The Wary Gaze: Looking at the “Exotic” and/or Dangerous

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. 

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