Domestic Violence in the Harlem Renaissance: Remaking the Record in Nella Larsen's Passing and Toni Morrison's Jazz

By Knadler, Stephen | African American Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Domestic Violence in the Harlem Renaissance: Remaking the Record in Nella Larsen's Passing and Toni Morrison's Jazz


Knadler, Stephen, African American Review


women with knives

February 8, 1928, front-page headline in the New York Amsterdam News--"Jealous Man Kills Woman and Self in Basement Apartment"; the following week, February 15, 1928, front-page headline once again in the News--"Husband Under Arrest But Denies Part in Slaying"; February 22, 1928, front-page headline--"Woman Stabs Man to Death with His Knife After Party, Held by Police When Went to Ask About Him." February 29, 1928 front-page banner headline--"[Police] Seek Husband as Brutal Slayer, Woman's Body Found with Head Nearly Severed"; March 7, 1928, front-page headline--"Jealousy Caused Near Tragedy When Repulsed Downtown Lover Returns."

In Toni Morrison's Jazz one of the novel's key notes sounds when the staid and proper Alice Manfred relents to admit the woman behind the tabloids and the gossip, "Violent" (Violet) Trace, into her home and her heart. Confessing to this wild woman who represents all she has eschewed from her own secure and respectable life that "I don't understand women like you[, Violet]. Women with knives," Alice agrees, nevertheless, to let her in after "having heard how torn up the man was and reading the headlines in the Age, the News, the Messenger" (81). While Morrison comments in this scene upon a redemptive sisterhood that bridges the Harlem community's color and class divides (Kubitschek 150), she also tellingly captures an historical tie between female subjectivity and domestic violence stories in the weekly black press. Toni Morrison's Jazz asks us to step outside the public and monumental history of the Harlem Renaissance to bear witness to the "private," lived experience of black women (Nancy Peterson 205). To the casual skimmer of the popular press's often sensational headlines, the Harlem Renaissance would, as Morrison indicates, not only have been the era of Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, and the National Negro Business League, but also of a "New Negress"--a "woman with knives." As the opening list of front-page headlines from the New York Amsterdam News for five consecutive weeks at the beginning of 1928 witnesses as well, such stories of domestic violence with their frequent portrayal of "women with knives" recur as a telling complement to the more highbrow political and social commentaries of the Opportunity or the Crisis. It might be tempting to dismiss these stories as sensationalism--titillating but of little interest to cultural historians. It would similarly be easy to read these stories of "monstrous" women with knives simply within a rhetoric of moral panic in which this scandalous deviance from the idealized dominant morality of the Harlem community is reported to inspire morbid curiosity, patriarachal outrage, but finally conservative reactions against female empowerment (Lull and Hinerman 34). Yet because these "tabloid" stories constituted one of the few discourses on domestic violence available to Harlem women in the 1920s, I would argue the stories were also meant to be functional and generative of African American women's performance of their own identity.

In using the anachronistic term domestic violence to describe these sensational stories in the Harlem weeklies about violence between two or more lovers in an intimate relation, and not just husbands and wives, I am borrowing from the work of a number of feminist critics on gender violence. In her account of family violence in Boston from 1880 to 1960, Linda Gordon argues that the meaning of violence, especially as it pertains to spousal or child abuse, has assumed its reality through the language used to talk about it and thus has been "historically and politically constructed" (3). Central to the feminist reading of domestic abuse is that this violence is involved in the socialization of roles. Not an end in itself, domestic violence is a means of enforcing gender roles in society and maintaining a hierarchy in which men remain in control. Thus, to combat domestic violence, as Sharon Marcus has argued (391-93), one needs not only physically to protect women, but to interrogate those cultural scripts or dominant patriarchal interpretations that mediate the meaning of specific experiences of rape or abuse.

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