Comedy: American Style

Overview

This ironically titled tale by an influential figure in African-American literature explores the tragic effects of color prejudice and self-hatred. Jessie Redmon Fauset's 1933 novel paints a haunting portrait of internalized racism with its depiction of a domineering mother whose determination for her children to pass as white leads to devastating results for the entire family.
African-American editor, poet, essayist, and novelist Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882?1961) was a prominent...

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Comedy: American Style

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Overview

This ironically titled tale by an influential figure in African-American literature explores the tragic effects of color prejudice and self-hatred. Jessie Redmon Fauset's 1933 novel paints a haunting portrait of internalized racism with its depiction of a domineering mother whose determination for her children to pass as white leads to devastating results for the entire family.
African-American editor, poet, essayist, and novelist Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882–1961) was a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance. An editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, she was also an editor and co-author of the African-American children's magazine, The Brownies' Book. Her fourth and final novel, Comedy: American Style, features vivid characterizations and enduring themes that continue to resonate with modern readers.

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Editorial Reviews

Booknews
Fauset (1882-1961) was an influential figure in early 20th century African American literature, both as author and as literary editor of Crisis. This, her last published novel, recounts how prejudice and racial self-hatred result in the destruction of a family. Paper edition (unseen), $14.95. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780486493213
  • Publisher: Dover Publications
  • Publication date: 10/31/2013
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Cherene Sherrard-Johnson is an associate professor in the English department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is the author of Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance (Rutgers University Press).

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Read an Excerpt

Comedy: American Style


By Jessie Redmon Fauset

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2013 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-78276-8



CHAPTER 1

ONCE, before Olivia had attained to that self-absorption and single-mindedness which were to stamp her later life, she had remarked a text in Sunday School which had given her considerable pause. It read: "Behold how great a matter a little fire kindleth." She had gazed at it with unimaginative and wholly preoccupied concentration, struck for the moment with the solemnity and awfulness inhering in the words. After a few moments' reflection she came to the conclusion—she was nine at the time—that "the little fire" was a match and "the great matter" of course was a great fire. The Bible had such a roundabout way of saying things!

It is likely that never again in her whole life did she consider that text. For it was not many years later that a little fire kindled for her a great matter with which she was destined to combat all her life. But she herself did not know that she was engaged in any struggle nor was she oftener than once even dimly aware of the vastness and extent of the conflagration.

* * *

The little fire was really kindled by two events. The first took place one glacial January afternoon when a snowball aimed none too adroitly by her small tawny hand found a more direct mark than she anticipated. The girl whom she had hit lived in the same block with her, but had never before spoken to her little colored neighbor. Now she turned and called out with raucous fury: "Don't you ever hit me again with a snowball, you nasty little nigger!"

The other children had been perfectly cognizant of Olivia's bronze-brown father with his crisp black hair and his merry eyes. But Olivia and her pleasant-spoken mother had been so completely like themselves in appearance that they had not let all the implications creep into their minds. Now suddenly awareness came upon them. Some withdrew, glancing at her aloofly. Others went on with their play apparently oblivious and yet contriving with some show of ostentation to leave her out. But one little girl as nut-brown and as curly-haired as Olivia herself, placed a warm tender hand on hers. "Olivia," she whispered with an insight far beyond her years, "it doesn't make any difference."

* * *

Olivia could brook neither the insult nor the pity. Brushing aside her playmate's hand she rushed into the house where she brooded long and bitterly over this awful thing which had happened to her. To be considered different! ... All ignorant as she was of the laws of heredity she knew that her father's original brownness was in some way responsible for her own.... He was lying ill then with pneumonia in an adjoining room ... her mother, wan and pale and drooping with the apprehension entailed upon her by the illimitable love which she bore him, hung mutely, despairingly over him....

Olivia almost hated them both with a flaring intensity no less violent for the immaturity of the heart which engendered it. How could they—how could they have made her colored? How could they lead the merry, careless life that was theirs with this hateful disgrace always upon them? ... A question which she was never able to answer, since neither at nine nor at thirty-nine was she ever able to comprehend, much less experience, the perfection of rapture which may spring from human relationships.

Within a month her father had died, their little household was broken up and her mother, suddenly destitute but unresentful, had moved Olivia and her slender effects to another Massachusetts town in which there was a possibility of work in a mill. By chance she found a tiny house skirting an Italian neighborhood and sent her daughter to school within the district. And it was thus that the second event added its own contribution to "the great fire."

* * *

If only a god could have intervened! If he could have set his stern lips to the rosy ear of Olivia's new, young and completely unobservant teacher. If he could have said to her with the awful gravity of a god: "Refrain from those words, for in them lie Pain, Death, Weariness and Utter Futility!"

But either he was totally dumb or she totally deaf, for as the line was passing her room she called out: "Here, that little girl right there, come here a moment." They were all little girls and they were all "right there," so that Olivia, for whom the words were intended, kept serenely on. Miss Baer, continuing in the somewhat raucous voice which she reserved for stupid pupils, called again: "Come here, you; that little Italian girl, I mean."

Olivia, now more than ever unsignalled, was blandly pursuing her way when she felt her two shoulders grasped firmly by the strong Polack girl behind her, and found herself propelled toward the irate instructor.

"My goodness me!" exclaimed Miss Baer. "My goodness me! Don't you know enough to come when you're called?"

Before Olivia could open her bewildered mouth the tutelary Polack rushed to her defense. "She's new, teacher; she don't mean nothin'."

"Wait a moment," said the teacher. "Take this note to Miss Sawyer in Room 17." Unexpectedly she found herself moved by the aspect of the forlorn little girl in the black dress. "You didn't mind my speaking of your being an Italian, did you? You know," said Miss Baer, whose grandfather under a difficult name ending in ewski was at that moment painfully tilling a field in a far-off town in Poland, "you know I think that you Italian children are quite as good as us Americans. You didn't mind, did you?" she asked again anxiously, for her heart was, at bottom, as kind as her head was empty.

Olivia, looking at her unblinkingly, assured her with great firmness that she had not minded in the least. She was, she said, proud to be an Italian.

Over the chocolate soda which had occasioned the note, Miss Baer discussed the matter with her friend, Miss Sawyer.

"And you should have seen the change which came over her face when I told her I considered Italians just as good as the rest of us Americans. I always believe in straightening these things out. Poor little tyke!"

* * *

The poor little tyke could hardly wait for her mother to return from the mill. Never a demonstrative child, she surprised her parent from the settled depression, from the almost complete obliviousness to extraneous matters in which long brooding on a happy vanished past had enveloped her. For a brief moment about her heart she experienced a feeling of warmth. Perhaps this cool, small daughter of hers had awakened. Perhaps between them there would spring something of the affection of which one reads between mother and child—an affection which as yet Olivia had never exhibited.

But she was wary. She said nothing. For her daughter, up to this point within her experience, had been like a cunningly fashioned instrument without, so to speak, a sounding-board. Touch it, play on her feelings ever so cleverly, and the response was nil. There was nothing there with which to afford an answer. Some inkling of this even in Olivia's most childish days had penetrated to the minds of her father and mother.

Like a picture film a certain memory swept in panorama over Mrs. Blanchard's mind. For the first time she and her husband had taken a complete "day off from the baby," then a child of four. With another couple who also had left their two children in the care of a kind but none too familiar aunt, they had gone to a beach. All through the lovely drowsy hours the parents had worried. "We shouldn't have left her without either of us, Lee," Mrs. Blanchard had kept repeating. "Oh, she'll be all right, Janet," he had retorted. But she had known that he was distracted.

As the four entered the aunt's house the two little Porter children dropped a medley of sticky books, blocks and crackers and with loud cries of "Mummy and Daddy!" had fallen upon their gratified parents. But Olivia had not even turned around. Instead she had taken this opportunity to annex a small, brightly colored booklet belonging to the older Porter boy. Earlier in the day he had fought her and her predatory efforts most doughtily. But now from the coign of his father's shoulder he was coldly indifferent.

Lee and Janet had taken Olivia home, laughing—but then they were always doing that-at their own discomfiture. "It appears to me," Lee said, glancing at the child sleeping placidly, lying straight and prim in her little bed, "it appears to me that your child isn't so fond of us."

For once without laughter Janet looked at him. "I'm just wondering, Lee, how she can be the child of either one of us. Do you know she's never hung around us or clung to us the way that little Porter boy clung to his mother tonight."

"The more reason why we should cling to each other, then," Lee had replied with his ready laughter. But presently in the moments between his trips on the train—he was a graduate of a medical school working as a railroad porter for the money to purchase his equipment—and in those brief interims when they were not completely engrossed in the wonderment of their perfect companionship, they fell to considering her with a mingling of amazement and wistfulness, of a somewhat wry humor and of no little chagrin.

"She's a changeling," Lee said and thereafter to themselves they frequently referred to her as "C."

* * *

All this and much more was passing through Janet Blanchard's nimble mind as Olivia waited on her with unusual and thoughtful ministrations. "Perhaps she is going to be a real daughter," she thought, leaning back in the shabby rocker which Olivia had drawn forward for her. She let her weary aching feet relax in the grateful roominess of old and tried slippers, which her daughter had amazingly slipped on for her.

A momentary flash of her old whimsicalness returned. "Perhaps she's going to become unchanged." For a sad sweet moment she fell to musing on how completely satisfying and compensating a child of Lee should be. There was that girl whom she had met only last week on her way to this soul-destroying mill, a girl who had looked up to greet a rather ordinary woman advancing toward her down the street.

"There's my mother!" she had called out in an ecstasy of joy. "Oh, Moth!" she had cried. "Oh, Moth!" The sweet intimacy of the little abbreviation had almost brought the tears to Janet's eyes. Suppose Olivia should greet her like that!

Olivia made the final gesture; she brought her mother the glass of cool tart lemonade which her parched throat so craved. "Now," the child thought beneath her unrevealing exterior, "now she certainly must be rested enough for me to talk to her." She plumped on a stool at her mother's feet. Of all the things which Janet had hoped her daughter might say she surely had never anticipated this.

"Mother," said little Olivia, "have you ever told anybody in this town we are colored?"

"What!" said her mother, startled even out of her initial disappointment. "What are you talking about? No, I've never told anybody I am colored. Don't suppose I have to. Why?"

Olivia proceeded carefully, feeling her way. If she couldn't gain her mother's consent or at least her silence, her own dimly worked out plans might be entirely shattered. "I don't think anybody around here thinks we're colored, because nobody knows we're colored. I think, Mother," said Olivia, struggling with an idea destined to become the cornerstone of many a latter-day cult, "that if you really are one way and people see you another way, then it's just as easy for you to be their way as your way."

"Well, what about it?" said Janet coldly, thinking what an intensely irritating child this was. "I hope you're not getting any silly notions in your head. Color doesn't mean anything, anything at all. It's what you are." She was talking ineptly and knew it. "There are many white people in the world who are no better off than we today. You're too young to understand all this just now, Olivia, but you'll find out that you'll have a much better time as a colored girl who eventually will come to know some of the best people of her group than as an ordinary white girl who will always know and go with ordinary white people.

"I come of ordinary colored people myself, Olivia. I was a maid in a hotel in a summer resort when fortunately I met your dear father. He was working his way through medical school ... but he would marry me ... where was I? Now he was from a fine family. His father knew men like Booker Washington and John Durham. Fellows in school with him are already making names as teachers and doctors and business men. When we got on our feet we were going to Boston. We might have remained in moderate circumstances for years, but we could have mingled always with the best."

But neither then nor at any other time did Olivia have any taste for such mingling. Much of what her mother had said was beyond her, but she could always see the facts which would support the cause of her immediate espousal. So she only said with no slightest trace of the triumphant winner in her tone: "Mother, do the people at the mill know you're colored?"

"No," said Janet shortly. She would have little chance to earn even this pittance, she knew, if her color were guessed at.

"Well, then," Olivia finished, coming to her point, for her clear mind told her no further discussion was necessary, "since the girls, and the teachers too, at school think I'm white, don't you think I'd better be white?"

CHAPTER 2

JANET BLANCHARD always traced her determination to marry a second time back to that conversation with her daughter. Her heart cried to her not to forget Lee.... "As though I could," she murmured at night into her feverish pillow. But her head told her she could not forever endure this awful loneliness which her daughter's presence rendered, paradoxically enough, so palpable. She had no friends and as she was of the type of colored people who look with scorn on what they call with special intention "poor whites," she made no attempt to mingle with the mill-hands about her. As she was always courteous and sufficiently approachable her attitude caused no rancor. Indeed, her aloofness, coupled with a certain innate refinement, obtained for her respect and at length a measure of appreciation.

Her work was rapid and accurate and brought with it an annual slight increase which she, with much more insight than she had ever shown during her life with Lee, placed in a savings bank. She, too, could plan. Finally a harassed foreman, noting that she had a way with her with the foreigners by whom the place was overrun and commenting to himself that here was an "honest-to-God" American who might be able to get some sense into the heads of these "wops," made her an assistant forewoman. And saw to it that she received not only better hours but an appreciable difference in wage.

And now, between this mother and daughter a strange contest began—a contest, however, of which only the former was aware. Olivia, with little or no thought as to the class of people with whom she was associating, was daily cherishing within herself the idea of emerging into a world which knew nothing of color. On the other hand, within her heart Janet was nursing the image of the day when she could break with all this sordidness of occupation and people and return to her own. She would migrate to a college town—to Boston or even to Cambridge itself.

How well, through Lee, she knew the type of man that there she might possibly meet. She could picture, as completely as though he were standing before her, the rather serious, slightly over-earnest Southerner desperately pursuing a belated education. She hoped she would not be apportioned by the gods to a type such as that. He might so easily be un-humorous and self-important!

Of course there were others. Men coming back for research and graduate work. Some of them already with scholarships in pursuit of other scholarships to carry them abroad in their quest for further knowledge.... "But such men would hardly glance at me and my ignorance," she told herself with her honest, clear-sighted candor. "Lee, darling Lee, what shall I do?" For always she communed with him thus, feeling no disloyalty to him in the ideas that she was contemplating. Lee, she knew, would be the first to want his girl guarded safe and warm with the strength even of another man's arm.

And immediately the answer came to her. She had kept her husband's books-many from his high—school days and all those he had used in his undergraduate college years. Everything else, even his clothes, she had sold during those first black weeks, but the books, despite the problem they presented in weight and expense, she had clung to, knowing how he had cherished them.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Comedy: American Style by Jessie Redmon Fauset. Copyright © 2013 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Chronology Introduction A Note on the Text Comedy: American Style Selected Essays Yarrow Revisited Nostalgia This Way to the Flea Market Selected Poems Oriflamme Touché
La Vie C'est la Vie Explanatory Notes

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