London: Pandora Press, 1985, c1928.
I want to get this review posted in time for the end of the Diversiverse reading project. I've been spurred to pick up this book which has been languishing on my shelves for ages by this project, and I thoroughly enjoyed the read. If I mulled over it a bit longer, I might be able to draw out more of the political import and some of the depth of it. However, here are my general thoughts instead!
Written in 1928, it tells us the story of sisters Angela and Virginia (Jinny) Murray, and the differing paths their lives take thanks to their skin colour. Angela, like her mother, is so pale she can "pass" for white, while Jinny and their father are clearly "coloured" (I'll use that term as that is the one used in the book).
After their parents die, Angela decides that her life will be easier if she leaves Philadelphia and the people who know her, to move to New York where she can live as a white woman. Obviously, it wouldn't exactly work to take Jinny along.
It's an absorbing read, following Angela as she changes herself -- both her name (now Angele Mory) and her public identity. She follows her longing to become an artist, and all along the way comes face to face with new ways of living, more bohemian in some ways but also still rife with animosity to anyone with even one miniscule shade of "colour" in their background. Angele discovers that not only is it difficult to be coloured, it is still difficult to be simply a woman. This recognition, and the role it plays in her struggle to become someone, to get what she wants, seems quite modern. It reflects the current focus on intersectionality in the feminist movement -- the idea that race and gender are not divisible units to be dealt with discretely, but that they are inextricably linked.
Angele is a prickly person, one with huge longings and ambitions. She allows herself a relationship with a rich white man (her ideal for a husband) who reveals himself to be a reactionary bigot. She denies herself a relationship with the man she's truly emotionally connected with because he is poor and has unlikely prospects. She cuts her sister when acknowledging her would ruin the facade of whiteness that she's built. All of these denials, however, fester in her, finally bursting her idyllic imaginary world. Thankfully she comes out stronger and a much better version of herself than before.
As you might tell, this story is all about Angela. Her dreams, her perceptions, her selfishness, her grand gestures -- all of these shape and drive the story. Angela sees herself as a modern woman, one can accomplish things, and her story reflects that in the ways that it refuses to make her a victim of her society. There are harsh realities but Angela is no meek character mired in hopelessness; she makes decisions and rationalizes them to herself if necessary, but she acts. Near the end, when she acts from her conscience, she realizes that things will not now turn out as she'd wished. But she figures out an alternative path and goes for it anyhow.
I loved the complexity of this character. She's unlikeable and selfish in some ways; but she is also strong and lovely in others. She is a very contradictory person...so, she's very realistic. I was happy to see that there was a hopeful ending for her; I wanted something to work out after all her struggles.
This book is a fascinating look at New York (and the US more generally) during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. The flavour of a flourishing artistic community is clearly shared -- all the levels and shades of belonging among the different circles are in evidence. It's lively, exciting, and it's wonderful to have an inside view via Angele. But, the casual, entrenched racism that lurks behind the nicest faces was startling...even from those whose own experiences might have seemed to be a reason to be on-side with anti-racist beliefs.
The story is also one of personal connection, and family strength. The ties that bind Angela and Jinny are too strong to be broken forever, and this sense of love and connection permeates the book. I was so absorbed in how the "coloured" characters wrestle with life, how they come out as strong and tested people, while those who are privileged and have life easy seem so weak and negligible in comparison.
This is a powerful and readable book -- it is not overtaken by the issue she's facing, it's completely of a piece with the human struggle of the story. Definitely one that made me think.
Nella Larsen's Passing is another powerful title published in 1929, which also deals with a light-skinned woman living as a white woman, with more disastrous effect. It engages with issues of race, gender, and sexuality as well.
Danzy Senna's hard-hitting novel Caucasia (1998) also tells the story of two sisters whose differing appearances tear them away from one another, when their parents separate and each take the one that looks most like them.