When Did Sex Enter Black Literature?
100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: A genre lost its inhibitions as Janie's orgasm riled critics.
Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.
(The Root) -- Amazing Facts About the Negro: No. 23: When did black literature begin to address African-American sexuality?
(The Root) -- Though many will find this difficult to believe today, in a hip-hop era defined in part by graphic depictions of sexuality, sex was a taboo subject throughout much of the history of African-American literature. In fact, black authors, male and female, traditionally were downright prudish, avoiding black sexuality in their texts like the plague. (Cases of rape were an exception, seen as a sign of the brutality and psychosis of white oppression.) Reading classic black literature might lead one to conclude that black people abstained from having sex!
In a famous speech that he delivered at the Chicago convention of the NAACP in June 1926, where he was presenting the coveted Spingarn Medal to the historian Carter G. Woodson (the founder of "Negro History Week" and a fellow Harvard Ph.D. in history), W.E.B. Du Bois addressed the vexing subject of the depiction of sex in African American Literature: " … the young and slowly growing black public still wants its prophets almost equally unfree. We are bound by all sorts of customs that have come down as second-hand soul clothes of white patrons. We are ashamed of sex and we lower our eyes when people will talk of it." And why was this true? Du Bois explained that "Our worst side has been so shamelessly emphasized that we are denying we have or ever had a worst side. In all sorts of ways we are hemmed in and our new young artists have got to fight their way to freedom."
An Early Exception
Du Bois claimed that the sole exception to this tendency to censor sex out of black literature was the work of Jean Toomer, who had published his brilliant experimental novel Cane in 1923. Cane is, to me, the most significant work of literature published in the entire Harlem Renaissance. Among other reasons that I make this judgement is that Toomer, as Du Bois wrote in a 1924 book review in the Crisis magazine, liberated sexuality in the black novel: "The world of black folk will someday rise and point to Jean Toomer as a writer who first dared to emancipate the colored world from the conventions of sex. It is quite impossible for most Americans to realize how straight-laced and conventional thought is within the Negro World, despite the very unconventional acts of the group. Yet this contradiction is true. And Jean Toomer is the first of our writers to hurl his pen across the very face of our sex conventionality."
Du Bois then pointed to the innovative ways that Toomer depicted the sexual lives of his female characters: "Here is Karintha, an innocent prostitute; Becky, a fallen white woman; Carma, a tender Amazon of unbridled desire; Fern, an unconscious wanton; Esther, a woman who looks age and bastardy in the face and flees in despair; Louise [sic], with a white and a black lover; Avey, unfeeling and unmoral; and Doris [sic], the cheap chorus girl. These are his women, painted with a frankness that is going to make his black readers shrink and criticize; and yet they are done with a certain splendid, careless truth." Granted, Toomer was writing about women's sexuality, rather than from a woman's point of view. Still, his female characters were a bold -- indeed, shocking -- departure in African-American literature.
Langston Hughes, Toomer's contemporary, echoed Du Bois' sentiments about Toomer's significance and about the role of black sexuality in literature in his famous essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." Had Toomer been foolish enough to ask his black readers for permission to do what he did, Hughes says, they "would have told [him] not to write Cane. The colored people did not praise it. The white people did not buy it. Most of the colored people who did read Cane hated it." Why? Because "they are afraid of it," afraid that admitting that black people cared about sex would hurt the fight for civil rights by suggesting that they were not respectable -- that they were debauched or impure -- and this would reinforce popular stereotypes of black people as lascivious and wanton.