Stolen waters are the sweetest

Dear Jessie,

Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral (1928) centres on Angela Murray, a middle-class girl from a black family in Philadelphia. Angela and her mother, Mattie, share a light complexion and sometimes enjoy ‘passing for white’ and going to fancy places that would otherwise have been forbidden to them in the segregated city. On the other hand, Angela’s father, Junius, and her younger sister, Virginia (Jinny), cannot ‘pass’, and prefer less glamorous, more family-oriented pastimes.

From an early age, Angela starts to associate happiness with wealth – and wealth with whiteness. We follow the two sisters from the time they were children to their early adulthood, as their lives successively diverge and converge at different points, in their attempt to navigate the topics of gender, race, and class. It feels almost as though Angela and Jinny acted as doubles of one another, two lines running in parallel and yet to meet at infinity.

I particularly liked the use of flashbacks inside flashbacks at the beginning of the novel, where we get to see the family’s daily life and the sisters’ childhood, as well as Mattie and Junius’ past. Angela and Jinny are both artistically gifted, but, like many black female artists in the early 20th century (like yourself!), they decide to firstly train as teachers to be able to support themselves. Career opportunities for talented black women were rare and, like their peers, Angela and Jinny rely on teaching as the most respectable source of income available to them at the time.

When their parents die, Angela decides to move alone to New York and to forge a new identity for herself. She changes her name to Angèle Mory, fits in with a group of white art students, and starts to live constantly ‘passing as white’. “I’m sick of planning my life with regard to being coloured. I’m not a bit ashamed of my race. I don’t mind in the least that once we were slaves. Every race in the world has at some time occupied a servile position. But I do mind having to take it into consideration every time I want to eat outside of my home, every time I enter a theatre, every time I think of a profession.”

We follow Angela’s conflicting choices, as she struggles to live the life she longs for, while trapped in an intersection of racism, sexism, and class prejudices. Her complexity as a character is the highlight of the book for me: Angela is unlikeable and self-centred, and unashamedly so. “‘Why should I shut myself off from all the things I want most,—clever people, people who do things, Art,—’ her voice spelt it with a capital,—‘travel and a lot of things which are in the world for everybody really but which only white people, as far as I can see, get their hands on. I mean scholarships and special funds, patronage’”.

She knows what she wants and goes for it, but she also owns it, when confronted with her mistakes. There is an edge to her that is forever eluding the readers. Every time we feel that you are leading us through a beaten path, you refuse to meet our expectations – and, in this way, you make us confront these expectations; you turn a mirror to what lies behind them.

You also paint a complex picture of ‘passing’ – as a way (sometimes the only way, at that time and place) to gain access to education, wealth, power, professional fulfilment, social and economic opportunities; but one that can also comprise deceit, fear, loneliness, and loss of self-respect.

Angela is constantly reviewing and questioning her choices: how far is she willing to go? At which point ‘passing’ stops being a harmless entertainment or a way for her to be judged for her merits (and not for her race), and becomes a form of ‘selling out’, ‘suppressing her identity’, or ‘demeaning herself’?

You refuse to give easy answers, but we have a sense that, when violently unequal power relationships prevail, Angela’s power to choose may as well be just another illusion: the conditions under which she has to make a choice are themselves demeaning. “And again she let herself dwell on the fallaciousness of a social system which stretched appearance so far beyond being”.

This topic ties in perfectly with the title and subtitle of the book. “Plum Bun” refers to the nursery rhyme in the epigraph: “To market, to market / To buy a plum bun;/ Home again, home again / Market is done”. Each of the five chapters in the novel relate to one of elements of this rhyme – ‘Home’, ‘Market’, ‘Plum bun’, ‘Home again’, and ‘Market is done’ – as Angela progresses from her life with her family in Philadelphia (Home) to her ‘selling out’ as white in New York (Market); then her relationship with a wealthy (racist) white man, her betrayal of her sister, and her ‘selling out’ as a woman (Plum bun); her reconciliation with her sister and her coming to terms with her identity (Home again); and, finally, her decision about her racial heritage (Market is done).

‘Plum bun’ may refer to Angela’s heritage (a prune hidden inside the cake?), but also to the ways in which an idea of femininity (as related to something sweet, passive, and alluring) is imposed on her in the corresponding chapter; or even the way she sells herself as something that can be bought (like a cake in the market).

The subtitle is also particularly interesting – ‘A Novel Without a Moral’ –, given that the book is structured on a series of conflicting moral choices. But you refuse to reduce their complexity, you refuse easy answers, or moral lessons. Further, your aim is not to evoke sympathy in a white reading audience by sacrificing your protagonist’s claim on happiness, but rather to turn the mirror around and show white readers what lies behind such a fictional device, what it really entails. You refuse to use your protagonist to teach white readers a lesson that should have been obvious from the start.

Another highlight of the book for me was the way ‘passing’ (as related to race, but also class and religion) and ‘marriage’ play out as means by which disenfranchised characters hope to overcome structural inequalities, but which also perversely play the double-edge role of reinforcing such inequalities. ‘Passing’, in particular, is shown under conflicting lights: as a form of transgression of a set of arbitrary and fundamentally unjust rules; and, on the other hand, as a form of assimilation, a way of reinforcing racism and racial hierarchy. It is shown as an exercise of individual freedom; and, on the other hand, as an expression of selfishness, a way of avoiding one’s responsibility to the black community, and of exercising freedom at the expense of other people or other equally important values. Once again, you don’t give easy answers here. “Stolen waters are the sweetest. And Angela never forgot that they were stolen”.

The other side of ‘passing’ is the underlying (and arbitrary) imposition of a duty to ‘come out’ all the time. In one scene, at school, Angela befriends a new student, Mary Hastings, who, when discovering later about our protagonist’s black heritage, professes to have been ‘betrayed’: “You never told me you were colored!” To which Angela says: “Tell you that I was colored! Why, of course I never told you I was colored! Why should I?” And later, pondering on what she would have done, had she been in Hastings’ place: “She thought to herself: “Coloured! If they had said to me Mary Hastings is a voodoo, I’d have answered, ‘What of it? She’s my friend.’”

The book borrows from a series of genres and tropes – coming of age, Künstlerroman, romance, domestic narrative, marriage plot, protest novel, the ‘fallen woman’, the ‘tragic mulatta’ -, but I particularly liked the way it puts a twist on them and eludes expectations. Despite all the book’s flaws – the outmoded, overly latinized writing style; the occasional verge on the melodramatic; the reliance on bald coincidences -, I was won over by its edges, its unlikeable but unshakeable protagonist, its unwillingness to please a white audience or to conform to their pattern of what a novel by or about a black woman should be. Angela’s defiant question to her classmate echoes throughout the book: Why should I?

Yours truly,

J.


Laura Wheeler Waring. Woman with Bouquet, ca. 1940.

“All right,” she said to herself wearily, “I’ll keep on living.” She thought then of black people, of the race of her parents and of all the odds against living which a cruel, relentless fate had called on them to endure. And she saw them as a people powerfully, almost overwhelmingly endowed with the essence of life. They had to persist, had to survive because they did not know how to die. – Jessie Redmon Fauset, Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral


About the book

5 thoughts on “Stolen waters are the sweetest

  1. Hi, Juliana:
    Ouch.
    Excellent post, difficult memories.
    My family has always fought over this issue, sometimes vilifying members who passed, sometimes taking it in stride, and sometimes defying the entire world to question our loyalty to the black community.

    “All right,” she said to herself wearily, “I’ll keep on living.”
    And
    trying to lift our voices with the rest of our folks.
    Take care,
    Dest.

    Liked by 2 people

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