We welcome a guest post today from Anastasia C. Curwood, author of Stormy Weather: Middle-Class African American Marriages between the Two World Wars. The so-called New Negroes of the period between World Wars I and II embodied a new sense of racial pride and upward mobility for the race. Many of them thought that relationships between spouses could be a crucial factor in realizing this dream. But there was little agreement about how spousal relationships should actually function in an ideal New Negro marriage. Shedding light on an often-overlooked aspect of African American social history, Curwood explores the public and private negotiations over gender relationships inside marriage that consumed upwardly mobile black Americans between 1918 and 1942.
In the following guest post, Curwood celebrated March 17 as National Black Marriage Day, remembering the history and impact the New Negro era had on black middle-class identity, intimate relationships and gender ideals.
Sunday, March 17 was National Black Marriage Day, a celebration of black Americans’ spousal relationships. Invented in 2003 by Nisa Muhammad of the Wedded Bliss Foundation, the day’s purpose is to recognize long marriages, encourage couples to renew their vows, and showcase the economic and child-rearing benefits of marriage. It is intended as a counter to what Muhammad identifies as a negative narrative about black marriages.
Muhammad is most certainly not the first African American to express concern or prescriptive ideas about marriage relationships and practices. One hundred years ago, in the early Jim Crow era, upwardly-mobile black Americans discussed similar marital worries. Wanting to distance themselves from poor black people and present the best possible face of respectable family life, these aspiring elites exhorted each other to help advance the race through intimate relationships. Development of black middle class identity and gender roles went hand in hand. Overwhelmingly, these early marriage boosters tied economic mobility to male breadwinning and female helpmeet status. Sexual aspects of marriage relationships received oblique and limited treatment.
Politically active and largely urban, the so-called New Negroes of the 1910s through 1930s confronted dilemmas of the modern age when it came to marriage. Evolving ideas about sexuality and gender roles made ideal marriages a moving target. The old politics of respectability confronted a new frankness in matters of sexual expression and new claims of women on personal and economic autonomy. The result was tension between New Negroes’ multiplicity of ideas and heterogeneous prescriptions for marital happiness.
As was the case at the turn of the century, the most respected marker of masculinity was authority—both financial and emotional. In the New Negro era, as Marlon Ross has eloquently phrased it, men were expected to “take charge of the racial household,” in the form of political leadership. On the other hand, New Negro women sought leadership for themselves in the professions, politics, and the arts. While some men sought to amend their ideals of men’s authority in response to women’s claims on public life, others exhorted women to abstain from the paid workforce and confused protecting women with controlling them.
Sexuality was another area of contestation. Popular culture of the period, especially films, presented a specific sexual ideal. Good marital relationships consisted of one man and one woman, exclusive sexual and household partners, who were upwardly-mobile or middle-class already. Sexual and household partnership was limited to people who were married to each other. These partners were seamlessly able to blend sexual attraction, emotional attachment, and household administration and finances. Such a vision, of course, could not encompass same-sex romantic relationships or nontraditional economic or household arrangements. However, ample evidence for non-heteronormative partnerships exists, in the lives of such luminary New Negroes as Paul and Eslanda Robeson, Nella Larsen, and Countee Cullen (whose elaborate wedding to the daughter of W. E. B. Du Bois preceded a painful divorce several months later, once it became clear he was gay).
Recently, historians have taken on the task of explicating interactions of class status and gender beliefs in black Americans’ cultural and intellectual history of the early twentieth century. Far less understood are the day-to-day realities of living cultural ideals. In my research, I have often found that attempts to live up to New Negro gender and sexual ideals lend marriages a bittersweet quality. On the one hand, spouses wished to support each other in living up to high racial hopes. On the other, husbands used sexual politics to oppress wives, and when they encountered contestations to their authority, they experienced distress and frustration. Wives, too, tangled with their uneven success in being both ideal helpmeets and autonomous individuals. Both struggled when their individual desires did not support the prescribed sexual and gender norms of the New Negro racial project.
Although my scholarly expertise on African Americans’ marriage is focused in the early twentieth century, I suspect that similar forces might be at work today. For African Americans, the realities of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and continued economic discrimination create a set of structural circumstances that can strain even the most loving of relationships. Perhaps a frank recognition of such forces, in addition to highlighting the economic and child-rearing benefits of marriage, will help strengthen black couples’ connections to each other and to their communities.
Anastasia C. Curwood is assistant professor of African American and diaspora studies at Vanderbilt University and author of Stormy Weather: Middle-Class African American Marriages between the Two World Wars.