Thursday, July 16, 2015

Cleo and the Black Boston Elite in The Living Is Easy by Dorothy West

… she would cut off her arm for these sisters of hers with the same knife she held at the tenderest spot in their hearts.
That's Cleo, the main character of a book that brings to life the world of Boston's black elite shortly before and during the First World War.

Cleo is originally from the South, but after making her way north learns the social refinements of northern cities and marries a down-to-earth businessman, Bart Judson, whose money helps her maintain her social airs. She doesn't see herself as black so much as Bostonian, and wants to raise her daughter, Judy, to also be a little Bostonian lady.

Dorothy West's The Living Is Easy, which I read for the Classics Club Challenge, is fascinating for two main reasons.

One is its look at the world of black professionals from that period in history. In a place like Boston, a black person with some money and education could enjoy a certain refined lifestyle, and black men could work as doctors or businessmen with considerably more freedom than in the South. They might even have white friends, or at least openly friendly or collegial relationships with white people. But the author also shows the subtle but powerful social barriers and distinctions keeping the black elite apart and socially inferior to the prominent white families. It isn't polite to point out these barriers. In the book, getting by and remaining tolerated means that these black professionals for the most part try to pretend that the barriers or social divisions don't exist. Like their white counterparts, they will tiptoe around underlying racist attitudes and pretend that everything's ok.

Tensions escalate in the city with an influx of poor white immigrants, notably from Ireland, and a migration of southern blacks who are also poor and don't have genteel northern mannerisms. The black elite in the book tries to maintain its tenuous position by keeping a distance from the southern migrants. Prominent black families have also absorbed racist attitudes about skin color, such that lighter, golden skin is more favorable than darker skin - and being able to pass as white is really something to be admired among them. Cleo, for instance, is lighter skinned, and people feel bad for her that Judy has Bart's dark complexion (and this isn't the only thing Judy got from Bart - she has his kindness and down-to-earth nature, though unlike him, it looks like she'll be able to save herself from Cleo).

The second reason the book is fascinating is the author's psychological exploration of the characters, particularly Cleo. Cleo is a difficult character to read about. I found her painful. She might be shrewd, she might know how to maneuver and scheme and make deals, she might know how to host a party and make the right impression on the right people - but she remains at heart a needy, fretful child. She's manipulative and extremely selfish, and even when she goes out of her way to help people, she's often helping them in the aftermath of disastrous situations she caused or contributed to. (And the ways in which she helps them also benefit her - what she thinks is best for others aligns with what she thinks is best for her.) She can't bring herself to be truly vulnerable and loving. She's capable of remorse and pity, but mostly her fears are for herself.
"Who is there now to love me best? Who?" cried her frightened heart.
In some ways, she never moved past her childhood, and some of the main troubles in the book occur when she tries to recreate her childhood as an adult. At the start of the book, two of her three sisters still live in the South and one in New York City. She coaxes them away from their husbands and tries to move them all under her roof in Boston (with their children). She will argue that she's doing this for their benefit, but it's chiefly for her own emotional needs; she wants to taste again the life she had as a child, as their queen, telling them stories before bed and basically controlling them. She also sees in them the spirit of her late mother and wants to bring back the feeling of having Mama around (as for her father, she doesn't respect or appreciate him in life, not until it's too late - and her marriage to Bart mirrors that relationship with her father). There are times when she seems to know herself, but mostly she tries to maintain her self-serving deceptions.

The book is worth reading for how it explores the complex interactions between the individual personality of each character and the wider web of social relationships and constraints. For instance, Cleo could have been successful in business, but her opportunities to go into business were severely limited. Some of her behavior stems from her resentful dependence on her husband's income. Her husband also suffers from her dependence on him. And it's a shame, as she can be quite adaptable and resourceful; those are two of her best qualities, but she turns them towards narrow ends, both because of her personal issues and her relatively limited social role.

As her daughter, Judy, comes to see it:
Cleo made a big noise to scare people into letting her be boss. Judy was beginning to see that Cleo was the boss of nothing but the young, the weak, the frightened. She ruled a pygmy kingdom.