Domestic violence in the Harlem Renaissance: remaking the record in Nella Larsen's Passing and Toni Morrison's Jazz.
February 8, 1928, front-page headline in the New York Amsterdam News--"Jealous Man Kills Woman and Self in Basement Apartment"; the following week, February 15, 1928, front-page headline once again in the News--"Husband Under Arrest But Denies Part in Slaying"; February 22, 1928, front-page headline--"Woman Stabs Man to Death with His Knife After Party, Held by Police When Went to Ask About Him." February 29, 1928 front-page banner headline--"[Police] Seek Husband as Brutal Slayer, Woman's Body Found with Head Nearly Severed"; March 7, 1928, front-page headline--"Jealousy Caused Near Tragedy When Repulsed Downtown Lover Returns."
In Toni Morrison's Jazz one of the novel's key notes sounds when the staid and proper Alice Manfred relents to admit the woman behind the tabloids and the gossip, "Violent" (Violet) Trace, into her home and her heart. Confessing to this wild woman who represents all she has eschewed from her own secure and respectable life that "I don't understand women like you[, Violet]. Women with knives," Alice agrees, nevertheless, to let her in after "having heard how torn up the man was and reading the headlines in the Age, the News, the Messenger" (81). While Morrison comments in this scene upon a redemptive sisterhood that bridges the Harlem community's color and class divides (Kubitschek 150), she also tellingly captures an historical tie between female subjectivity and domestic violence stories in the weekly black press. Toni Morrison's Jazz asks us to step outside the public and monumental history of the Harlem Renaissance to bear witness to the "private," lived experience of black women (Nancy Peterson 205). To the casual skimmer of the popular press's often sensational headlines, the Harlem Renaissance would, as Morrison indicates, not only have been the era of Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, and the National Negro Business League, but also of a "New Negress"--a "woman with knives." As the opening list of front-page headlines from the New York Amsterdam News for five consecutive weeks at the beginning of 1928 witnesses as well, such stories of domestic violence with their frequent portrayal of "women with knives" recur as a telling complement to the more highbrow political and social commentaries of the Opportunity or the Crisis. It might be tempting to dismiss these stories as sensationalism--titillating but of little interest to cultural historians. It would similarly be easy to read these stories of "monstrous" women with knives simply within a rhetoric of moral panic in which this scandalous deviance from the idealized dominant morality of the Harlem community is reported to inspire morbid curiosity, patriarachal outrage, but finally conservative reactions against female empowerment (Lull and Hinerman 34). Yet because these "tabloid" stories constituted one of the few discourses on domestic violence available to Harlem women in the 1920s, I would argue the stories were also meant to be functional and generative of African American women's performance of their own identity.
In using the anachronistic term domestic violence to describe these sensational stories in the Harlem weeklies about violence between two or more lovers in an intimate relation, and not just husbands and wives, I am borrowing from the work of a number of feminist critics on gender violence. In her account of family violence in Boston from 1880 to 1960, Linda Gordon argues that the meaning of violence, especially as it pertains to spousal or child abuse, has assumed its reality through the language used to talk about it and thus has been "historically and politically constructed" (3). Central to the feminist reading of domestic abuse is that this violence is involved in the socialization of roles. Not an end in itself, domestic violence is a means of enforcing gender roles in society and maintaining a hierarchy in which men remain in control. Thus, to combat domestic violence, as Sharon Marcus has argued (391-93), one needs not only physically to protect women, but to interrogate those cultural scripts or dominant patriarchal interpretations that mediate the meaning of specific experiences of rape or abuse. However, in challenging the dominant patriarchal script of gender violence, as Beth E. Richie points out (1135), feminists in the past have universalized the standpoint of white middle-class women as the norm, creating a false sense of unity in the anti-violence movement, while obscuring the specific situation of low-income women and women of color. Although feminist theory has long looked at the way a patriarchal language fails to articulate women's experience, studies of domestic violence need to remain self-conscious about the ways that the language in these studies can omit African American women's self-representation of their own battered bodies in domestic violence cases. In her work on the legal system's response to gender violence, the critical race feminist African Kennedy Wing has, likewise, investigated the way that black women's voices have been silenced: First, the testimony of black women before the courts is often discounted because they are viewed stereotypically as promiscuous Jezebels or outspoken Sapphires with an attitude who somehow deserve their injury; second, many black women silence themselves out of a felt need to protect the wounded manhood of their husbands, sons, and fathers and not to betray the race in the public eye.
In looking at the weekly Harlem popular press's account of the New Negress, the woman with knives, I want to fill in a gap in African American cultural histories and also histories of gender violence, and I want to make the more specific argument I that these "domestic violence scripts" functioned to create a new truth about the black female body. In "Policing the Black Woman's Body in an Urban Context," Hazel Carby examines the legal and sociological writing on urban women to retrieve the narratives that developed in the wake of the Great Migration to police and discipline the ] behavior of black women (740). Having a similar "disciplinary" function, the sensational press accounts of domestic violence worked to form a "modern," "urban" subjectivity for black women. While these transgressive "trash" stories of women getting even or taking control might in part have motivated some women to change their own lives, and to stop suffering in silence and isolation, these stories, as Tricia Rose has argued about recent "revenge fantasies" in women's rap videos, fail to challenge the basic model of heterosexual relations (282). Indeed, although seeming to authorize a type of self-expression, even if an excessively violent or "deviant" one, and while appealing to many abused women's desperation to have their stories heard and their reality witnessed, these stories of domestic violence actually naturalized limits on female autonomy. At a time when women were realizing a minimal level of independence and self-confidence as part of the social transformations of migrant urbanization, the discourse on domestic violence arose (I will show in what follows) as a stereotyping backlash that announced to black women that they could not control themselves from being "jealously," murderously even, invested in their man. Through the constant representation of wives and mistresses driven by obsessive jealousy, the black press's domestic violence stories placed restraints on a black woman's freedom and sexuality within the supposed "innate" instability of her body. No matter how independent the new Harlem woman might become, she was still abnormally obsessed with her "man."
In the near weekly stories of domestic violence, particularly those focusing on "women with knives," as opposed to those potboilers dealing with husbands who beat or murdered their wives, both the New York Age and the Amsterdam News disseminated the idea that emotional excess and possessiveness were "natural" for black women. The stories of women with knives were less threatening to male readers than reassuring, for these stories of jealous, out-of-control women reaffirmed a woman's dependence on her man at a time when there was a loosening of traditional gender norms. But my concern is not primarily with the ideological message of these stories for the men, but for the women, of Harlem. In their study of a "survivor's discourse" among victims of trauma, Linda Alcoff and Laura Gray Rosendale argue that the process of recovery involves the telling of one's own story and the remaking of a self through access to a discourse different from the dominant patriarchal view of domestic violence (199). To the actual women who were trying to re-integrate a self that had been fractured or wounded through violence, the tabloid accounts of men and women with knives would have mirrored for them one of the few narratives explaining their experience. However, if a healing survivor's story is ultimately an oppositional story, a political act that challenges the dominant male discourse that would name the abuse and its causes, I want to look at how several writers from the period, such as Nella Larsen, and contemporary writers looking back at the Harlem Renaissance, such as Toni Morrison, have sought to identify an alternative, female-centered discourse that allows for a different critical remembering of domestic trauma.
In series of essays for Opportunity magazine that ran in the December issue from 1924 to 1927, Eugene Gordon, the black editor and feature writer for the Boston Post, reviewed what he saw as the current state of the black press. From over 200 local newspapers, Gordon ranked twelve as the best in the country, including the New York Age and the New York Amsterdam News. Although Gordon's main purpose in his Opportunity articles was to promote the merits of the post-war black press, he did not refrain from censoring one of its worst faults: its "gutter journalism" or tabloid sensationalism. "Too much of the news," Gordon wrote in his last December article, is "sensational in its very nature and possessing nothing but this to recommend it. It is axiomatic that many of the papers not only carry 'all the news that's fit to print,' but considerable that is not" (359). Among the news "not fit to print," Gordon decried particularly the way that the Amsterdam News emphasized the "juicy" and "spicy" details not of murder, but "of marital lapses and dissatisfactions, resulting in divorce" ("Outstanding, 1927" 359).
After Robert Abbot pushed the circulation of the Chicago Defender in the early 1920s to more than six figures by introducing bold headlines that "reek with stories of Negro violence and crime" (Brown 6), (1) most African American weeklies in other major cities followed suit (Pride 217). While these "tabloid-style" stories pandered to the public's desire for gossip, celebrity, and entertainment, their sensationalism, it might be argued, offered for many readers, in a world of excess hype and disillusionment about the "city of refuge," something more authentic, spontaneous, and closer to home (Stark 253). Too often we have a reflexive tendency to perceive the audience of tabloid journalism as either thrill-seeking, sick, or indiscriminately gullible. Yet, as recent cultural theorists have argued, there is a "kinship" between media-generated scandal stories and the folk tradition (Bird 105) in that they both invite a participatory interpersonal dimension: Like storytelling in the oral tradition, the community newspapers through their "scandals" lead Harlemites to gossip about, aggressively attack or defend, and interrogate the actions of those who violated the status quo. Here, in the weekly moralizing on the sensational stories of domestic violence, readers who were probably active, selective, and skeptical would have asked how these "scandals" reflected on their own lives and their own idealized (if tenuous) image of the community. Yet, ironically, what these readers would have found, I would argue, is a glimpse of what was publicized as the "abiding, universal" truths of male and female behavior. In relaying these traumatic accounts of intimate violence, the Age was not just selling more copy, but it was provoking the backbiting, the gossip, the laughter that would help redraw the boundaries and norms for acceptable and, more importantly, "natural" male and female behavior. (2)
Prior to the First World War the New York Age circulated as one of the leading national African American newspapers. Founded in 1879 as the Rumor, renamed the Globe in 1881, and rechristened again as the Freeman in 1889, the New York Age carried columns by Ida B. Wells and served as the forum for race spokespersons such as Frederick Douglass. In the 1890s, under the editorship of one of its original founders, T. Thomas Fortune, the New York Age was adopted by Booker T. Washington as the national organ to publish his conservative views of economic self-help and sufficiency against a philosophy of activist protest for political rights and equality. As a result of this continued tendency to downplay the newer black radicals, the New York Age began to lose readers during the 1920s (Pride 95, 121-22). In contrast, the New York Amsterdam News accumulated a wider readership during the post-war years and followed a reverse political trajectory toward a more left-leaning perspective. Started by James Anderson in December 1909, the Amsterdam News became widely known for its campaign to end employment discrimination in the 1920s. The slogan it coined, "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work," spread as a household buzzword in the community. In contrast to the practice at other city papers, editor C. B. Powell, moreover, allowed for the unionization of his employees and started a Harlem Community Welfare Fund with 20,000 dollars from the paper's profits. During the 1930s, with the hiring of writers with strong left-wing opinions, the paper became even more radicalized (Pride 141-42). But despite the New York Age's and the News's respective conservative and progressive viewpoints, both promoted the pornographication of Harlem culture such that the private details of public figures' (and even not so public figures') domestic lives became political news.
In newspapers and magazines, women daily encounter stories that promote traditional gender norms and tap into social anxieties that can be used to cause the woman's self-consent to these norms. While the New York Age and the Amsterdam News were consciously using tabloid techniques to sell more copy, these stories tapped into the fears and fantasies of Harlem women and circulated, amidst the sensationalism, a particular construction of the female body. In "Writing Femininity," Susan Bordo has argued that "the body is not only a text of culture. It is ... [also] a locus of social control" (91). In its women's section entitled "Clubs, Sororities, Fashion, and Beauty," for example, the Amsterdam News clearly sought to advise migrant women how to adapt to middle-class ideas of dress, housekeeping, social conduct, and sexuality. In columns such as "Beauty Hints," "Household Exchange," and "Club Chat," women were taught how to feel about their bodies, how to live as the helpmate, cook, and caretaker to their husbands, and how to find their fulfillment in charitable women's work. Yet if the inside pages stirred a desire for middle-class womanhood, the front-page headlines told a different reality about black women's lives, one that played on women's anxieties about the realization of an "ideal" bourgeois marriage. In studies of how the black female body has historically been a contested site of meaning both within mainstream culture and in the black community, Carla Peterson has argued that depictions of African American womanhood have often "vacillat[ed] between the poles of sentimental normalization and the flaunting of eccentricity" (xv). In the contradictory images of black women--respectable middle-class true women and hysterical unstable lovers--in the weekly black press, Harlem women would have internalized the contradictory "vacillations" of black female identity and equally have assimilated a message about their own "eccentric" emotional lives. (3)
The story of the Great Migration, or the movement of over one million Southern African Americans to Northern cities such as New York between 1916 and 1930, has been repeatedly studied in terms of the pushes and pulls that caused this massive relocation. (4) In Farewell--We're Good and Gone: The Great Black Migration, Carole Marks points out, in contrast, that most histories of the black American experience have had a "male theme" (45). In the "domestic violence" stories in the weekly black press, we get a small glimpse, however, of the hidden history surrounding the specific conditions, problems, dislocations, and dreams of black women during the Migration. While most migrant males were attracted, especially in the early period before 1910, to cities such as Pittsburgh and Detroit that offered industrial jobs closed to women, single young black women tended to seek out cities that offered employment possibilities besides domestic service. Thus, in cities with more varied employment for women, such as New York City, there arose an imbalance between the sexes such that there were 124 black women for every 100 black men, with 30 percent of these women lodging or living alone (Jones 183). (5) Such a shortage of men for a large population of single women would have prompted some of the possessiveness and rivalry reported by the community newspapers as a defining characteristic of the "hysterical" black woman.
In comparison to white "ethnic" women, moreover, as Jacqueline Jones observes in Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, black women tended to continue to work after marriage, and contributed a greater portion to the family income than their immigrant sisters. Although only 10 percent of foreign-born married women worked outside the home in 1920, 60 percent of black women (even those over 45) still acted as a principal wage earner in support of their families. Although such statistics are not hard to account for, since black men were locked into low-paying industrial jobs with little hope for advancement, or limited to service jobs as waiters, porters, and elevator men, the great percentage of black women could never hope to realize the ideal "modern" womanhood depicted in the "Clubs, Sororities, Beauty, Health" section of the black press. Because of the high cost of rent and the housing shortage, moreover, Harlem's black families tended to be less nuclear than their ethnic counterparts. Many women took in boarders to ease the family's financial burden and thus added psychological and sexual tensions to their households.
Yet, as a result of this increased share of the family's financial support, Harlem women frequently exercised a greater control over the household. While Virginia Woolf argues that women need a room of their own to achieve selfhood, black women in Harlem were often the ones renting the room and running the boarding houses that provided for the family. Such female control and even ownership over property, as the stories on domestic violence testify, elicited its own concomitant panic in the Harlem community. On December 17 and 24, 1927, for example, the New York Age ran warnings highlighted in boldly colored borders addressed, as they repeatedly noted, "To Women Who Have Rooms to Rent to Save Them from Being Framed by Officers." In these stories, offset from the rest of the week's news, the Age reported how police officers were posing as potential room renters to identify houses owned by women and then later raiding them under the pretense that the women were prostitutes. In many of the domestic violence stories it is not only the woman's physical and emotional integrity which is being challenged, but her control--as the primary wage earner--of the "room." As the subtitle of the March 7, 1928, feature in the Amsterdam News succinctly summarizes: "Jealousy Caused Near Tragedy When Repulsed Downtown Lover Returns: Woman Had Put Him Out of Her Apartment" (my italics). As the story relates, the man struck out in violence against his partner when she told him "he was no good.... And to get out." While one of the most salient features of the tabloid domestic violence stories is their omission of a detailed, sociologically based contextual analysis of the causes or conditions that might have prompted these alleged crimes of passion, domestic violence, as Audrey Mullender points out (40), often arises out of power struggles in which the individuals are contesting real material resources, rights, and benefits. Behind the weeklies' tabloid-style accounts of domestic violence lies an only intimated story of discrimination in employment and the nascent rise of female-headed households that caused men to feel their masculinity assaulted.
Before mapping out the specific codes of these narratives of domestic violence, I want finally to note how this discourse on gender violence represents a shift from earlier beliefs, particularly within the dominant society (Donat and D'Emilio). Nineteenth-century Americans tended to perceive the wife batterer and his victim in moral (as opposed to psychological or legal) terms, as someone who had broken his patriarchal responsibility to his family and lost the self-control and judgment necessary to the middle-class male character. Since rape and spousal abuse were seen as problems between individuals and not connected with one's experience as a gendered, raced, or classed subject, battered or raped women were often viewed as fallen women, or damaged property. While beginning in the 1870s Societies to Protect Children from Cruelty (SPCCs) started to extend their concern to battered wives, they began with a model of the perpetrator of domestic violence as a flawed moral character or as a tragic figure of intemperance (Hatten 122). Amidst the Progressive era reforms of the early twentieth century, however, most major cities began to establish courts of domestic relations headed by case workers who sought to decriminalize family violence and to offer a curative rather than a moralistic or punitive approach. (6) With the increasing influence of psychoanalysis, these therapeutic interpretations of abuse in the 1920s and '30s, as Elizabeth Peck argues, started to take a "more sustained inquiry into the victim's complicity in causing abuse" (146). Although the therapeutic approach to family violence no longer classified battered or raped wives as fallen women, they increasingly looked at what they saw as the natural psychology and sexuality of men and women in ways that often re-established old stereotypes that attributed abuse to the sexual, biological, and psychological problems of women. Therapeutic case workers frequently suspected the victims of abuse of being masochists, lying hysterics, or nagging shrews. While the black popular press did not employ a complicated psychological grammar, these news stories tended as well to displace the causes of domestic violence from the sociological to the psychological, and, by doing so, helped to constitute emergent models of modern female psychology for the black community.
While certainly the scandalous stories of domestic violence in the New York Age and Amsterdam News lacked the diagnostic complexity of clinical understandings of "wife battering," they too, I would argue, tried to "normalize" perpetrators and victims within a rudimentary psychological grammar. While most women who committed some kind of "domestic violence" were not condemned as moral transgressors against middle-class norms of "true womanhood," (7) they were now seen as unstable women who had "lost control" (most often due to problems within their own nature). Almost uniformly the sole explanation given for the woman's resort to violence was the single psychological motive of jealousy. Such individualist explanations of abuse were, of course, on the one hand, victim-blaming, but in fact the weeklies" stories often invoked the universalist language of great classical tragedy (such as Shakespeare's Othello) to ennoble the woman who let her passions for her man overpower her reason. As the Amsterdam News announced in the lead paragraph of its front-page story of November 28, 1928, "Jealousy Goaded Wife Stabs Rival to Death in a Row": "Jealousy, the green-eyed monster, claimed another victim Monday morning in the stabbing to death of Maud Gary, 35, 305 West 138th Street." In its account, the News states no other motive and seeks to provide no additional background. It is enough to label this violent outburst another illustration of the "natural" uncontrollable jealousy of black women.
I want now to look at a couple of the feature stories from the Amsterdam News to enumerate the specific codes of these narratives of domestic violence. None of these stories, as is evident from an initial glance at their brief length, is particularly meticulous in detail or rich in analysis. They tend to give only an attention-grabbing, horrific description of the crime, followed by the bare bones of the romantic plot, and then, at times, an occasional comment from friends or neighbors (hardly extending beyond four or five paragraphs). But within this succinctness, I would argue, are telling narrative features and symptomatic omissions. In "Jealous Wife Slays Husband; Gives Self Up," which ran in the September 28, 1927, weekly edition of the Amsterdam News, we see the characteristic elements of the "domestic violence" story. Throughout the article there is no mention of stress factors (economic discrimination, poverty, etc.) that might have contributed to the tension within the household beyond the initial comment on the Johnsons' basement apartment, which signals their failure to achieve the bourgeois ideal represented in the society pages. Instead, the article focuses on Nancy Johnson's jealousy and on her hysterical, emotional temperament. The article suggests she had no reason to presume her husband was "overfriendly" with the neighbor Mrs. Woodson, and it was only her unhappiness at unsuccessfully fulfilling her own domestic role that caused her to stab her husband with a "potato knife." After wounding her husband (allegedly accidentally), moreover, we are told that she was "hysterical with grief and did not leave the apartment." Here is the representation of the black woman's body as uncontrollably passionate, unbalanced, and possessive. In this choreography of embodiment, she loves her man too much and loses all restraint when he forsakes her. Toward the end of the article we see as well the public nature of this apparently private, domestic quarrel as the "crowd that gathered in the front of the house" had to be controlled. Although the courts might have declared wife battering a private matter protected by a man's right to be "king of his castle," the community saw these insubordinate women as a spectacle for public lynching and reproach. In publishing constantly these stories of domestic violence, the Amsterdam News reminded women first that they needed to keep their place, but second that they were defined by the "abnormal normality" of hysterical jealousy.
We can see the same authoring of the love-obsessed female body in a similar story that ran in the Amsterdam News the following year. In two-inch-high bold letters underneath the masthead on February 22, 1928, the News again broadcast the grisly headline: "Woman Stabs Man to Death with His Knife After Party; Held by Police When She Went to Ask About Him." As in most of the domestic violence stories, the substance of the article consists of only six brief paragraphs, and does not allow the reader to understand or empathize with the individual details of the couple's lives. The couple are clearly meant to be shorthand types in an overly familiar story. While the anonymous News attributes the immediate motives for Dorothy Drake's stabbing of her lover George Logan as his drunken assault on her during a card party, we are repeatedly reminded, both within the headlines and the article, that Miss Drake (as the representative woman) feels an hysterical, possessive love for her boyfriend. Indeed what strikes the tabloid as "newsworthy" is less the crime than Miss Drake's need to be at the bedside of her lover despite her arrest. Although the Amsterdam News's story seems mere boilerplate theatrics, I would argue that what is occurring is (as Foucault has argued) a significant "transformation of meaning' in which conditions that might experientially be considered constraining, limiting, and (we could add) murderous to women--their dependency and total self-fulfillment through their man--are reinterpreted as paradoxically "life-giving," as a sign of the woman's highest emotional nature (Foucault 37). In her hysteria, in her fighting for her man, the new urban black woman realizes her highest, truest self. The jealous wife's obsessive pursuit is symptomatic of what the Amsterdam News would imply is the text of all black femininity: a violent self-denial, instead of self-fulfillment.
In contrast to the Amsterdam News's almost weekly tabloid exploitation of the domestic violence story, the New York Age seems soberly informative. Rarely did it carry the same headline stories as the News, yet it was not (as I have already indicated) unconcerned with running its own true domestic crime stories to pander to the current interest. While offering sensational stories less frequently (probably about once a month on average), it nonetheless circulated the same narrative meant to naturalize the "jealous, and hysterical," black female body. In a March 31, 1928, feature story, the New York Age included a headline proclaiming "Woman Murders Sweetheart in Jealous Anger," with the subscript "Upbraids Him about Girl And Thrusts Nail File to His Heart." As in the News's accounts, the Age reported that the quarrel started over "his going to see another girl" and furthermore emphasized the woman's hysterical remorse at killing her lover by declaring that it was her hysterical screams that brought the police to the scene of the crime, when she promptly turned herself in. While it would be difficult to judge the veracity of this report (and the community newspapers rarely carried the same story), what is interesting is less the accuracy of these reports than their effect--their mirroring of a black female subject who would have seen her interiority inscribed within a constant barrage of images of uncontrollable jealousy.
We can see the pervasiveness of this hysterical embodiment of black femininity not only in the popular community newspaper but also key fictional works of the Harlem Renaissance such as Claude McKay's Home to Harlem (1928). As critics have frequently noted, Home to Harlem is often a misogynistic text in which the main character Jake journeys to discover his masculinity by subordinating women (Carby 749). After having gone AWOL in Brest in protest against the indignities experienced by black soldiers relegated to manual labor, Jake returns to Harlem where he meets a "tantalizing brown" named Felice who restores his sense of manhood by selflessly returning the money he has lavished on her. Over the course of the rest of the novel, what little plot the novel has centers on Jake's search to find once again his missing "Felice," the happiness and manhood that come from a woman who only lives for her man. Temporarily Jake finds such "happiness" when he visits the Congo, "where girls coming from the South to try their future in New York always reached ... first" (30), and he meets Rose, who tells Jake that" "I don't care what you do while you is mah man' " (40). Like Rose, all the women in McKay's novel as Susy remarks, feel that they" 'were born foh love'" (85). That is the" 'gospel trute.'"
Throughout the novel, however, this obsession of women for "mah man" is balanced by McKay's and Jake's anxiety that women have become a "dominant force" in the Harlem community. As the ones who pay the rent and even buy the clothes for their sweetback men, the women, Jake muses, "were so realistic and straightgoing. They were the real controlling force of life" (70). But while McKay expresses through Jake a constant anxiety that women were exercising too much of the power on the homefront, if not in the public arena, he eases his panic by invoking the same image of the hysterical, jealous female body that we could see on the pages of the Amsterdam News. In the first part of the novel, for example, McKay describes the relationship between the veteran Jake and Rose, the nightclub performer who lavishes money and other gifts on him. Despite Jake's "good loving," Rose, we are told, is unhappy because "she had wanted [Jake] to live in the usual sweet way, to be brutal and beat her up a little, and take away her money from her" (113). When Jake does finally give Rose "two savage slaps," she confides to her girlfriend Gertie that she feels for the first time really happy, for she has felt her man's "'real strength'" (117). In Home to Harlem we are given a painfully literal inscription of the discourse of domestic violence that circulated in popular forums such as the Amsterdam News and New York Age. But we also see the construction of a black female body that finds its highest fulfillment not in historically white feminine virtues (purity, chastity, or piety), but in a love-obsessed hysteria. In limiting the possibilities of black female embodiment, McKay restores, as Rose's words indicate, the man's "real strength." Thus, the embodiment of a particular style of black femininity in the Harlem Renaissance cannot be separated from the consolidation of a new performance of masculinity. While, as Robert Staples and Richard Majors have argued, the cool pose of urban men acts in part as a secondary or stylistic form of compensation in the absence of real material status and power in a racist society and often involves the suppression of women and gay black men (9, 81), this suppression of women involves not just direct physical abuse, but also another kind of domestic violence--one that centers around the mediation of a particular kind of feminine desire. As bell hooks has written in "Seduced by Violence No More," women within a rape culture have been taught to "respond erotically to male behavior that has already been coded as masculine within the sexist framework" (355). As the stories of domestic violence within Harlem culture informed their readers, women not only want a man who can take charge; they also should find male domination the object of their erotic obsession as well as psychological validation.
the sense of no ending
In its review of Nella Larsen's 1929 novel Passing, the New York Times praised the novel for its realistic presentation of "feminine psychology" (14). Even astute recent critics such as Thadious Davis have continued to single out Larsen's reading in modern psychologists such as Sigmund Freud or Otto Rank as the basis for the novel's merit (Davis 310). But such encomia for Larsen's attention to the subtleties of psychological conflict ignore the particular cultural inscriptions of the black female body and its norms of hysterical affectivity within the popular discourse of Harlem, and thus overlook Larsen's conscious and often unconscious struggle against the rules and regulations for a "natural" black femininity.
Questions about gender in the novel are not seen as inextricably connected to narratives produced about the black female body within the local discourse of Harlem, but only in generalized ways to Eurocentric images of black otherness. This is, as I have been suggesting, one of the shortcomings in the current study of African American literature that can tend to ignore the relation of its "great works" to the "domestic" and popular discourses produced within the community itself, as opposed to the "high" folk art of African retentions or mainstream resignifications. As Michael Bennett and Vanessa D. Dickerson note in the introduction to their collection of essays on the black female body, traditional literary and cultural studies criticism has tended to focus on how black women have resisted prevailing stereotypes in the dominant Anglo-European culture, while giving relative inattention to African American women's self-representations of their own bodies in relation to local definitions within the African American community (5). By ignoring Larsen's complex relation to the representation of the "disordered jealous" female body, we may misunderstand why, as the New York Times reviewer wrote, the novel has an "utterly unconvincing close" (14). (8)
In the novel's veering away from the theme of racial passing enunciated in the early sections to introduce the "theme of jealousy," the book, according to Charles Larson, reflects in fictionalized autobiography Larsen's own discovery during the writing of Passing that her husband, the physicist Elmer Imes, was having an affair with another woman, who was white (xvii). While Corinne Blackmer points out the danger of conflating Larsen with her fictional character Irene Redfield (107), I do not think that we need to assume a direct correspondence between Larsen's exact marital difficulties and Irene's to speculate that Larsen would have felt herself in an uncomfortable kinship with the many women she read about daily in the New York Age and Amsterdam News during the time she was writing the novel. In what follows I want to argue that the tabloid jealous wife became a radically conflicted symbol for Larsen, a figure whose sexual and emotional excess would allow her access to what lay outside a dominant model of middleclass African American womanhood. Yet, such an identification with the tabloid's jealous, hysterical woman, Larsen sensed, would have confined her in an equally stultifying (and not just embarrassing) role, for it empowered her to speak only as the woman victimized by her man. The problem for Larsen in Passing was how to code a transgressive, undocile black female body without re-inscribing it within, without its partaking of, the equally tyrannical subjectivity of the tabloid's jealous "woman with knives." To claim a space for the black woman to speak through the "monstrous" images of the tabloids would finally only reinforce a false misogynistic consciousness circulated within the Harlem Renaissance.
Passing is a novel, it has frequently been noted, built around the conflict between two practices of femininity, practices represented by the contrasting characters of Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. With her "having ways" (182), Clare stands for the aggressive, self-seeking, and sexual traits that deviate from Irene's bourgeois feminine norms. But this tendency to see Clare as the displacement of the desires split off from the dominant model of middle-class African American true womanhood can oversimplify the complexity of Larsen's struggle to bring the black female body into signification. It can ignore other mediated models of female identity that stand outside a simple crossing or passing over the binary opposition between "true" and "false" female identity. What is falling apart for Irene in the last section of the novel is not simply her marriage, but her imagining of her own identity and her understanding of her own psychology. If Clare Kendry has "no life" or "no motivation" in this last section (as critics have lamented) this attentuation of personal characteristics arises from Larsen's search for another figure that can allow her to express what cannot be spoken within her middle-class identity. The tabloid figure of the "women with knives" resurfaces, I would argue, as the subtextual discourse within Passing that allows Larsen to express what bourgeois respectability forbade.
There are numerous examples in the last section of the novel of the ways in which Larsen absorbs the popular discourse on domestic violence with its figuration of the hysterical, jealous female body. Although it might be argued that jealousy has been a universal theme in Western European and even African American literature, Larsen's particular structuring of Irene's feelings discloses the popular press's mediated forms of feminine affectivity. As soon as Irene has an epiphany that her husband Brian might be having an affair with Clare, for example, Larsen writes that she had an uncontrollable fit of jealousy. It is significant that Larsen's representation of Irene's emotional response underscores its hysterical configuration: She is a woman who is "out of control." Suspecting her husband's infidelity during the Freelands' dinner party, a thought bursts forth in Irene which she "trie[s] to drive away. If Clare should die! Then--Oh it was vile! To think, yes to wish that! She felt faint, and sick. But the thought stayed with her. She could not get rid of it" (261). Although Irene had prided herself on her own proper sense of restraint and self-mastery, she becomes the embodiment of the jealous woman in the domestic violence headlines. In a similar scene, when Irene learns that Brian had invited Clare to the Freelands' party without consulting her, Irene, we are told,
cried out ... and then stopped, amazed at the fierce anger that had blazed up in her.... Her voice, she realized, had gone queer. But she had an instinctive feeling that it hadn't been the whole cause of his attitude. And that little straightening motion of his shoulders. Hadn't it been like that of a man drawing himself up to receive a blow. Her fright was like a scarlet spear of terror leaping at her heart. (249)
Once again, as we saw in McKay's Home to Harlem, we have an all-too-literal understood reference to domestic violence, for what Larsen emphasizes is not Irene's jealous behavior, but her shock that she could have gone so "queer," that she could have acted as the woman out of control.
Although Larsen may have tried to ignore her own marital crisis about her husband's infidelity during the writing of Passing, as we see in the shift in the plot to Irene's suspicions about Brian's relation to Clare, Larsen sublimated her fears in her art. In this symbolic substitution of Irene's story for her own untold and repressed story, Larsen, I would argue, was both lured by and repulsed from the "queer" stories of women out of control within the Amsterdam News's and New York Age's weekly accounts of domestic violence. Larsen divulges for us in Irene's story her own "dangerous identification" with the "other" women--the hysterical jealous black women who did not achieve the ideals of bourgeois marriage. Such an identification allowed Larsen, allowed Irene, a momentary release from the rules and regulations of middle-class femininity, but it also brought her close to another equally problematic story about the black woman's body. The fear about the loss of her "secure" middle-class identity into the image of the woman who loves too much with her uncontrollable passions and possessive investment in her husband can be seen in Larsen's transcription of Irene's thoughts as she looks into her mirror in preparation for the Freelands' party:
For a long minute she sat in strained stiffness. The face in the mirror vanished from her sight, blotted out by this "thing" which had so suddenly flashed across her groping mind. Impossible for her to put it immediately into words or give it outline, for prompted by some impulse of self-protection, she recoiled from exact expression. (250)
Larsen's ambivalent language carries a weight of unconscious meaning in this passage. Continually Irene will not name her emotional outbursts as "jealousy" (or any other desire or feeling). Instead she always names them as the "thing" that seizes her uncontrollably and erases (literally here "blots out") her self-authorized image of herself as a respectable woman "adher[ing] to her own class and kind" (195). Looking into the mirror, Irene will not allow a clear diagnosis of herself because she wants, as she says, "self-protection'--protection from the humiliating, embarrassing acknowledgment that she has failed to achieve bourgeois normativity, and that she is just another hysterical, jealous black woman whose emotions are out of control. In this description of both Irene's embodiment and denial of "jealousy," Larsen discloses her own inner division: She like Irene both performs and yet refuses to name the "thing" she is feeling. In the later half of Larsen's novel, Irene does not, as critics have most often noted, simply fear Irene as the tabooed parts of herself denied within norms of middle-class femininity and displaced onto the "passer" (Brody 1055). She fears as well that part of herself that approximates too closely the hysterical embodiment of black femininity in the tabloid press. While Larsen dreams of the women with knives as a model of femininity resistant to male control (after all, she fights back), she also fears that this woman's very deviance "normalizes" her within society's construction of heterosexual relations.
By juxtaposing Larsen's novel with the New York Age's and Amsterdam News's discourse on domestic violence, we can see another buried referent to much that seems unsaid in Irene Redfield's story. Clare's "having ways" are not the only qualities that seem radically other to Irene's constitution of her self within norms of middle-class propriety. Just as threatening to Irene's perception of herself is the figure of the "woman with knives" registered weekly in the community newspapers' gutter journalism. In contrast to Clare, this jealous woman has no sense apart from her hysterical investment in her man. As a result of Clare's invasion of her secure world of husband, home, and family, Irene is not only displaced from her bourgeois ideal, but also, as importantly, from the narrative of her own identity. In the scene of Irene before the mirror, Larsen shows that she (Irene, Larsen) has become a split subject, someone who experiences herself as both the "lady-like I" she has always known and as some outside object or imagined "other self"--which is within her very self--this "thing." If Larsen's Passing becomes so "inchoate" in the last section, I would argue, it is because Larsen records for us Irene's (her own) moment of "trauma"--a trauma that, as Cathy Caruth has argued (153), expressed itself in the fixed repetition of an idea that can not yet be expressed into a narrative coherence that would allow her to make sense of her experience. What we see instead is Irene's psychological schism that remains wordless, and ineffable. In trying to find some way to comprehend her own experience, Larsen turned to the mass-produced stories about hysterical jealous wives in the popular Harlem press, but she could not finally identify herself with this embodiment of black femininity. In demanding an explanation of his wife's behavior, Brian remarks, as if repeating a familiar sexist joke, "'Might a mere man ask, why? Or is the reason so subtly feminine that it wouldn't be understood by him?' " (247). But Irene, I would argue, could not understand as well her own feelings, could not, even as she found herself implicated within the overly familiar narratives of the hysterical, jealous wife, fit herself within these narratives that were to make her own body "intelligible." Likewise, Larsen could both write about another story of possible domestic violence, and yet not write about it, ultimately unable to naturalize the black woman's body within these cultural narratives. Larsen's resistance to the dominant codes of black femininity are finally witnessed in the novel's narrative undoing, its failure to write an ending, her rebellion and subversive protest enacted in the refusal to name the black woman's body within the expected narrative of domestic violence that her Harlem readers, based on the media's sensational accounts, would have come to expect.
Nella Larsen's novel, I would want finally to say, is a novel built around a deliberate strategy of open-ended suspense. Frequently commentators have noted that Larsen leaves the novel's ending indeterminate: She never, that is to say, makes clear (clarifies) whether Clare commits suicide or whether Irene pushes her out the Freelands' window in a fit of jealousy. However, this assessment of Larsen's lack of narrative closure fails to take into account that Larsen's readers would have been well trained to read the clues at the end: as one more example of the hysterical black woman's domestic violence. In denying her readers, however, this expected answer (beyond the strange man's ironic pronouncement that Clare's death was "by misadventure"), Larsen leaves unresolved as well the text of black femininity. She opens it back up to a complexity, fluidity, and illegibility that would have been flattened and naturalized as typical "loss of control." That Irene herself is unsure of whether she is guilty of a crime of passion further indicates the undoing of her own personal narrative and security when she lost her self-understanding as middleclass society wife. What Larsen leaves us with is an openness that allows the reader to write beyond the already prescribed conventional endings. That she herself did not yet know what it would mean for black women to write from their own bodies and experience and to tell their own stories, I think is clear. But she invites them in the novel's last line, to go back up to the Freelands and "have another look at the window."
re-making the record
In her confession in the final chapter of Jazz, Morrison's narrator admits that she misjudged how the story would end. Although in her opening remarks the narrator had adumbrated that someone would be "shot" again (as Joe had slain Dorcas ), she acknowledges that
I missed it altogether. I was sure one would kill the other. I waited for it so I could describe it. I was so sure it would happen. That the past was an abused record with no choice but to repeat itself at the crack and no power on earth could lift the arm that held the needle. (220)
In comments such as these, Morrison in Jazz offers narratological experimentations that blur the distinction between omniscient and unreliable limited points of view such that we see the "cracks" in any history's objective record (Rodrigues 261). But in looking at Morrison's Jazz we have failed, I think, to account fully for how she is re-making the record of the past. While commentators have frequently noted that her novel talks back to key authors of the "American" (read 'white') literary canon from Faulkner to Fitzgerald, we have not asked how she might be "signifying" on the movement-defining texts of the Harlem Renaissance. In using the term signifying, I am of course referring to Henry Louis Gates's important study of the way African American writers often offer an ironic reversal of conventional or standard white language and narrative forms to give them an oppositional, and more racially empowering, meaning. But in Jazz Morrison also innovates and plays variations upon the black-authored male themes of the Harlem Renaissance, especially I would argue the era's construction of Harlem women. The reason that the narrator would have expected another gun to go off is by now I hope clear: This is precisely the tragic drama (as we saw in Larsen's Passing) the casual reader of the weekly black press's stories of domestic violence would have seen foretold.
In writing Jazz, Morrison has remarked in interviews, she was inspired by a 1928 photograph in James Van der Zee's Harlem Book of the Dead of a young woman in a coffin who had refused to name the lover who had shot her and had likewise refused to ask for medical attention or summon the police so that her lover could escape. As Morrison told Gloria Naylor, this photo tells the story of a "woman [who] loved something other than herself so much. She had placed all of the value of her life in something outside herself" (207). Here Morrison associates the Van der Zee photograph with the embodiment of black female subjectivity circulated, as we have seen, within the headlines about domestic violence. In Jazz, Morrison thus seeks to interrupt the re-cording of this archetypal record for black women. Morrison's Dorcas is no simple repetition of the love-obsessed black woman circulated in the New York Age and Amsterdam News. Although Dorcas refuses to speak Joe's name, she does not make a "masochistic" act of self-sacrifice that shows she loves him more than herself. Instead she protects Joe because he is the one man, she suddenly realizes, who gave her herself. Although prior to her shooting, Dorcas hoped to spite Joe and to show him she now only wants to please Acton, the shiek who will make her the envy of Seventh Avenue, she realizes that her anger toward Joe results from her fear and uncertainty in being allowed to "make" herself: "He [Joe] didn't even care what I looked like. I could be anything, do anything--and it pleased him. Something about that made me mad" (190). In a recurring trope, Dorcas, moreover, says that Joe gave her "the stick of the world," and it is because of this gift of the "stick" (this phallic power over the symbolic order of representations) that Dorcas informs her friend Felice that she refrains from accusing Joe of her death: "They need me to say his name so they can go after him.... I know his name but Mama won't tell. The world rocked from a stick beneath my hand, Felice" (193). In this silence that repudiates recrimination Dorcas finds ironically a subjectivity, for she knows that what she says will control the truth of the matter, of the record of history. In contrast to the woman in the Van der Zee photograph, Morrison's Dorcas consciously shapes the way the "story" will be told about her and forgives the man who had given his "Mama" the power of cultural "re-production."
If Morrison in Jazz thus links Dorcas with a familiar image of black female identity that both challenges and reinforces the idea of the abnormal normal hysteric, she attempts to do more than replace one image of femininity with another. She wants to create a revisionist historical novel that will then become a lens for reading backwards into the distorted system of gender codes in the Harlem Renaissance. Morrison particularly asks her informed reader to play improvisations on two Harlem Renaissance standards, Claude McKay's Home to Harlem and Nella Larsen's Passing. I want in the last part of my essay finally to look at her particular mastery and deformation (to borrow Houston Baker's famous phrase ) of McKay's Home to Harlem. By naming her salvific character "Felice," after the elusive feminine ideal who brings an end to Jake's peregrinations in Home to Harlem, Morrison attempts to re-name the happiness (felicity) that will bring her characters peace. This intertextual reference Morrison underscores by having her Felice visit the Traces in order to retrieve her mother's ring. Just as, at the end of McKay's Home to Harlem, Felice returns to her former lover's apartment to fetch her "good luck necklace," Morrison's Felice attempts to recover what she feels she lacks for her happiness. But while McKay's Felice needs a necklace that symbolizes her superstition and vanity, Morrison's Felice seeks a ring that is her mother's inheritance and a sign of female resistance, for she stole the ring to take revenge upon a jewelry store that made her feel small. Any attempt then to re-make the record of the past that will bring contentment to the Harlem community must begin with a knowledge, Morrison implies, of our mothers' defiance.
In Morrison's Jazz, Felice is clearly a different kind of woman than McKay,s narcissistic image of male wish fulfillment. To her mother's surprise, Felice announces that, before she finds a man, "she wants a job first. Make my own money" (214). But while Felice represents a different kind of black woman than her hysterical fictional "foremothers," she stands, as well, for a different kind of storytelling, a different kind of space for black women and men that is not about finding some single "truer" identity but about the freedom to work together to build new signs of femininity and masculinity. At first glance Morrison's novel may seem to repeat, without variation, the master narrative of the male-authored Harlem Renaissance (Home to Harlem). When Felice recounts for Joe Trace Dorcas's death during dinner, she seems to offer the expected domestic violence story that will restore to this male New Negro his priority and his power. In a jazz-age variation of Marlow's final words to Kurtz's beloved in the Heart of Darkness, Felice tells Joe that Dorcas's last thoughts were of him. If McKay's novel told the story of a wounded veteran whose journey back to manhood ends when he finds the woman of selfless subordination, Morrison too seems to allow Joe to recoup his masculinity within a compatible patriarchal norm. Yet Felice heals Joe not by offering a saving lie, but, as Joe had done for Dorcas, allowing him the freedom to find a representation of the past out of which he can make a meaningful whole.
In Toni Morrison's Jazz, the "record" of domestic violence can be transformed only when both men and women have the power of words, have the "stick in the hand" so that they can re-negotiate together a new, more caring form of connective relations. I want to look closely at the story that Felice tells Joe, for I think that it shows the way that Morrison attempts to represent Felice as a resistant woman without reducing her to either a "woman with knives" who will strike out against Joe or an autonomous individual who forgets her responsibility and protection to others in the community. When Felice first talks with Joe, we need to remember, she pronounces straightforwardly that Dorcas "was ugly inside and out." Only after he fails to laugh at her indifference to falling in love does Felice decide to confess to Joe: "He didn't laugh at me, so I said, 'I didn't tell you everything.'" Her statement to Joe, moreover, is one that we need to recognize is deliberately ambiguous and indeterminate. Felice tells Joe that Dorcas said, "There's only one apple.... Just one. Tell Joe" (213). While we as readers are not told specifically how Joe interprets this message, from his smile we assume that he takes these words as a sign of Dorcas's singular devotion: that he is the only apple of her eye. But Felice's record of Dorcas's final message could as easily mean that there is only "one bad apple" (Joe), and thus her message was a whisper of hatred and unforgiveness. These, however, are only two of the more obvious plays on Dorcas's final words, and I don't think that it requires exhaustive elaboration to demonstrate the extended chain of possible meanings of the statement with its allusions to the Biblical story of the fall, of Joe's life as an itinerant fruit picker, to the rural life lost with urbanization, to dominant myths of American national identity. But it is in the very meaninglessness of this phrase, I would argue, that Morrison upends the domestic violence narrative that I have been tracing.
Yet Morrison's point, I think, is not simply to give us some poststructuralist play of signfiers as a revolutionary negation of romantic illusions that keep women chained to "domestic violence." What her novel emphasizes instead is the shared act of storytelling that Felice's confession initiates. For Morrison the domestic violence narrative must be replaced by the felicity found in the collaborative act of re-creating not just the past, but also re-creating the differences between the sexes and how these differences constitute sexual relations. In an interview about the roots of her novels in African American oral storytelling, Morrison remarked that she borrows "the open-ended quality. Reminds me of the use to which stories are put in the black community. The stories are constantly being retold, constantly being imagined with a framework" (qtd. in Perez-Torres 105). The story of gender is equally, in Jazz, being called to the community for a response--a response that must come through a shared act of storytelling and retold without a reflex toward totality and nominative closure.
In her study of the Gothic tradition, Judith Halberstam has argued that there occurred a shift in the representation of the "monster" within nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. culture. While the "monster" in nineteenth-century culture represented a threat to the boundaries important within the formation of modern subjectivity--inside/outside, female/male, body/mind, native/foreign, black/white--the postmodern monster stands for a "vertiginous excess of meaning" (2), and the fear it incites emanates from the resulting "interpretive mayhem" (27). Although I do not mean to suggest that Morrison in Jazz writes a Gothic novel, her reconfiguration of the "monstrous woman" from the community tabloid news follows the transformation Halberstam observes in the nature of horror. In narrating the story of the deviant woman Dorcas, Felice leaves her meaning (her final words) open, as we have seen, to multiple, often contradictory meanings. Dorcas finally emerges as a new type of outcast, a new kind of loose, wild woman, because she can potentially mean anything and nothing, and it is this "riot of meaning" that makes her so wild. She resembles in many ways Joe's own mother--Wild. By being "uncapturable," even by the master hunter who can but find a trace of her, Wild stands outside the system of representations. She is what cannot be brought into the Harlem Renaissance, and what/who cannot be brought specifically into its previous narrative forms; she is indeed unsayable, because to name her would be to "tame" her, to turn her into something civilized and made up in patriarchal language. Tellingly Joe's mother Wild does not speak, for a male-centered language is, finally, manifestly inadequate to bring into visibility the wild woman's desires, her pleasures, and her practices.
Yet Morrison's Jazz implies that such a wild woman can only survive alone in a state of "nature," not in the urban landscape of Harlem where men and women must come together to reconstitute heterosexual norms. Through Felice's and Joe's narrative coupling (one in which each holds the stick in the hand/the phallus), they attempt to make up the history of Dorcas as they go along, recognizing the unsettling effects of a certain fluidity, but finally building a new story of intimacy and its violence that will transform the overall social structure. This shared act of storytelling is the felicity that will end the domestic violence in the Harlem Renaissance, and this is the felicity that will end as well the domestic violence in the current historical re-telling of Harlem and its history.
I began this essay by referring to the scene between Violet and Alice Manfred (Man-freed--free man--no slave) as a rewriting of Larsen's story of Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry. In this story Alice meets her feared, radical other self, and must recognize a kinship. Yet, if this is a scene about the return of the repressed, the repressed that is restored is not a specific trait of femininity--aggressiveness, sexuality, or freedom (that would be too close to the domestic violence narrative of woman's primitive nature)--but the power of a female authoring of the body. What Alice and Violet learn together is that they can make and unmake their lives. But equally too Felice and Joe, Morrison shows, learn together that they must make and remake the terrain of intimacy which creates and constrains the sexual alignment between men and women, women and women, and men and men. In place of domestic violence, Morrison finally offers us counterfactual scenes of narrative coupling, in which a new story about the "woman with knives" can be told to re-make the record.
(1.) In his 1942 Saturday Review article, which was reprinted the following year in Readers' Digest, Warren Brown, the Director of Negro Relations for the Council of Democracy, brought the tabloid style of many alternative black presses to national attention as part of the integrationist mandate fostered by the Second World War by way of further denouncing the presses' "skewed" race-separatist style.
(2.) For the average Harlem reader, the "Negro newspapers," as Langston Hughes said about those of his own youth, would "help to keep me afraid" (qtd. in Pride 217)--afraid not only of racial violence and lynchings, but also of crime in the city. Yet I think that we might extend Hughes's comment to consider the everyday practices of fear that the paper used to foster codes of gender and sexuality.
(3.) In stories such as the 29 August 1928 feature "Husband Killed His Wife by Asphyxiation When She Refused to Cook His Breakfast," the Amsterdam News disclosed that women experienced something often very different from the lifestyle section's wedded "bliss." On the one hand, the purpose of these repeated stories of wife battering is quite clear: Women who refused their subordination, timidity, and fatalism to patriarchal control might expect a similar reprisal. Such a deterrent warning, underscored by graphic accounts of the woman's mutilated body, taught women to repudiate any deviance from middle-class codes of docile, home-loving subservience.
(4.) While recent histories have highlighted a more complex reading that emphasizes the movement of many rural blacks first to Southern cities, the skilled and literate nature of many of the workers, and their continued ties to their Southern roots, there remains a general agreement about several key causes of the migration: While an oppressive sharecropping system, Jim Crow laws, and lynching, along with natural disasters such as the Mississippi floods and the boll weevil epidemics in the first part of the century, drove blacks to seek the Promised Land of the North, industrial job opportunities, at least with the temporary restriction of immigration during World War I, attracted many Southerners to cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland (Adero vii-ix). Yet, as Charles S. Johnson wrote in the September 1923 Opportunity, we should not see African American migrants simply as victims who had had enough of the South, but as "immigrants" like Italians, Poles, and other groups coming to the U.S. with a "spark of ambition and self-interest" (44). Keeping in mind Johnson's caveat, we should thus add to the familiar history of Southern women's move north to find opportunity, work, and nondiscrimination, their concomitant desire for the novelty, adventure, and chance of the city. In migrating north many may have yearned for a different kind of subjectivity, a subjectivity for which they didn't yet have a language, but which the weekly presses would have helped to shape and define.
(5.) In her study Black Migration: Movement North, 1900-1920, Florette Henri disputes this statistical imbalance as the census bureau's historical undercounting of black moles who often had casual addresses and a distrust of the government (95-96). Whether the "shortage of men" was as numerically great as reported, the perception that there were fewer single men would have affected how many young black women behaved in Harlem.
(6.) While these courts sought to help the victims of spousal abuse, their goal was most often the reconciliation and preservation of the family, which they saw as better for society and for women who couldn't support themselves.
(7.) The tabloids occasionally invoked such a residual moral discourse, but reserved it for those couples of a particular middle-class status. Thus, in the 23 January 1929 account of "Booker T. Jr's Marital Trouble," we get familiar accounts of the bad mother who neglects her children or her spouse to "spend all her times at gay parties": however, most of the articles were not concerned with specific deviant behavior from a middle-class code of true womanhood or domesticity.
(8.) Critics of Nella Larsen's Passing, such as Claudia Tate (144), Deborah McDowell (xv), and Jennifer DeVere Brody (1054), have frequently questioned whether "race" is really at the center of the novel and have tended to highlight issues of gender or sexuality as inextricably tied to the "race question."
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Stephen Knadler is Associate Professor of English at Spelman College. He is author of Fugitive Race: Minority Writers Looking Back at Whiteness (UP of Mississippi, 2002) and has had related articles on whiteness studies published in American Literary History, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and American Literature. He is currently working on a new manuscript entitled The Bodies of Black Folks: Remaking Gender and Sexuality in Harlem Renaissance Culture, one chapter of which has previously appeared in Modern Fiction Studies.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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