Elevate Difference

Private Lives, Proper Relations: Regulating Black Intimacy

Why is contemporary African American literature — particularly that produced by black women — continually concerned with issues of respectability and propriety? Her first book, Private Lives, Proper Relations, Candace M. Jenkins looks at how African American writers express the political consequences of intimacy for the susceptible black subject. Jenkins argues that this fascination grew from recurrent beliefs about African American sexuality, and that it expresses a basic aspect of the racial self: an often unexpressed link between the intimate and the political in black culture.

Jenkins’s analysis of black women’s narratives — including Ann Petry’s The Street, Toni Morrison’s Sula and Paradise, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Gayl Jones’s Eva’s Man — offers a theory of black subjectivity. Here Jenkins describes how the middle-class tries to save the black community from accusations of sexual and domestic oddity by embracing traditionally “normal” values and behavior. Unfortunately behind those efforts there is the implied “doubled vulnerability” of the black intimate subject: racial scrutiny and the proximity of human intimacy.

This book was not an easy read for me. I had a very hard time getting into it. I must say, however, that the content is illuminating and definitely worth the time invested if you stick with it. For anyone interested in Women’s Studies and studies of gender, sexuality and class in African American literature, particularly that of the 20th century, this book is for you. _Private Lives, Proper Relations _is a powerful contribution to the crucial effort to end the distortion still surrounding black intimacy in the United States.

Written by: Gina Hobbs, September 7th 2007

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