- “On being young—a woman—and colored” in Paris and Tangier:The “strange longings” of Anita Thompson Dickinson Reynolds’s Early Years
Click for larger view
View full resolution
For you know that—being a woman—you cannot twice a month or twice a year, for that matter, break away to see or hear anything in a city that is supposed to see and hear too much.—Marita Bonner, “On Being Young—a Woman—and Coloured” [End Page 135]
A Woman’s Black Atlantic—Nonconformity and the Cartography of Desire
The interwar years posed a dilemma for educated African American women. The politics of uplift, with its emphasis on respectability and sexual propriety, had dominated the pedagogical, moral, and legal rhetoric of the post-Reconstruction civil rights movement. But the politics of uplift came into conflict with the sexual and social possibilities offered to young women by both the New Woman and New Negro paradigms. Long victims of sexual violence and labor-market exploitation, African American women in the early years of the twentieth century were often represented in black print culture as embodying the aspirations of racial advancement. By the end of the nineteenth century, political and didactic texts posited the black home as a staging ground for the claims for political, economic, and social acceptance by white America. The moral and educational stability of the black domestic sphere was placed in the hands of black womanhood. The psychic and social burdens of what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham has termed “the politics of respectability” demanded of educated, upwardly mobile African American women were many, and were rooted in the political investment in ideas of black women’s sexual propriety. As the historian Anastasia Curwood states, “by the turn of the twentieth century, African Americans were seeking to refute racist stereotypes through their own behavior and by instructing the less-privileged African Americans suspected of loose behavior. Black women embarked on their own project of showing moral behavior within their families. This included demonstrating that they possessed unimpeachable sexual morals.”1 The ideologies of novels such as Francis Ellen Watkins Harper’s Iola Leroy (1893) and Pauline Hopkins’s Contending Forces (1900); the curricula and expectations for women at black educational institutions such as Tuskegee and Hampton universities, which Nella Larsen lampooned in her modernist first novel, Quicksand (1928); and the exhortations of political and civic leaders such as Mary Church Terrell, Margaret Murray Washington, and Amy Garvey drummed home the idea that the advancement of the Negro race depended upon the moral integrity and sexual propriety of the Negro woman.
Thus, in the opening decades of the twentieth century, sexual expression was often a fraught and risky topic both in black women’s real lives and writing as resistance to centuries-old stereotypes and vulnerabilities clashed with new discourses of sexuality and modern constructions of gender. How was it possible for an educated, often economically and socially independent black woman to explore her own sexual agency against the competing backdrops of a tortured history of sexual exploitation and a modern culture that offered new understandings of and possibilities for expressing sexual desire?
In 1925, an essay written by a young teacher who had graduated from Radcliffe College with degrees in English and Comparative Literature won [End Page 136] the NAACP’s Crisis prize for the best essay of the year. In a few pages of restless, fragmented prose, Marita Bonner described the social and cultural constraints that educated young black women faced in the United States at that time. She expressed the desire for “a career as fixed and calmly brilliant as the North Star” and “a husband you can look up to without looking down on yourself.”2 But one of the most striking thwarted desires the essay depicts is that for geographical mobility and social experience in the face of external and internalized restrictions:
A strange longing seizes hold of you (. . .) You hear that up at New York this is to be seen; that, to be heard. You decide the next train will take you there. You decide the next...