When I tell people I wrote my senior thesis on the work of Jessie Redmon Fauset, they often give the shady reply, “I don’t know her,” a la the legendary Mariah Carey. That is, if they even realize Jessie is actually a woman. And honestly, I can’t blame them.
Even at the peak of her career in the 1930s, Fauset struggled to gain recognition amongst better known male contemporaries such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Alain Locke, and W.E.B. Du Bois (who also happened to be her lover). Her work isn’t taught in high school, or even in most college curriculums, and many critics would lead you to to believe this is because she didn’t produce anything of value—that her writing was too “sentimental,” her plots too domestic, her focus too narrow. But the fact of the matter is, she was simply telling the stories about the inner lives of Black women at a time when most people refused to listen.
Fauset was born in New Jersey in 1882, and spent the majority of her childhood in Philadelphia, where she graduated from high school as both the valedictorian and the only African-American girl in her class. She went on to attend Cornell University, and it was as a student that she struck up a correspondence with Du Bois, the hugely influential African-American writer and activist. He eventually hired her as the literary editor of The Crisis, and after he fell ill, she took over his duties as editor-in-chief (though, of course, this switch was not noted in the masthead of the paper, and she received no credit for publishing the most widely-circulated issue in the paper’s history).
I could rattle off reasons why Fauset’s work has not been properly recognized, why she’s more than worth studying, and how unfair it is that a toxic combination of sexism and racism led to her being written off as a footnote in the Harlem Renaissance. But instead, I want to highlight her first two novels, There is Confusion (1924) and Plum Bum (1928), which focus on middle-class Black women struggling to make sense of their careers, identities, and relationships in turn of the century America. It might not sound like the most glamorous of plots, but the reward in Fauset’s books is finding a bridge between her day and our own. It’s truly amazing to read words written in the 1920s and realize how much they still reverberate today.
Confusion tells the story of Joanna Marshall, a preternaturally gifted dancer, actress, and singer who rises to fame after years of rejection because of her race (she is considered too light to portray Black characters onstage, but can’t pass as white). Joanna is a complex character because she is as selfish and ruthless as she is talented and ambitious. She is often callous and even cruel to the people who love her, including Peter Bye, a Harvard-educated surgeon who she continually rejects, as she believes he is not good enough for her. Peter and Joanna are both perfect representations of the “Talented Tenth”— Du Bois’ label for exceptionally talented African-Americans who had the potential to make significant impacts on their communities—but Fauset shows that behind their wild successes, these are real people struggling with internal conflicts, dysfunctional families, and relationship problems. She also shows that for all of Joanna’s ruthless drive and apparent self-obsession, she is vulnerable, perceptive, sympathetic, and multi-dimensional.
One of Joanna’s main struggles is still a highly relevant topic of discussion today. Once she has reached the “A-List” at the peak of her career, she notes that she feels more isolated than ever, as so few people around her can recognize or relate to her unique experience as a Black woman:
“Between [white men] and herself the barrier was too impassable. Besides it was women who had the real difficulties to overcome, disabilities of sex and tradition. For a while she was puzzled, a little ashamed when she realized that so many of these women had outstripped her so early; some of them were poor, some of them had responsibilities […] It was a long time before the solution occurred to her […] These women had not been compelled to endure her long, heartrending struggle against color. Those who had had means had been able to plunge immediately into the sea of preparation; they had had their choice of teachers; as soon as they were equipped they had been able to approach the guardians of literary and artistic portals […] no matter how seriously, how deeply they took their success, they never regarded it with the same degree of wonder, almost of awe with which she regarded hers.”
— excerpt from There is Confusion by Jessie Fauset
As a new member of a club for people “who ‘did’ something,” Joanna is astonished to see white men and women much younger than herself enjoying similar levels of success—success she fought for and earned after many years of deferral. Through Joanna’s observations, Fauset is able to frankly outline exactly how her particular intersection of Blackness and womanhood have compounded her struggles as an artist. Fauset acknowledges that all women begin several steps behind men, “disabled” by traditional societal conventions; however, white women still hold an advantage over Joanna, in that even the poorest and most overburdened of them have never had to additionally deal with the effects of racial discrimination. As a result, they will never value their success in the way she does, and neither will they feel like a “battle-scarred veteran,” as she does.
One of my favorite Fauset quotes comes from Plum Bun, which tells the story of Angela Mory, a Black woman from Philadelphia whose mother has taught her to “pass” as white. Angela uses her light skin as a means of obtaining social mobility, wealth, and “happiness”—so she believes—but at the price of abandoning her sister Virginia (who cannot pass) and feeling simultaneously isolated from both white and Black communities. Again, Fauset outlines the particular challenges of being both Black and a woman.Though in passing, Angela has achieved her goal of sidestepping the confines of race, she still finds herself bound by sexism and a patriarchal society. As she wonders aloud to her friend Martha whether or not she should continue seeing her obnoxious boyfriend, Martha offers startling insight into the expectations and double standards women are beholden to in relationships:
“Oh yes, I know that we are always wanting women to give, but they don’t want the women to want to give. They want to take — or at any rate compel the giving […] You see, you have to be careful not to withhold too much yet give very little. If we don’t give enough we lose them. If we give them too much we lose ourselves.”
— excerpt from Plum Bun by Jessie Fauset
As Martha outlines the delicate and contradictory strategies women must constantly negotiate in order to be considered good partners—while still maintaining their sense of individuality—she breaks down. “Think of living a game every hour of your life!” she sobs, before immediately regaining her composure. There is an obvious irony to Martha’s words, as Angela can clearly imagine “living a game” every single day of her life—although the stakes of slipping and losing her place are higher than her white friend can possibly fathom. However, Martha’s distress still resonates, as Angela has faced the maddening hypocrisy of male expectation, worrying about becoming “that creature whom men, in their selfish fear, have contrived to paint as the least attractive of human kind,—‘a girl who runs after men.'”
I get chills every time I read this passage, because I think it so perfectly captures the dynamic and inherent sexism so often present in (unhealthy) relationships. Although the pressure society exerts on women to dress or act a certain has admittedly evolved leaps and bounds since 1924, there is definitely still a certain expectation that you need to conduct yourself a certain way.
Women are expected to be generous with their time and up for anything—to be a “chill girl”—but can’t appear too available or “desperate” (there’s a reason that we note how long it took someone to respond to a text, and factor that into how long we wait to send a reply). But what I love most of all about this quote is that fact that the be-all-end-all isn’t successfully securing the attention of a partner. The last line shows that Fauset/Martha still emphasizes self-preservation, cautioning against the dangers of letting a relationship consume you.
As I mentioned before, literary critics (and even her peers like Claude McKay) eventually turned on Fauset’s writing, and in particular criticized the endings of her novels, which often ended with a “marriage plots” (There is Confusion) or open-ended, somewhat unsatisfying resolutions (Plum Bun). But these critics miss the quiet brilliance in the inconclusiveness of her work.
Whether intentional or not, these “poorly” resolved endings reflect the lack of resolution to the confusion (a big theme in Fauset’s work) in the lives of Black women. Fauset herself stated in an interview, “It is not my concern to solve a problem, but to tell what strikes me as a good story.” It seems that crafting a finite or satisfying solution would misrepresent the experiences of her characters and women like them, whose struggles—and equally as important, whose resilience and endurance—are continuous and unending.
I truly hope that sometime in the near future, this quietly brilliant author’s work will begin to have a renaissance of its own. If you have an interest in early African-American literature, the sometimes archaic vocabulary and old-fashioned aspects of the novel probably won’t put you off too much. Delving into Fauset’s writing—both her novels and essays—is a really rewarding experience that creates a fascinating through-line between the past and present. It’s relevant, sharp, and unforgettable. What are you waiting for?