Bernice L. McFadden: Glorious (2010)

Glorious is set against the backdrops of the Jim Crow South, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Civil Rights era. Blending fact and fiction, Glorious is the story of Easter Venetta Bartlett, a fictional Harlem Renaissance writer whose tumultuous path to success, ruin, and ultimately revival offers a candid and true portrait of the American experience in all its beauty and cruelty.

What an entertaining and well written book! I always say that I don’t like historical novels but I really liked this one a great deal. I had a feeling I had only just started when it was already finished.

Glorious tells the story of the fictitious Harlem Renaissance writer E.V. Gibbs whose maiden name was Easter Venetta Bartlett.

Easter’s story is a blend of fact and fiction and from what I can judge McFadden put a lot of effort into the research of her topic and manages to weave it artfully into the story.

I was drawn into the book from the first pages on. In the prologue we read about the tragic beginning of Easter’s story. I liked the way McFadden did this in adding a long list of sentences  and paragraphs all starting with “If….” It exemplifies something that is on my mind a lot, namely the one single instance or occurrence in which a fatal or happy series of events is triggered, the one crucial point that determines the course a life will take.

If her father hadn’t won a boxing match, Easter’s sister wouldn’t have been raped. If that hadn’t happened her father wouldn’t have had an affair and her mother wouldn’t have died. If her mother hadn’t died, Easter wouldn’t have left her hometown and if….

But it did happen and Easter leaves. First she stays with relatives in the Jim Crow South until she witnesses a lynching.  She escapes and joins a travelling circus where she meets the charismatic, lesbian Rain. Easter will not stay very long with the circus and moves on. After some more trials and tribulations she arrives in New York.

She settles down in New York, finds a job that pays he bills, meets a man from the Caribbean and gets married.

Since her early days Easter has always written stories. In New York, after having met Rain again and been introduced to Meredith Tomas, the rich wife of a Cuban plantation owner, she is discovered as the great hidden talent she is. All the prominent people of the Harlem  Renaissance like her writing and she is very influential.

Chance however is not on her side. Her husband who attempts to murder Marcus Garvey, dies soon after her talent has been discovered and Meredith, consumed by envy of her talent, steals Easter’s novel.

The last chapters fast forward some 4o years and we see what has become of  Easter who is now an elderly woman working as a maid in her hometown.

As I said, this book is based on a lot of facts and I’m pretty sure, that it is to a large extent inspired by Nella Larsen’s biography whose career did also end with an accusation of plagiarism.

The beginning in the Jim Crow South is maybe the best part of the novel. The descriptions are very powerful and almost cinematographic. What a monstrosity the South of those days was. It made me think of the song Strange Fruit. I have been collecting versions of it for years now.

Glorious will not be my last Bernice McFadden novel. She really is a very talented writer and it was a highly entertaining read. I already got her first novel Sugar here.

I’m amazed that she hasn’t been translated into German. If there is one market for which her novel would be perfect, it is the German one.

I wouldn’t have read this book if it hadn’t been for a comment by Anna (Diary of an Eccentric) who mentioned it on my first Nella Larsen post.

Here is the link to Anna’s review and to my first Nella Larsen post on Quicksand and to the second on Passing.

Last but not least here is the link to Bernice McFadden’s Blog.

I couldn’t resist and have attached one of my favourite Strange Fruit versions sung by Nina Simone. The video is worth watching as well. It’s very shocking.

The Fiction of Nella Larsen Part II: Passing (1929) A Classic of Harlem Renaissance

Passing (1929) tackles the sensitive issue of black people who ‘pass’ for white. It also explores the desire of one woman for another – a new and daring theme for the writing of the time.

I just reviewed Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and since I liked it great deal I thought I will read and review her second novel Passing right away as well. Some details on her life can be found on the review of Quicksand.

As said, I liked Quicksand, the main character is so fascinating, still I was surprised how powerful Passing is. It’s an extraordinary story. I was hooked from the first sentence and found it extremely captivating, almost as gripping as a thriller.

Irene, a woman of mixed origins, gets a letter from another woman, Clare, with whom she grew up. The woman has a similar back ground only she has no parents. She isn’t only very light-skinned but her father was white. The two women had met in Chicago, a few years back, after having lost contact for twelve years. They met in an expensive tea room to which black people aren’t allowed. Irene is often ‘passing’ as she is very light-skinned. While she is sitting in the tea-room, enjoying her tea and the elegant surroundings, she notices another woman staring at her. The beautiful and elegant blond woman has alabaster toned skin and Irene is scared she might have found out until she realizes, she knows the woman. Irene always assumed that Clare has become a prostitute but as it seems she got married to a white man and is obviously “passing” for good. Clare invites Irene to her place to meet her husband and family and also invites another girl who also “passes” frequently.

What could have been a pleasant get-together turns into something that is hardly imaginable. Clare’s husband starts to talk about “niggers” and how much he despises them, that he would immediately leave his wife if he found out that she is “a nigger.” Picture this: there sits this condescending man, married to a woman of mixed origins, talking to her two friends of equally mixed origins and he doesn’t get. Not only does he not get, he would still leave her, if he found out although there seems to be nothing that indicates her being different in any way.

Irene doesn’t want to see Clare anymore after this. She is deeply humiliated and outraged. But Clare cannot let go. She wants to see her again. She wants to frequent “her people”. From a story about race, Passing develops into a novel of gender roles, jealousy, attraction and hatred. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but the development and the ending are quite unexpected and cruel.

Passing illustrates the complexity of notions of race even better than Quicksand.

“Yes, I understand what you mean. Yet lots of people ‘pass’ all the time.”

“Not on our side, Hugh. It’s easy for a Negro to ‘pass’ for white. But I don’t think it would be simple for a white person to ‘pass’ for colored.”

This is a highly interesting aspect and seems to indicate that African-American people are far more sensitive to race than white people, which makes the racism of white people all the more absurd. If they don’t get the difference, unless it is really obvious, what is the prejudice based on? The perception of African-Americans is much more nuanced. From my studies (I have an unfinished interdisciplinary Ph.D. on Haitian literature in my drawers) I know that in Haiti, for example, there are at least ten different expressions for skin-tones. Only a very few Haitians are just called “black”. Each skin-tone is linked to a specific social status. The lighter the better. (You could say that the suppressor’s or colonialist’s belief system has been fully internalized).

If I have to compare the novels, I think I liked Quicksand more as I found Helga Crane such a moving character.

It is sad that Nella Larsen didn’t write any other novels and I would like to know what really spurred that decision. Maybe she wanted to turn her back on her past. She had a troubled marriage and was writing during that marriage. Sometimes we cut off something that we really like just because it is tied to something unpleasant in our past.

The Fiction of Nella Larsen Part I: Quicksand (1928) A Classic of Harlem Renaissance

Born to a white mother and an absent black father, and despised for her dark skin, Helga Crane has long had to fend for herself. As a young woman, Helga teaches at an all-black school in the South, but even here she feels different. Moving to Harlem and eventually to Denmark, she attempts to carve out a comfortable life and place for herself, but ends up back where she started, choosing emotional freedom that quickly translates into a narrow existence.

The foreword states that if we don’t call Jane Toomer’s Cane a novel then the most accomplished novel of the Harlem Renaissance movement would be Nella Larsen’s Quicksand.  I discovered Nella Larsen just recently while compiling books for different reading projects I have started, one of them being dedicated to African-American writers. Nella Larsen is, like Zora Neale Hurston, and some other African-American writers, a mystery.

Nella was born to a Danish mother and a West Indian father. These mixed origins are reflected in her work. She wrote only two novels, Quicksand and Passing (which I will review later) and three short stories. After an unsavoury accusation of plagiarism concerning her last short story, she stopped writing. This may or may not have been the reason, it isn’t exactly clear. Before she started writing she was a nurse, later became a librarian and after she stopped writing, worked as a nurse again during the last 30 years of her life. A lot – like in Zora Neale Hurston’s case – isn’t clear. It was never really established when she died, she went under many different names and she fabricated stories around her biography which obscured the facts.

Quicksand is a wonderful novel. I enjoyed it a great deal. It has so much to offer and reminded me at times of the novels of Elizabeth Taylor which is high praise. Helga Crane, the main character, is one of the most interesting heroines I’ve come across recently. A fascinating character. Quicksand explores different themes, the most important are race and gender. It was interesting to read about this. What would it be like if you were constantly aware of the color of your skin? If what you look like is more defining than who you are? For Helga this is doubly tragic as she is, like Nella Larsen herself, of mixed origins. The mother is Danish, the father Afro-American. She isn’t accepted by the Whites and mostly has to hide her white heritage from the Black people around her. There is such a thing as a Harlem High Society and Helga, being a beautiful woman, frequents this society, the cabarets, cocktail parties, salons in which endless discussion on race bore her.

At the beginning of the novel she is a teacher in Naxos but restlessness and contempt for the methods that are applied there, lead her to leave and go back to her home town Chicago. This wasn’t such a good idea, as she has to realize, as it is hard for her to find another job. On top of that she loves nice things, clothes, accessories and spends too much.

Luck is on her side and she finds an employer who takes her to New York, introduces her to the high society of Harlem. A beautiful rich widow, Anne, lets her live at her place until, once more, after some months, she is restless and decides to go to Denmark to visit her mother’s sister.

In Denmark she experiences another side of racism. She is paraded and admired like an exotic animal. One of the most famous men, a painter, wants to get married to her. She enjoys her stay in Denmark. Like before in New York, she thinks at first that she has found “her place”, her home. But once more she gets restless and returns to New York.

Offers for marriage are frequent and equally frequent are her refusals. It is also typical for Helga to be happy when she newly arrives in a place and to see it lose its lustre after a while. When the enthusiasm fades, she is prone to nervous attacks, panic and depression. At the end of her second stay in New York, this happens again.

Helga’s life is a sequence of bad choices, of restlessness, pervaded by a deep feeling of not belonging. When, in a stormy night, she lands in some Christian congregation, she grasps the opportunity to be “saved” and when the pastor asks her to marry him, she accepts and follows him to Alabama.

Her first months in Alabama are full of bliss. She enjoys married life, to be the wife of an important man. There are a few signs here and there that this is superficial and the surface will crack soon but before her first child is born, she is feeling happy.

Everything contributed to her gladness in living. And so for a time she loved everything and everyone. Or thought she did. Even the weather. Ad it was truly lovely. By day a glittering gold sun was set in an unbelievably bright sky. In the evening silver buds sprouted in a Chinese blue sky, and the warm day was softly soothed by a slight cool breeze.And night! Night, when a languid-moon peeped through the wide-open windows of her little house, a little mockingly, may be. Always at night Helga was bewildered by a disturbing medley of feelings. Challenge. Anticipation. And a small fear.

The last part shows us a broken Helga. Someone who looks back on a ruined life, who hates motherhood or rather bearing children. By now  she is the mother of five children and we know there will be more.  She tries to make friends but her natural elegance and haughty looks keep her always outside.

I really liked this book, because I liked the writing and I loved Helga Crane. She is an endearing character with all her wishes, her longing, the restlessness and the feeling of being an outsider wherever she goes. We can see in her every outsider, every human being who doesn’t fully belong, every one who is looking for something to transcend the ordinary. She stands for so many people who are different. But she also stands for the many women who find it hard to live the life of a wife and mother, who are worn out by birth. 

Helga is a tragic figure and did remind me of a friend of mine who, full of hope for something better, turned down every good job offer he got and finally, running out of opportunities,  had to go for something far below his capacities in the end.

There are many interesting parts on race and gender and the criticism of many aspects – for example Christian faith and its promises of a later redemption in which so many Afro-Americans believed and which held them down for so long – are intriguing.

I’m looking forward to read her stories and her second novel Passing.

I should add that both novels are very short, only 130 pages long. I hope this tempts you.