African American Women Writers of the 19th Century
African American Women Writers of the 19th Century
Howard Dodson, Chief Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture The New York Public Library http://digital.nypl.org/schomburg/writers_aa19/
Reviewed June 2007 by Colleen O'Brien, St. Mary's College
The introduction to the Digital Schomburg archive of African American Women Writers of the 19th Century, written in 1998, explains the significance of the project, pointing out that: "The last two decades have witnessed an explosion of interest on writing by and about black women." After almost ten years of the site's presence on the web, one can safely say that three decades have witnessed an efflorescence of scholarship and interest in black women writers, particularly those of the nineteenth century.
Since Digital Schomburg became available, even more publications by nineteenth century women have surfaced. Although the paper version of Digital Schomburg, the thirty-volume Schomburg Library of Nineteenth Century Black Women Writers produced collaboratively by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, and Oxford University Press, is now out of print, the republication of Julia C. Collins's serialized 1865 novel The Curse of Caste; or, The Slave Bride (University of North Carolina Press, 2007) and the discovery of what might be an even earlier novel by an African American woman, Hannah Crafts's The Bondwoman's Narrative (Norton, 2001) suggests that interest in this literary history has not waned.
The digital collection offers a searchable full text database of 52 published works written before 1920. Easy access makes these documents especially helpful to educators. The story of Susie King Taylor, for example, provided the basis for an elementary-school-level lesson published on the Southern Poverty Law Center's website. As a young teenager, Savannah native Taylor assisted Union troops stationed in South Carolina's Sea Islands during the Civil War. Her accounts of life in the camps, as well as her story of learning to read clandestinely while still enslaved before the war, are appealing even to young people.
As instructors of American Studies may know, college students are often so surprised by the fact that numerous African American authors existed in the nineteenth century that sheer curiosity will get them to explore the Schomburg site. Though they may have learned in high school that Harriet Tubman was an Underground Railroad conductor or even that Sojourner Truth made strident and (according to Francis Gage) outlandish speeches at suffrage events, undergraduates are generally unfamiliar with black women's written work.
Using the collection to begin research on suffrage, abolition, evangelicalism, literature, and the newly emerging voices of the Era of Reform (to name just a few possible topics) mines fertile ground for
[pp. [NA]]understanding nineteenth century American culture. A handful of the authors, furthermore, write historical material: Frank (Frances) Rollin authored The Life and Services of Martin R. Delany (1868); Hallie Q. Brown offers biographical material on sixty African American women. As scholar Randall K. Burkett, quoted in the biographical sketch of Brown on the Schomburg site, attests, Homespun Heroines "offers indispensable starting points for biographical research on a substantial number of extraordinary women."
These African American women are integral to understanding nineteenth century American culture. Perhaps the best-known authors in the digital collection are Phillis Wheatley, Harriet A. Jacobs, Frances E.W. Harper, and Pauline E. Hopkins. Jacobs's narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), has garnered much critical attention as the subject of doctoral dissertations and scholarly essays, as have Harper's Iola Leroy (1893) and Hopkins's Contending Forces (1900). Since the texts are keyword searchable, researchers have the convenience of locating passages and tallying the use of specific words or phrases instantly.
This superbly organized site also offers biographies of each author listed, including Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, abolitionist author William Wells Brown's daughter, Josephine Brown, and evangelists Julia Foote and Jarena Lee. Many of these authors' selections have distinctly religious content. When one considers that Lee and Foote were "called to preach the gospel" in the first half of the century, well before most women made the pathbreaking effort to speak in public before male audiences, it seems as though the spiritual narratives that pervade the collection offer a discrete look into the lives of women who dared to assume public voices in an era when such behavior was frowned upon.
Consider, for example, the narrative, Twenty Year's Experience of a Missionary, by Virginia Broughton. Although the dates of Broughton's birth and death are unknown, we know that she graduated from Fisk College in 1875 and became a schoolteacher. An advocate of women's rights, Broughton-like Foote and Lee-often defines her unconventional role in society based on spiritual assertions. Broughton narrates one "conversion" experience in which she took to bed believing she would die, but heard instead "sweet heavenly music that is unlawful for man to utter." A "song was at once given her, suggestive of many of her experiences, and also as one of the ways God would direct her in her work" (12).
Indeed, this moment of inspiration sustained her when men of her church began to oppose her work and protest her leadership of a group of women called the Bible Band who endeavored "to contend for the Bible plan of church government in the discipline of members, in supporting churches, and in preaching and teaching the gospel" (34). Each male opponent who heard Virginia speak, however, quickly ceded the righteousness of her position. With great regularity, spiritual narratives by nineteenth century African American women cited divine providence to assert women's rights.
This is but one example of how the double-voicedness of these texts offers opportunities for students to learn critical reading skills and interpret historical documents beyond a literal level. Keeping in mind that custom and the law circumscribed the avenues of expression available to these women, it is remarkable that their writings give voice to concerns so antagonistic to the norms and expectations of their contemporary society.
While scholars of African American women's history and literature have worked assiduously to contextualize the voices of women like Phillis Wheatley (whose poems are also offered in the digital collection), Jacobs, Harper and Hopkins, the experience relayed in their texts is overwhelmingly located, so to speak, in the North. Although Jacobs's narrative takes place largely in North Carolina and much post-bellum fiction is set in the South, actual descriptions and recollections of African American life in the South during the nineteenth century are rare.
The fact that at least eighteen of the writers featured in the collection were Southern women offers a significant research opportunity-the chance to extend the now copious studies of African American women in the Northeast to include the regions of the country that had much larger black populations.
Yet, even for the better-known Northeastern women, the offerings of the Digital Schomburg are only the beginning. Harper and Hopkins each published three novels and numerous other genres of texts available only in book form. Notably absent from the collection, furthermore, is Ida B. Wells-Barnett. With interest in these stories piqued by the collection, readers can go on to read Jean Yellin's recently published biography of Jacobs, Ira Dworkin's collection of Hopkins's prose, Daughter of the Revolution (2007) and, as archival work progresses, perhaps even more of the writings of these phenomenal women.
Colleen O'Brien holds a Ph.D. in English and Women's Studies from the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on 19th and 20th century women's reform movements and transnational American studies. She is currently a fellow in the Center for Women's InterCultural Leadership at St. Mary's College in Notre Dame, Indiana.