Pondering the Representation of Black Intimacy
By Gary Schmidgall
Candice Jenkins has an axe to grind, which of course is a good thing: Books without a cutting edge are scarcely worth the bother. In her Private Lives, Proper Relations: Regulating Black Intimacy, just published by the University of Minnesota Press, Jenkins, herself African American, has boldly chosen to interrogate how black sexual and familial intimacy has been presented by black U.S. women novelists of the later 20th century, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison among them.
Her focus, finally, is intraracial, and she shows herself perfectly comfortable broaching the hot-button subjects of black self-definition and self-repression, black sexual and domestic pathology (constructed or real), and the tensions between black nationalism and multiculturalism. Bill Cosby and the elite black "Afristocracy" are soundly chided toward the end of the study.
For Jenkins, a professor of English at Hunter College, the real bête noire (the color pun is irresistible) in African American culture during the previous century is what she has chosen to call the "salvific wish." This wish, Jenkins notes, originated in the late 19th century and was a part of the popular post-Civil War ideology of black uplift of the time. The salvific wish, she says, is the desire felt by "black women (and, to a much lesser extent, black men)" to protect or save the black community "through the embrace of conventional bourgeois propriety in the arenas of sexuality and domesticity."
Dangerously, Jenkins believes, the salvific wish tends to play out in response to racist constructs created by the dominant white culture, most notably the notion of the lascivious, over-sexed Jezebel who drove antebellum slave-owners to lustful distraction or the notion that blacks are unable to "maintain a 'normal' environment of familial intimacy."
The central aim of the salvific wish, Jenkins argues, is respectability, and Private Lives, Proper Relations is dedicated to the proposition that the price paid for such respectability is too high. It means "a self-imposed silence on matters of sexuality" and "shielding desire within silence, or within a mask of protective propriety." Jenkins' project "is about what African-Americans hope to protect, and what they inadvertently but inevitably lose, in the desperate search for entry into the 'civilized world.'" And by "civilized," Jenkins makes very clear, she means the heteronormative, white world.
Because "intimacy in general has continually been understood within black culture itself to be a women's issue," Jenkins devotes her attention entirely to women's novels and short stories. Receiving extended discussion are Nella Larsen's Passing (1929), Ann Petry's The Street (1947), Toni Morrison's Sula (1973) and Paradise (1997), Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982), and Gayl Jones's Eva's Men (1976).
Respectability is just another word for rigidity, and Morrison's Paradise, about an all-black town named Ruby in Oklahoma, is Jenkins' invitation to show how the novelist excavates rigid notions of racial authenticity. The families of Ruby are all "8-rock" black — that being a term for coal from the deepest part of a mine — and were once denied entry into another all-black Oklahoma town; in Ruby, of course, 8-rock rules. "Morrison's novel," Jenkins sums up, "critiques the black nationalist desire for a 'pure,' and purely 'authentic,' form of African American identity."
Paradise leads Jenkins to the bracing assertion that "race in the U. S. has rarely been allowed to function with the same fluidity as it does in Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. ... Instead, the rigid social meaning of blackness has been applied to individuals with appearances that widely vary, a phenomenon largely unique to the U.S."
At the beginning of her thesis-sealing last chapter on Jones's violence-riven Eva's Men, Jenkins quotes with approval this 1961 observation by James Baldwin on the work of a fellow black novelist, Richard Wright: "In most of the novels written until today...there is a great space where sex ought to be; and what usually fills this space is violence." The important feat of Eva's Men, suggests Jenkins, is that "violence and sexual expression are forced to occupy the same narrative space."
Jenkins hastens to note, several times, that one enters the arena of intimacy—in real life or in fiction—at some risk. The picture may not be pretty. Eva Canada goes mad and turns murderess: "Eva's extreme actions ruthlessly expose the unpleasant 'truth' of desire." Desire can turn vicious: "Intimacy itself is a kind of horror because it forces one to accept the painful reality of another individual, and to gain pleasure from that acceptance."
Finally, however, Jenkins votes for risk: "To enter the realm of the sexual, the erotic, is to take a risk, and no amount of silencing, no amount of propriety will erase that risk." She seems genuinely happy that black American writers are proving increasingly willing to imagine and explore intimate and improper relations. She doesn't like the word "regulating" of her subtitle; in fact, in her text she uses the blunter word "policing" in its place.
This argument is extended provocatively by Jenkins in a short epilogue in which she suggests that, in representing sexual and familial intimacy, black culture could do worse than take a page from queer theory — not the page about sexual identity, but the one about nonconformity. (Her chapter on The Color Purple is titled "Queering Black Patriarchy.") "It is this ideological nonconformity that I suggest become the chosen approach to intimacy in African-American culture."
Jenkins is thinking particularly of challenging black premises about heterosexuality and marriage, but her ultimate insight goes beyond mere distinctions of gender, race, or sexual preference: Nonconformity (like intimacy) requires risk, and fully living life requires that risk trump the safety always tantalizingly on offer from the hand of the salvific wisher. The epigraph Jenkins chose for her epilogue, from the black lesbian Shay Youngblood's novel Black Girl in Paris, makes her point:
"Baldwin's a good writer but depressing as hell. I don't ever want to love like that."
"Maybe that was the point," I said.
"To take risks for love, not to be afraid of it."
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