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The Idea of Black Female Identity in the Harlem Renaissance - Essay Example

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The Idea of Black Female Identity in the Harlem Renaissance

Although its leadership was indeed of the expanding yet relatively small contingent of college-educated, white-collar blacks, Harlem as geographical and cultural site was traversed by a much wider and more varied social, economic, and racial traffic. As Hazel Carby has pointed out, the formation of an urban black culture in Harlem is not a history of the black middle class. Rather, 1920s Harlem was a period of ideological, political, and cultural contestation between the emergent black bourgeoisie and an emerging black working class. Moreover, the cultural revolution or successful renaissance that did occur stemmed from this terrain of conflict ... (Carby 738-755). The black middle-class and the black working-class simultaneously sought to demarcate and occupy Harlem's contested space.
Joined by scholars such as Houston Baker and Ann duCille, Hazel Carby has attempted to correct the skewed and partial representations of this cultural-historical period. Her recent articles and forthcoming book contend that black women blues singers, musicians, and performers formed a web of connections among working-class urban migrants. Baker enacts a similar analytical turn in his criticism, moving cultural study of Harlem out of the realm of the intellectual, where literary production has been privileged, into the realm of the material, where other cultural forms such as the blues await critique. Positioning a close-up, gritty photo of Ma Rainey on the cover of his Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Baker makes the singer representative of the working-class, or mass black blues space he describes in the book. Also attending to class stratification in 1920s Harlem, Ann duCille seeks to critically reconstruct middle-class writers Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen, arguing that they were not unlike Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, and Ma Rainey. Revising earlier scholarship on Fauset and Larsen, duCille postulates that they too concerned themselves with black female desire and erotic relationships, producing what duCille terms bourgeois blues. Though successfully widening the critical lens focused on Harlem to include issues of class and class conflict, and in Carby's and duCille's work to an investigation of how class intersects with gender, nevertheless sexuality remains unexamined, indeed omitted from these otherwise perceptive critiques. As representatives of the working-class, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith invite, if not promote, class and gender analyses; almost too neatly they form a critical package of working women representing work in song. And because of the tidiness of this model, the mere critical nod toward Rainey's and Smith's bisexuality has seemed adequate. Yet how does sexual object choice inflect the cultural and political struggle over sexual relations waged by black female singers, writers, poets If these women artists manipulated and controlled their construction as sexual subjects as Carby argues, how do displays of sexual preference undermine, modulate, or reinforce white and black efforts to contain black female sexuality And finally, if these black female artists are read as projecting a woman-proud politics in their lives and work, how is the female-to-male, cross-dressing, blues-singing lesbian to be understood
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The working-class lesbian drops out of literary and cultural histories of the Harlem Renaissance as well, for the same and some additional reasons. Until recently, this period in black cultural production has been characterized as a strictly middle-class phenomenon…
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