RACE AND FEMININITY IN AFRICAN AMERICAN WRITING
Class and ethnicity were by no means the exclusive or local concerns of women from Britain or Ireland, but qualified and complicated in different ways all the new femininities invented and narrated by women in the Anglophone societies of the 1920s and 1930s, where women were newly enfranchised. Moreover, to see how some of the same issues about the role of sexual freedom in the rights and freedoms that women might now claim surface, albeit with a different history, when femininity is parsed through the grammars of race and class we can turn to African American women writers in the United States in the same decades. The growth of a black middle class after the abolition of slavery, a class regarded by spokespersons like W. E.B. DuBois to be the agent of progress for all African Americans, placed a heavy responsibility on the morals and demeanour of its women. The myths created through slavery and racism about the promiscuous sexuality of African American women were to be refuted by the virtuous, educated and civic-minded mothers, wives and daughters of the black bourgeoisie, whose women leaders saw themselves as at once the shock troops and domestic stronghold of ‘race’ politics. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Iola Leroy (1987 ) offered readers a heroine of just this sort.
In the interwar years, however, an altogether different kind of heroine begins somewhat hesitatingly to emerge, in fictions which rebel against the novel whose main ideological thrust was the advancement of the race or the femininity it championed. Janie Crawford, the protagonist of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1936), comes from the rural poor, is thrice married, and is forced to kill her last and most loved husband, Tea Cake Woods. The sort of agency Janie wants and the femininity she inhabits have little to do with either upward mobility or the advance of the race, but are rather the pursuit of both passion and ‘to find out about livin’’ first hand (Hurston 1937: 183). Her second marriage to the store-owner, Joe Starks, leaves Janie excluded from both these possibilities. The novel’s narrative voice-over and the vernacular exchanges of its characters allow anthropologist Hurston to raise Janie’s quest for love and knowledge to the level of a ‘folk’ philosophy. Through the voices of the Southern poor in her short stories and non-fiction Hurston obliquely resists the middle-class terms through which both racial and gender aspirations might be channelled. Yet critic Cheryl Wall suggests that in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston is arguing that the social values identified with white materialist society cannot be evaded, but were at work even in the most marginal communities of the South, personified not only in propertied men like Starks, but by the light-skinned restaurant proprietor, Mrs Turner, ‘whose attempt to replicate the social hierarchy of the larger [white] society causes Janie and Tea Cake to revert to the stereotyped gender roles that society endorses’
(Wall 1995: 191).
Wall’s comment prompts the questions of where those stereotypes originated, and of which class within a minority culture adopted and endorsed them. Were the repressive social and sexual standards of the black middle class that Deborah McDowell argues continued to inhibit the work of most African American women writers in the interwar years, especially in their representation of black female sexuality, simply a replication of nineteenth- century white standards of ‘pure womanhood’? Even more than in the British texts of the 1920s and 1930s female sexuality is the key to the revision of femininity in African American women’s writing. Because of the long history and durability of ‘social and literary myths. . . about black women’s libidinousness’ reaching back to slavery, but more virulent perhaps after its abolition, McDowell explains that ‘even into the Freudian 1920’s, the Jazz Age of sexual abandon and “free love” — when female sexuality, in general, was acknowledged and commercialized in the advertising, beauty, and fashion industries — black women’s novels preserve their reticence about sexuality’, leaving its open expression to ‘black female blues singers’ who sang about its pleasures and dangers in the vernacular speech of the poor (McDowell 1986: xiii). Class difference fractures the kind of femininity that could be dreamed of and written about in this period. The sexual politics of black expression surfaced as a contested issue in the aesthetic debates among black artists and intellectuals in the ‘Harlem Renaissance’. It dictated the reserve, McDowell argues, that pervades the work of one of the most experimental and compelling writers of the period, Nella Larsen, whose two memorable novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) directly and tragically confront the contradictions and constraints of black bourgeois femininity. The restless young heroine of Quicksand, Helga Crane, leaves her teaching job at a black southern school, Naxos (saxon as anagram) which ‘was now a show place. . . exemplification of the white man’s magnanimity’ (Larsen 1986: 4). The school ‘tolerated no innovations, no individualisms’ and ‘Enthusiasm, spontaneity, if not actually suppressed, were at least openly regretted as unladylike or ungen tlemanly qualities’ (4), so that Helga had come to hate ‘the trivial hypocrisies and careless cruelties’ which were ‘a part of the Naxos policy of uplift’ (5). In addition Helga’s lack of connections to the leading families of Negro society, which was, Larsen tells us, ‘as complicated and as rigid in its ramifications as the highest strata of white society’, meant that her individuality had to be suppressed (8). In gendered terms the Naxos ethos rewards ‘ladyness’ (12), and when Helga resigns, the head tries to flatter her by saying that she is a ‘lady’ who brings ‘dignity and breeding’ to the school; it gives Helga some satisfaction to tell him that ‘My father was a gambler who deserted my mother, a white immigrant’ (21).
Helga’s search for less constricted gender identity and a wider field for her inchoate ambitions, which Larsen characterizes as a finely tuned aesthetic sense, takes her first to New York where she becomes part of a sophisticated and monied black society light years removed from the provincial Naxos, and later to Europe where she moves with her white Aunt and Uncle in white society. None of these contexts gives her enduring satisfactions, but are instead a series of dead ends in which she feels trapped by the enclosing walls of societies built, in different ways, on racial exclusion; in Europe she escapes the pretensions of the black bourgeoisie for one that is freer but in which she is regarded as an exotic commodity. And Helga herself is constantly censoring what she believes is illicit and regressive in her own sensuous desires, associating them with African primitivism — ‘the jungle’. Larsen cannot resolve the dilemma she has set for Helga or her narrative; the novel’s hardly bearable or credible conclusion finds Helga back in a Southern small town, married to a black preacher, Reverend Pleasant Green, whom she loathes, condemned to a life of endless childbearing. McDowell argues that the unsettling and downbeat ending of Larsen’s novel, in which the turn to conventional marriage is a form of living death, is Larsen’s response to the ‘contradictory impulses’ that inspired Quicksand. ‘Larsen wanted to tell the story of the black woman with sexual desires, but was constrained by a competing desire to establish black women as respectable in black middle-class terms’, a conflict that has ‘strangling effects. . . both on her characters and on her narratives’ (McDowell 1986: xvi).
Larsen’s fiction suggests how closely meshed the determinants of race and class are in the making of gendered subjectivity, as well as just how misleading it can be to make too strong a distinction between the categories of gender and sexuality when thinking through the representation of femininity. In Orlando, Rebecca and The Well of Loneliness, racial difference acts as a subtheme or motif in more overtly class-bound discussions of gender. Whiteness, as a privileged form of gendered identity, is subliminally present as a kind of consolation prize for the trials of being a woman. But Larsen, drawing on and revising the literary figure of the ‘tragic mulatto’, the woman of mixed race who had been long a favoured figure of racialized femininity deployed by both white and black writers, makes the raced element of femininity and its discontents central to her texts and to her light-skinned protagonists, Helga Crane and Clare Kendry of Passing, each of whom is the product of a cross-racial liaison. As Cheryl Wall points out, Larsen’s use of the mulatto subverts ‘the convention consistently. . . They are neither noble nor long – suffering; their plights are not used to symbolize the oppression of blacks, the irrationality of prejudice, or the absurdity of concepts of race generally’ (Wall 1995: 89). Instead, Wall argues, they focus on the psychological effects of ‘racism and sexism’ which make ‘self-definition’ impossible for black women (89).
Passing takes on, as well, the impossible attraction between women, highlighting another common element of women’s writing about women in this period: femininity, especially highly sexed, hyper-femininity, less as a lure and danger to men than as the site of desire between women. In this novel Larsen has taken the conflict between respectability and desire that destroyed Helga Crane and split it into two characters, girlhood friends drawn to each other in mid-life. Irene Redfield is a repressed, respectable Harlem doctor’s wife, whose ‘passing’ for white is limited to an occasional day out at a posh department store; here, one day, she re-encounters the beautiful Clare Kendry who has married a bullying white businessman, and concealed her racial origin, but risks everything by renewing her friendship with Irene and the black middle-class cultural milieu to which she belongs. As Deborah McDowell points out, the novel, by eroticizing Clare’s exotic beauty — her ‘tempting mouth’, and her seductive ways, the ‘caress’ of her gaze — as seen through the fascinated and fearful eyes of Irene, more than hints at their mutual attraction (McDowell 1986: xxvii). The surreal denouement of the novel, when Clare, her racial identity suddenly revealed to her racist husband, falls or is pushed to her death from a Harlem balcony, suggests the impossibility not only of black female identity but of same sex desire.
Feminist theorist Judith Butler’s analysis of Larsen’s novel, ‘Passing, Queering’, argues that the social and psychological readings of Passing ought not to be seen as in conflict; she suggests that race (whiteness as much as blackness) is constituent of the psychic terms of sexual difference. Butler pushes this argument one crucial theoretical step further, insisting that there is no ‘relationship called “sexual difference” that is itself unmarked by race’ (Butler 1993: 181). ‘What becomes psychically repressed in Passing is linked to the specificity of the social constraints on black women’s sexuality that inform Larsen’s text’ (179). These recent analyses of Larsen’s work have quite properly seen her bold if ambivalent attempt to make the repression of black female sexuality, rather than its exploitation, the key problem and the potential tragedy of the women in her texts. Hazel Carby argues that Larsen’s exposure of the contradictions involved in the representation of Helga Crane ‘as a sexual being’, even if they are ones she cannot resolve, makes Helga ‘the first truly sexual black female protagonist’ in African American fiction (Carby 1987: 174). If we read women writers from the interwar years right across the racial and cultural divide, we can see that sexual freedom, with its pleasures and dangers, is for all of them in a variety of ways, the linchpin of their criticism of middle-class femininity, and by implication the middle-class campaign for women’s rights ofwhich they were now the supposed beneficiaries. Virginia Woolf herself embodies those tensions and contradictions when, in 1929, she predicted happily that these new civic freedoms would liberate women into writing fiction that would involve ‘a turn towards the impersonal’ which would make ‘her novels. . . more critical of society, and less analytical of individual lives’. She would write novels which would ‘deal with social evils and remedies. Their men and women will not be observed wholly in relation to each other emotionally, but as they cohere and clash in groups and classes and races’ (Woolf 1979: 50—1). She is not the only writer to be dissatisfied with the imaginative ghetto of the ‘personal’ — in The Last September, Lois rejects the idea of being a writer as ‘so embarrassing. . . Even things like — like elephants get so personal’ (Bowen 1998: 98). Woolf, who had argued elsewhere that women in the twentieth century should be able to write ‘the truth of the body’, is perhaps defending women writers against the old accusation that all their work would be narrowly personal and subjective and that femininity rendered women constitutionally and culturally incapable of a wider vision. The understanding that sexuality as well as gender were a part of the politics of ‘groups, classes’, races and nations was an idea taking shape but not fully articulated in the interwar years. Woolf’s conservative defence reflects how hard it was to resist the binary definitions of gender which made the ‘personal’ and the ‘emotional’, which we might translate as sexuality and the psychic, part of a degraded femininity, rather than crucial issues for the societies in which, as she rightly remarks, women would now be able to act for themselves and ‘not merely influence the acts of others’ (Woolf 1979: 50).
In view of the way in which these fictions by women highlight sexuality, depicted in terms of race and class rather than as outside their categorical jurisdictions, as a centrally unresolved issue within the reorientation brought about by the new freedoms of postwar society, one might see Freud’s conclusion in ‘Femininity’ in a slightly different light. When he suggests that understanding sexuality and its psychic effects ‘goes very far’, if not far enough, towards resolving the ‘riddle’ of femininity’, he may be no more, although no less, than at one with the Zeitgeist he helped to create.