Unholy Matrimony: Marriage and Identity in Twentieth Century African-American Women's Fiction
McCray, April Letitia (author)
Montgomery, Maxine (professor directing dissertation)
Jones, Maxine (university representative)
Moore, Dennis (committee member)
Saladin-Adams, Linda (committee member)
Department of English (degree granting department)
Florida State University (degree granting institution)
This project seeks to interrogate the ways in which race, class, and gender expectations work in concert to seduce the black heroine into believing that marriage will somehow deliver her from the trappings of her current social standing. This deliverance of Black female characters is often perceived as financial and may involve elevation to a higher social class, like West's Cleo Judson. However, for most black women in 20th century literature, the "happily ever after" is often unattainable because of the crushing effects of racism, sexism, and the enduring legacy of slavery. Nonetheless, African-American women novelists continue to portray the marriage plot as the ideal because Black women feel obligated to enjoy the legal and political rights of marriage that their ancestors were refused. For Black women in the early 20th century, marriage is portrayed as the Holy Grail that the previous generation could not have legally attained. However, over time, marriage morphs into a wholly undesirable state, in mind, body, and spirit. Claudia Tate has done extensive analysis regarding the representations of marriage and the black family in nineteenth-century domestic fiction. Her book, Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine's Text at the Turn of the Century and Sybille Kamme-Erkel's 1988 dissertation "Happily Ever After? Marriage and Its Rejection in Afro-American Novels" are the only full-length studies that explore the treatment of marriage in African American fiction (duCille 149). While Tate's work is significant as it situates a group of black female writers and their eleven novels of "genteel domestic feminism" within the domestic sphere, the most recent novel she analyzes was written in 1903 (Tate 4). This study seeks to begin to fill in the gap of novels written by and about Black women about the institution of marriage in the 20th century, as well as the significant changes the black heroine has endured for the sake of fulfilling societal norms. Currently, no other scholar has done a sustained analysis of the marriage plot in 20th Century Black women's novels. Some literary scholars such as Henry Louis Gates and Michael Awkward recognize Zora Neale Hurston as the literary foremother of the Black female novelist tradition. However, my study suggests that Nella Larsen, who began publishing a full decade before Hurston, initiated a strong tradition of Black female novelists. Nella Larsen's novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) provide the social and political framework for other Black women novelists to emerge. Ann duCille published The Coupling Convention in 1993, and in it she provides a thorough rendering of the racial and gender politics that inform the marriage plot for Black female heroines. However, her study is divided into two major parts: the first period addresses the birth of literary scholarship amongst Black women at the turn of the century; the second focuses on a "second flowering of novels by African-American women" to begin with Jessie Fauset and end with Zora Neale Hurston (duCille 10). My project takes duCille's work a step further and identifies a more contemporary "third flowering" that spans the 20th Century and begins with Nella Larsen and ends with Gloria Naylor. The Black women novelists who follow in Larsen's footsteps each revise her version of the marriage plot in some significant way. Dorothy West's The Living is Easy (1948), Alice Walker's The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), and Gloria Naylor's Linden Hills (1985) each modify the framework of the marriage plot that Larsen devised in Quicksand. This project not only shows how and why the marriage plot has evolved over roughly a one hundred year span, but it also points to the conditions which allowed for such an occurrence. Because of social and historical events such as both World Wars, the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Feminist Movement, the meaning of marriage as a cultural principle drastically changed for all Americans, but especially for Black families. Historically, writings by and about Black women have been largely excluded from the literary canon. More specifically, writings about Black marriage in literature are even more rare. This study provides a social and historical analysis of the marriage plot as a convention in novels written by Black women in the 20th Century. This study will answer and provide insight into the following questions: Why do some black women writers present marriage not as a "hopeful beginning," but as an "emphatic dead end"?, as Joseph Boone suggests. How has the portrayal of marriage evolved throughout the 20th century? How do black women novelists represent the domestic sphere? In what ways is marriage a form of entrapment and/or enslavement for black women? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being married for black women?
marriage, identity, black women
April 1, 2011.
A Dissertation submitted to the Department of English in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
Includes bibliographical references.
Maxine Montgomery, Professor Directing Dissertation; Maxine Jones, University Representative; Dennis Moore, Committee Member; Linda Saladin-Adams, Committee Member.
Florida State University
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