Their Eyes Were Watching God (Harper Perennial Modern Classics)

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. This column was originally published on March 18, 2013.

(The Root) —  Amazing Facts About the Negro: No. 23: When did black literature begin to address African-American sexuality?

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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." 

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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.

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?

Heavy Baggage 

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.

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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.

Heavyweights Spar

Despite Du Bois' charge to his audience that night in 1926, and his and Hughes' praise of Jean Toomer's Cane, the politics of sexuality remained deeply problematic within black literary circles, reaching a boiling point in the heated, vitriolic exchange between Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston in the late '30s, whose root cause, I believe, was Hurston's creation of a black female protagonist who was comfortable with and celebrated her own sensuality, and who insisted on her right to choose her own lovers in spite of the strictures of the black community. In reviews of each other's books, sexual politics met literary politics for the first time in public in all of African-American literary history.

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In an angry and suggestive essay on Hurston's masterpiece, which reads more like an example of playing the dozens than a book review, Wright charged Hurston with pandering to the lurid tastes and fantasies of white males: Hurston's "prose," he says, "is cloaked in the facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley." Wright then accuses Hurston of "voluntarily continu[ing] in the novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, the minstrel technique that makes 'the white folks' laugh." Wright reveals what most bothers him about Hurston's novel: its "sensory sweep," which, he continues, "carries no theme, no message, no thought." Why? Because "her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy [emphasis added]," with the word "satisfy" doing double-duty here as a not-so-veiled reference to Hurston's principal "offense," her celebration of Janie's enjoyment of her own sexuality, which, as we shall see, Wright specifically mentions and insultingly mocks. But first, Hurston's rebuttal.

In self-defense, she gave as good as she got: A year later, in a review of Wright's four inter-related novellas, Uncle Tom's Children, Hurston charged that Wright's novel wasn't concerned with "understanding and sympathy"; rather, it was "a book about hatreds," composed of "stories so grim that the Dismal Swamp of race hatred must be where they live." And the only role of sex in his book, she said, was as a motivation for murder: The "hero gets the white man most Negro men rail against — the white man who possesses a Negro woman. He gets several of them while choosing to die in a hurricane of bullets and fire because his woman has had a white man. There is lavish killing here, perhaps enough to satisfy all male black readers." [Emphasis is mine.]

For good measure, Hurston added that Wright's use of black dialect in his book "is a puzzling thing. One wonders how he arrived at it. Certainly, he does not write by ear unless he is tone deaf!" Make no mistake: This was some high-class signifying and playing the dozens!

A Heroine Unloosed 

So what really lay at the core of this dispute? Wright accused Hurston of using what he called "highly charged language" to titillate white readers, especially white males. (Hurston felt, on the contrary, that it was Wright who pandered to white readers, especially to white males, by writing about black male violence against white racists.) He was deeply troubled that Hurston had created a black female character who not only has healthy sexual fantasies, as we will see, but who also goes through two marriages to black men whom she realizes that she doesn't love, black men who abuse her in one way or another, one of whom she leaves and the other of whom she metaphorically "kills" by disparaging his manhood in public. 

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And as if that weren't offense enough, Jane then ultimately finds an exciting and fulfilling sexual relationship with a man much younger than she, a man who is also much darker and poorer and who is uneducated, but who treats her as an equal, not as an object, teaching her how to play checkers, how to shoot a gun, how to work and, yes, make love for the sheer pleasure of it. Black literature had never seen anything like this: a female character as free, as liberated, as self-determining and as sexual as Jane Crawford.

Richard Wright was appalled. One scene in particular drove Wright crazy, as he admits: when Janie experiences her first orgasm.

"She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid."

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This is, I believe, the first orgasm depicted in the entire history of African-American literature. And if this was not sufficiently offensive to Wright and some of Hurston's other male readers, the structural center of the novel depicts Janie freeing herself from her oppressive second husband, Joe Starks, by playing the dozens on his manhood (or lack of it), angrily calling out his impotency in front of his friends and neighbors in his own store:

"Naw, Ah ain't no young gal no mo' but den Ah ain't no old woman neither. Ah reckon Ah looks mah age too. But Ah'm uh woman every inch of me, and Ah know it. Dat's uh whole lot more'n you kin say. You big-bellies round here and put out a lot of brag, but 'tain't nothin' to it but yo' big voice. Humph!  Talkin' about me lookin' old! When you pull down you' britches, you look lak de change uh life."

To which her husband's friend, Sam Watson shrieks, "Great God from Zion! Y'all really playin' de dozens tuhnight!"  

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Janie's husband, of course, is devastated: "'Wha-whut's dat you said?' Joe challenged, hoping his ears had fooled him. 'You heard her, you ain't blind,' Walter taunted, driving the knife into Joe even more deeply." Devastated, "unmanned," Joe soon dies of a displaced "kidney failure"! 

Not only do Janie's words symbolically kill her second husband, but they seemed to just about kill Richard Wright, too, especially Hurston's lyrical depiction of that orgasm, which Wright singled out to mock: "The romantic Janie, in the highly-charged language of Miss Hurston, longed to be a pear tree in blossom, and have a 'dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace,' " quoting the crucial section of the passage, as if its supposed vulgarity would be self-evident to any sensible reader.

And Wright wasn't the only black male writer who trashed Hurston's novel: Alain Locke and Ralph Ellison denounced it as well, with Ellison dismissing it as merely "the story of a Southern woman's love-life against the background of an all-Negro town into which the casual brutalities of the South seldom intrude." What was up with this?

Passion Subverted 

James Baldwin once said of Wright and his fellow black male writers that "In most of the novels written by Negroes until today (with the exception of Chester Himes' If He Hollers Let Him Go) there is a great space where sex ought to be; and what usually fills this space is violence. This violence, as in so much of Wright's work, is gratuitous and compulsive because the root of the violence is never examined." To what was Baldwin referring in Wright's fiction?

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Wright included three sex scenes in his great novel, Native Son (1940), two of which he allowed to be cut when it was chosen to be the first black Book-of-the-Month Club selection. (These scenes have been fully restored in the Library of America edition of Native Son, superbly edited by Arnold Rampersad.) Each is troublesome in a different way, and none of these scenes even remotely began to fulfill the challenge that Du Bois issued, or speak to the concerns that James Baldwin would later express. In one of the cut scenes, Bigger masturbates in a movie theater ("I'm polishing my night stick," he tells the boy sitting next to him, who is masturbating as well) while watching a newsreel detailing the latest exploits of Mary Dalton, the pretty daughter of his new employer. 

In the second excised passage, Bigger kisses this same Mary as he carries her, blind-drunk, up the stairs to her bedroom, feeling "her body moving strongly" and "the sharp bones of her hips move in a hard and veritable grind." And then, when Mary's blind mother walks into the bedroom, Bigger smothers Mary to death to avoid detection. Not exactly the stuff of romance.

Bigger does have a sexual relationship with his black girlfriend, Bessie, but it, too, is deeply problematic. After Bessie joins him in his hiding place following Mary's murder, Bigger rapes her. And what does he do afterward? He murders her, just as he did Mary. Sex, for Bigger, is inextricably intertwined with what he hates, the system he finds emasculating and castrating, and to which he wishes to do violence. From rape to murder seems like a natural progression for Bigger, fueled as his desire and sexuality are by anger. This is most certainly not what Du Bois was calling for in his 1926 speech.

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At the end of her pioneering essay, Marilyn Nelson Waniek observes that "It is interesting to note that the most completely developed relationships [in the novels of black males] are those between the Black protagonists and their white male friends, who tend to be older than the protagonists. All of the protagonists are finally alone, left to build their own identities out of the division within their psyches and in America. And in the space where sex should be is instead the awful confrontation of Black self with white self, and Black self with white society." 

Fortunately, the representation of both black heterosexuality and homosexuality has been a fundamental part of both the gay and black women's literary movements over the past few decades, so that Du Bois' and Baldwin's concerns have now been addressed. But perhaps this tendency in earlier African-American literature written by men foreshadowed and helps to explain the crisis in black male-female relations that has been such a deeply troubling aspect of contemporary African-American culture.

As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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