In Jessie Redmon Fauset’s second published novel, Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral (published 1928), one woman struggles to finding her own identity racially and sexually in New York City during the vibrant years of the Harlem Renaissance.
Artist Angela Murray is a light-skinned “coloured” woman in the transitional years of the late 1910s and 1920s. When she gets an opportunity, she leaves her home town in Philadelphia for a life of “passing” as a white person in New York City. The novel follows her subsequent life and choices, creating a complex portrait of her life in an era of conflicting identities. She struggles with her role as a woman, with her choices as a sexually free individual, and also with her challenges to come to terms with her race in a time of both intense racial discrimination and racial contentment in Harlem.
In many ways, Plum Bun reminded me of Nella Larsen’s contemporary novella, Passing (published 1929; thoughts here), in which Irene, another light-skinned woman who occasionally “passed” for white, struggled with her repressed sexuality and her racial identity when she met one of her long-past friends, Clare, who had married a racist white man and always “passed.”
Plum Bun deals with similar issues, but the narrative focuses rather intensely on Angela herself, who is much younger than Nella Larsen’s middle-aged women. Angela’s story is a coming-of-age story, and in many ways I found it more satisfying as a whole because of the intense emotional components developed in the novel as Angela and her sister and their friends aged and experienced the consequences of their choices. Plum Bun is a wonderfully written and developed story that sits solidly in the historical context of the Harlem Renaissance but remains highly relevant to readers today.