With my first Models Monday post of the new year, I thought I would address some of the issues that I raised in previous posts. As the year was coming to a close, in one post I bemoaned the lists chronicled in magazines and on television of the year in review. Here I suggested that I would offer questions as a way of reviewing the year. Instead of a list of questions, I decided to embed these questions into my established series. To that end, my first question involves marriage and getting there involves an engagement with two books. The first of which appeared on a number of the year’s lists.
Manning Marable’s final work Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention frequently appeared on lists of the year’s best non-fiction books. It certainly deserves such recognition for the compelling narrative that it creates with the facts of Malcolm’s life.
Much was made of Marable’s engagement with a story that Malcolm tells in his famous autobiography of a hustle that he ran involving a man who was sexually stimulated when another nude man covered him with talcum powder. According to Marable, though Malcolm’s autobiography removes him directly from that scene, this was probably not the case. Malcolm was most likely the nude man offering the stimulation of talcum powder to Paul Lennon. Marable’s research shows that Malcolm continued to keep in touch with Lennon while Malcolm was incarcerated because he thought Lennon was sufficiently wealthy enough and powerful enough to gain him an early release from prison. In addition to the impact this hustle has had on representations of Malcolm’s sexuality, Marable’s well-substantiated claims that Malcolm was a terrible husband, further undermined his standing as a model of nobel reform. Malcolm seldom spent time with his wife and children. Typically, he would be present when a child was born and then he left town shortly after the birth.
One of the striking assertions that Marable makes involving Malcolm’s marriage, at least for me, was a passing remark that he made about Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s wife. “Years after Malcolm’s assassination,” Marable writes, “Betty would describe her marriage as ‘hectic, beautiful, and unforgettable–the greatest thing in my life.” Then, Marable makes what I take to be a really interesting remark. “In reality,” he asserts, “the twenty-three-year-old was poorly prepared for married life.” Explaining his assertion, Marable notes:
She had never learned to cook. Even after she joined the Nation, she knew how to make little more than bean dishes and a few beef and chicken recipes. Malcolm never cooked, so it was up to her to plan nutritious and varied meals on a limited budget. Any romantic fantasies she may have had about her future life were largely extinguished by the end of their first year together. Malcolm rarely, if ever, displayed affection toward her. They almost never spent the night out in each other’s company–throughout their seven years of marriage, he took her to a movie only once, in 1963. (147)
For me, it was interesting to think about what it meant to be “prepared for married life.” For earlier generations of women, it seemed like Marable had painted a very clear picture of what that meant. A married woman should know how to cook. She should know how to cook nutritious meals; offering variety with limited means.
The suggestion of Betty’s missed romance reminded me of another book. In a previous post I noted that I had been reading Ann Weisgarber’s debut novel The Personal History of Rachel DuPress. Weisgarber sensitively imagines the life of an African American women homesteader who she had observed in a photograph. In wondering about her life, she invents Rachel, an African American woman born in Louisiana who migrates to Chicago with her family. Rachel works as the cook for an African American woman who runs a boarding house that caters to black men working at a nearby slaughterhouse. The men fancy Rachel’s cooking and offer to take her out on dates but she sweetly shuns their advances. Rachel shows an interest in Mrs. Du Pree’s son Isaac who has come to Chicago after serving thirteen years in the Army. Isaac has come to spread the word about the Homestead Act of 1862 that enabled men and unmarried women to claim one hundred and sixty acres of public land. For Isaac, this far Western land stood as a beacon of opportunity for him to live independently and to assert himself as a man in a way that race prohibited him from doing in other parts of the country. Rachel offers Isaac a claim for land in her name if he agrees to marry her.
Having been a farmer’s daughter as well as a cook, Rachel serves her husband well as a helpmate in the Badlands. As a romantic partner, Isaac proved to be the fictional double of the historical Malcolm that Marable offers us in the biography. Isaac’s life was about usefulness and he seemed to dabble with romance if it offered him some practical use; otherwise, he wasn’t interested in sentiment.
In reading both of these works I wondered what it would mean to say of a young woman today that she was (un)prepared to be a wife. Do we still think that for a woman to be prepared for marriage that she know how to cook nutritious meals with variety? Do we still judge men by their response to romance?