Marita Bonner wrote an essay in 1925 entitled “On Being Young–A Woman–And Colored.” Cheryl Wall, author of Women of the Harlem Renaissance, explains that in the essay, “Bonner writes acidly of the endless rounds of parties and cards and poignantly of the metaphorical bars that prevent escape. The price of escape is the loss of respectability, which for the black woman Bonner apostrophizes carries a racial as well as an individual cost.” Wall suggests that “Bonner’s attack on bourgeois vacuity might be considered in the context of another well-known essay,” Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” which criticizes African Americans artists for writing from the context of the “Empty and imitative culture of the black middle class” instead of the vibrant lives of the black lower classes (or “folk”). Novelist Nella Larsen, as biographer George Hutchinson explains, remained isolated for the most part, rather than join the organizations her friend Lillian “Sadie” Alexander frequented and led. Larsen critiqued Harlem women’s society for the false nature of their friendships, yet was buoyed by Alexander’s friendship and Alexander was one of the most prominent figures in the Harlem women’s community.
(According to David Levering Lewis in When Harlem Was in Vogue, Zora Neale Hurston derided this group of middle-class men and women as the “Niggerati”, for their pretension. But Wallace Thurman, a friend of Hurston’s and part of the younger, more daring crowd, denoted his house the “Niggerati Manor”–I need to figure out which group it actually refers to–the “pretentious” bourgeois or the authors of Fire!!!). Carl Van Vechten dismissed the black middle-class as an uninteresting topic to write about because they were too much like the white middle-class.
In the opening chapter of my book, I recreate and analyze the organizational culture that sustained black women in Harlem. In her history of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, Paula Giddings writes that “Black women may be among their freest, their happiest, and, in some ways, their most fulfilled when they are together in their organizations.” How does one reconcile Bonner’s acidic critique with Giddings’ description of freedom? My argument right now is that most women indeed found great solace and meaning in the organizations they participated in, founded, and led (the YWCA, the National Association of College Women, the NAACP Ladies’ Auxiliary, sororities, National Association of Colored Women), as well as being prominent figures in organizations led by men.
|Jessie Fauset by Laura Waring|
But it is troubling that several literate women criticized this community as “vacuous” and that Cheryl Wall would accept that moniker, even while discussing Jessie Fauset, another leader of the bourgeois black community. She describes Fauset as unwilling to remain in new territory, personally as well as artistically, because “the potential risk was too great, as much to the image she reflected as a proper Negro woman as to herself.” Though it might be “too easy to see those instances where Jessie Fauset’s courage failed her,” Wall suggests, “it is important to acknowledge the ways it did not.” Wall reconciles these two contradictory impulses by recognizing that even though “Fauset’s spirit of adventure was circumscribed by the demands of propriety, [and] her freedom of expression was checked by restraint, she was eager to encourage exploration and innovation in others.” I remain unconvinced, however, that Fauset herself was not exceedingly courageous in her roles as traveler, teacher, editor, and author. (Langston Hughes dismissed the literary salons of both Fauset and Alexander as too bourgeois–do we let him define these women for us, rather than seek their definitions of themselves?).
Why is it that so much of the literature on the “politics of respectability” sounds denigrating to my ear? Is it so wrong to attend balls, run fundraisers, and make persistent small attacks on racism? African American authors are certainly not the only Americans to criticize the “vacuity” of bourgeois culture, particularly in the 1920s, but the women I know from my research were nothing close to vacuous.
Karen Jane Ferguson explains why the “politics of respectability” were problematic:
black proponents of respectability asserted their citizenship in opposition to and at the expense of the black ‘masses,’ thus marginalizing the ‘un-respectable’ even further. Identifying themselves as bourgeois missionaries of respectability, black elites claimed moral superiority and sought recognition of their citizenship by placing themselves above and as the natural leaders of what they considered the uncivilized and undeveloped majority of African Americans. Further, their efforts to uplift and liberate other black people would depend on their followers’ adopting respectable behavior as a prerequisite for full citizenship.
I think that this jump to condemnation misses some of the vibrancy that that bourgeois culture had to offer, particularly for the women within it. For some women, it was exciting and affirming to be young and colored and in Harlem, even while they attended to particular modes of dress and expectations of action.
In her original formulation of the idea of the “Politics of respectability,” Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham recognized this nuance. She outlined the promises and perils of the idea:
“On the one hand the politics of respectability rallied poor working-class blacks to the cause of racial self-help, by inspiring them to save, sacrifice, and pool their scant resources for the support of black-owned institutions. Whether through white-imposed segregation or black-preferred separatism, the black community’s support of its middle class surely accounted for the development and growth of black-owned institutions, including those of the Baptist church. On the other hand, the effort to forge a community that would command whites’ respect revealed class tensions among blacks themselves. The zealous efforts of black women’s religious organizations to transform certain behavioral patterns of their people disavowed and opposed the culture of the ‘folk’–the expressive culture of many poor, uneducated, and ‘unassimilated’ black men and women dispersed throughout the rural South or newly huddled in urban centers.
“The Baptist women’s preoccupation with respectability reflected a bourgeois vision that vacillated between an attack on the failure of America to live up to its liberal ideas of equality and justice and an attack on the values and lifestyle of those blacks who transgressed white middle-class propriety. Thus the women’s pronouncements appeared to swing from radical to conservative.”
And here’s the punchline–what I’m trying to explore more of for the 1920s–“From the perspective of the Baptist women and others who espoused the importance of ‘manners and morals,’ the concept of respectability signified self-esteem, racial pride, and something more.” For Higginbotham, the something more was finding common ground with other Americans. For me, it’s finding the meaning women made through their parties, their “musical teas,” and their organizations.