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  • Stormy Weather: Middle-Class African American Marriages between the Two World Wars by Anastasia C. Curwood
  • Crystal R. Sanders (bio)
Stormy Weather: Middle-Class African American Marriages between the Two World Wars, by Anastasia C. Curwood Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010, 216 pages.

In Stormy Weather, Anastasia Curwood resourcefully shows how middle-class African Americans negotiated marriage during the interwar period. Curwood argues that these marriages were fraught with tensions because of changing ideas about marital roles, increasing numbers of women in the workforce, and persisting economic discrimination that tested traditional notions of household management. Even while navigating these challenges, many African American couples aimed to publicly maintain the appearance of conventional, mainstream marriages in an attempt to advance the race and dispel notions of black inferiority and hypersexuality.

In examining marriage “from the inside out” (7), Curwood uses the writings of several black scholars including E. Franklin Frazier, Jean Toomer, and Sadie Alexander, along with fictional accounts of the institution as portrayed in Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The author’s richest material, however, is the private correspondence between her own grandparents, James and Sarah Curwood, who married in 1936. From 1935 until 1949, the couple wrote to each other regularly, and their granddaughter’s book is based largely on this volume of letters. All of these sources demonstrate that African Americans found it challenging to live up to customary notions of husbandhood and wifehood because of the ways in which race and racism constricted their lives. [End Page 83]

Curwood organizes the book in two parts divided over five chapters. The first section considers New Negro ideals about marriage, while the second section looks at how those ideals manifested in lived experiences. A significant number of New Negro husbands expected their wives to help restore black manhood as a way to attack white supremacy, even if their actions upheld gender oppression. This plan was at odds with the thinking of many New Negro wives who envisioned their roles encompassing leadership and employment opportunities both inside and outside of the home. In detailing such private battles, Curwood offers an interpretation of black marriages during the interwar period that differs from the one offered by the film that shares the book’s title. In 1943, Lena Horne and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson starred in Stormy Weather, which depicted black relationships during the interwar period. In the film, black women briefly depart from the normative nonworking wife and mother role to pursue careers outside of the home. Ultimately, these onscreen women choose love and eschew wage work in favor of domestic work in the home. The film suggested that the happiest and most successful black relationships were ones with male breadwinners and female homemakers. Curwood’s work, on the contrary, suggests that marriage was a series of negotiations without any one formula for success. For many, love could not conquer all as individual professional aspirations resulted in New Negro marriages that did not follow or espouse “appropriate racial and gender protocols” (9).

The book is a long-overdue contribution to the historiography on black families. While scholars have written extensively about black families during slavery and Reconstruction and during the second half of the twentieth century (i.e., Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family and the scholarship it inspired), we know virtually nothing about black marriages and families between the two world wars. Curwood’s work demonstrates that from 1918 until 1942, African American couples configured their private lives to accommodate the Great Depression, black migration to cities, and the continued pressures of white racism. Moreover, this work responds to historian Michele Mitchell’s 1999 call for studies that look at conflicts between black men and women outside of organized protest.1 Curwood, by examining conflict within black marriages, effectively complicates the idea of a monolithic and harmonious black community without reinforcing the notion of pathology within black relationships.

Despite its numerous strengths, the book is silent on both the ways in which working-class couples negotiated marriage and the ways in which location shaped experience. The author noted that the work concentrated on middle-class and upwardly mobile African Americans because...


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pp. 83-85
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