From the Harlem Renaissance, Dorothy West’s The Living is Easy is set in early twentieth century Boston. Cleo Judson, one of 4 daughters of black Southern sharecroppers, is the much younger wife of Banana King, Bart Judson. Immaculately dressed and constantly admonishing Judy, her 5 year-old daughter, in matters of deportment, Cleo is on a mission to move out of her current home–three rented furnished rooms “and the use of a kitchen and clothesline” in South Boston. With Judy “nearing school age,” Cleo has “no intention” of sending Judy off to school in the South End. She’s passed the schools often and doesn’t even want Judy to see these children–let alone mingle with them:
These midget comedians made Cleo feel that she was back in the Deep South. Their accents pricked her scalp. Their raucous laughter soured the sweet New England air. Their games were reminiscent of all the whooping and hollering she had indulged in before her emancipation. These r’aring tearing young ones had brought the folkways of the South to the classrooms of the North. Their numerical strength gave them the brass to mock their timid teachers and resist attempts to make them conform to the Massachusetts pattern.
Armed with forty-five dollars for upfront rent she wrested from her husband, Cleo is determined to leave South Boston behind. After all, “the nicer colored people, preceded by a similar class of white, were moving out of the South End.”
For years these Northern Negroes had lived next door to white neighbors and take pride in proximity. They viewed their southern brothers with alarm, and scatter all over the city and the suburbs to escape this plague of their own locusts.
Bart isn’t ready to easily discard their currently home with its modest rent, but Cleo argues that the rental is a great opportunity as they can send Judy to a school without “hoodlums.” They can also rent out rooms and make money. But Cleo’s private plan is to install her three sisters and their children in the home. She has no intention of running a boarding house. This act, this decision, is emblematic of Cleo’s relationship with her indulgent husband and her drive to leave her poverty-stricken roots behind. Brookline is a much desired neighborhood, and it’s here that Cleo meets the white owner of the ten-room house he intends to rent to a “respectable colored family.“
Cleo’s potential landlord, the supposedly enlightened Mr. Van Ryper is moving from his current home due to an influx of Irish. To Van Ryper, “the Irish present a threat to us entrenched Bostonians,” and he “refuse[s] to live in a neighborhood they are rapidly overrunning.” When Cleo misunderstands the motives behind Van Ryper’s White Flight, he gives Cleo a lecture about his family’s involvement in the Underground movement, but acknowledges that he can’t stand the Irish.
Once Cleo gets a rental agreement, we soon get the measure of her “secret life” when she inflates the cost of the rent and begins fabricating any expenses she can think of. In spite of the fact that all three of her sisters are in relationships, Cleo finagles the situation to get those sisters in Boston and away from the husbands she considered worthless. Poverty shapes people and race shapes people too. Here’s Cleo so determined never to be anyone’s slave that she keeps her husband, a man who adores her at arm’s length. There’s so much to admire in Cleo, a woman who’s come a long way, but the scars of gender and race inequality have crippled and blinded her emotionally and those nearest and dearest pay the price.
It had never occurred to her in the ten years of her marriage that she might be his helpmate. She thought that was the same thing as being a man’s slave.
She had told Mr. Judson on the night of their marriage that she wasn’t born to lick the boots of anybody living. It was dawn before she got through telling him what she would and wouldn’t do, and by then it was time for him to get up and go downtown to regulate the heat in his banana rooms.
The tale shows Cleo’s sharp nature–especially when she deals with people who stand in the way of what she wants and judges best–even if those decisions involve the personal lives and loves of her sisters. There’s a great scene which involves Miss Johnson, a former maid and the Judsons’ soon-to-be former landlady. The elderly Miss Johnson, who has no children of her own, loves Judy but Cleo considers Miss Johnson to be a contaminating influence and is horrified to think that through Miss Johnson, Judy may have learned about slavery. Cleo wants her daughter to “hold her head up first,” before she has to learn about the recent past. There are a few overly sentimental scenes involving “the Duchess,” and a marriage based on business which seemed a little out of place with the rest of this tart tale of the clash of races, classes, and gender.