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Part Two (2015): The Changelings (1955)

Jo Sinclair, Changelings Back Cover

Jo Sinclair, back cover of The Changelings, 1955

Though The Changelings is set in 1945, Sinclair began the draft that would become the published novel, not in the immediate post-war period but in 1953, in the midst of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade and the Lavender Scare, a witch hunt during which the government fired 5,000 lesbians and gay men as alleged security risks.[13] It was a year after the American Psychiatric Association had classified homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance,” a mental disorder.  It was hardly a time for a commercial publisher to risk publishing an overtly lesbian novel.  Likewise, it was hardly a time for an author to write about explicitly lesbian characters—even an author who had already, in Wasteland, created what gay historian Jonathan Katz has called “probably the most complex, human, and affirmative portrait of a homosexual (female or male) to appear in American fiction” before 1964.[14]

The Changelings is unmistakably a lesbian novel.  With its muted but unmistakable eroticism between young adolescent girls, it is #71 on the Publishing Triangle’s list of top 100 “lesbian and gay” novels, way ahead of countless novels whose characters freely use the L-Word or some variant of it and engage in torrid, often graphic, lesbian sex.  In 1980, Barbara Smith wrote about how great it was to use the novel in the late 1970s in the “almost entirely white” lesbian literature class she taught.[15] As she noted, “Although Jo Sinclair never publicly identified herself as a Lesbian, the book was written from a Lesbian and feminist perspective, and it talks about issues of race from the perspective of a Jewish woman.”[16] But in 1994, in response to Smith’s request for information about a research project she was doing on Black lesbian and gay history in Cleveland, Sinclair made her lesbianism explicit in a way that it is not in her published work, including The Seasons, her memoir.  In what she described as “an honest letter of explanation,”[17] she described her group of friends in a letter to Smith:  

I can tell you that we were an extremely private group, got together in one another’s homes (not mine, except for one or two Blacks!) to talk and eat and “live.”  We never even investigated the one Lesbian bar we’d heard about (grapevine)—on the Eastern outskirts of town.  We didn’t need it.  We were our own support group, socialized in the warmth and security of homes, sometimes with Black mothers nearby, offering food and smiles.  “Closet”?  We never used that word, didn’t know it in the Gay connotation.  But we definitely (in retrospect) remained closeted during all our years of good friendship. . . .

. . . I had my group of friends, and our privacy, and we all did know exactly who and what we were.[18]

Others have focused on The Changelings as a Jewish novel, a leftist novel, a novel about the “traumas of integration,” or a novel about the “intersection of racism—particularly as practiced by people who have themselves been victims of a similar form of oppression—and their ethnocentrism.”[19] I want to talk about it primarily as a lesbian, feminist, and anti-racist novel, written by a Jewish woman, in which a cross-race relationship between adolescent girls—one Jewish, one Black—shapes a narrative about desegregation, white ethnic racism, class, anti-Semitism, and Jewish identity.  Centering these two characters means that I will not do more than touch on the ways in which Sinclair’s novel depicts all of these critical and complex issues, as well as ethnic succession and assimilation.  In Part Three, I will explore some of the major differences between the published novel and Sinclair’s 1942 draft.  (I refer to the 1942 draft by year, not title, since Sinclair gave the same title, “The Long Moment,” to both it and the 1946 draft.)  

The 1942 draft is one of three existing drafts that Sinclair wrote in the 1940s, before writing the 1954 draft that was published, essentially unchanged, in 1955 as The Changelings.[20]  She destroyed a draft that she had written in 1931, when she was not long out of high school.[21] I draw in part on fairly recent research into the Jo Sinclair Collection and analyses of The Changelings by Tyler T. Schmidt in Desegregating Desire: Race and Sexuality in Cold War American Literature, and Alan M. Wald in Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left & the Antifascist Crusade, as well as, for biographical and other primary source information, Elisabeth Sandberg’s “Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography.”  My own discussion of the 1942 draft is based on detailed notes on it that I took in June 1985.[22]

                                                    *****

The protagonist of The Changelings is Judith Vincent, who goes by her male surname, Vincent.[23] An almost 13-year-old Jewish girl who wears her brother’s old, shortened pants, Vincent is the hands-in-pockets, swaggering leader of her street’s gang—someone who “had never actually called herself a boy, but neither had she ever thought of herself as one of the girls she despised for their soft, plaintive weakness” (17).  At a time when the street’s Jewish and Italian residents are nearly all horrified at Black people’s attempts to move into the street’s empty flats, Vincent’s pivotal relationship is with Clara Jackson, a pants-wearing Black girl from a nearby street whose parents have been looking for a place to live instead of the cramped apartment of a relative after their own apartment had been condemned. 

Jo Sinclair, Ohioana Library Book Award

1991 Press Photo Jo Sinclair, Ohioana Library Book award winner. Sinclair won this award twice: in 1947 for Wasteland, and in 1956 for The Changelings.  The photo might have been taken at the same time as the photo on the dustjacket of The Changelings (above).

Although Sinclair says that “nobody in The Changelings is really ‘real’ . . . even Vincent,”[24] Vincent clearly mirrors various aspects of the author’s own life.  Sinclair too came from a working-class, Eastern European Jewish immigrant family and grew up in a Cleveland neighborhood where her street began desegregating in the 1940s.  Like Vincent, she was the leader of a gang of boys and later created a chosen family.  They both rejected their parents’ Orthodox Judaism, with women sitting apart from the men, and found spiritual solace in a Christian prayer found in a book.[25] In the 1942 draft that I discuss in Part Three, Vincent has the same birthday as the author.[26]

The street in The Changelings is inhabited largely by first-generation Jewish immigrants and some Italians.  Sinclair portrays a wide range of Jewish characters and attitudes toward their changing neighborhood.  While a young observant Jewish man insists on seeing Blacks as “people like me, like my boys!” (107), an older man expresses the more common feeling of the Jews on the street when he describes an intense fear of a Black “flood” (42) in the immediate post-war period, a time when Vincent’s mother (perhaps along with other neighbors) had learned that Hitler had killed her entire family (186).  Although Sinclair depicts such fears with compassion, her view of religion (as well as of race) is integrationist, valuing, above all, the links between people, especially those from marginalized groups, rather than the narrative that Black people and gentiles constitute a threat to Jews.[27]

She describes how class intersects racism, as well as anti-Semitism.  As one Jewish character, reflecting a larger post-war feeling of being besieged, says, “. . . the Black Ones are at our heels. We need all the money we can earn.  All the business success.  Power, strength.  Don't you understand?  We have to keep them back, push them away from what is ours” (109).  The working-class Jewish families who still live on the street (through choice or necessity) feel caught between Black people and the Jews and Jewish businesses and institutions with enough money to move to “the Heights.”   

Whereas the working-class Jewish characters can move “up” if they have the money, the Black characters, regardless of their economic situation, simply cannot move to good housing.  So Clara is furious when Vincent, assuming naively that money can solve everyone’s problems, asks whether her family is stuck living with her aunt “like sardines” because of “no money”:

“You crazy? We got plenty of money! My father works in the post office. My mother’s got a swell job in the beauty shop. Hell, even Frankie and Bill, they work. They’re my brothers—they hustle papers. We always paid our rent in that old joint we lived in. That’s why my father’s so mad. He paid on time every month—not like plenty of people.  But we had to get the hell out anyway. Boy, he’s twice as mad at white people.” (129)

Except for Clara, Black people are always the Other, seen always at a distance from the perspective of the novel’s white characters, who, with few exceptions, describe them as the Black Ones and the Schwartzes.  Vincent thinks that “the whole street” (15)—Jewish and Italian alike—knows this Yiddish word, which characters use both as the equivalent of the “N-word” and simply to mean “black.”  When the white characters look at the other side of the Gully, the neighborhood’s dividing line, they see a place where Black “people small as toys walked sometimes, but they never came close enough to be eyes or voices” (2).  Sinclair acknowledged the absence of Black characters who were more than background figures, when she wrote, “The novel, from beginning to end, is crammed with racial fear, yet only one Negro is brought to actual realized form—a teen-age girl whose dreams, groping, and actions throw the entire lie of race.”[28] We learn a lot about Clara, whom Sinclair said was modeled after “several of my Negro friends.”[29] Like Vincent, she is a “tomboy girl” (241).  She finds Sundays very long because her father wants her to spend all day in her church outfit, “soft, blue dress, white shoes, stockings” (241); after all, as she says to an empathetic Vincent, “What can you do in a dress?” (243).  She has a sharp and angry critique of male violence and sexist assumptions.  When she was part of a gang (“fifteen guys and me” [128]), she started to carry a knife, since “you got to show guys you’re just as good as them” (128).  Clara is proud of having had a gang nickname, Hi-Jack, that recognizes her high-jumping ability, much as Vincent’s nickname, the schwartze kuter (Yiddish for “black cat”), refers to herathleticism (131).[30] Clara plays a critical rolein the novel both as an individual character and as a means of “educating” Vincent about race. Still, what we know of Clara is limited to her interactions with Vincent and what she tells Vincent about her life as a Black girl in the 1940s. We hear about her family and other members of the Black community, but we never directly observe these intra-group dynamics.

Sinclair traces Vincent and Clara’s emerging friendship and Vincent’s growing understanding of race through six two-character encounters, scenes that are a reminder that the novelist also wrote plays for the stage and radio.  The locations of these meetings are critical—going from darkness to daylight, private to public.  With the development of Vincent’s consciousness, they move from the evening worlds of the gang's clubhouse in the Gully and the street outside Vincent’s sister’s house to daylight scenes on Vincent’s street and in Clara’s neighborhood and finally to the water fountain in the main hallway of their school.

Though the Vincent we first see is one who asks, “Got yourself a nigger servant all of a sudden?” (8), the critical first encounter between the two girls sets in motion her changes throughout the novel.  It takes place right after Vincent’s white gang, led by her friend Dave, strips her to demonstrate that she’s a girl, and therefore, suddenly ineligible to be even a member of a gang she had long led. Sinclair catches that magical moment when a young butch who has never known that anybody like her exists looks up to find a reflection of so much of who she is.  Even before they first meet, Clara has given some thought to Vincent: “I've been watching you for a long time—the whole bunch of you. Ever since I moved around here” (22).  But, for Vincent, it’s all new: 

Turning quickly, she saw the girl, standing with her hands in the pockets of her slacks. She was colored.

There was a mechanical tensing for action in Vincent, weight on her toes, arms ready to fly up at the first move from the enemy. In one flashing instance, her heart thudding heavily at the abrupt danger, she took in everything about the girl: brown pants, white blouse, tennis shoes, a chain or cord of some kind around her neck and the ends disappearing inside the front of her blouse. They were as tall as each other, and the girl’s straight, black, shining hair was ear length too, parted on the side.

For a fantastic second, it was like staring into a mirror—except for the brown color of the face.  (21-22) 

While Vincent is still stunned by the gang’s attack on her, Clara already understands the threat that boys and men present: “Why didn't you take your knife and cut off that damn thing they’re always talking about? . . . Stripping you! Next time they’ll do it all—the works. That’s all they ever want. You got to show them who’s boss” (22).  As Clara’s “outrage encompassed both of them” (23), she loans Vincent her knife for safety.[31] When Clara leaves, Vincent watches “her long, casual stride” (23) and “remembered the shared bitterness and fury. This was the enemy, [she wonders,] described from house to house all summer with fear?” (23-24).  As Vincent walks out of the Gully, she thinks “not [of] the abrupt savagery of the act of violence that came with her out of the Gully, but the protecting fierceness of the girl she had met there. And again the realization came of how alike they were—not only the pants, the way of standing on guard with their bodies, but the whole inner reflection of pride and arrogance” (24).  

The meeting changes Vincent.  For the first time, she has a sense of Black people as individuals:

. . . she thought that she would have to go to the Gully Tuesday, to meet Clara, return the loan.  Her hand slipped into her pocket and she fingered the knife.  Clara: she looked out into the street and peered hard at the faces of the Negro couple leaving the Golden porch. Was he Clara’s father? Was she Clara’s mother, aunt, cousin?

She had been watching the Negroes in this new way for the last two days. It was the first time she had ever looked for anything beyond the dark color—eyes, shape of a face, an expression of yearning or of laughter. Funny!—to be looking for such things. (91)

Vincent’s emerging awareness is inseparable from her friendship with Clara, and that friendship has a decidedly sexual buzz.  Sinclair’s decision to have the girls turn 13 in the course of the novel (an age generally seen at the time as not-yet-sexual) precludes explicit expressions of sexuality between them.  But there are repeated, if veiled, descriptions that have an erotic charge.  As Sinclair writes about their second meeting at the clubhouse, for instance, “An excitement came back into Vincent” as she saw Clara approach in her “pants, white blouse, tennis shoes . . . Clara was exactly as she had remembered her” (127).  Right after Clara has given Vincent a St. Anthony medal for protection, Vincent notices “the queer closeness between Clara and her” (133).  They then have the following exchange: 

“You’ll see, it’s going to be better than a knife, even.” Clara gave her a darting, sidewise look, then she mumbled, “You know what? I sure feel like I know you for a long time. Like—well, look how we do lots of the same things, huh?”

“Boy, isn’t it funny?” Vincent said.

“Yeah.” Then Clara said, “See, I never knew no white kid before.”

“Me, too! I never even talked to a colored kid.”

“Funny, huh?” Clara mused.

A desire to give Clara something made a yearning all through Vincent. Something precious, like that medal . . . . (134)

There’s a lot going on here besides the sudden making of an interracial connection—the excitement, the uneasy mumbling to acknowledge a profound attachment, the yearning.  Later in this scene, Sinclair writes (in a sentence that, pulled from context, would be quite appropriate in lesbian pulp fiction) “Vincent looked at her, the darkness cupping them in a more wonderful closeness” (136).  

Jo Sinclair, Anna Teller Dust jacket

Jo Sinclair, dustjacket of Anna Teller, 1960 (photo credit: Herman Seid)

Their next scene together, when Vincent is surprised to run into Clara near Vincent’s sister’s house, illustrates that both feel an intense sense of affinity.  When Vincent asks, “What’re you doing here?” Clara replies (in the language of countless smitten dykes) “waiting . . . . In case you came to your sister’s. I was here last night, too—just in case. . . . You said you go there a lot, so I thought I’d hang around.  In case you came” (176).  Vincent, for her part, is struck by Clara’s “swagger and proud stance” (176) and “that devilish, sparkling smile in her eyes” (177). It’s awfully hard to read such descriptions without noting an obvious homoerotic subtext. 

Clara and Vincent bond as well over each girl’s awareness of violence in her own community that targets girls, women, and gender nonconformists.  While Vincent sees her father and a male neighbor as “two more of the men on the fringe of her life who frightened her” (42), it is Clara who articulates a proto-feminist analysis.  She resents the boys in her Black former gang, implying that she rose to first lieutenant and not leader because she is a girl; she might also have left the gang because she had experienced or witnessed violence or had just, as a girl, been too attuned to its threat for her to stay in it as the boys grew into adolescence.  As she tells Vincent, “Those guys were always talking so big. Like they were the only ones who could do things. Just because they were boys.  Zipping their pants open, like—like that’s all there is! . . . I been around—I know what those bastards can do!” (131, 132).  Their initial bonding is two-fold, not just as tomboys who see themselves reflected in each other, but as girls in a sexist world.

They bond as well through the recognition that they are both changelings, a concept described in a poem by Jules, Vincent’s critically ill and housebound 17-year-old friend.  As Vincent explains to Clara, “There’s this new kid—this changeling—in a house, and his parents think he’s theirs. But he isn’t—not in his heart.  They think one way and talk another way, and the kid who’s a changeling thinks entirely different” (135).  Vincent is proud to be her house’s changeling, the one who is “not going to run around crying and hating people” (135).  Like Vincent, Clara is a changeling, willing to diverge from the teachings of the older generation.  In reaching out to Vincent, she defies her family’s warning, passed down through generations of violence against Black people, against Black women and girls, to stay away from “white folks,” who are “waiting to get you. Take anything you got. Hurt you, kill you” (137).  In addition, their pants and sneakers in a world of girls in dresses mark them at home and on the street as changelings.

The links between them are essential to Vincent’s development.  Within the context of Sinclair’s focus on integration and commonality, an ideology that most other progressives and radicals of the time endorsed, she realistically traces Vincent’s process of understanding and confronting racism.[32] Throughout, she is pulled in two directions—with Clara, most importantly, on one side, and the old assumptions of her family and street on the other.  As Tyler Schmidt observes, Vincent’s “conflicted reactions to Clara [are] an indiscriminate mix of attraction and revulsion, fear and longing.”[33] The role that Clara plays in Vincent’s evolving view of race illustrates “what Toni Morrison has described as the ‘parasitical nature of white freedom,’” in which white people “reevaluate religious and/or racial beliefs through their first meaningful interactions with African Americans.”[34]

While Vincent badly wants to be with Clara, she fears other white people knowing that she is friends with a Black girl.  At their second meeting in the Gully, she feels “a sudden little panic [that] shattered her feeling of closeness” at the thought of what might happen if someone saw them together, or if they visited each other’s houses: “she shivered as she pictured herself walking into an all-black street, past a thousand houses with black faces peering from porches, behind windows” (138).  When they meet again outside her sister’s house, “their first meeting away from the darkness and secrecy of the Gully,” Vincent finds that Clara “looked both unreal and familiar” (176), “more black than brown in this light” (176).  Not yet ready to be seen with her new Black friend, but not wanting Clara to realize that, she tries to look “casual” as she drags her nephew Manny’s baby carriage to a spot on the sidewalk where “Clara and she would be farther from the light of the avenue” (176).  

Jo Sinclair, Cover of The Seasons

Jo Sinclair, cover of The Seasons, 1993 (photo credit: Novelty, Ohio, 1962)

Already an outsider, Vincent feels uneasy as she moves from a “clear-cut world”—before the gang stripped her and she met Clara—to a world where “questions had begun to rip her to pieces” (224).  She looks more closely at the white people in her life and finds them almost always lacking.  Though her friend Jules writes angry, righteous poems about injustice and the street’s treatment of Black people, they remain abstractions to him.[35] Expecting his full support for her new friendship, Vincent is hurt and angry when he responds with sarcasm and cruelty to the person he calls her “Schwartze girl friend” (224)—a reaction that leads an unsettled Vincent to pick a fight with Clara, who responds with outrage.

Recognizing her full responsibly for the rift with Clara, Vincent takes action in a scene that reflects both her struggles and the centrality of Clara in them.  Because of her profound connection with Clara, she acts when, as people on the street look on, an Italian American neighbor pummels a Black man who was just looking for a place to live.  Initially “nailed to the top step” (232), Vincent sees the man being beaten first as “Clara’s father-brother-uncle” (232) and then as her own father, “only her father’s face was brown, like Clara’s” (236).  When Vincent finally sprints across the street to help the injured man and is joined by her friend Dave, her very-public action enables her to move beyond the place where “all she could think of was Clara, the look of her face in the Gully, on her birthday, her eyes all hurt and hate” (239).  

The Vincent who, despite her (unfounded) fears of being on a “Schwartze street” (240), ventures for the first time into Black cultural space to apologize is very far from the Vincent whom we saw early in the novel.  Once the girls reconnect, Vincent feels “pages of a history book turn[ing] fast in [her] mind” (245) as Clara tells her about how her great grandfather, once freed, helped still-enslaved Africans escape their masters.[36]  Hearing about the Catholicism of Clara’s enslaved ancestors and peeking into Clara’s church help Vincent further bridge the gap between her family’s total rejection of her sister’s interfaith marriage and her love for her baby nephew Manny, whom Clara had nicknamed “little half-and-half” (177), half Jewish, half Catholic.  She understands Clara and other Black people, in part, through parallels with Jewish history and experience: enslaved Africans fleeing their masters and Eastern European Jewish men fleeing conscription, and her recognition that Clara’s parents were “just as afraid of white people” as “Ma and Pa were of Schwartze” (250).  But Vincent is still unable to “visualize” Clara’s life in a crowded apartment or Clara living in Vincent’s own house (244).  And she seems surprised by Clara’s initial wariness when she enthusiastically suggests that they meet in the main hall of their school near the water fountain (a fraught symbol of segregated public facilities).[37]

Vincent’s desire “to come out of the dark, secret corner of the Gully with Clara” (249) marks her arrival at a place she’s been trying hard to reach throughout the novel—a place where she can act, even though, as she imagines it, they will be seen by “a hundred white faces” (249).  With this new perspective, she views the gang’s sexual attack as having enabled her both to cross racial and religious boundaries and to no longer be alone in her gender nonconformity and her life as a changeling.  Would she and Clara, she wonders,

ever have known each other if it hadn’t been for that day?  Would she ever have gone to a Schwartze street, into a church?  Would she ever have discovered that Manny was not an outcast, but could stand as big in the world as any . . . . (252)  

Along with their meeting at the water fountain shortly after Jules’ death, Vincent’s psychological understanding of trauma’s impact lays the groundwork for the novel’s conclusion.[38]

This is a new Vincent: one who can imagine a world in which Clara moves upstairs from her own family; one who worries (for the first time) about Clara’s treatment by other white people, whether she will be insulted or cursed by Vincent’s sister and brother-in-law.  Although the novel’s final image keeps the focus on Vincent, Sinclair suggests a collective and diverse future, not one where the individual learns and acts alone.  As she races to meet Clara at Vincent’s sister’s house, she does so accompanied by a changed Dave, not the boy who had once led the attack on Vincent, but the one who has since recognized that his father and brothers are “wounders and hurters of women” (67) and sees Vincent again as a “fast, daring leader” (236). As she runs with Dave, she is holding the red notebook that Jules bequeathed to her, with his political poems on changelings and on allying with Black people, which the group will read and discuss.  Vincent is elated at feeling “no longer an outsider, no longer an enemy of the world beyond her street” (321), and she senses “the whole world opening in front of her” (322).  In a segregated and intolerant country and decade, she has pulled together an unlikely group.  It will be led not just by girls—one Black, one white—but by changelings who challenge some of their community’s most basic assumptions about gender expression, sexuality, and interracial, interreligious possibilities.