- Private Lives, Proper Relations: Regulating Black Intimacy
In the latter half of the twentieth century, a bevy of women writers took to the genre of the novel, narrating the experience of black American life and community in the United States. The outcome of these moments was a literature that reflects the cultural politics of an era steeped in debate about private worlds of African-American families. In effect, these representations are legible as crystallizing United States political phenomena, such as the burgeoning civil rights movement and the efflorescence of dialogues about sexual politics. Relatedly, the literary critic Candice Jenkins recently published a response to the aforesaid period and texts, titled, Private Lives, Proper Relations: Regulating Black Intimacy (2006). Her work is a compelling study of these novels, which include Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), Ann Petry’s The Street (1946), Toni Morrison’s Sula (1973) and Paradise (1998), Gayl Jones’s Eva’s Man (1976), and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982). Jenkins’s work makes sense of these novels by examining how the books’ portrayals of race and desire conform to, or deviate from, the sociopolitical forces that Jenkins dubs as, “the salvific wish” (13). Since Jenkins finesses this notion of the “wish” rather extensively, it is useful to foreground that the salvific wish, or, as she abbreviates it, “the wish,” functions as an offshoot of uplift ideology; furthermore, she explains that, “the content of the salvific wish—a black, largely female, and generally middle-class desire—is a longing to protect or save black women, and black communities generally, from narratives of sexual and familial pathology” (14). Jenkins’s convincing critique of the wish shows that this social desire begins innocuously as an aspiration to moral conduct, but, in due course, it becomes an unattainable standard that polices “black intimate” (16) life in domesticity and circumstances of sexuality.
Private Lives, Proper Relations expounds upon the wish through an intersectional approach of race and sexuality, illustrating how the aforesaid novels’ portrayals problematically oblige women to conform to dominant notions of black respectability. Jenkins contends that such forms of conformity require black women to adhere to “white cultural ideology—in particular, Victorian gender ideals” (29), which are predicated on heteronormativity, racism, and sexism. As Jenkins explains, this conformity is believed to insulate women against the “vulnerability of blackness” (5); that is to say, she shows how one’s catering to the wish is a means to compensate for the vulnerabilities that arise when black intimacies of family and sexuality are repeatedly stigmatized by dominant cultures, such as whites and elites. Jenkins’s analysis of these vulnerabilities, the wish and black intimacy, is cogent because she innovatively elaborates on several strands of scholarship in the larger academic fields of literary and cultural studies. Firstly, Jenkins’s intersectional method of analysis is significant because—like the research of critics Kimberlé Crenshaw, Robert Reid-Pharr, and Hortense Spillers—Private Lives, Proper Relations pays close attention to how black women have often remained ostracized in cultural representation because of their color and sex but are now beginning to gain more of a voice, particularly in terms of how intimacy affects them. To examine this mélange of relations, Jenkins builds upon the work of critics, such as Lauren Berlant, who have taken up the grammar of intimacy to reconfigure the hackneyed binary of the public/private paradigm. The logic behind this theoretical shift in Jenkins’s argument is the idea that any facile separation of “‘public’ and ‘private’ faces” (24) is effectively limiting due to the complex traffic between these environs. [End Page 687]
Rather than embracing the overused model of private/public, Jenkins lucidly employs the notion of intimacy as an apparatus of analysis because it exceeds binaristic and myopic forms of thinking. Jenkins’s use of intimacy as a lens enables a more nuanced and versatile approach for examining the multiple contact points of affect, gender, nation, and race in African-American cultural expression. Intimacy, as Jenkins proposes, is a central component for understanding the sociopolitical construction of black subjectivity...