Blog Post

Sexuality, Sex and Normalization of Surveillance

For the course “Blacklisted: African American Writers and the Cold War Politics of Integration, Surveillance, Censorship and Publication,” led by Shelly Eversley, Cathy Davidson, and Allison Guess, students self-selected smaller groups centered around particular themes to present over the course of two weeks.  

Our group (Daniel Carlson and Luis Zambrano) facilitated two class sessions devoted to the theme,  “Sexuality, Sex and Normalization of Surveillance.” We selected Ann Petry’s novel, The Narrows (1953), as the capstone work for this exploration.   

Week 1 - readings

For the first week, we wanted to provide participants with context and some familiarity with the racio-sexual mores in mid-1950s New England.  

We assigned:

“Color Blind” by Margaret Halsey

“Strange Love” by Leisa D. Meyer

“The Liberal 1950s?” by Joanne Meyerowitz

Students were asked to choose one article from a “1950s Periodical” folder, which consisted of a selection of articles on black sexual mores, published as short stories in popular magazines of the period (among them Tan Confessions).

We also assigned reading of the novel The Narrows, by Ann Petry and suggested that, although we would not be doing an in-depth discussion during Week 1, they read chapters 1-7 in preparation for the first class.

Week 1 - class session

A Pedagogical technique:

We decided to help contextualize the discussion of the articles by providing a printed, branched timeline.  This visual chronology of key legal and legislative milestones helped to document and organize evidence both for the current state and for the natural evolution of public sexual mores throughout that period of time, including evidence from popular publications of the period. The timeline was printed in color on oversized (11x17”) paper and distributed to the class, who were then asked to spend 5-10 minutes reviewing it in preparation for our discussion.   

Here is the timeline:

After group discussion of the articles, and because the class was a bit small that day (yes, more flu reckoning and travel), rather than break out into small (2-3 member) groups to discuss people’s individual experience with the articles, we reviewed them as one (not terribly large) group.   

Commentary from Tan Confessions (articles were retrieved and copied from microfiche at Schaumburg library), which provided tantalizing and the everyday stories and articles around the subjects of black love and black relationships:

  • Louis Jordan’s belief that he - and many other black men - were being exploited, like a prop, by his wife for money (!)  
  • “Falling in Love with My Sister’s Husband” was a short and sensationalistic piece of kitchen sink melodrama from Tan Confessions, used to set context of the times.

We discussed the remarkable popularity of these publications: over 500,000 sold per monthly issue of Tan Confession after only three months of publication.  

Commentary from “Color Blind,” an article from 1947 by Margaret Halsey, an acutely insightful journalistic piece about a white woman proprietor of a progressive government-run cantina serving members of the US armed forces base that admitted both black and white service-members without distinction/discrimination, a piece written for pop consumption (it also exists as a longer piece in book form).   

  • Black service members’ first experience of patronizing an integrated Cantina…
  • Black service member:  “It was the first time in my life I felt like I was treated like a man.”

The author (and proprietor) believed that “ A Negro serviceman who was good enough to die for a white girl was good enough to dance with her.”

In addition to the several popular publications already mentioned, we included two academic articles that analyzed the period, one from a sociological point of view and other from a cultural point of view.   

“Strange Love,” by Leisa Meyer

  • The resistance at the time of considering the full spectrum of sexual subjectivities.
  • The “behavioral entrance fee” imposed on the black woman, who must overcome the culturally imposed perceptions to gain equal respectability.
  • The contestation of normativity, and the resulting crackdown by vice squads.

“The Liberal 1950s?” by Joanne Meyerowitz

  • The prevailing politics of cold war “containment and control” extending to the sexual mores of society;  sexuality entwined inextricably with politics.
  • The long sexual revolution, that perhaps started much earlier than 1960s, perhaps as early as the late 19th century.
  • Thesis: the 1950s may have been far more liberal than is usually thought.

REFLECTION/QUESTIONS:   

How did the commercially popular publication of the time comment on the values and expectations of black citizens of that time?   

Week 2 - readings

Novel:  The Narrows (1953), by Ann Petry.

For the second week, we assigned, in its entirety, Ann Petry’s novel, The Narrows (1953).  Guiding questions and issues that we aimed to resurrect from the previous week’s discussion as they applied to Ann Petry’s work included:

What can we infer were some of the limitations that Ann Petry faced in writing this novel that explores interracial love in that time period?

Where was the issue of censorship, and of the censorship due to the communist zeitgeist in particular, apparent in the novel?

Did the protagonist Link Williams have to die?  

Is there a deeper meaning to the character of JC Powther?  Jubine? Abbie?

Week 2 - class session

A Pedagogical technique used for discussion of The Narrows  :

A participatory pedagogical method:   We decided to enter the novel through a dispatch activity that would help elicit the creative participation of all students, promote a reflection on different aspects or themes in the novel that resonated with students, and to encourage discussion in small groups on these themes and possible interpretations.  

Students were provided a collection of anonymized character quotes from the novel.  They were to first attempt to identify and then re-contextualize these selected anonymous quotations.     

The class, in small groups, was instructed to identify the character, to place the quotation in context, and to interpret possible meaning and motivation for the dialogue from which the quote was extracted.  

These were the instructions given to the students:

For each quote, can you identify the character, the context in which it was stated, and the character’s intention or motivation?

•      “Is there anything whereof it may be said, See, this is new?  It hath been already of old time, which was before us. Ecclesiastes 1:10”

•      “It was something that I did by myself with my own brain.  Don’t laugh at me. I would have been good at it. I would have been somebody in my own right and instead—instead---”

•      That’s for my black boys.  Watch them black boys, Sonny.  They drives all them other birds away. Tee-hee-hee. Best lookin’ birds of any of ‘em.  Look how them tail feathers and them breas’ feathers shine in the sun.”

•      “Oh, for God’s sake, Powther, why don’t you shut up?”

•      “A lie will be all over Providence or Berlin, or Rome, or Monmouth Connecticut, or any other damn place, while Truth is getting his boots on.”

•      “I am paying the piper.  I met him just the other day and he told me that I’ve been dancing to the tune he plays for a long time.  Therefore I must pay him.”

•      “I won’t buy any more of his goddamn communist pictures.”

•      “Mamie’s out.  Them bastids Kelly and Shapiro at the movies.” /// “Kick ‘em in the ass, kick ‘em in the ass.”

 

Responses and Commentary:

Opening the class up to discussion, we attempted to get participant reactions to themes in book, the more visceral the better, and to address.theoretical themes in discussing Petry’s life and work. Shared both individual and group interpretations and identifications, which then catalyzed many students to express insightful, even profound, commentary about the novel. The Narrows is a complex and highly-layered work and, as such, lent itself extremely well to classroom discussion. Coupled with Petry's somewhat atypical biography - having retreated to Connecticut following the huge success of her novel The Street - there were many points of entry and areas for interpretation. Contemporary reviews tended to focus solely only the interracial relationship at the core of the book, ignoring Petry's skillful weaving of multiple plotlines and a highly dimensional renderings of at least a half-dozen central characters. 

 

 

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1 comment

Dan and Luis--y'all put together a coherent two weeks of rigorous class discussion.  I really appreciate your integration of original and obscured print culture into theh conversation about the novel.  And that timeline is such a cool way to visualize key moments that surround and influence interpretations of the novel.  Great work!

 

 

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