- Race and the Regulation of Intimacy in the Moynihan Report, the Griswold Decision, and Morrison’s Paradise
This essay excavates the cultural logics underlying the historical coincidence of two national political texts regulating intimate life in the postwar US: the landmark Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut and a document published by the US Department of Labor today better known for its author—a sociologist and later a Democratic senator from New York, but then Assistant Secretary of Labor—as “the Moynihan Report.” In order to examine what I argue to be the racial undercurrents of the normative constructions of gender and sexuality that link the Griswold decision and Moynihan Report, I turn to Toni Morrison’s Paradise (1997), a text acutely attuned to these dynamics. In March 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dossier on US racial inequality was first circulated among government officials under the ominous title The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. The report attributed myriad social and economic issues facing African Americans to a relatively high proportion of female-headed households. Within weeks of its publication, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that would soon lead them to recognize, for the first time, a constitutional right to privacy. Overturning a Connecticut state ban on contraceptive use, Griswold v. Connecticut held that, for married couples, the law violated “a zone of privacy” inherent in several established constitutional guarantees (Douglass 485). Subject to far less scrutiny within US literary study compared to the Moynihan Report, Griswold’s doctrine of privacy has nevertheless profoundly shaped contemporary [End Page 256] discourses of gender, sexuality, and the body. As I argue in what follows, the decision’s account of the relation between concepts of family and nation also participates in a racial politics of these discourses more routinely attributed to The Negro Family.
This essay proposes a framework for literary and cultural analysis that reveals the nexus between the implicit whiteness of privacy in Griswold v. Connecticut and the essential publicness of Moynihan’s hypostatized “Negro family.” To foreground the centrality of this intersection for understanding the report’s well-established literary critical implications means attending both to the structures of meaning that produce its narrative and to the infamous cultural tropes that mediate it. These structures consist in how racial blackness is positioned relative to cultural norms of patriarchy, heterosexual marriage, and social reproduction; the incommensurability of blackness with these norms reinforces their alignment with the national whiteness that privacy, in Griswold, protects.
Paradise aptly elucidates both the racial valences of Griswold’s project of privacy and the significance of public/private distinctions to Moynihan’s thesis. The Morrison novel most frequently identified as a counter-narrative to the Moynihan Report’s academically coded vilification of black female sexuality is her second novel, Sula (1973).1 With its trenchant critique of the sexual politics of nationhood, however, Paradise deepens the intersectional analysis of black women’s experience that runs throughout the writer’s oeuvre and makes it Morrison’s most forceful rejoinder to the report’s legacies. This is signaled in how the text uses the concept of home. In her earlier novels, this concept highlights white hegemony and patriarchy as complementary systems of oppression; in Paradise, Morrison constructs a community which, as Linda J. Krumholz observes, “exemplifies the dangers of home structured on national identity and fixed ideals” of race and gender (27). Articulated through ideals of home and family, the critique of nationhood in Paradise in effect targets the liberal discourse of privacy codified in Griswold—vis-à-vis a political imaginary that invokes and inverts the Moynihan Report’s construction of racial blackness. The text in this way underscores the historic conjunction of race and privacy as a critical context for Moynihan’s depiction of black family life.
Paradise is set in the fictional town of Ruby, a small, rural separatist African-American community, and a neighboring household of women, formerly a Catholic school and before that, an oil baron’s mansion, now known as “the Convent” for the nuns who once lived there. None of the Convent women are related to each other, but the text understands their intimacy as...