Academic journal article African American Review

"This Plague of Their Own Locusts": Space, Property, and Identity in Dorothy West's the Living Is Easy

Academic journal article African American Review

"This Plague of Their Own Locusts": Space, Property, and Identity in Dorothy West's the Living Is Easy

Article excerpt

The August 2000 issue of Vanity Fair revived the concept of the "it girl," citing Gwyneth Paltrow as the embodiment of "it" for the twenty-first century amongst a retrospective parade of former "it girls." The "it girl" became a part of American cultural grammar during the 1920s: It was a term for a woman who embodied the spirit of her age. Vanity Fair's 2000 spread included socialites, entertainers, and businesswomen with expense accounts and trust funds that underwrote their outrageous, jet-setting behavior. Predictably, all but two (Naomi Campbell and Kidada Jones) of the new face of "it" were white. A few months later, Essence, a popular magazine that targets black professional women, countered with its own interpretation and presentation of "it girls" in an article entitled "Working It." While Essence's assemblage of it girls presented a slew of fabulous black women, it did not challenge the foundation of exclusivity, privilege, and color prerequisites without which an "it girl" could not rebel. Vanity Fair presumes that individual achievement determines admission to the cult of "it," while Essence emphasizes the importance of defining "it" for black women, expanding the definition to include women who would otherwise be excluded. Neither magazine challenges the social structures that make "it" possible. The majority of the "it girls" featured in Vanity Fair are supported by generations of wealth, subsidized by corporations like US Steel or fashion empires like Estee Lauder. Essence's it girls possess a different sort of wealth, one that is dependent on their celebrity status. They are almost exclusively entertainers or entertainers' daughters, and for the most part light-skinned or biracial. Ironically, both magazines situate the it girl as an empowering model for feminist and racial progress; however, the concept of the it girl is in actuality dis-empowering and exclusionary. The it girl remains a decorative accoutrement dependent on and enabled by the masculine authority of her father or husband: She is the princess who can never be king.

The reappearance of the "it girl" ideal in popular culture frames my discussion of Dorothy West's The Living is Easy (1948); "it" draws attention to the way that social institutions, like heteronormative marriage, and cultural productions, like mainstream newspapers, establish and maintain bourgeois class structures through a symbolic, specifically gendered figure of success. West's novel explores the issues of belonging, authenticity, and entitlement implicated in Essence's attempt to apply the terms of "it" to African American society. The "it-girl" persona underscores what is valued in the public sphere for women, namely wealth, beauty, and social status. As such, "it" signals a pathway by which women may acquire limited power in spaces presumably dominated by masculinity and capitalism. Yet it is precisely by blurring the boundaries between private and public, domestic and commercial spaces that West's protagonist Cleo Judson achieves a measure of socio-economic power. Through Cleo's quest for social mobility, self-determination, and self-aggrandizement, West weaves together intersecting social geographies into a feminist interrogation of heterosexual marriage and black bourgeois society. Her novel offers a scathing critique of the most subtle, and not so subtle, forms of intraracial oppression along class and color lines within the African American community of Boston in 1910.

While discourses of authenticity have been crucial in establishing literary traditions in minority communities vis-a-vis mainstream aesthetic concerns, the work of women writers like Dorothy West, Marita Bonner, Helene Johnson, and Ann Petry, who wrote at the edges of African American literary periods such as the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts movement, resists the stylistic or thematic assumptions presumed by periodization and other authenticating moves. (1) As the Harlem Renaissance era closed, artists sought alternative ideologies to maintain the spirit of artistic activism heralded by the New Negro era. …

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