I’m fairly certain that I first encountered the work of Jessie Redmon Fauset in early high school. Someone had bought me an anthology called Revolutionary Tales: African American Women’s Short Stories, from the First Story to the Present. Her short story, “Emmy,” was nestled somewhere between the writings of Pauline E. Hopkins and Ann Petry and after a while, it became the only story I re-read. In fact, I read it again and again and again—as voraciously as I would’ve read a missive from a bygone love. It was almost novella-length, which appealed to me, because of my own tendency to write overlong short stories, and because of the subject matter (and all its attendant melodrama).
“Emmy” is about the titular character’s perfect, almost smug satisfaction with her deep brown skin color (a satisfaction achieved after years of ostracism and ridicule) and the turmoil it causes when her childhood sweetheart, Archie, grows up and reluctantly decides to pass. Archie is described as olive-skinned and, even as a child, he laments his inability to be easily identified as one race or the other. Emmy’s mother is graceful, fashionable, intellectual, and proud and shapes her young daughter into a woman with the same qualities. Archie, before leaving home to seek his fortune in architecture, proposes to Emmy, who accepts in what seems a near-fit of ecstasy, and off he goes with promises to claim her in a year, when he’s certain he’ll have made a name for himself.
Archie does make a name for himself, of course, but he does so by allowing his employers to believe he’s white. On holiday, he tries to bring Emmy to his Philadelphian haunts but soon, they both realize that he’s trying to hide her. When they encounter his boss on one of their strolls, it becomes painfully clear to Emmy how Archie’s been spending his year. Emmy, devastated, ends their engagement and returns home, sick with disappointment and betrayal.
The story doesn’t end there, but it may as well. Themes of color complication emerge in most, if not all, of Fauset’s fiction and regardless of whether she decides to neatly resolve those complications with a happy ending or opts for the much more satisfying open-ended character-haunting, ultimately race is the thing. It’s what makes her work so singular and analytical. It’s what makes her characters so hateful or lovable.
I recently, finally, read her last novel, Comedy: American Style, the darkest of all her works (no pun intended, although… cool pun. lol). The novel seems erratic in focus, divided as it is into acts, one of which focuses on a tertiary character at a time when I really just wanted to stay with the main folks. But ultimately, it’s about a light-skinned family with one dark skinned son and a matriarch who can neither stand him nor claim him, simply because he’s unable to pass. The rest of the family hides from him the true reason for his mother’s coldness: her desperate, toxic quest for whiteness. But their attempt to shelter him backfires with devastating results.
Fauset fascinates me. All her work is about upper-middle-class Black families of varying skin colors, negotiating their places in society. There’s something Victorian about her writing, full as it is of gentlemen callers, unrequited loves, high-stakes misunderstandings, hidden or altered identities, and clandestine passion. She wrote very formally; her work seems quite prim compared to contemporaries like Zora, who of course, merrily peppered her stories with dialect and who wrote about characters who were far from upper-middle-class.
As we know, Zora emerges as the hero in black literary history: an anthropologist who captured and exposed our folklore, the novelist who gave us Janie and Tea Cake, the queen of Eatonville, Florida.
But Fauset’s no slouch. She was the first African American woman to graduate from Cornell University–and the first African American women to graduate in Phi Beta Kappa. She earned certification from the Sorbonne. She was the literary editor of The Crisis for seven years–and did all the magazine’s translation in French, which was vital to their coverage of the annual Pan-African Conferences. She retired as a schoolteacher in ’44 and died of heart failure in ’61.
Why don’t we hear more about her? I wonder, for instance, what she did during that post-retirement decade. I wonder what it was like for her to lose her mother as a little girl, then watch her father remarry (and to a white woman) and have additional children. Was her father passing when he met his second wife, Bella Huff? If so, what was her first reaction to young Jessie? If not, what was her lot in life that she willing took on a black man and his motherless child in the late 1800s? I’ve always wanted to do really extensive work on Jessie Fauset–particularly as part of a PhD dissertation, but I’m rethinking the PhD, so my Fauset-fascination must be temporarily shelved–or must it? Hmm.
Anyway, if you haven’t read anything by Jessie Fauset, you owe it to yourself to check her out. I haven’t even mentioned Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral, which is her best known work and, arguably, her best work. It’s also my favorite. Start there.