Why does Hopkins chose to underplay or ignore certain realities in African American women’s lives at the turn of the 20th century?
On the contrary, Hopkins does not "downplay" or "ignore" the plights of black women. In "Contending Forces," she deals with issues such as prostitution, the pursuit of employment among Southern migrants, colorism (which more often negatively impacted women than men, given the equation of "whiteness" with beauty), and feminism. It is important, too, to think within the context of the time (1900). For example, our concerns regarding prostitution and feminism are different compared to what was politicized in 1900.
In the 19th century, prostitution was a major problem in Northern cities. This tale takes place in Boston. Working-class women sometimes became prostitutes to supplement the meager wages they earned from their jobs. Some of these women often had many children to support. It is very likely that numerous women from the South, particularly those who could not secure "respectable" employment as maids, would have become prostitutes to support themselves.
For late-19th and early-20th century black reformers looking to "lift up" the race, this matter caused much concern and debate. Hopkins deals with this in Chapter VI of the novel, in the exchange between Dora and Sappho. Sappho, of course, has once been a prostitute. Dora asks Sappho if she does not think that a woman should "be condemned to eternal banishment" for this "misstep." Sappho says "no," and goes on to assert that "we would hang our heads in shame at having the temerity to judge a fallen sister." The language here is blatantly religious. Given the importance of churches in black communities, this is natural for the time.
This sympathetic language, however, is contrasted with Mrs. Davis's unforgiving assessment of the manners of young black girls on a streetcar: "They was a-trampin' onto the feet of every white man an' woman in thet car to show the white folks how free they was!" Mrs. Davis decries the poor etiquette of this group and emphasizes the fact that they were "gals, young jades," to show that this behavior is especially reprehensible among women. For black men looking to gain entry into white society, manners were very important. For black women, manners were doubly important, given the prevalence of sexism.
In regard to the Woman Question, Mrs. Willis, who leads a sewing circle, is an "example of a class of women of color that came into existence at the close of the Civil War." She is blatantly political, and the sewing circle is a cover for the political action group she has actually organized.
While married, she "urged" her husband to pursue a seat in the State Legislature. Hopkins's use of the word "urged" suggests that Mrs. Willis was trying to fulfill her own political ambitions through her husband. After his death, she becomes immersed in "the Woman Question," particularly the needs of black women: "The advancement of the colored woman should be the new problem in the woman question...".
In one conversation with her group in Chapter VIII, she and the members of the circle discuss the issue of virtue. Sappho wonders aloud if black women will not be punished for the "illegitimacy" they have brought to the race -- that is, the bastard children of slave women and their masters. Mrs. Willis refutes the notion that these women can bear any moral responsibility, given that they were forced into slavery and raped, with no legal recourse.
The lingering effects of these abuses against black women are, arguably, still felt today. However, at the time, the rapes of black women, and the progeny that resulted, helped lead to the dissolution of black marriages and families. The prevalence of this abuse also led to black women's bodies becoming sexualized.
It is also important to note that, in her novel, Hopkins avoids the trope of the "tragic" mulatto. That is, the mulatto female characters (Dora, Sappho) do not die at the end. In 19th-century black literature, this trope was very common. The idea was that this woman, caught between two worlds -- black and white -- was doomed to be rejected by both due to her illegitimacy. Hopkins uses Mrs. Willis's voice to reject this notion. She asserts the truth that there is "no such thing as an unmixed black on the American continent," thereby making all American blacks "illegitimate" to some degree. Dora then goes on to say that, though mulatto, she is "not unhappy" and does not "want to die before my time comes."
Given her exploration of issues related to feminism, colorism, and the exploitation of the black female body, Hopkins does not "underplay" black women's issues at all. She elevates them!
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