A provocative study of urban African-American women a century and more ago.
Characterizing her work as an “account of the wayward,” literary scholar Hartman (English/Columbia Univ.; Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, 2007, etc.) examines the many ways in which (mostly) young black women tried to live their lives within the confines of new urban enclaves such as Harlem and West Philadelphia, from which Italian and Jewish immigrants had moved on and into which newcomers from the South were streaming. The population, writes the author, was young and in many cases disproportionately female, with liberating follow-on consequences. In one Philadelphia area, for instance, “more than half the women in the ward were single, widowed, or separated, and this imperiled the newly fledged black family”—imperiled it because so many of those unencumbered women were determined to live on their own terms, having begun a journey to freedom that was ongoing. They faced formidable resistance within their own communities even as they willingly took on new roles: “In bed,” Hartman writes of one lesbian couple, “it seemed like it was only the two of them in the world, in the vast stillness of the deep of night. In the few hours before dusk, there were no husbands to fear.” The author populates her pages with reformatory inmates, reformers, sex workers, and political activists such as Harlem Renaissance figure Claude McKay, “known less well for his indiscretions than for the ease and facility with which he cloaked them.” Sometimes Hartman’s rhetoric becomes a touch too high-flown, as if swept up in the exuberance of the fight for freedom, and interrogatives sometimes threaten to overwhelm declarative sentences. However, close attention to “beautiful experiments” and “the sexual geography of the black belt,” as two section titles have it, yield new insight into the truth of a central proposition: “No modern intelligent person was content merely existing. Sometimes it was good to take a chance.”
Lucid and original—of considerable interest to students of the African-American diaspora and American social and cultural history.