chapter  6
34 Pages

A Female Face: Or, Masking the Masculine in African American Fiction Before Richard Wright

For a number of years in the 1980s, I collected materials for a book on Wright and Faulkner. I had to put the project aside, but in the process of thinking about Wright's commercial success and his "shock value/' I began looking more closely at the racial texts published in the decade or so before his fiction of the late 1930s. What I noticed was a simple point that had previously escaped me: in many cases both male and female African American novelists placed women at the center of their texts. In thinking about the sociocultural reasons for an emphasis on representations of the female or the feminine in African American lit­ erature, I observed what may be the obvious to many historians of African American life: that a hostile political climate repeatedly shaped a deemphasis of masculinity in African American life and not only in the decade of the 1920s, when constructions of American masculinity flourished in response to those of the new femininity, but particularly in the period at the end of the nineteenth century when constructions of American manhood issued from the rhetoric of imperialism. As a result of this observation and also of several recent provocative exami­ nations of American masculinity, most of which are silent on African

American men,11 decided that attention to the implications of female protagonists in texts by African American men might lead to an under­ standing of Wright's success.