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Private Lives, Proper Relations: Regulating Black Intimacy Hardcover – June 22, 2007
Private Lives, Proper Relations begins with the question of why contemporary African American literature—particularly that produced by black women—is continually concerned with issues of respectability and propriety. Candice M. Jenkins argues that this preoccupation has its origins in recurrent ideologies about African American sexuality, and that it expresses a fundamental aspect of the racial self—an often unarticulated link between the intimate and the political in black culture.
In a counterpoint to her paradigmatic reading of Nella Larsen’s Passing, Jenkins’s analysis of black women’s narratives—including Ann Petry’s The Street, Toni Morrison’s Sula and Paradise, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and Gayl Jones’s Eva’s Man—offers a theory of black subjectivity. Here Jenkins describes middle-class attempts to rescue the black community from accusations of sexual and domestic deviance by embracing bourgeois respectability, and asserts that behind those efforts there is the “doubled vulnerability” of the black intimate subject. Rather than reflecting a DuBoisian tension between race and nation, to Jenkins this vulnerability signifies for the African American an opposition between two poles of potential exposure: racial scrutiny and the proximity of human intimacy.
Scholars of African American culture acknowledge that intimacy and sexuality are taboo subjects among African Americans precisely because black intimate character has been pathologized. Private Lives, Proper Relations is a powerful contribution to the crucial effort to end the distortion still surrounding black intimacy in the United States.
Candice M. Jenkins is associate professor of English at Hunter College, City University of New York.
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- Publisher : Univ Of Minnesota Press; First edition (June 22, 2007)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 240 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0816647879
- ISBN-13 : 978-0816647873
- Item Weight : 10.4 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.89 x 0.9 x 9 inches
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Jenkins's study does a fine job of outlining how the wish came to assume such social and political importance in the black community, which, since Emancipation, has had to overcompensate for entrenched sexualized racism (i.e., black sexual "deviance") by valorizing the upstanding, normalized figure of the "proper" black man and the "proper" black woman. But Jenkins's book does an equally fine job of showing how some of last century's most celebrated black writers -- from Nella Larsen to Toni Morrison -- have taken the salvific wish to task, underscoring the social, psychic, and gendered violence that inheres in a community's efforts to "police" sex and sexuality. Impressive about Jenkins's analysis is her ability to move between social science and literature with jargon-free precision, and without reducing the one to the other. Rather, her readings of public policy reports (such as the infamous Moynihan Report) and literary texts are made even stronger by situating them alongside each other.
Jenkins's analytic of the salvific wish leads her to offer up the most compelling critical readings of Toni Morrison's *Paradise* and Gayl Jones's *Eva's Man* to date -- which is saying a lot, given the amount of attention paid to these texts by literary scholars. Moreover, Jenkins's book lends a deeper understanding to contemporary black queer politics by historicizing the context out of which black sexual politics more generally developed in the twentieth century. Too often black cultural studies has valorized the politics of black queer theory without presenting the historical backdrop to intraracial policing of black sexual politics. Jenkins's book is thus a historically rich corrective to more well-known studies such as Roderick Ferguson's muddled *Aberrations in Black* and Dwight McBride's uninspiring *Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch*. *Private Lives, Proper Relations* stands with Cathy Cohen's work as offering up the most theoretically and contextually sophisticated analysis of contemporary black sexual politics.
In Jenkins and Cohen, we are posed with the question: Respectability (or acceptance) at what COST to our sexual and intimate lives? Their answer is that we move beyond the politics of the salvific wish and begin to imagine black sexual and political culture beyond the dictates of what constitutes the "norm" in mainstream society.
Jenkins's analysis of black women's narratives -- including Ann Petry's The Street, Toni Morrison's Sula and Paradise, Alice Walker's The Color Purple and Gayl Jones's Eva's Man -- offers a theory of black subjectivity. Here Jenkins describes how the middle-class tries to save the black community from accusations of sexual and domestic oddity by embracing traditionally "normal" values and behavior. Unfortunately behind those efforts there is the implied "doubled vulnerability" of the black intimate subject: racial scrutiny and the proximity of human intimacy.
This book was not an easy read for me. I had a very hard time getting into it. I must say, however, that the content is illuminating and definitely worth the time invested if you stick with it. For anyone interested in Women's Studies and studies of gender, sexuality and class in African American literature, particularly that of the 20th century, this book is for you. Private Lives, Proper Relations is a powerful contribution to the crucial effort to end the distortion still surrounding black intimacy in the United States.