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.
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Claude McKay was born in Jamaica 1889, and in 1912, after his first volume of Jamaican dialect poetry was published in Jamaica, he traveled to the USA, eventually settling in New York City and becoming a part of the Harlem Renaissance movement of artistic expression.
In Harlem Shadows (published 1922), McKay captures his shock and disappointment at the discrimination he found in the United States. Racial identity is a key theme throughout the volume, and I found these themes hidden in many poems. He also wrote poems that encouraged people to be themselves, and his personal voice gives these poems an urgency. He also poignantly captures his homesickness for his tropical home. And although he wrote Harlem Shadows almost a century ago, his search for identity and place in a busy foreign world is one that we can still relate to.
I am a white woman and a stay-at-home mom living close to where I was born, and yet McKay’s racial frustrations and calls for individuals to remain strong, as well as his longings for the familiar, resonate with me. McKay’s beautiful poetry is well worth reading and revisiting.
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by time. (page 1)
From this beginning, Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God (published 1937) captures in one woman’s quest to arrive at the horizon. Part love story and part coming-of-age story, Janie’s story shows how overcoming oppressive traditions and learning to speak for one’s self empowers one with satisfaction and peace.
As an expert in folklore, Ms Hurston was uniquely qualified to capture the African-American traditions and unique dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God. But to me, the novel transcends race and completely captures what it means to be human in an oppressive world. It beautifully answers the question of how to find hope in the midst of the challenges that life sends our way in our journey toward the horizon.
This post contains some thematic spoilers for Their Eyes Were Watching God. (more…)
In her personal journal to God, young Celie tries to make sense of the incestuous rape she’s experiencing from her Pa. A few pages later, she tries to make sense of the unhappy marriage she’s thrust in to. For Celie, life entails hard work, submission, violence, and daily rapes from her (nameless) husband.
Does that sound shocking enough? It is. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (published 1983) is exactly the kind of book I don’t read. Yet, I couldn’t put it down. Although the themes of the book are disturbing and violent, The Color Purple captures a woman’s discovery of hope, her discovery of her own sexuality, and her realization of herself as a woman. She realizes that she doesn’t have to submit, but rather, she can fight back. (more…)
Passing by Nella Larsen (first published 1929) captures the conflicts that young African-American women face in 1920s America. Although solidly a part of the Harlem Renaissance in the ways it tackles racial issues, Passing also magnificently captures a young woman’s repressed sexuality.
The terms “passing” refers to a light-skinned African-American acting as white in order to gain the social opportunities otherwise denied them. Larsen describes three young light-skinned women who occasionally “pass” in 1920s society. The first is Irene, who married a black man and passes only when she’s away from family, such as when she wants to stop in a restaurant or hotel otherwise denied her. Clare, on the other hand, is the other extreme: she has married a racist white man and lives exclusively as a white woman. Gertrude remains in between the two cultures: she has married a white man, but he knows of her black heritage and accepts it. (more…)