Family Plots: Black Women Writer Reclaim Their Past
When I was in grammar school, a friend of my father’s gave me a copy of Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones. He told me a Negro woman had written the novel and it was about a young girl. I was shocked. I’d never seen a book about a black girl — except, that is, for a weird little volume called The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God by G.B. Shaw. Unfortunately, in the years since then, books like Marshall’s still come as a surprise. Like a number of other black women writers, I have made it a point to speak of our “tradition,” yet I know that no such tradition is assumed by the rest of the world, primarily because our books have not been read or taught.
During the controversy over The Color Purple, this was particularly evident. No one seemed to make even one cogent observation about the books black women write. Yet much was said about black women writers and our work. Contemporary writers are being accused of pillorying black men, promoting homosexuality, ignoring sociological overviews of black oppression — and they’re often pegged as the first black writers to commit such sins. Mel Watkins, for instance, asserted in The New York Times Book Review last spring that black women writers had broken a silent pact among all black writers to present positive images. He even dared to trace the portrayal of hostility between black men and women to a 1967 novel by Carlene Hatcher Polite, which is like saying black writers started to expose racism in 1940. It’s obvious the finger pointers don’t know where we’ve been, much less where we’re coming from.
Any defense of black women should take into account the priorities laid down by black women writers over the years — it should assert the place of black women’s tradition within the larger black literary tradition. This women’s tradition — which shows that Alice Walker’s impulses are much the same as those of 19th century black women writers — has been, until now, barely charted territory. There is a body of literature by black women that hardly any of us has been able to study. The reclamation of this work has begun, and there are new editions of four landmark novels: Plum Bun (1929) by Jessie Fauset, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen, and The Street (1946) by Ann Petry. These older novels will undoubtedly put the current controversies into perspective.
Black literature comes from peculiar roots — a proliferation of narratives written in isolation by former slaves, unaware of themselves as a literary community. The personal narrative became popular — it still is — and the works came to the larger black community often by way of oral renderings for people who could not read. Black women share these roots and this isolation. Until 10 years ago, we couldn’t read much of our foremothers’ work; the books went out of print almost as soon as they appeared. Fiction by black women — going back to the 1859 novel Our Nig — shows certain disjunctions that suggest an ignorance of forebears unusual among American writers. The works do not form the kind of linear progression one might ascribe to fiction by black men, white men, or other American women.
Black male writers of several generations have been repeatedly described by critics as being involved in “father/son” conflict: you guessed it, the son rebels against the father. Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, the daddies of them all, evidently had no daughters. Their sons were heralded as they appeared: James Baldwin, John A. Williams, Ernest Gaines, William Melvin Kelley, and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. And in flurries of essays and articles, the critics debated as Ellison battled Wright’s troops. Baldwin railed against Wright, Jones railed against Baldwin. This was the pattern until the ’70s, when the hegemony broke down and others began to appear who went their own way — people like Ishmael Reed, who railed against Jones, was railed against by Jones, made up with Jones, and started railing against women. Clarence Major, David Bradley, and Charles Johnson seem to be minding their own business.
Ellison wrote rather pointedly of the father/son dilemma, acknowledging that he and Baldwin were viewed by Irving Howe as “guilty of filial betrayal” because they rejected Native Son’s naturalism and “while actually ‘black boys,’ they pretend to be mere American writers trying to react to something of the pluralism of their predicament.” This is much the fate that has met black women. Having never really been included in the family, they’ve still been charged with stepping outside the tolerated boundaries of the black literary tradition. And they have done so, precisely as Ellison put it, “trying to react to something of the pluralism of their predicament.”
While the father/son crew developed its tradition through critiques of previous work and the appearance of various schools and philosophical perspectives, fiction by black women shows signs of being improvised with materials taken almost exclusively from personal experience. It’s as if those books the novelists had read barely served as models for style, structure, narrative approach, or content.
Imagine a John Coltrane who had only heard one 78 by Charlie Parker, one LP by Billie Holiday. Imagine a Cecil Taylor who did not grow up with the sounds of Art Tatum and Duke Ellington, and you have some idea how amazing it is that we have writers like Lorraine Hansberry and Toni Morrison.
Each generation of black women has certainly taken ideas from known forms, yet in the matter of content — the telling of black women’s stories — the same impulses appear time and again, with little revision over the decades. Only lately have we seen work that makes conscious nods to the past. And no wonder: Morrison, Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Gloria Naylor, Sherley Anne Williams, Ntozake Shange, and others are the first generation to have a body of work on the black woman’s condition readily at hand.
Morrison, Walker, and their sisters laid claim to the ’70s and ’80s, and these decades will be looked upon as a time when a significant number of major American works were created by a relatively small group of women. Ranging in age from about 30 to 50, these same writers also produced works that will last in poetry, theater, and nonfiction. In so doing, they have prompted the resurrection of their own tradition.
This is no small accomplishment. Though the first black writer ever published in this country was a woman, the first black novelist and poet to win Pulitzers were women, we have remained outside the accepted (or expected) ranks. Our critical essays went unpublished until the ’70s and no collection of essays by a black woman writer was ever published until Alice Walker and June Jordan broke the ground five years ago. Only one diary by a black woman writer — Charlotte Forten’s Journal — appeared before the early ’80s, when Audre Lorde put out The Cancer Journals and Gloria Hull released Give Us Each Day, the journals of poet Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Whatever writers have had to share about their working process or their understanding of tradition has been in shoe boxes in the closet.
So the reemergence of our lost books is not only the unearthing of roots, a map of past travels, but for generations of younger writers, the work will be a motherlode of images and sounds, choices laid open to the sky. To know this is so, you only have to look at what happened when we found Zora Neale Hurston — imagine a Jelly Roll Morton of the Harlem Renaissance.
Exactly a decade ago one black woman writer emerged — alone — from the shadows, and her impact has been stupendous. Robert Hemenway’s 1977 work, Zora Neale Hurston, as the first in a chain of events, may have been the most important thing to happen to black women writers in modern times. Had Hurston and others like Fauset, Larsen, and Petry been widely known, the publication of a Hurston biography would merely have been part of a timely response to the social and political events of the ’60s and ’70s. Instead, the book opened a floodgate of possibilities, both for the imaginations of writers and the aspirations of black scholars and readers.
Zora, as writers affectionately call her, became the woman to whom black women writers are most often — rightly or wrongly — compared, because she was the first foremother to become a hot item in book shops. But she became a major influence on all contemporary black writing because her work is rich in African-American folk material (and maybe just a little bit because her colorful life is a natural subject for rumor and legend). There is much to discover in Hurston and her rootsy writing appeared at a time when blacks were digging the African bedrock.
Zora shows up as an influence in interviews with black women writers more often than anyone else, with the exception of their mothers and grandmothers. Ntozake Shange and Sherley Anne Williams still describe reading Hurston as a revelation, a discovery of language and feelings close to home. Kristin Hunter and Gayl Jones speak of attempting to incorporate ideas gleaned from Hurston into their fiction. The imprints of Hurston’s folklore research in the Deep South are palpable in fiction by Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara. Hurston worship has taken such hold that Hortense Spillers says, “Hurston is like the Bible.”
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Hurston’s most widely read book, is a poetic novel written in black Floridian dialect. I vividly recall how this book lit up the conversations of women who shared it, as it passed from hand to hand in the late ’70s. The novel’s heroine, Janie, is an unusual one for the ’30s, or any other decade. Janie’s tale fits squarely in the flow of the black storytelling tradition, but in it she is the primary agent of her own destiny.
By making her African-American storyteller the primary agent of her adventure (in a universe nearly as animated as an African forest), Hurston sets herself apart from earlier novelists who chose to diminish the power of their characters’ decisions by emphasizing the effects of racism and oppression. Janie strikes home with women because she experiences traditional roles and then moves beyond them, and as many have put it, “creates herself.” She’s a singular figure in a fiction landscape full of reluctantly self-sufficient working black women who struggle, usually in vain, with a dream of race and gender equality, independence of mind, love, and a decent quality of life. Janie does not gain it all, but she exercises a greater portion than had been given to any of her foremothers.
For nearly every heroine in the black women’s tradition, isolation, hard labor (if not poverty), disappointment, and lack of self-esteem are the battles. Janie suffers all of these, and walks back from her odyssey a complete woman. Janie is The Color Purple’s Celie and Shug in one character; while they find wholeness in making love with one another, Janie embraces the world. The gift of self-love showed Celie how to take the patriarchy out of God and see the color purple; the same gift, 50 years earlier, showed Janie “God in herself’ (as Shange would put it) and in the birds fleeing an Everglades hurricane.
Hurston’s canonization does skew the picture. She did not become a novelist until 1934; before that she was known as a folklorist and a “live wire” who often debunked what she called the Harlem Renaissance “niggerati.” She was not exactly revered, and many of the Renaissance men striving for white acceptance looked askance at her unmediated public “signifying.”
Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Ann Petry were also in this literary community, but they too found themselves either critical of the Ebony Tower folks, or outsiders. Reviewers in black newspapers and magazines like the NAACP’s Crisis, all members of the “niggerati,” granted these three grudging respect as the most able black women novelists of their time. Occasional reviews in the Times or The Nation were usually favorable. Fauset, Larsen, and Petry, however, were never considered the equals of black males. Their continued marginality is proved by the fact that they barely appear in anthologies of any (race/gender) orientation. All three pop up as Renaissance figures in literary histories like From the Dark Tower by Arthur P. Davis (yes, we’re related), and When Harlem Was in Vogue by David Levering Lewis. But their work has been largely ignored for almost 50 years.
Jessie Redmon Fauset, who worked with W.E.B. Du Bois at the NAACP and Crisis magazine, took up novel writing in reaction to the popular trend of “primitive/exotic” novels about black life. She said the tendency among writers to concentrate on the black “underworld” posed “a grave danger” to black writers. Because she admirably represented the Renaissance’s genteel intelligentsia in this aesthetic standoff, she was promoted in all the little magazines and collections they put out.
But this probably discouraged later scholars from taking her seriously. Fauset wrote four novels in nine years: There Is Confusion (1924), Plum Bun (1929), The Chinaberry Tree (1931), and Comedy, American Style (1933). In his 1958 study, The Negro Novel in America, Robert Bone designated the most published black woman of the Harlem Renaissance a front-runner of the Renaissance’s “Rear Guard.” (No, I don’t know what that means, I’m just telling you what the man said.)
Nella Larsen, an intriguing figure, was part of the literary community for only 10 years, during which she wrote novels, and was, like Fauset, encouraged by Walter White and the NAACP crowd. Usually dubbed a Harlem Renaissance writer, she is to my mind a transitional figure: her novels use the “tragic mulatto” theme popular at the time but depart from the Renaissance’s optimism and race pride, instead anticipating the concerns of the Depression.
Quicksand, Larsen’s first novel, won a Harmon Foundation prize and was hailed by Du Bois as the “best piece of fiction that Negro America has produced since the heyday of [Charles] Chesnutt.” Her second novel, Passing, was also well received, and shortly after its publication she became the first black woman writer to win a Guggenheim. She was accused of plagiarism in 1930 in a dispute over a short story, and though exonerated, she did not get over the accusation and the scandal. Larsen went back to a nursing career and died in Brooklyn in 1963 — like Hurston, virtually forgotten.
Petry, who at 76 still lives in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, has the distinction of being perhaps the best-selling black woman writer ever. (Of course Walker may yet overtake her.) The Street, which she is proud to remind folks has never been out of print, has sold over a million and a half copies. Her readership is so consistent in part because critics put her in the “Richard Wright school of naturalistic protest writing,” and she does belong in that school. But she was deemed by some to be Wright’s poorer sister because she did not conform strictly enough to the conventions of the protest novel.
Fauset’s Plum Bun is a novel of unfulfilled expectations, told in almost fairy-tale fashion. It is one of the few books by a black woman to borrow from the romantic tradition popularized by European women. It’s not hard to imagine why — we have so few idealized, so-called feminine women in our mythology or experience. Fauset uses the simplest, most familiar devices of romance fiction to make exactly this point. She shows the mythic nature of traditional female socialization and emphasizes the realities that defy blacks to participate in the equally mythic American culture.
Fauset is associated with those Harlem Renaissance writers who sought to prove that middle-class blacks were barely different from their white counterparts except for “reduced opportunity.” As a result, the folks in Plum Bun are indeed rather colorless. The children play games popular across America, but none of those traditional for black children. It is an odd, raceless environment where people talk about race but don’t reflect it much in their behavior. Angela tries passing to escape from racism and at the same time rejects traditional women’s roles to become a painter.
She later chooses to abandon her artistic dreams for a man, and becomes “dependent, fragile… ‘womanly’ to the point of ineptitude.” Nearly every naïve assumption with which the character ventured out into the world from her cozy row house — particularly those having to do with power — must be relinquished in her struggle with the realities of sex and race.
Actually she has many more counterparts among young postfeminist buppie women these days than she probably did in the ’20s, when her class was minuscule and her problems more rare. Some of the pathologies that plague her understanding of the race situation are painfully evident any time Rae Dawn Chong or Whoopi Goldberg opens her mouth. The homogenization of American culture has produced a new breed of passers, blacks who simply reject any black group identification at the same time that they ignore stigmatization.
Nella Larsen’s novels also use the passing theme, but probably because she was a biracial person, she shows a deeper understanding of the ambivalences of the mulatto character than Fauset. And in her stories, the secondary theme is a search for autonomy and sexual independence that would be taken up by Morrison’s Sula, Shange’s Sassafras, Cypress and Indigo, and Naylor’s Women of Brewster Place, to name only three. As editor Deborah McDowell points out, Larsen was in conflict with the mores of her time. Like Fauset’s Angela, Larsen’s heroines must return to the black fold to be themselves, yet they are suffocated there by an inability to be independent or to escape marriage and motherhood.
At the opening of Quicksand, Helga Crane, a young woman of mixed race, sits in her room in the faculty quarters of a southern black college. She is in fact in a corner, one of many she will back herself into in the course of the novel. Helga runs off from each haven she finds — first in the black world, then the white world of Scandinavia — in a vain search for racial identity and unnamed adventure, which McDowell identifies as sexual independence.
While Hurston’s Janie may have simply decided to run off with her lover, Teacake, Larsen’s Helga Crane, socialized to be out of sync with her sexual drives, must lunge this way and that, toward her desires and then away, before giving in to the adventure. And unlike Janie, she pays a heavy price for following her impulses, descending into a hellish fate. The episode of madness in which Helga manages to do as she pleases presages events in Alice Walker’s early fiction, and later themes in the work of Toni Morrison and Gayl Jones. Larsen also creates one of the few literary portrayals of the fetishism for exotics so widespread in the ’20s.
Passing, considered by most critics a slight novel, reworks the passing theme through a less sympathetic heroine, Clare Kendry, whose willful abandonment of her blackness is opposed by her old friend Irene Redfield, a smugly bourgeois young black woman full of “positive” but patronizing notions about blacks. She considers herself a “race woman.” Irene is something of a fraud, though; she only encounters her old friend because she happens to be doing a little tea-time passing herself in a downtown Chicago hotel. This “harmless” occasional diversion for light-skinned black women is important to Larsen and Fauset; for them it makes credible the logic of characters who cross the line permanently.
McDowell says the passing theme is also a parallel for sexual passing. Irene, refusing to acknowledge that she’s sexually attracted to her friend, deflects Clare’s attention onto her husband. Irene, then, is passing for a happily married woman. Reading the novel now, you have to wonder if readers missed the lesbian theme 50 years ago, or chose to find Passing innocent of sexual content. Although Larsen appears to have been wary of making the theme overt, its presence is significant to the tradition.
Ann Petry’s novel The Street is a bleak tale of a black woman’s failure to stop the crushing hand of a hostile environment. Lutie Johnson’s decline is set in motion right at the beginning when her husband loses his job and she takes a live-in domestic position to support the family. Lutie finds she must protect herself from exploitation, sexual assault, and her own dreams of upward mobility. Trying to get better-paying work, she ends up killing a man who wants sexual favors in return for a job, and has to abandon the son she tried to keep off the streets.
The writing in The Street is grim, unrelenting, and contrived to strip the environment of the lively, beautiful motion that also comes with a black neighborhood. Lutie lives like the women of Brewster Place — or perhaps I should say the Brewster Place women live like Lutie, since Gloria Naylor acknowledges a debt to Petry. But there is a crucial difference between Petry’s characters and those of recent novels: Naylor’s women live with a sense of female community, and so do the characters in nearly all the novels written by black women in the ’70s and ’80s. The stories of younger women in Brewster Place or Corregidora, for instance, belong in a continuum going back several generations. And yet the tales of women who have gone before do not ensnare their daughters like the “sins of the fathers visited upon the sons”; they stand as warnings. So we see Petry revised by a generation which has found a community not perceived by Petry and her characters.
Books written from the ’20s to the ’50s offer portraits of isolated, powerless women with little self-esteem and little mobility. Their troubles are much like those of Frado, the heroine of Our Nig, and Celie in The Color Purple. Their concerns are personal, racial, sexual, and economic. They struggle against class and color consciousness among blacks and against the destruction of once supportive communities. They sometimes lash out with violence against the violence wrought against them. Fauset, Larsen, and Petry wrote about the women who stand in the shadows or do the ironing in novels by Wright, Baldwin, Williams, and other men of this century. They shift the eye’s focus from the street to the interior, throw light from the preacher to those silent women swaying in the back row, and the scene we’ve seen before becomes complete.
A small group of scholars who have politicked with presses and written some excellent studies have managed to get the most significant works by black women lined up to come back into circulation. Fauset, Larsen, and Petry’s books are part of a major reclamation. With the combined efforts of Beacon Press, the Feminist Press, Rutgers and Oxford universities, virtually all the fiction (and lots of everything else) written by black women will soon be available.
Henry Louis Gates, who found Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig, is a one-man cottage industry specializing in black literature — and he’s been turning up more books by black women. He is currently working on two major collections: The Oxford Library of 19th Century Black Women Writers, and a 30-volume series to be produced in collaboration with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Gates is also editor of The Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature.
Oxford is bringing out two pioneer novels by Emma Dunham Kelley: Megda (1891), to be edited by Molly Hite, and Four Girls in Cottage City (1898), to be edited by Deborah McDowell. This last was located by Gates’s Periodical Literature Project at Cornell, and members of the black bourgeoisie will be amused to hear it is about four young black women who move to Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. Iola Leroy, the highly regarded 1892 novel by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, long assumed to be the earliest novel by a black woman, is being reprinted by Beacon. Beacon has republished Petry, Marshall, and others, and clearly has made a commitment to this retrieval process. Deborah McDowell is editing the Frances Harper book, and has overseen the reprinting of Fauset and Larsen. And Hazel Carby is editing the serialized novels of Pauline Hopkins, which have never been collected. Taken together these books will publicly establish the tradition — a literary tradition created by black women.
In the late ’70s and the ’80s, the work of Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor, and a number of others has seemed like an intimate conversation, swirling around these questions which we now find resonating back through the tradition of black women’s fiction. The conflicts arising from color and class differences among blacks are carefully dissected in all of Morrison’s work, suggested in Walker’s, and assumed in Shange’s.
What is new in recent fiction would seem to be a greater freedom to experiment with form and style, artful uses of the kinds of folklore resurrected by Hurston, and a growth in the complexity of characters. The books share a concern with madness, dreams, and the woman’s psyche often found in work by other contemporary women — European and American. (Schizophrenia is almost the signal metaphor for breaking loose from repression in the novels of the ’70s.) While sexual liberty is often at the core of earlier novels, now it is the “outward journey” for the black female character.
The contemporary black woman writer is more skilled than most of her predecessors. In the ’70s she showed off an ecstatic language unique to the work of black women, full of poetry, dreams, hallucinations, magic, recipes, potions, song, fire, and flight. The language is often body-centered, as in Shange. Or one finds passages of seemingly improvised narrative, as in Alexis DeVeau, unimaginable in Petry. And then there are writers like Morrison and Gayl Jones, who exert extreme control over the language to capture the rhythm or flavor of blues, or to emphasize the fantastic. Styles vary from safe to adventurous, but they can all be said to acknowledge a reading of some parts of the tradition. The connections between the works of so many women who were both reading Hurston and writing fiction at the same time could not be linear. They cross each other like threads on a loom.
It’s difficult to know what we’ll find — the conversation is really just getting started. We will be talking about the prevalence of issues such as personal independence, racial struggle, the criticism of traditional roles, the use of folklore and myth, and female bonding. We may ask if women aren’t moving toward holistic forms that embrace the objective and subjective at once, to escape the narrative confines of naturalism. We will be able to argue about whether writers have conformed to the expectations and conventions of their time, and how they have differed from the male writers in black literature. What it is to be black and woman will be shown in the colors and textures we have been weaving. We will define ourselves by our own processes. ■
QUICKSAND & PASSING. By Nella Larsen. Edited by Deborah McDowell. Rutgers University Press, $25; $7.95 paper.
THE STREET. By Ann Petry. Beacon, $8.95 paper.
PLUM BUN. By Jessie Fauset. Pandora, $15.95; $8.95 paper.
CONJURING: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Indiana University Press, $29.95; $10.95 paper.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 11, 2020