African American domestic crisis in the early twentieth century: the aftermath of the clash between ideals and realities of The Great Migration 2013

Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Matthew Lessig


The early twentieth century was marked by a distinct desire among southern African American males to exercise their freedom by uprooting their families and leaving behind their cabins in order to migrate northward where socioeconomic opportunities awaited them. African American males hoped to pursue the kind of class mobility that would afford their children the opportunity to partake in the dominant African American domestic ideal for the emerging new middle class: what Frederick Douglas called a "tasty framed cottage" with a sturdy white porch, a garden, and a well taken care of family just beyond that porch. However, migration patterns suggest that home ownership, economic stability, and class mobility were not easily attained by African American males who originated from lower classes; these ideals were greeted by the harsh realities of big city tenements, strenuous manual labor conditions, and continued class suppression in a society still dominated by white male supremacy. The aftermath of this clashing between migration ideals and realities for the migrant male takes the form of African American domestic violence, suggestive of the strain that migration placed on gender roles within the modern, mobile African American family. Domestic gender roles were reinvented as a repercussion of the domestic violence that ensued from migration struggles, resulting in the African American female wife and lover who rose up to fight back against the backhand of her husband, exercising her right to mobility by leaving him behind in pursuit of her own independence as a free woman in modern America.

Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston capture the clashing of African American class and gender ideals and the realities of migration in the early twentieth century through works such as Fine Clothes to the Jew and Their Eyes Were Watching God. These works also lay the groundwork for suggesting the aftermath of the clash between ideals and reality through the candid domestic violence they explore: main male characters lie frustrated in the gap between socioeconomic success and failure while female characters explore their deepest desires and entertain the possibility of obtaining an upper hand against their men. Hughes' and Hurston's work, when viewed side by side, presents an even more developed view of the aftermath of domestic violence as the African American female character finds and uses her own modern voice against her male counterpart. She is unafraid to speak her mind and show her strength. I argue that throughout the works of Hughes and Hurston, the finding and using of voice for abused African American females who have been marginalized throughout the northward migratory journey suggests a newfound empowerment among females. These females recognize and condemn their husbands' failures to provide both love and economic stability in the modern home of the 1920s and 1930s. Yet even more important than this, these women find the courage to walk away from traditional roles as wives and mothers all because they believe that they deserve more than a quiet life of domestic servitude.


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