“You don’t think I want to forsake-us. Not at all. But I want to show us to the world. I am colored, of course, but American first. Why shouldn’t I speak to all America?” – Joanna, There is Confusion
In this passage from Jessie Redmon Fauset’s There is Confusion, protagonist Joanna Marshall confronts her brother-in-law Brian who suggests that she stick to entertaining her “own,” instead of dreaming of fame and recognition from all Americans. Astonished, Joanna maintains that she is both black and American and therefore, has the ability to entertain blacks and non-blacks. Joanna desires for the world to see her and all others like her as more than black Americans; Joanna wants to be seen as an American. This desire to bring the everyday lives and talents of African-Americans to the forefront of American society is the same aspiration that fueled author Jessie Redmon Fauset to write the novel There is Confusion. Like Joanna, Fauset believed that the world deserved to see what African-Americas were truly like and what they were capable of being and doing in the world.
When Fauset published There is Confusion in 1924, the reviews of the novel were mostly positive. Many of Fauset’s contemporaries lauded her accomplishment and heralded the novel as the first of its kind. As quoted by Abby Johnson “George Schuyler applauded the novel in Messenger, also in 1924. ‘I started reading the book on a Sunday morning,’ he recalled, ‘and finished its 297 pages before I went to bed. I was never bored for an instant. Nor once did I yawn'” (143). There is Confusion marked the emergence of the New Negro, more specifically the New Negro Woman. With her novel, Fauset sought to display a different side of the African-American experience. She wanted America, or white America, to see the best and the brightest f the race. Fauset wanted to move beyond the images of poorly educated, inarticulate women, shiftless men and over-sexualized mulatto temptresses. Fauset wanted to portray the black American middle-class. Despite being previously ignored in literature and other images at the time, Fauset wanted the black middle class to be portrayed in a positive light. She wanted America to know that the black middle class is a viable and worthy subject. Many of her contemporaries appreciated Fauset’s effort.
However, later criticism of Fauset and her novel has not been quite as appreciative of her contribution to literary history. In his book The Negro Novel, Robert Bone pointed out many flaws in the works of Fauset that he believed relegated her to her position as a less sophisticated writer. However, his criticism is harsh and unfair. As Deborah McDowell’s states in “New Directions Towards Black Feminist Criticism,” “In The Negro Novel, for example, Robert Bone’s reading of Jessie Fauset’s novels is both partisan and superficial and might explain the reasons Fauset remains obscure” (McDowell 153). Although Jessie Fauset has gained some notoriety in the close to thirty years since McDowell’s article first appeared, Fauset has still not been given the recognition she deserves as a pioneer African- American woman novelist. As McDowell points out, Bone’s classifications of Fauset’s novels as “uniformly sophomoric, trivial and dull” are misguided and Fauset’s novels are grossly misinterpreted. In fact, Fauset has been misunderstood and ignored as a novelist for the vast majority of the twentieth century.
The little attention that Fauset has received has been primarily for her work as a literary editor. Between 1919 and 1926, Fauset served as the editor of The Crisis, the official publication of The National Association of Colored People. Often referred to as the “midwife” of the Harlem Renaissance, through her work as an editor Fauset opened many doors for the young, up and coming writers of the Harlem Renaissance. She was well respected despite her differing approaches to literature. In A Long Way Home, Claude McKay stated “all the radicals liked her, although in her social viewpoint she was always on the other side of the fence.” Much of the criticism that Fauset has endured has to do with the seeming contradiction between Fauset the editor and Fauset the novelist.
Fauset understood the importance of varied images of black Americans. She knew that blacks were not a monolithic race of people who all acted in the same manner, felt the same things and had the same experiences. In The Crisis, Fauset promoted the works of more radical black writers. However, in her own works, she portrayed a less overtly political stance on the issues of the day. But this is not a contradiction, but rather a testament to Fauset’s complexity: “As an educated woman, open to many interests, she could appreciate the changes and new expressions in the Negro community. She tried, while on the staff of Crisis, to encourage diversified interests and to attract large numbers of readers. When composing fiction, however, she could only write from herself, of the life she knew best” (Johnson 149). The life that Fauset knew was one of black achievement and determination. She lived in a world where ambition was valued and education accessible. Fauset’s focus on what she knew best made her an authority on the themes she wrote about. But Fauset did not overlook the plight of black people in America, she simply choose to show a well-rounded depiction of African-Americans: “The deliberate choice Fauset made to depict middle-class black Americans, principally ambitious women, who strive to succeed and who dream of personal happiness through work and love, does not mean that she failed to depict the devastating impact of racism or the disillusionment more characteristic of the great modernist writers. She was not a privileged woman writing in defense of her class” (Schenck 103). Indeed, Fauset did not try to sugar-coat any of the harsh realities of racism. She simply chose to show that there were African-Americans who used these challenges as stepping stones, rather than crutches. Much of the literature about black Americans, written by whites during the early 2oth century, often showed stereotypical portrayals of African-Americans as victims. Fauset sought to correct this misrepresentation.
Jessie Redmon Fauset is one of the most distinctive voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Hopefully, in time she will be given the attention and recognition that she deserves as one of the great writers of American, as well as African-American literature.
Fauset, Jessie Redmon. There is Confusion. Northeastern UP: Boston, 1924.
Johnson, Abby Arthur. “Literary Midwife: Jessie Redmon Fauset and the Harlem Renaissance.”
Phylon. 39.2 (1978): 143-153.
McDowell, Deborah E. “New Directions for Black Feminist Criticism.” Black American
Literature Forum. 14.4 (1980): 153-159.