Du Bois concluded his speech by demanding that young black writers of the Harlem Renaissance have the courage to ignore what Evelyn Higginbotham calls “the politics of respectability,” and tackle black sexuality head-on, fully, honestly and imaginatively. Who would have the courage to do so?
Two years later, Nella Larsen in her novel Quicksand created the light-skinned character Helga Crane, who marries a very dark man, the Reverend Pleasant Green, primarily because of the deep sensuality he awakens in her, a “longing for the ecstasy that might lurk,” as the text puts it. Helga marries Reverend Green and enjoys sex with him, until multiple childbirths kill her. So, even for Larsen, fulfilled desire suggested the dangers of sex, not its pleasures, since Helga’s sexuality leads literally to her downfall, her demise.
Until James Baldwin, only Zora Neale Hurston heeded Du Bois’ call for an explicitly full and celebratory representation of black sexuality, and Hurston was the first to do so through a female protagonist, Janie Starks, in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). And she got into serious trouble with her contemporary black male authors for doing so, especially with the great novelist Richard Wright.
In a 1975 essay titled “In the Space Where Sex Should Be” (echoing a phrase that James Baldwin had used about the same subject), Marilyn Nelson Waniek observed that far too many black writers — especially male writers, including Richard Wright — traditionally substituted the figure of white men (as the embodiment of an all-encompassing and all-determining anti-black racism) precisely in the place in their texts where a reader might expect to find the development of healthy sexual relations between black characters. “Many critics have complained of a scarcity of fulfilling heterosexual relationships in novels by Black American authors,” Waniek wrote, and this “would include most of the novels written by black men in this country,” novels that lack “a lasting sexual relationship between the Black protagonist and a woman.”
On the other hand, though Waniek doesn’t say this, in the “underground” black vernacular traditions — such as the blues and jazz, or oral poetry such as “Shine and the Titanic” and “The Signifying Monkey” — black sexuality was always alive and well. But these were the people’s art forms, expressions created by and for the consumption and enjoyment of other “regular” black people hungry to consume images of themselves, and not concerned in the least about middle-class readers and their values, whether white or black. Far too often, the vitality of black vernacular expression didn’t spill over into the written tradition.
With the exception of Hurston, this sad state of affairs remained generally the case in the black novel until the revolution in the representation of black sexuality created after 1970 by black women writers such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Terry McMillan and a host of others, drawing upon the precedent set by Hurston’s bold representation of Janie, and James Baldwin’s controversial depictions of both homo- and hetero-eroticism in his novels of the ’50s and ’60s.