- Writing through Jane Crow: Race and Gender Politics in African American Literature by Ayesha K. Hardison
At first glance, Jane Crow appears familiar: sharing the last name of her ugly counterpart, Jim, she must be his sister or wife. However, adopting the moniker first employed by black activist, feminist, lawyer, Episcopalian priest, and poet Pauli Murray, author Ayesha K. Hardison complicates her persona. As a term, Jane Crow not only highlights the ways Jim Crow inadequately describes [End Page 327] the restricted social and legal boundaries within which black women operated from the end of the nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth; it also places black women’s subjectivity at the center of our incomplete understanding of the politics, social activism, and literary production of the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s. Thus the term Jane Crow does two things—it shows how the masculine formulation inadequately accounts for black women’s experiences with racial and sexual discrimination, and it more fully identifies the system of gender oppression that provided the double bind for black women attempting to write themselves onto that American literary landscape.
Writing through Jane Crow widens the scope of exploration of early-to mid-twentieth-century African American writers, heretofore overshadowed by those of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement. While the fiction of both black men and women writers between the world wars has been extensively investigated, critics have largely allowed the works to remain in artistic silos. Such focus has facilitated inter- and intra-textual dialogue within the period, yet works written by African Americans in the 1940s and 1950s have remained inadequately explored. Hardison’s work joins a burgeoning cadre of critical studies dedicated to recovering those texts, including Robert Bone and Richard Courage’s The Muse in Bronzeville: African American Creative Expression in Chicago: 1932–1950 (2011); Stephanie Brown’s The Postwar African American Novel: Protest and Discontent, 1945–1950 (2011); and Darlene Clark Hine and John McCluskey Jr.’s The Black Chicago Renaissance (2012). With an introduction, six chapters, and an epilogue dedicated to an analysis of the work of Jackie Ormes, the first black woman cartoonist to draw her own syndicated comic strip, Hardison’s study mines a wide variety of sources, from the literary to the visual, including early editions of magazines directed toward exclusively black and white audiences and the literary productions of familiar and little-known black writers who grappled with the complexities of race, gender, and sex. Writers under consideration include Richard Wright, Dorothy West, Ann Petry, Zora Neale Hurston, Curtis Lucas, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Era Bell Thompson.
Hardison adroitly demonstrates the ways Jane Crow oppression negated “the specific contributions black women made to the postwar civil rights movement” and seeks to rectify those omissions by reading specific narrative tropes alongside the real lived experiences of black women who served (4). Her analysis layers text upon text, blurring the boundaries that separate genre, history, the visual, and the perceived. For example, the autobiography of Daisy Bates, adviser to the Little Rock Nine during the integration of Central High School in 1957, troubles readers’ understanding of the rape of black women in Lucas’s Third Ward Newark (1946) and Wright’s Native Son (1940). In The Long Shadow of Little Rock (1962), Bates reveals that her mother was raped and murdered at [End Page 328] the hands of a white man who later died but was not prosecuted. For Hardison, Lucas’s protagonist, Wonnie Brown Anderson, “reifies the suffering caused by black women’s sexual violation and subsequent desire for vengeance in Bates’ memoir” (118). This nuanced portrayal is juxtaposed against Bigger Thomas’s brutal rape and murder of his black girlfriend, Bessie Mears, her body used as mere evidence in Bigger’s trial for the murder of the white heiress, Mary Dalton, whom he has killed but has not raped. The trilogy allows readers to think further about the vulnerability of Lutie Johnson in Petry’s The...