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The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text and Tradition in Black Women's Fiction.

What happens to the marriage convention in novels written by Black women when they are viewed in the context of a people who for generations were denied the "hegemonic truth of legal marriage?" This is the central question that Ann duCille poses in The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text and Tradition in Black Women's Fiction. DuCille argues that the "marriage plot" is an area of Black women's fiction neglected by critics. Her text is at all times engaging and provocative, as she moves through readings of Black women's novels of the late 19th-century to those of the 1940s. In duCille's work, we are challenged to view the tradition of Black women's novels as one which uses marriage, or "coupling," as a literary tool of subversion and protest. Furthermore, duCille challenges us to view this tradition in letters as one which includes many of the texts previously dismissed by critics for their alleged conformity to dominant and oppressive ideologies.

DuCille begins her study with a critical re-reading of William Wells Brown's 19th-century novel Clotel. Far from engaging in what many critics have labeled a "male discourse of desire" concentrated on the "masculinized subject of slavery" that maligns his Black female characters, duCille argues that Brown's text prefigures the outright indictments of marriage to come in the later works by Black women novelists. In doing so she critically re-envisions Brown as an important and foundational literary ancestor of Black women novelists.

From her reading of Clotel, duCille moves to the novels written by Black women in the 1890s. Focusing upon Pauline Hopkins' Contending Forces and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Iola Leroy, duCille describes the period as one of intense political activism on the part of Black women. She asserts that Hopkins and Harper used the marriage plot and the "trope of passionlessness" to highlight race and gender issues. Ultimately, duCille aligns herself with critics Hazel Carby and Claudia Tate in refuting the charge by many critics that these 19th-century texts, with their mulatta heroines, were preoccupied with the dominant, Victorian values of a white readership. In her reading, duCille convincingly establishes that, on the contrary, both Harper and Hopkins advanced in their works a "sophisticated interplay" of gender and race critique, revised "patriarchal standards of female respectability," and ultimately extended to Black women the protection of "idealized femininity." DuCille moves on to examine the 19th-century evangelical narratives of Emma Dunham Kelley and Amelia Johnson. DuCille challenges the common critical opinion that Kelley and Johnson's characters are white, and she argues that even though their texts endorsed marriage as the "ideal relation," that they were not without a critique of the institution. DuCille ends her first section by convincingly establishing that 19th-century Black women novelists celebrated the marriage convention as a "seemingly sexless meeting of like minds and sociopolitical ambitions," a convention their Black women characters used for their own "emancipatory purposes."

DuCille's most provocative chapter is her fourth one, "Blues Notes on Black Sexuality: Sex and Texts of the Twenties and Thirties." The chapter is the bridge linking the first section on 19th-century Black women novels to the section on the early 20th-century novels of Jessie Fauset and Zora Neale Hurston. DuCille characterizes this early 20th-century period as the "second flowering of black women's novels" when the "gradual resexualization of black womanhood" had occurred. In Chapter Four, duCille expounds on her "Hurstonism" concept - that "conspicuous consumption" by critics of Hurston as the initiator of the Black women's literary tradition. DuCille charges that this privileging has led to the exclusion in canonical considerations of many other important works, particularly those of Jessie Fauset, Dorothy West and Nella Larsen. DuCille argues that the blues form, which she calls the "metanym for authentic blackness," is part of the "valorization of the vernacular" which has marginalized these novelists in the canon. Ultimately though, duCille is very nearly ensnared in the blues vernacular she defines as so problematic when she sets out in Chapter Five to find "blues inscriptions" in the novels of Larsen and Fauset. DuCille's solution is to read Larsen's and Fauset's use of clothing in their novels as part of their "bourgeoisie blues" - a "signifying system" that is equivalent to the "woman-proud blues lyric." DuCille does not fully resolve Larsen's and Fauset's positionality to the blues vernacular, and what we are left with is a sense of duCille's ambivalent relationship as a critic of the blues. However, this is a minor flaw in an impressive chapter where duCille critically positions Fauset and Larsen as "transitional figures" whose works form the "bridge between the literary passionlessness of the 1890's and the sexual openness of the modern era."

DuCille ends her study with a reading of Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and Seraph on the Suwanee. In her reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God, duCille aligns herself with critics who view it as Hurston's critique of power relations in marriage, far from a "celebration of heterosexual love." DuCille's reading of Seraph on the Suwanee is the most fascinating in the text. Though Seraph on the Suwanee has long been regarded by critics as Hurston's weakest, most "unfortunate" work, duCille argues that this text contains Hurston's most skillful use of the marriage convention to critique gender oppression, and women's manipulation of the convention for their own ends. By the end of this section, duCille convincingly establishes that while Fauset's, Larsen's, West's, and Hurston's characters might choose the "happy ending" of marriage, these endings were not without their own "subversive politics."

Ultimately, The Coupling Convention demands that we continually expand and self-consciously critique our own conceptualizations of the Black women's literary tradition. Through her readings of texts by Amelia Johnson and Emma Dunham Kelley, as well as through her critical re-readings of texts by Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen, duCille creates "comfortable" spaces for these neglected works and writers, and, in the process, fashions a more expansive canon of Black women novelists - novelists who have historically critiqued the marriage convention.

KAI JACKSON ISSA is a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts, at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. She is currently teaching in the Writing Program at the New School of Social Research.
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Author:Issa, Kai Jackson
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1995
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