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.
Although I’m on the panel for Fiction Picture Books for this year’s Cybils, one thing I’m really enjoying is reading a smattering of historical fiction and books based on true stories as well. Below are some I’ve really enjoyed. There are, of course, far more books based on true stories on the nominations list that I haven’t written about, but this may get you started.
At first, The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar reminded me of The Help. Obviously, given the very different settings, the book was very different as a whole from The Help. But I loved reading about the friendship and lives of two very different women. The book was beautifully written, and although the realistic issues it portrays are not happy ones, the ultimate message of positive self-worth was hopeful. (more…)
image via Wikipedia
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.
This post may contain thematic spoilers of My Lady Ludlow.
Lady Ludlow is the representation of the old aristocracy in England. She is a conservative who does not want to allow the lower classes to gain an education or to gain “rights” in the post-Revolutionary years. Beyond those that are her servants, she essentially does not want to even associate with the lower classes. Yet, her role as a widowed, property-holding woman puts her in a unique position. As situations arise that call for both economic development and her personal compassion, she learns to adapt.
The long novella My Lady Ludlow by Elizabeth Gaskell is not a sample of a well-polished work. Yet, the characters and setting that Ms Gaskell introduce seem to me to be reminiscent of the other characters and themes I’ve read about in the other Gaskell novels I’ve read, and I did like some of the characters. (more…)