Nature vs. Nurture: The Household is Ground Zero for Sexism and Racism in Plum Bun

Jessie Redmon Fauset wrote Plum Bun in 1929 after many years acting within the Harlem Renaissance movement as an editor and member of the literary elite, resisting the movement and publishers’ interest in promoting “elevated primitivism.” As Deborah McDowell points out in her introduction to Plum Bun, McDowell says Fauset did not achieve notoriety for the same reason as Nella Larson, Zora Neale Hurston, and so many other women in the movement—their works were dismissed as literal, their nuanced societal critiques overlooked. Unlike Hurston, though, Fauset has still not been fully recognized, and McDowell recounts that when she mentions the author, people ask, “’Who is he?’” Some of Fauset’s criticism of black society is evident in the first two chapters of the novel, and the things its main character, Angela, perceives as her true wants, reveal the effects of socialization on women’s desires and lives. A correlation exists between acceptance of norms as evolutionary impulse that shape the content of lives and the canon’s reflection of the judgements made about black women’s writing.

Colorism shows up almost immediately in Plum Bun when the narrator describes how the light-skinned mother, Mattie, and Angela travel separately from the other daughter and father, who are both dark-skinned. Framed as an effort to move more efficiently, the family effectively segregates itself, and this has a normalizing effect on the daughters. It is impossible to imagine that they and especially Angela would assume segregation is morally acceptable when their parents not only do not decry it, but also practice it within their family.

Not only will this shape the girls’ approach to perceived racial difference, Fauset also uses it to emphasize assumptions about skin tone within the African American population. It is no accident that the darker skinned daughter is paired with the father, suggesting she is more masculine, and prefers Saturday to Sunday, the holy day. Angela is with her light-skinned mother and enjoys doing stereotypically feminine tasks and displaying herself in what she considers glamorous settings.

Another scene is the Sunday routine outlined in Chapter two. Again, segregation acts here when Angela and her sister Virginia split Saturday and Sunday as their individual days. Angela’s day as Sunday, and the narrator says, “She was only twelve at this time, yet she had already developed a singular aptitude and liking for the care of the home, and this her mother gratefully fostered” (Fauset 20). Angela seems to assume that her affinity for the tasks she goes on to describe are natural and genuinely her inclinations. I would challenge that and assert that socialization of gender norms is in action at least within this family. Angela’s mother has a key role in Angela’s adoption of this routine when she “fostered” it.

Angela’s mother, Mattie, is not only the person supporting Angela’s domesticity, but also the little girls model for the way she practices these activities. Fauset writes, “She set the muffins in the oven, pursing her lips and frowning a little just as she had seen her mother do; then she went to the fort of the narrow, enclosed staircase and called “hoo-hoo” with a soft rising inflection,— ‘last call to dinner,’ her father termed it” (Fauset 21). Angela mimics her mother, the same person who models passing for her and her partner in their segregated household. She acts out the physical signs of frustration, “pursing her lips” and “frowning,” as pleasurable, failing to consider her mother’s indicated displeasure with those obligations. Perhaps her mother “fostered” this behavior because she does not enjoy doing all the household work Angela aspires to.

Angela’s believes that her desires are her own, as evidenced by her frustration with going to church. Angela finds herself, “wondering at just what period of one’s life existence began to shape itself as you wanted it” (Fauset 22). It does not occur to Angela that the activities she would choose are also a function of her socialization.  This section, without explicitly saying that internal racism or gender roles are reinforced within African American families, demonstrates it and its effects on the children. The children do not know that their activities are not the natural instincts they believe, but rather the result of lifelong conditioning. This is the same training that critics of Fauset and other women received, which led them to assume their texts were simple denouncements of black men and traditional roles rather than the societal pressures that, when unexamined, force people into lifelong paths. If they choose their own, as Fauset did, their narratives are ignored.

Fauset, Jessie Redmon. Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral. Beacon, 1990.

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