Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine's Text at the Turn of the Century

Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine's Text at the Turn of the Century

Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine's Text at the Turn of the Century

Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine's Text at the Turn of the Century


Why did African-American women novelists use idealized stories of bourgeois courtship and marriage to mount arguments on social reform during the last decade of the nineteenth century, during a time when resurgent racism conditioned the lives of all black Americans? Such stories now seem like apolitical fantasies to contemporary readers. This is the question at the center of Tate's examination of the novels of Pauline Hopkins, Emma Kelley, Amelia Johnson, Katherine Tillman, and Frances Harper. Domestic Allegories of Political Desire is more than a literary study; it is also a social and intellectual history--a cultural critique of a period that historian Rayford W. Logan called "the Dark Ages of recent American history." Against a rich contextual framework, extending from abolitionist protest to the Black Aesthetic, Tate argues that the idealized marriage plot in these novels does not merely depict the heroine's happiness and economic prosperity. More importantly, that plot encodes a resonant cultural narrative--a domestic allegory--about the political ambitions of an emancipated people. Once this domestic allegory of political desire is unmasked in these novels, it can be seen as a significant discourse of the post-Reconstruction era for representing African-Americans' collective dreams about freedom and for reconstructing those contested dreams into consummations of civil liberty.


She was stretched on her back beneath a pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from the root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation.

"Tain't Logan Killicks Ah wants you to have, baby, it's protection. . . . and Ah can't die easy thinkin' maybe de menfolks white or black is makin' a spit cup outa you: Have some sympathy fuh me. Put me down easy, Janie, Ah'm a cracked plate."

Zora neale hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

"I worked twenty years and bought this house myself," she went on. "I'd be happy when I died if I thought Bess bad a husband like you."

Later, after I had grown to understand the peasant mentality of Bess and her mother, I learned the full degree to which my life at home had cut me off, not only from white people but from Negroes as well. To Bess and her mother, money was important but they did not strive for it too hard. They had no tensions, unappeasable longings, no desire to do something to redeem themselves. the main value in their lives was simple, clean, good living and when they thought they had found those same qualities in one of their race, they instinctively embraced him, liked him and asked no questions. But such simply unaffected trust flabbergasted me. It was impossible.

Richard wright, Black Boy (1945)

In this chapter I employ a somewhat startling postmodern vantage point to locate my interpretative model for recovering the symbolic configurations of political desire in the domestic novels of post-Reconstruction black women. I rely on an historically nonsequential framework to generate my model by . . .

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