When Cora first met Earl, she was an aspiring novelist and he an aspiring musician. His dream was eventually fulfilled with a full-time gig playing bass in a Harlem club. Cora, however, faced a different reality. Children came quickly after the couple married, and while she had no choice but to work outside the home to make ends meet, there was little time for creative pursuits. Still, she held fast to her goal.
Cora’s Kitchen takes place in 1928 and offers readers a vivid description of her work as a New York City librarian. It was there, in the 135th Street branch, that she met Langston Hughes and other literary luminaries. Hughes, who was enrolled as an undergraduate at Lincoln University at the time, was already a published poet and despite his youth, became a catalyst, prodding Cora to read Walt Whitman, Dorothy West and Zora Neale Hurston. He further encouraged her to jot down ideas, impressions and phrases as they bubbled up.
But shortly after Cora’s friendship with Hughes begins to take shape, her cousin Agnes is badly beaten by her abusive spouse. Her injuries are so severe that she has to take a leave of absence from her job as a household cook. Family members beg Cora to fill in and although she initially bristles at the idea of domestic labor — even as a temporary stint — she ultimately finds the job to her liking. Indeed, in contrast to the bustling library, cooking for a four-person household is so undemanding that she is able to carve out several hours each afternoon to read and write.
Her unconventional new employer, Eleanor Fitzgerald — a progressive, if extremely rich, white feminist with a penchant for radical ideas — encourages this. Still, Eleanor wants to do more and when she learns of Cora’s aspirations, and reads samples of her work, she offers to become her financial patron. The proposal involves giving Cora a stipend so that she can write full-time during the upcoming summer. What’s more, it includes room-and-board at an upstate New York cottage that Eleanor owns.
Yes, it sounds like a dream come true, but like many seemingly-golden opportunities, there are unsettling undercurrents surrounding the offer. In fact, Cora is well aware that the arrangement is fraught and hesitates before finally accepting it, fearful that the racial dynamics will lead to ostracism or worse from their respective communities.
Throughout, Brown maintains a light hand in presenting Cora’s concerns. Indeed, as Cora’s Kitchen interrogates the interplay of race and class in each woman’s life, the emotional toll of racism and classism are laid bare. It’s beautifully rendered.
As Cora explains, “Eleanor, I never thought a white woman and a black woman could have a real friendship. You have been one of the best friends I ever had. You understand me in ways no one ever has. But there is still a big difference between us. People see you and assume the best. They want to make the world right for you. They see me and they see the worst. They are all just waiting for confirmation of every negative thing they have ever thought of colored people. The proper language and appropriate dress is an act to them.”
Ninety-four years later, this assertion continues to be true, a horrifying reminder, should we need one, of how little has changed.
All told, Cora’s Kitchen is a masterful look at the many ways in which racism, classism and misogyny overlap and oppress. And while I found the denouement somewhat unsatisfying — simultaneously glib and overly open-ended — the novel nonetheless illustrates the possibilities of true solidarity and support, person to person, woman to woman, and writer to writer.
By Kimberly Garrett Brown
Inanna Press, Sept. 2022