- There is Heterosexuality: Jessie Fauset, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Problem of Desire
Near the end of Jessie Fauset’s first novel, There is Confusion (1924), Joanna Marshall gratefully accepts Peter Bye’s offer of marriage, saying, “Why, nothing in the world is so hard to face as this problem of being colored in America. . . . But now that we have love, Peter, we have a pattern to guide us out of the confusion” (283). Peter echoes Joanna’s thoughts when he says, “Yes, thank God, we’ve got Love. . . . But you’re right, Joanna, it is frightful to see the havoc that this queer intangible bugaboo of color works among us” (284).
On the one hand there is love as “pattern”; on the other, there is race as “queer intangible bugaboo.” Joanna and Peter expect the pattern to trump the bugaboo; they expect “love” to offer some solidity, some foundation in an otherwise tortuous American racial landscape. There is something sweet about their expectation in the same way that there is something sweet about the desperately naive. For if there is one thing that Fauset’s novels tell us, it is that love in the 1920s, particularly for African American women, is a decidedly slippery piece of work—more queer intangible bugaboo than safe, reassuring pattern.
This is especially the case if we understand love to be the public face of something called “heterosexuality,” and if we understand that heterosexuality was a relatively recent invention by 1924—a structure of desire bearing very little similarity to the heterosexuality we know today. In the pages that follow, I want to play out the implications of the metonymic substitution that my title enacts. More specifically, I want to read the “confusion” of Fauset’s title less as the result of racial deformation, and more the necessary byproduct of a newly emerged heterosexuality. And though I have begun with an emphasis on There is Confusion, my focus here is also Fauset’s second novel, Plum Bun, published in 1929. For if There is Confusion ends in the hope that love can offer stability amid racial confusion, Plum Bun shows that hope to be misplaced, as the novel’s heroine Angela Murray struggles to find her place within the new heterosexuality.
In fact, There is Confusion and Plum Bun comprise something of a two-part movement on the themes of desire, marriage, and heterosexuality in the twenties.1 Fauset had been planning There is Confusion since at least 1914, though it would not be published until ten years later.2 The fifteen years between the inception of There is Confusion and the publication of Plum Bun witnessed a number of significant changes in Fauset’s life, most of them having to do with her ever-evolving relationship with W. E. B. Du Bois. At the risk of joining art too neatly to biography, I do want to read these two romances as parts of a romantic trilogy—the third volume being the real-life relationship of Fauset and Du Bois. In so doing, I offer a new way of thinking about Fauset’s novels in relation to the rapidly changing sexual currents of the 1920s. At the same time, I complicate the newly emerging story of heterosexuality’s early days by emphasizing its roots in perversion—in Fauset’s case, a perversion complicated by the interlocking relations of race and sex in America. [End Page 67]
Heterosexuality as a trope has long been embedded in Harlem Renaissance discourse, ever since Langston Hughes referred to Fauset as one of the three people who “midwifed the so-called New Negro Literature into being” (218). Midwifery invokes heterosexual reproduction and one’s somewhat ambivalent relation to it: responsible for the birth, but not ultimately responsible; engaged in heterosexual reproduction, but only after the instigating moment. And we should not forget that the very phrase “Harlem Renaissance” depends upon the same set of associations—a new birth in Harlem. With heterosexuality serving as the governing logic of these central Harlem metaphors, it is worth pondering Fauset’s relationship to it. As we will see, heterosexuality in the 1920s contained within it the dueling...