- "Is This Really What You Wanted Me To Be?":The Daughter's Disintegration in Jessie Redmon Fauset's There Is Confusion
In 1924, a coalition of literary, political and philanthropic notables old and new, black and white (in other words, those whom Zora Neale Hurston lampooned as the "Niggerati" and the "Negrotarians") gathered one evening at New York's Civic Club for the Opportunity literary awards dinner, the "dress rehearsal" to the Harlem Renaissance (Lewis 90). Officially the publication of Jessie Fauset's first novel, There is Confusion, was the gathering's raison d'être. This, however, turned out to be something less than the truth, for while personalities like W.E.B. DuBois, Horace Liveright, and James Weldon Johnson presented their agendas, Fauset waited. She managed finally a few words, but by evening's end the first corporate articulation of what was supposedly the "New Negro" was no longer "about" her novel-in fact, the evening's dynamics seemed to have made the novel more "about" the gathering. Renaissance heraldry reduced her individual achievement to a party-line cog, and Fauset became "mere background to a major event" (Carby, "Quicksands" 79).
Since then, of course, the Harlem Renaissance has been reconceptualized through the work of literary and cultural historians [End Page 101] as a loosely-bound field of simultaneously operating semiotic systems including (but not limited to) gender, race, sexuality, and, of course, capital. Such work has problematized our understanding of the movement and helped us analyze its coexistence and/or intersection with the Jazz Age, modernism, and other 1920s reifications. This reconceptualization has extended also to such individual artists as Jean Toomer and Langston Hughes, whose works are now deemed complex, multi-leveled texts of importance not only to the Renaissance but also to American literature as a whole.
Strangely, however, this critical phenomenon has stalled at evaluation of Fauset's work, for despite new strategies brought to bear on the works of other authors, critics today assume There is Confusion to be the same thing the Renaissance cadre did that evening in 1924: an unequivocal core statement of New Negro ideology as articulated in Charles S. Johnson's thought and portrayed in Alain Locke's New Negro anthology. This ideology was based upon the belief that through art, African-Americans could prove they were as civilized (or, even more damning, becoming as civilized) as whites. Granted, a gradual and complicated series of shifts in aesthetic, cultural, and political value has turned the normative ideology so valuable to critics in 1924 into a liability 70 years later. At this point, however, I am less interested in the obvious differences in value between the two ends of the critical timeline than I am in the shared fundamental assumption that despite all of its other "challenging concerns" (McDowell 87), There is Confusion firmly upholds and even promotes a largely conservative New Negro agenda dictating that all Renaissance art support one social and aesthetic goal: "that the more intelligent and representative elements of the two race groups [that] have at so many points got quite out of vital touch with one another" (Locke 9) reconcile and see their sameness, rather than their difference, via art. This assumption of supportive conservatism deems Fauset's fiction accommodationist and runs explicitly or implicitly through nearly all Fauset criticism, from that which charges the novel is nothing more than a paean to bourgeois life to that which establishes the book as an important but problematic proto-feminist statement. Unfortunately, this critical fixation upon Fauset's conservative predilections tends to limit the reading strategies with which critics approach the book and thus obscures its complex approach to black female representation and identity.
In this essay, then, I wish to challenge the controlling assumption of Fauset's ideological conservatism and suggest that the novel instituted as the nucleus of the Renaissance's inaugural coalition [End Page 102] actually carries within it competing narratives that destabilize and question the validity of the very enterprise that first honored and appropriated it in 1924. These competing narratives together constitute an intricate negotiation of a black woman's relationship not only to race, gender, class, and sexuality...