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The Romantic Spirit of the Harlem Renaissance: Jessie Redmon Fauset

By Mary Arnold

Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961) also viewed art as a means for political or propagandist ends. In her personal life, as in her art, Fauset strove to depict the middle class values of which she saw as the way to freedom and equality for her race. In one very revealing episode in which her personal inclination conflicted with social propriety, Fauset chose to stay within the boundaries of society set for her. On a trip to Africa, Fauset had visited alone the section of Algiers named the Kasbah. She returned the next day with two companions, only to be warned by a Frenchwoman that the "quarters are too dangerous to visit without an escort" (Wall 34). Notwithstanding the fact that she had been there alone already and now had two companions, Fauset adhered to the proper conduct the Frenchwoman informs her of.

Fauset had earned degrees from Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, and had worked as a high school teacher for fourteen years before becoming involved in the Renaissance (Wall 35). During the years she spent as literary editor of The Crisis, from 1919 to 1926, she was also the "most prominent black woman writer" (Wall 36). Fauset published "poems, reportage, reviews, short stories, and translations" in addition to her four novels (Wall 36).

Being strictly conservative, Fauset "adapted the conventions of the sentimental novel to her own purposes," which were to "explore the impact of racism and sexism on black Americans' lives and represent the means by which black Americans overcame these oppressions and got on with the business of living" (Wall 66). However, the black Americans Fauset fictionalizes are middle-class, like herself, and firmly adhering to the values of the dominant society. The novels she wrote, There is Confusion (1924), Plum Bun (1929), The Chinaberry Tree (1931), and Comedy: American Style (1933), are social critiques of African American middle class life, and a condemnation of the racism and sexism that constrains African Americans. Wall asserts the basic theme of Fauset's novels is "propriety for the New Negro woman was virtually a racial obligation" (80).

Fauset, in her art as well as her demeanor, attempts to dispel the stereotype of African American women as exotic, overtly sexual beings. In creating the image of the proper middle class African American woman, Fauset had to suppress her sexuality, and to conduct herself within the boundaries of social propriety. To Fauset, this was not a bad thing; she believed that her behavior, and the like behavior of other African Americans, would uplift her race from injustice and prejudice. In her preface to her third novel Plum Bun, Fauset describes her literary philosophy:

I have depicted something of the home life of the colored American who is not being pressed too hard by the Furies of Prejudices, Ignorance, and Economic Injustice". And behold he is not so vastly different from any other Americans. (Sato 67)

Her novels depict that, given the freedom to educate their minds without enduring prejudices or economic hindrances, all African Americans can achieve just as well as any other American. In other words, that African Americans do not possess any inborn, or inherent characteristics that distinguish them from whites; it is all a matter of social and economic boundaries that differentiates the African American race.


Sato, Hiroko. "Under the Harlem Shadow: A Study of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen." The Harlem Renaissance Remembered. Ed. Arna Bontemps. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1972. 63-89.

Wall, Cheryl A. Women of the Harlem Renaissance. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995.

About The Author

Mary Arnold holds a B.A. in literature and history. She is an author on Writing.Com which is located at http://www.Writing.Com/ and is accessible by anyone.

Her writing portfolio may be viewed at


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