“Divorce, American Style: The Letitia Ernestine Brown Trial and the Performativity of Race”
In theorizing racial, sexual, and gender discourses as they were woven together in the law and popular culture, scholars of the early twentieth century have often turned to the 1925 Rhinelander divorce trial, in which a wealthy young white man sued for divorce from his wife, claiming that she had lied about her racial identity and passed for white. Like other “race cases” of the time, the Rhinelander divorce elevated the crossing of the color line to the realm of sexual scandal and turned on the sensationalizing of the black woman’s sexuality, body, and desire. In this paper, I turn away from the Rhinelander case and toward a different divorce trial, one now forgotten but then equally sensational, in order to displace the passing narrative as the privileged location for theorizing the U.S. performance of blackness.
In 1928, Letitia Ernestine Brown of Harlem sued for divorce from Carlton Curtis, her common-law-husband of 17 years. Curtis was a multi-millionaire New York banker, Mayflower descendent, and well known racist. He provided Brown with a trust fund of hundreds of thousands of dollars, purchased a mansion for her in Long Island, a car and driver, lavish gifts, and even took her last name as his own. In exchange, Curtis forbade Brown to associate with members of her own race. Much of the money and gifts he gave her she in turn spent indiscreetly on her own lover, an African American man named Garland Patton. When the affair was discovered, Curtis withheld money, and Brown sued him for divorce and alimony. I argue that this divorce trial scripts a different narrative of racial performativity and blackness as a “passionate utterance” (Stanley Cavell) than that of the passing narrative. If the Rhinelander case imagines race as tragedy, the Brown case writes it as comedy. In place of Alice Jones’s public shame as she was racially and sexually revealed in the Rhinelander case, we find Letitia Ernestine Brown’s shamelessness and audacity. Unlike the Rhinelander case, exposure is not the function of the law. Rather, the Brown divorce performs a different allegory of settlement, reparation, and what is due to whom. Like Samuel Steward, Letitia Brown describes a not-so-secret history that has been largely erased from historical memory over the last century.