Genders OnLine Journal

Issue 46     2007

The Perilous and Imperiled Black Family Romance
Sujata Moorti interviews Candice M. Jenkins about her new book, Private Lives, Proper Relations: Regulating Black Intimacy.


MOORTI: Private Lives, Proper Relations offers a new lens through which one can understand some key late twentieth century African American women's fiction. Your book primarily argues that the hidden arena of intimacy is thoroughly politicized for African Americans, that the black domestic sphere is shaped by interlocking and intersecting social, economic and political vectors. Private Lives, Proper Relations however goes beyond the feminist assertion that the private is the political. Rather you argue that studying intimacy allows one to understand the limits of African American civic citizenship. You have formulated the concept of the salvific wish to delineate how black women's sexuality is written into claims of national belonging. What drew you to study representations of intimacy? How is the salvific wish different from an internalization of the male gaze?

[2] JENKINS: I was drawn to studying representations of intimacy because I kept noticing, in the late 20th century texts I was reading, a kind of tension surrounding these representations. The tension seemed at first to be merely about repression of certain types of "unruly" women, the kinds of powerful female characters that we all can probably name--Larsen's Clare Kendry, Morrison's Sula, Walker's Shug and Sofia. So in the dissertation, I focused on these figures and developed the idea of the salvific wish--which I define as a kind of cultural desire to rescue the black community from accusations of intimate pathology through the embrace of bourgeois propriety. But late in that process, I had a conversation with a friend about the project, and he said something like, "Your dissertation gets it half right--there is this kind of repressive force [meaning the salvific wish]. But there's also the fact that black people really are at risk in certain ways in the arena of intimacy."

[3] JENKINS: Naturally, I found this intriguing! I couldn't explore it in the dissertation, but I made sure to explore that as I worked on revising the dissertation into the book, and I do think the project is theorized much more fully because of this. When I took a closer look at these texts I'd been working on, as well as a few others, I realized that the tension existing around the issue of intimacy was not merely a matter of unruly black women--it was a matter of all of the texts' characters, male and female, "good," "bad," or otherwise, having a surprisingly fraught relationship to issues of sexuality and domesticity, and that this fraught relationship seemed, in these texts, itself to be connected in complex ways to black racial identity.

[4] JENKINS: So I might actually go so far as to say that all black sexuality, not just black women's sexuality, is, as you say, "written into claims of national belonging." This also helps to answer the question of how the salvific wish is different from internalization of the male gaze. Although I do focus in Private Lives, Proper Relations on texts written by black women, the concept of the salvific wish is not something that only black women can express. Indeed, Chapter three, which undertakes a reading of the queered patriarchy in Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982), talks in some detail about how Walker's male characters both express and enforce the salvific wish, as well as how many of the male critics who panned Walker's novel seemed to be motivated by the salvific wish in mounting that critique.

[5] JENKINS: This isn't to say that black women's bodies and sexual behavior don't play a special role--after all, the salvific wish is about heteronormativity and a kind of rigid insistence that African Americans properly perform the roles of the heterosexual nuclear family in order to keep the community above reproach. The traditional role of mother and wife is particularly important in that arena. But of course, men have their roles to play as well, and certainly can have as much of an investment in this proper performance of heteronormativity as can women. Yet, as I argue in the book, black women authors are far more likely to take up this cultural phenomenon in their texts, perhaps because intimacy has so often, erroneously, been seen as a "women's issue."

[6] MOORTI: In your book you highlight how the salvific wish has religious connotations, which are particularly salient to African American communities. Could you elaborate on this idea and if possible point out how this religious element is highlighted in some/all of the texts you examine.

[7] JENKINS: The term is related to the term salvation and has its roots in the Christian religious tradition where spiritual salvation for all human beings is won through the sacrifice of the "lamb" of God, Christ – a voluntary sacapegoat for the sins of the world. The salvific wish alludes to a political and social sacrifice and the scapegoat is black woman. As I point out in my book, according to the salvific wish, the black community's salvation (i.e., safety) can be achieved only through the sacrifice of African American women's sexuality. This call for female self-control and self-denial is interrogated by the late-twentieth century fiction I examine.

[8] MOORTI: Another aspect you highlight is that of the doubled vulnerability that African Americans experience within the intimate sphere, which you argue is a residue of US history of slavery. Could you spell out the modalities through which racialized subjects in the US, particularly African Americans, are located "at risk in the sphere of intimacy?" Further, could you highlight some of the specific ways in which residues of slavery-era ideology continue to shape contemporary cultural formations and social policy?

[9] JENKINS: A central point I argue in the book is that the realm of intimacy generates vulnerability in all human subjects and is not unique to African Americans. The primary difference is that the black subject is additionally vulnerable around the topic of race. Since the era of slavery, African American sexual and familiar character have been stigmatized as uncivilized in the United States. The established dominant culture has repeatedly cast black subjects as deviants, sexually and domestically as outsiders. The African American subject thus bears the burden of a long history of perceived deviance, of being seen as incapable of adhering to the norms of the patriarchal, heterosexual familial order. Emerging from these ideas of perceived deviance, black subjects are at risk on a daily basis in a racist society and are constantly susceptible to the consequences of the culture's hostility. Private Lives, Proper Relations highlights this vulnerability of blackness, one that I identify as a "double jeopardy" for the African American subject, which stems from this conjuncture of racial scrutiny and judgment with the vulnerability inherent to the arena of sexual and familial intimacy. It seems to me that the ultimate motivation for African Americans' continued preoccupation with propriety around all forms of intimacy stems from this sense of double endangerment. The constant cultural scrutiny has shaped black subjects' intraracial relations, a concern that is repeatedly foregrounded, interrogated and contested in each of the works I examine.

[10] JENKINS: These ideas about doubled vulnerability and double jeopardy as well as other issues which surface in the texts are reflected in the larger cultural imaginary. For instance, what do we as a culture mean when we talk about "the black family"? It is always in crisis; in the media there is never a positive connotation associated with this idea of "the black family." Toni Morrison's Sula (1973) concludes its narrative in 1965 and I argue that the novel comments upon the sociopolitical climate in the US, a climate shaped by such events as the Watts race riots and the appearance of the infamous Moynihan report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (1965). Morrison's Sula challenges ideas of the emasculating black matriarchy, black family disorganization, and other ideas that come into sharp focus in the Moynihan report but are already prevalent in the culture at large. The other novels similarly challenge and contest the conception and perception that African Americans are flawed and incapable of producing healthy familial bonds, as Rhonda Williams (1997) describes it.

[11] MOORTI: You have chosen six texts to investigate how women (and sometimes men) regulate female sexual conduct as part of the salvific wish. You also enumerate the strategies through which some women attempt to subvert this internalized panopticon. Could you elaborate on why you chose these particular late twentieth century texts? Are there other fictions that would have enumerated different facets of the salvific wish?

[12] JENKINS: Private Lives, Proper Relations considers novels written in the latter half of the twentieth century to understand the continued cultural hold of ideas of decorum, respectability and the racialized vulnerability of intimacy. Apart from highlighting the operation of the salvific wish in Nella Larsen's Passing (1929) I analyze Ann Petry's The Street (1947), Toni Morrison's Sula (1973) and Paradise (1997), Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982) and Gayl Jones' Eva's Man (1976) thematically and historically. Each book is the centerpiece of a chapter; I unravel how the author invokes, questions or troubles the ideology of the salvific wish. Each novel grows out of a specific historical context that includes particular social discourses around black intimate character. Private Lives, Proper Relations is less interested in constructing a linear account of intimacy in "the" African American literary tradition than it is in identifying and examining how and why the issue of intimacy arises as a source of tension in particular texts from notable moments during the twentieth century. The texts I have selected help me elucidate the recurrent sociopolitical and cultural power of racialized intimacy in a variety of circumstances throughout the century.

[13] JENKINS: Scholars such as Claudia Tate and Ann duCille have argued that fin-de-siècle black women's domestic fiction narrates a nineteenth century version of the salvific wish. The impulse toward propriety expressed in these fictions serves as an allegory for the social advancement of African Americans. Specifically issues of domesticity and/or sexuality operate in political ways. But scholars have assumed that with the 1920s, domesticity and the home are no longer valorized as sites of political significance; African American obsession with propriety is assumed to end abruptly in the 1920s. Private Lives, Proper Relations instead contends that the issues of black domesticity and sexuality remain vital in the 20th century; only the perceived function of the intimate as political signifier is modified. Blacks in the nineteenth century believed it was possible to solve structural and political problems of disadvantage by embracing conventional domestic patterns. The twentieth century ushered in a conception among both blacks and whites that African Americans' political problems instead originated with their group's inability to recreate "normative" domestic patterns. Thus, black intimacy continues to be politically charged, even as African Americans now are less likely to believe that they can effect political change by exerting control over this sphere. In spite of its obvious ineffectiveness, the salvific wish continues to be a central part of the black cultural imaginary, what Wahneema Lubiano (1997) might call "black common sense." Since the mid-twentieth century, the authors I study have questioned these common sense notions about black intimacy in their work.

[14] MOORTI: One of the most fascinating things about your study of the intimate sphere is the manner in which the salvific wish enjoins black women to adhere to and aspire towards middle class values. Strikingly the salvific wish is not merely a gendered concept but enduringly classed. What are the specific ways in which the female characters in the various novels subvert or at least question the "black family romance"? I was struck by the idea that there is also a high culture- popular culture divide that marks the site where the salvific wish is interrogated. Could you tell us more about this and also what accounts for the absence of the salvific wish in "popular" fiction?

[15] JENKINS: The salvific wish is a classed and gendered phenomenon, but affects men and women differently. If we were to understand the salvific wish as the desire to rescue the black community from racist accusations of sexual and domestic pathology through the embrace of bourgeois propriety, then we can recognize the class- and gender-based dimensions of this response. I elucidate these concepts in chapter 1, where I examine Ann Petry's The Street, a novel that received a lot of attention from critics. Most often Petry was compared unfavorably to Richard Wright's Native Son (1940). More recently feminist critics have offered a different understanding of the novel, highlighting Petry's ability to depict the crippling influence of race, class and sex on the protagonist, Lutie Johnson. She may be oppressed because of her blackness and poverty, but she is also victimized because she is a woman. Still, surprisingly, few scholars have commented upon Lutie's seeming obsession with propriety and bourgeois respectability, which I argue actually propels the narrative.

[16] JENKINS: In my analysis I focus on Lutie's relationship with Lil, her father's live-in girlfriend. Petry's protagonist perceives Lil as a morally lax individual, excessive in her dress, grooming and personal habits. Lutie focuses on Lil's "lush, loose" breasts, inadequately restrained by brassiere or housecoat, signifiers of her unrestrained sexuality and potential promiscuity, as well as her drinking, smoking, her dark red lipstick all of which signal domestic disorder and sexual immodesty. I argue that Lutie's decision to move out of her father's apartment with her teenage son into the ill-fated apartment on "the" street of the novel's title is motivated by the bourgeois strivings of the salvific wish. Obsessed with creating a "respectable" home for herself Lutie thus trades the imagined dangers of Lil's unregulated sexuality for the real material threats posed by the street.

[17] JENKINS: Prior critics of Ann Petry's The Street seem to accept this choice of Lutie's as the only one available to her, which underscores how ideas of black intimacy as propriety-driven have become naturalized in the twentieth century. The other works I examine raise questions about this naturalization, especially Morrison's two novels. Repeatedly we find that African American women's adherence to the salvific wish, an adherence marked by class aspirations, enacts violence against black subjects, particularly women, a violence exposed and critiqued by the novels I discuss in the book. For instance, at first glance, Toni Morrison's Sula appears to reinforce a class-based opposition between 'bad' black matriarchs and those whose motherhood/womanhood more appropriately serves patriarchy. Ultimately, though, Sula denies the stability of this binary and critiques the class-based ideology of the salvific wish, which tries unsuccessfully to distinguish between middle-class and poor African Americans in the eyes of racist whites.

[18] JENKINS: The salvific wish is not only a bourgeois aspiration that applies to African Americans across class, it applies as well to both men and women. Women's bodies and behaviors do sometimes come under special scrutiny, particularly around reproduction, but men are always implicated as well. To give one example, even as stereotypes of the "black matriarchate" and the black welfare queen prevailed in the late twentieth century, black masculinity was also pathologized through the corollary idea of the deadbeat dad. Marriage and family life are the primary sites from which such negative stereotypes emerge. Another example of public surveillance of black sexualities is the 1996 Welfare Reform Act – the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The opening lines of the legislation describe marriage as the "foundation" and an "essential institution" of a successful society and highlight the threats posed by "out-of-wedlock" births. Race is not explicitly mentioned, but it is certainly implied, particularly given most Americans' misperception that the majority of welfare recipients are black. These policies help highlight how romance and marriage have always been sites of political and state intervention. The black family romance, which may seem like a private, intimate concern, is in fact a thoroughly politicized project.

[19] JENKINS: Regarding the genre divide, to me literary fiction and popular fiction solicit very different readers. Writers such as Terry McMillan or E. Lynn Harris have made possible a mass market for black relationship fiction or urban fiction. More significantly, these fictions offer black romance and black sexuality as private, apolitical, ahistorical sites of interaction. Differences between the literary fictions I examine in Private Lives, Proper Relations and this kind of popular fiction reflect a real material divide within African American culture – one that highlights the class politics of the restrictive ideologies surrounding discourses of black intimacy and the way such ideologies apply differently to the lived experiences of blacks from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

[20] JENKINS: Urban/black relationship fiction does not typically offer the nuanced cultural contestations that drive the literary fictions I examine. Mass-market popular fictions, however, are valuable sites from which one can observe how stereotypes of black sexual excess are reproduced and circulated by the publishing industry as well as by some black writers and consumers. The extreme depictions of black sexuality and domesticity in some popular fiction mirror ideas about black intimate deviance that commonly circulate in US culture.

[21] MOORTI: Like you, scholars such as Ann Laura Stoler have studied how intimacy becomes a key site where colonial regimes of truth were imposed, worked around and worked out. Are there any parallels we can draw between the African American experience of double jeopardy/doubled vulnerability you explore and the postcolonial experience? Or more broadly, what are the lessons feminist critical race theory and postcolonial feminist theory can draw from each other?

[22] JENKINS: Stoler's work and those of other postcolonial theorists have informed my analysis. In a manner analogous to the construction of African American sexual and familial deviance, colonized subjects have also been constructed as the other. In both instances white Western culture tends to project deviance onto the other. Classificatory systems are not benign but rather are powerfully political, and the sphere of the intimate becomes key to the management of imperial politics, as Stoler, Pratt and other postcolonial scholars have argued. My argument is similar but I want to add a caveat here. Even as we acknowledge the similarities in the production of racialized people as deviant subjects it is imperative that we remain attentive to the specificity of local histories, to recognize why African Americans have become the primary cultural repository of intimate deviance in the United States.

[23] MOORTI: Your book is bookended by two instances which highlight the heteronormativity of the salvific wish. Could you elaborate the specific modalities through which a compulsory heterosexuality and particular forms of intimate violence (and epistemic violence) are integral to the regulation of the intimate sphere? Where is the space for articulating/queering female agency?

[24] JENKINS: I conclude the book with an examination of a New York Times article on the challenges young black men face in the inner city. The article profiles Ken, a young man who attempts to live as a gainfully employed citizen and a father to his children. What is striking to me is that Ken and his girlfriend live together and he is a committed father but the absence of a marriage allows him to be recast as an inadequate partner and father. In addition, this profile helps highlight how the salvific wish along with black doubled vulnerability gain coherence only from the hegemony of "national heterosexuality" (Warner and Berlant, 2003). In American cultural parlance, heterosexual marriage is fantasized as a sacred space that can take human beings, unpredictable social subjects with potentially errant political and personal desires, and make them "safe" both privately and publicly. The salvific wish, an intraracial desire to rescue the black community from accusations of pathology through the embrace of bourgeois propriety, taps into this fantasy of the marriage relation as intimate hallowed and hallowing ground. The imagined power of heterosexual marriage to purify human desire has a particular resonance for the black subject. While any project to queer the drive toward heterosexual marriage may seem like a fantasy I contend that decentering heteronormativity would help produce a radically different black subjectivity. Since black communities have always functioned in the United States as "outsider" spaces, queering the centrality of the heteronormative patriarchal family may help African Americans embrace rather than defend against the vulnerability that they face daily.

[25] JENKINS: I start the book with a narrative about the founders of Spelman College and their "hidden" lesbian history, which lends itself to a familiar reading of black homophobia. The salvific wish's investment in conventional heterosexual couplings and dominant ideas of "deviant, animalistic, black sexual promiscuity" are both immersed in the same narrow ideologies of racialized intimacy. Queering the heterosexual norm offers African American culture a way out of this intimate Catch 22 and also allows for an intraracial redefinition of black intimacy.

[26] MOORTI: Your book has a very evocative photo by Carrie Mae Weems (see figure 1) which encapsulates the manner in which intimacy and the private sphere are gendered and the strikingly different responses men and women have within it and to it. This sensibility is echoed in all of your writers but most strikingly in your discussion of The Color Purple and Eva's Man. Although this is not the focus of your book, could you explain how masculinity is implicated in the "impulse to respectability"? How is masculinity located with in the fraught arena of the intimate?

JENKINS: The cover image is from photographer Carrie Mae Weems' acclaimed Kitchen Table series and helps capture many of the issues I develop in the book. The layout and composition visually highlight the gender codes that shape contemporary African American lives. Although the couple is seated at the kitchen table, the heart of the domestic sphere, the roles assigned to the man and the woman are radically different. Immersed in reading a newspaper, the man is clearly engaged with the public arena, his body language and his comportment positioning him at some distance from the domestic realm. The woman, clad in a bathrobe, smoking and looking pensive is clearly located within the private sphere. She is foregrounded, and yet somewhat marginalized, literally positioned on the edge of the image. The photograph thus captures an intimate moment that is intersected with political and social vectors; one where black masculinity is very differently coded from black femininity. The harsh white light of the overhead lamp, which touches both subjects, also evokes ideas of state (specifically, in this case, police) surveillance, which are central to my analysis of the salvific wish.

[28] ] JENKINS: Throughout this project I repeatedly note James Baldwin as a kind of critical exception, a male author who has, in his work, paid close attention to the black intimate arena in general and to black sexuality in particular. His focus on African American masculinities allows us to see how black men are enjoined to perform mainstream, white masculinity and are always-already judged to have fallen short of that ideal. While inspired by Baldwin's critical focus on black queer masculinity, Private Lives, Proper Relations is really about black heterosexuality; it examines this hegemonic idea from a critical perspective. The book is deliberately devoted to exposing the underlying ideologies of narratives of black heterosexuality.


DuCille, Ann. The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women's Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Jenkins, Candice. Private Lives, Proper Relations: Regulating Black Intimacy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Lubiano, Wahneema. "Black Nationalism and Common Sense: Policing Ourselves and Others." The House that Race Built. Ed. Wahneema Lubiano. New York: Pantheon, 1997.

Moynihan, Daniel. The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Washington, D. C.: U.S. Department of Labor, 1965.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Studies in Travel Writing and Transculturation. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Stoler, Ann Laura. Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault's History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

Tate, Claudia. Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine's Text at the Turn of the Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Warner, Michael and Lauren Berlant. "Sex in Public." Intimacy. Ed. Lauren Berlant. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Williams, Rhonda. "Living at the Crossroads: Explorations in Race, Nationality, Sexuality and Gender." The House that Race Built. Ed. Wahneema Lubiano. New York: Pantheon, 1997.

Contributor’s Note:

CANDICE M. JENKINS is an associate professor of English at Hunter College, The City University of New York. She is now at work on a new book manuscript, which examines the shifting politics of material privilege in post-Civil Rights era African American fiction.

SUJATA MOORTI is professor of women's and gender studies at Middlebury College in Vermont. She has most recently published "Imaginary Homes, Transplanted Traditions" in the Journal of Creative Communications.


Copyright ©2007
Ann Kibbey.

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