while repeated mentions of menial—bodily—labor show how far Zora is from living a life of luxury symbolized by tokens such as velvet cloaks and manicured nails. James Phelan’s understanding of the implied author is useful in separating the consciousness of the narrator-character, Zora, from the perspective of the more seasoned implied author, Zora Neale Hurston, as it is embedded in the memoir. In Living to Tell About It, Phelan defines the implied author as the “streamlined version of the real author, an actual or purported subset of the real author’s traits and abilities. The implied author is responsible for the choices that create the narrative text . . . and that imbue the text with his or her values” (216). While the young narrator, Zora, speaks of mundane events in a gratingly optimistic tone, the implied author indirectly critiques the society of the time, revealing the grim economic circumstances that confined Zora and countering the narrator’s apparent simplicity.1

Much of the difficulty with Hurston’s autobiography, dubbed an “autoethnography” by Francoise Lionnet, lies in how she crafts a folk persona for her narrative alter ego. Under the tutelage of famed anthropologist “Papa” Franz Boas, Hurston learns to finesse her research skills and adopts a more casual approach to data collection in order to avoid ostracizing or intimidating her subjects (128). An autoethnography in the sense that Hurston’s narrative blends autobiographical and ethnographic elements, Dust Tracks on a Road is presented through the perspective of a participant-observer who carefully documents terms, aphorisms, and customs that she thinks may be unfamiliar to the reader. The inclusion of footnotes such as the one that explains that a “love feast” is a pre-Communion religious meeting complete with “great protestations of love and friendship” and examples of extemporaneous folk songs such...