It’s the month to celebrate Black history and Black love.
Happy Black History Month & Valentine’s Day, Fellas & Dames!
At the center of my 1920s mystery series is Harlow and David, a couple deeply in love, but who, as they solve murders, also struggle with marriage and commitment. Is love enough? they wonder, as their lives converge and diverge throughout the series.
In the 1920s, Mr. and Mrs. David Kingston Castle aren’t the only ones pondering this question. Couples all over the country are turning to one another and asking Is love enough? Is this all there is?
Throughout the 18th Century, a version of this question is on the lips of thousands of men and women, yet it is considered taboo to think about divorce much less act on it, especially for women, especially for Black women. But freethinking, strong-minded gals like Harlow Ophelia Castle née Jackson poses the question nonetheless, despite the fact that the United States doesn’t make it easy for a woman to liberate herself. It can cost upwards of $1,500 to get a divorce in Reno and you have to set up residence in the state of Nevada for six weeks before you could even file!
Divorce Mill states like Nevada and Utah offering quickie freedom papers have sprung up around this time like dandelion weeds, no doubt in part because in the age of the Flapper, women were shortening their dresses, drinking, dancing all night, and voting as they shimmied out of their mother’s Victorian mores.
Contending with the loosening of social strictures and her own career ambitions, Harlow, a dancer in a Harlem cabaret, is pulling double duty throughout the series like most Black women. She is fighting against the social taboo of being a woman desirous of a divorce and is an upper-class Negro woman who wants her freedom. Both are frowned upon but for very different reasons.
The first one, being a woman desirous of divorce, is a problem because society doesn’t believe in women’s ownership of their own personhood—first you belong to your father and then to your husband and that is that. To deviate is to risk tsk-tsking at best and social ostracism at worst—See Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence.
The second, being an upper-class Negro woman who wants a divorce, provokes shock, dismay, and collective outrage. This may sound like a similar response to the first condition but it’s not. Much like today, where one Black person’s bad behavior is projected on to all Black people, a conscious uncoupling in the Negro community is more proof that Negroes are incapable of integrating into American society. To a people, only sixty-one years free, determined to rise in the world, to be seen as legitimate and respectable, determined to be treated as ladies and gentlemen, divorce is a black mark against their perpetual striving, to their very personhood.
Marriage for a group historically rarely allowed more than a broom to jump if they even got that, is considered the highest goal for Colored women like activist and club women Mary Church Terrell and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, and intrepid journalist Ida B. Wells. Founders and proud members of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), die-hard devotees of the Cult of Womanhood—a movement which espouses the idea that true women are feminine and concerned with home and hearth and family over self. Rising from the ashes of slavery, from a history of “husbands” and “wives”, families ripped apart and sold to other plantations, cities, or states without notice; from a history that denied Black men’s masculinity and Black women’s womanhood to attain the only brass ring or rather diamond solitaire that society recognizes as respectable outside of being rich and then cast it aside, is not only a scandal, it is enough to get you kicked out of the Cult of Domesticity. Negro club women want membership in the Cult of Domesticity almost more than they want Nadinola Skin Bleaching Crème to actually work! Especially Black Knickerbockers to which Harlow belongs through marriage to David, scion of a Black-Blueblood Brooklyn family.
Although novelists like Jessie Redmon Fauset (The Chinaberry Tree, 1931), Zora Neal Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937), and later Dorothy West (The Wedding, set during the 1950s on tony Martha’s Vineyard) extoll the joys and virtues of wedded bliss, the wider society, mainstream culture, is so unaware of this longing as to actually be offended by the idea of Black love and romance when confronted with it. The very idea is so odious that when the record-breaking musical Shuffle Along debuts at Daly’s 63rd Street Theater in 1921, there is widespread fear that a chaste marital kiss in the last Act will cause Whites to riot. Black love is perceived to be so rare as to be unrecognizable, so rare as to be feared.
This is the element in which Harlow operates, pondering her choices, her future. At the beginning of the series, she has left David while still availing herself of his name when needed and his companionship when craved. But it chafes, and she fights against the golden web, caught between her own wants and needs and those of her community.
Despite how far we’ve come, as we rally around #metoo, Time’s Up, and Black Lives Matter, Harlow’s struggle is a struggle every modern-day woman can recognize.