Monday, February 8, 2010
I was a little jealous of the people getting to read Their Eyes Were Watching God, one of my favorite books, for the Classics Circuit's Harlem Renaissance bonanza. But I wanted to read something by someone I was unfamiliar with, and selected Plum Bun by Jessie Redmon Fauset, written in 1929. And I am so glad I did. It was wonderful. It definitely shot up my list of favorite books and will be one I buy for myself, as the copy I read I borrowed from the library. (The copy had a library print out in it from 2005. I hope that doesn't mean I'm the only one to read it since then. And we have only one copy in my library's system, and it's at the "black" library, the Ralph Ellison library. That's tragic people.)
This book would be outstanding to teach to high school students, or at least college students. It's about race, but it's also about sexism and what is was like to be a woman in 1929, it's a love story, it's about right and wrong, and integrity. There is so much to discuss, I'm not sure how to cover it all in one post, or choose what to leave out. So go read it for yourselves!
Plum Bun is the story of Angela Murray, a girl in a middle-class black family in Philadelphia. Angela and her mother can both pass for white. Her father and sister cannot. First and foremost, I came to care greatly for both Angela and her sister Virginia, and to a lesser extent their parents. I connected to them almost immediately and couldn't wait to find out what happens to them. The book starts with Angela at age 14 and goes until she's 27, or at least that's the last year that's mentioned, but she may actually be about 30 at the end. I completely identified with her, which is a wonderful testament to Fauset's ability, since I'm a white girl from modern-day Oklahoma.
As someone who can pass for white, Angela has a unique set of challenges and choices. When she meets new people, they assume she is white, and when they learn she is not, they usually recoil and demand to know why she didn't tell them. When she is younger, it never occurs to her to tell people this. What, should she wear a sign on her forehead? And if the person liked her five minutes ago when they thought she was white, why do they dislike her now? Eventually, she realizes the advantages to being seen as white, and decides to move to NYC, where no one knows her and therefore can't discover that she's not. This opens up opportunities to her she would not have as a person who looks black. The novel makes you question those choices and wonder about what you would do in each situation she faces. I could completely understand why she would try to pass for white and try to create a successful career that way. I'm not sure that that's right, but I can't say it's wrong. What's interesting is that it's hard to tell what Fauset thinks exactly. They do discuss race in the book, and a character at one point says that when a black person succeeds, whites see it as an exception, something was good about that individual, and if they have any mixed blood they attribute that to the white blood. But if a black person doesn't succeed, it's a representative of their whole race. I think Angela takes that to heart and feels like if she announces she's black, people will credit any good she does to her white blood anyway, and it will limit her opportunities. So why not do what she can for herself?
Of course, this leads to another set of challenges. Does she start a relationship with a rich racist white male? How does she treat her sister? How far exactly will she go?
Another aspect of the novel addresses the challenges of being a woman during this time. Even passing for white leaves her with a set of challenges. She's a young single woman navigating a new terrain. In the 1920s, it becomes more common for people to have sex outside of marriage, for virginity to be less valued than it was, and for women to discuss their sexuality. For an innocent young girl, this can easily lead to trouble.
However, I was surprised at the relative independence Angela had. She had her own place and a job. She had people over, including men alone in her apartment. That just surprised me a little. And that opens up other choices - does she have an affair with a man because she can gain materially from it? Is that better or worse than selling out her race? Again, Fauset doesn't guide the reader to a judgment.
Finally, at its heart Plum Bun is also a love story. You aren't sure if it's a tragic love story or a happy one until the very end. There are layers of relationships intertwined the above situations that complicate everything. Angela questions the very nature of love and if it's just something to use to gain what you want or if it's something more.
The subtitle to Plum Bun is "A Novel without a Moral." I find that ironic, because it's full of moral issues. Every page screams with choices that can be hotly contested with both sides taking what they feel is the moral high road. But it's an appropriate subtitle because Fauset refrains from inserting her opinion. I can guess at what she felt, but that's my reading my own views into it. She leaves everything with shades of gray, which is an interesting description since so much of the novel is about black and white and what's in between. But you can apply the principle to other issues, for example, is it okay to use your looks to get what you want? What attractive person hasn't used their looks to get something? Isn't that what Angela does? But does that demean yourself? It happens every second. Yet I think we would be quick to judge Angela because she's betraying her race. Personally, people often underestimate me because of my size. If I round up I'm 5'1". But I can't even begin to count the times I've used that too my advantage. I just found that fascinating.
I adored this novel overall and encourage you to give it a try. It really made me think, and I know it's one that will stick with me for a while, and color my choices in the near future.
Make sure to check out the other posts on the Harlem Renaissance this month at the Classics Circuit.