In Harlem Renaissance literature the gaze is a common trope used to represent feelings of longing and desire. Subjects glance at the foreign or unknown “other”, visually captivated by the things that are different from them. In the eyes of Black characters however, this gaze takes on a more complicated and sometimes even devious meaning. The “other”, in Harlem literature, usually represents the unachievable. Characters who turn their gaze towards “others” are in actuality looking at something that they desire but cannot possess or become.
In the play Color Struck by Zora Neale Hurston Emma, a dark skinned woman, is jealous of Effie who is light skinned. Emma believes that her boyfriend John is attracted to Effie because of her lighter skin. During the cakewalk party, Effie offers Emma and John a piece of pie which Emma refuses. As Effie walk away, Emma glares at her which doesn’t go unnoticed by John. The two get into an argument and Emma accuses John of “carryin’ on wid dat punkin-colored ole gal.”
Emma’s gaze is one of jealousy and covetousness. She is afraid of losing John to a half-white woman and is therefore painfully aware of their presence everytime John is around them.
“He’s in there with her-Oh, them half whites, they gets everything, they gets everything everybody else wants! The men, the jobs-everything! The whole world is got a sign on it. Wanted: Light colored. Us blacks was made for cobble stones.”
Emma’s belief that half whites “get everything” insinuates a gaze that is not born out of desire but out of watchfulness. She is not captivated by mulatto women — she is wary of them. To her, light skinned women are not just to be looked at, they are something to be feared.
Irene in Nella Larsen’s Passing exercises this same caution with Clare. Clare, who is a negro woman passing for white, enters into Irene’s life after a long time of silence. Soon, Clare begins to win over the favor of Irene’s children and husband. Irene, like Emma, accuses her husband Brian of finding Clare “extraordinarily beautiful”. She becomes watchful of Clare and is distressed by her proximity to Brian:
“For a minute Irene hesitated, then turned her head, though she knew what it was that held Hugh’s gaze. Clare, who had suddenly clouded all her days. Brian, the father of Ted and Junior…Then she saw him smile, and the smile made his face all eager and shining. Impelled by some inner urge of loyalty to herself, she glanced away. But only for a moment. And when she turned towards them again, she thought that the look on his face was the most melancholy and yet the most scoffing that she had ever seen upon it.”
This instance of “watching” and “gazing” is one that is painful to Irene. She is watching her husband be “seduced” by an “exotic” woman and feels helpless to stop it. I put ‘seduced’ in quotes here because it is suggested that Irene is being paranoid about Brian and Clare’s relationship. Whether Irene’s assumptions are rational or not is debatable, but the fact remains that Irene feels as if she is “losing” to a woman who is arguably the “other”. Although Clare is Black she still lives life as an “other” due to her social status and “exotic” race.
When contemplating “exoticism” it’s typical for the looker to want the thing he/she regards as being exotic. Their gaze is usually one of attraction and normally indicates a desire to possess or claim the thing being watched. However, in works such as Color Struck and Passing, the exotic represents invasion. The foreign “other” does not come in peace but comes to take and steal. This is another common theme in Harlem literature especially in regards to whiteness. Although Clare and Effie are only half-white, they represent a group that is prone to “taking” or “stealing” from Blackness (especially Black women). While Irene’s racial background is not fully explored, she still lives as a Black woman and is therefore not immune to this thievery. The gaze, in regards to Black women, are therefore layered with dimensions that can touch upon status, class, forbidden love and other unattainable qualities, but it is almost always intermingled with a sense of jealousy and panic due to the instability of their lives and the “whiteness” that invades it. The trope, by modern standards, can be construed negatively — but the panic of losing to “whiteness” and the watchful gaze kept over it is not entirely unfounded.
(from left to right) My MET entry ticket and two pictures of the Afrofuturist Period Room exhibit
Our March 17th class trip to the The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Afrofuturist Period Room was very exciting. The room did a fantastic job of showcasing and embracing the past, present, and future of African and African diasporic art. This room highlights Black creativeness, imagination, excellence, and self-determination. The exhibit includes monumental people in Black excellence such as Beyoncé, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston cup in the Afrofuturist Period Room was a pleasant surprise to view in the exhibit. She is a Harlem Renaissance legendary author who wrote the essay How It Feels To Be Colored Me that we read a few days after the MET visit. Hurston’s essay included this powerful sentence: “But I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes.”
Plate and tea cup pieces featuring Beyoncé, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Zora Neale Hurston and others
While at the museum, a white woman posed a very important question while observing this eye catching exhibit: why is all of these amazing looking pieces in this tiny room? This question haunted me during the reminder of my time in the Afrofuturism Period Room. Was this a shady way of the museum confining Black excellence into the smallest space possible? “It does look futuristic but is it really future futuristic at this point?” I asked in my class’s Hot Take video. “Are we so far in the future that maybe we caught up and this [futuristic room] is actual modern?” Sable Gravesandy mentioned in her Hot Take (video below) that the items in the exhibit looked cultured, classy and represented wealth. I interpret Sable’s meaning of wealth to mean more than an economically reference. I view Black people/African descendants as having an energy and spirit that trumps wealth beyond what Europeans could ever obtain.
Brenika Banks with classmates at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Looking through these texts such as “Passing” in 1929 written by Nella Larson, gazing or looking at “the other” is central. Although when it comes to gazing it is shown in a different variety of ways. Two of the ways I would like to speak on and emphasize on are colorism and passing and how it’s demonstrated and represented in the reading “Passing”. Colorism is defined as “A preference for lighter skin tone and denigration of darker skin tone.” Passing is defined as “Passing (in contest of Harlem Renaissance) Typically involves a person of Black/African American descent appears to be white claiming to be white” I felt this represented in Passing how Clare knew the advantages of being white, in order to live a better life, she decided to pass as white by dressing, marrying and how she acts as well. Clare when it came to speaking to different types of people, I felt that she had a switch on how she carried herself. In the article “Colorism vs. Racism: What’s the Difference?” it explains the history dating back to slavery. According to the monks, Many of the lighter-skinned enslaved individuals were also the children of their slave masters, and because of their lighter skin they had. They began to internalize the belief that they were more privileged or advantageous than their darker counterparts.
Throughout the beginning of the novel in Part 1 “Encounter” in Passing, it starts with the gaze with demonstrating Irene on her point of view on the letter that she receives from Clare and she tries to see how it differentiates compared to the rest. This can demonstrate the figurative language and symbolism that has been portrayed and also when it comes to describing the letter. According to Passing, it states “After her other ordinary and clearly directed letters the long envelope of thin Italian paper with its almost illegible scrawl seemed out of place and alien. And there was, too, something mysterious and slightly furtive about it.” (Passing, 3). This quote represents how Irene is describing the letter and how it’s fancy and that it’s thin Italian paper. Also how the letter is unusual and out of place and alien compared to the rest of her mail.
Another way that focuses on and emphasizes on colorism and passing and how it’s demonstrating this gaze in “Passing” is when Jack greets his wife Clare as “Hello Nig (Passing, 66). When this occurred Irene was in shocked and stunned that Clare would let her husband call her that and that’s when she gazed at Clare and her husband Jack. According to Passing, it shows “…Irene, who had caught her lip between her teeth and sat gazing at husband and wife. It was hard to believe that even Clare Kendry would permit this ridiculing of her race by an outsider, though he chanced to be her husband.” (Passing, 66). This quote represents and demonstrates how Clare lets Jack make fun of her and a fool of her race and lets him mock her as well and not defend her race at all, especially in front of Irene. This can determine how passing and colorism are being shown in the novel because since Clare passes as white but her husband Jack still notices Clare’s skin getting darker. According to Passing, it states “He explained: “Well, you see, it’s like this. When we were first married, she was as white as–as–well as white as a lily. But I declare she’s gettin’ darker and darker.” (Passing, 67). This quote shows that Jack was comparing Clare’s skin color before and after her skin got darker over time.
Also seen according to Color Struck by Zora Neale Hurston, “Ah, mah God! He’s in there with her-Oh, them half whites, they gets everything. They gets everything everybody else wants! The men, the jobs everything!” (page 11). Emma has envy and fear towards Elfie because she thought that she was going to lose her husband John because Elfie was light skinned. This can relate to Passing because when it came to Clare involving herself into Irene’s life, Irene felt the same way because Clare was very liked by Irene’s kids, her husband and also everyone loved Clare. So in that way Emma and Irene were in fear of losing their family.
Across these texts, gazing or looking at “the other” is central. The gaze is represented in passing in different ways but I want to focus on passing/colorism and how it is shown in the readings. Passing (in contest of Harlem Renaissance) Typically involves a person of Black/African American descent appears to be white claiming to be white, and Colorism is Preference for lighter skin typically within a group. In Colorism vs. Racism: What’s the Difference? “According to Monks, colorism has its roots in plantation life. The lighter-skinned “house negroes” were granted benefits that their darker-skinned colleagues, who were frequently consigned to working in the fields, were not. Many lighter-skinned slaves were also the children of their slave masters, and because of their lighter complexions, they began to absorb the belief that they were more privileged or valuable than their darker counterparts. This split deepened over time and had real-world ramifications. Working in the house, according to Monk, “dramatically boosted the likelihood of lighter-skinned Black individuals (or mulattos) becoming literate and trained in a trade.” In addition, lighter-skinned Black and mulatto people made up the large bulk of the free Black population. Despite the fact that additional chances opened up for Black people of various colors following Emancipation, the significant social, educational, and economic advantages of lighter-skinned Black people unquestionably provided these Black people an enormous head start over all other Black people.” This set in motion a cycle that continues to this day. In Passing by Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston’s play Color Struck we can see just that we see how Clare and Emma acted towards this.
Starting Passing in the first passage where it starts by talking about the letter, the gaze here refers to how Irene is looking at it because of how much it stood out compared to the rest, this also captures a close reading aspect because of the symbolism used and how Clare’s letter to Irene and goes into to much detail describing it, how it’s elegant in its long envelope of Italian paper and how it seem out of place compared to the rest in the stack. (this can even foreshadow Clare’s life of how she is out of place in her race)this shows Clare’s new life compared to what irene knew how now it is fancy or glamorous. Another point in the reading that captures this gaze is with the “Hello, Nig, was his greeting to Clare”(pg 66). Referring to Jack and how he greets his own wife. Then where it talks about how She(Irene) sat there and caught her lip between her teeth and sat gazing at husband and wife as if she was holding back saying is this really happening? is Clare letting her husband, an outsider mock her race. This is where we can put how passing is shown in the reading because even though Clare passes for white, jack recalls how her complexion has changed over time “When we were first married, she was as white as-as-well as white as a lily. But I declare she’s gettin’ darker and darker. I tell her if she doesn’t look out, she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a nigger.”(67) there’s another quote further down in the passage that really captures the gaze “Irene’s lips trembled almost uncontrol- ably, but she made a desperate effort to fight back her disastrous desire to laugh again, she turned an oblique look on Clare and encountered her peculiar eyes fixed on her with an expression so dark and deep and unfathomable that she had for a short moment the sensation of gazing into the eyes of some creature utterly strange and apart. (69) This is referring to what jack had just mentioned before “No niggers in my family. Never have been and never will be”(68) and how the gaze they gave each other is like they’re saying if only he knew.
Similarly, how in Zora Neale Hurston’s play Color Struck we have Emma, who has a darker complexion, is envious of Effie, who has pale skin,. Emma believes her boyfriend John is captivated by Effie because of her lighter skin. In scene two during the cakewalk, Effie offers Emma and John a piece of her blueberry pie, but Emma declines. Emma throws Effie a cold gaze as she walks away, This gaze right here can be seen as back away or as to say John is mine back off. To this Emma accuses John of “carryin’ on wit dat punkin-colored ole gal.”(pg 10) and john states how he only did this because Emma did not act polite.
This is showing how this gaze is also carried out in other readings we even see how the gaze shows a message about how Emma’s eyes are filled with envy and desire. She is terrified of losing John, she is constantly aware of their presence whenever he is in their sight. Emma’s notion that half-whites “get it all” this can show that its more of a watchful rather than a desirable gaze. she believes, that Light-skinned women, are not only to be admired but also to be feared. We can even compare this to passing and how Clare passing in a way makes sense because to survive you have to be hiding in plain sight passing can lead to getting access to that wealth.