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"Doers of the Word": African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880).

Carla L. Peterson. "Doers of the Word". African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880). New York: Oxford UP, 1995. 293 pp. $38.00.

Doers of the World is an important to scholarship on nineteenth-century African American women. Adopting an explicitly feminist perspective, based on extensive secondary research, and heavily influenced by post-structuralist, post-modern, and postcolonial theories, the book funnels the historical specificity of the women's lives and achievements through contemporary concepts. Its scope resembles that of Frances Smith Foster's 1993 Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, but its approach is quite different. For Foster, the black women who came to literary voice in antebellum America were fearlessly claiming their rights as United States citizens, denying that anything in their ethnic culture should disqualify them from membership in an enlightened national polity. Peterson sees these same women as irrevocably and multiply estranged from the nation: by a racist dominant culture especially hostile to black women, which imagined the black female body as sexualized and grotesque; by a sexist black intelligentsia whose entirely male view of race concerns left no room for black female intellect; and by the melancholy alienation from family and community that these women's own itinerant activism inevitably produced. For these women, as Peterson sees them, the two questions of how to address the polity and how to make themselves at home in it were inseparable and formed the motivation for their work.

Peterson believes that the women deliberately reworked their ascribed marginality into an achieved "liminality," a condition they "superimposed" on the "oppressions of race and gender" in a way that "paradoxically allowed empowerment." Like many so-called New Historicists, Peterson simultaneously concedes that her own position is historically situated and seeks in her analysis to achieve a transcendence of history that she knows to be impossible. She does not want to censure the women when they fall short of her own historically situated political expectations, but she cannot always avoid doing so. And, though openly anti-capitalist and anti-bourgeois as well as anti-racist and anti-patriarchal, her concept of empowerment (as she herself recognizes) is very much a bourgeois capitalist construct. Thus, more than one kind of doubleness marks her analysis. This is not a shortcoming of the book, in my view; it registers Peterson's serious attempt to understand why--apart from mere antiquarianism--critics should care about these figures of an earlier day.

The women discussed in "Doers of the Word" are Sojourner Truth, Maria Stewart, Jarena Lee, Nancy Prince, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Sarah Parker Remond, Harriet A. Jacobs, Harriet E. Wilson, and Charlotte Forten. The archives for all ten are full of gaps, and Peterson does a remarkable job of close literary analysis based on partial materials. By considering women who were primarily speakers, women who wrote and spoke in equal measure, and women who were primarily writers, Peterson can talk both about the relation of women to the word in general and about specific works of writing and oratory. She is careful to distinguish among them even though she thinks they were all ultimately doing the same thing--using the word to enter the public racial and national spheres in order to help make the United States a true "home" for persons of African descent. She also finds that, like black male intellectuals of the time, the women struggled with the conundra of representation--how to speak responsibly in their own relatively educated voices on behalf of the folk--and of authenticity--how their own relatively elite identities might correspond to an Afrocentric selfhood and whether, indeed, an Afrocentric identity could anywhere survive the distorting pressures of enslavement and racism. Peterson looks closely for possible examples of Africanisms in the women's discourses; she finds a few, but admits that the women probably lacked direct knowledge of African traditions. The Africanisms, then, are buried or unconscious aspects of their work that still mark it distinctly.

On the face of it the former slave Sojourner Truth would seem to be the woman who was closest to the folk and to Africa. But Peterson observes that, since her two narratives were written by white women, and since newspaper accounts of her speeches seem to have exaggerated the vernacular element in her self-presentation, "Truth" may actually be the most self-consciously manipulated image of African authenticity in the group. At the greatest remove from Truth is Charlotte Forten, whose elite class status along with her strong sense of propriety and her personal shyness led to a literary paralysis that was only overcome when she started writing art criticism, a genre that Peterson sees as a profoundly inauthentic genre for an African American woman of her day.

Between these extremes are women who wrote religious meditations, poetry, novels, travel narratives, and essays, whom Peterson groups in chapters according to genre. Considering genres as products of social practices as well as sets of formal rules, she describes them in relation to institutions: religious meditations and sermons in relation to church structure, essays in relation to journalism, fiction in relation to book publishing. The travel narratives written by Nancy Prince and Mary Ann Shadd Cary are of particular interest, because issues of where and when one is or is not at home are central to the genre. Issues of audience are also central to the analysis. A black woman entering the national public sphere obviously anticipated white auditors. Given the realities of income and literacy levels, literary self-support in any event was unthinkable without white patronage, as would continue to be the case through the years of the Harlem Renaissance and beyond. Narratorial asides in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl suggest that the book was written specifically for Northern white women. In the preface to Our Nig, Harriet Wilson asked for support from the black community as well as from white people, as though black support had to be specially solicited for a project like hers. Writers on religion or on emigration and colonization were perhaps more involved with all-black audiences; contributing to the emergent black press, these women helped to establish its importance as a vehicle for African American expression.

Peterson takes her cue from the famous Feminist Press anthology of 1982 edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, defining her women above all as "braves" in a world where all the women are white and all the blacks are men. Her own book is also brave and thought-provoking. Sometimes I found the theoretical envelope so thick that its women subjects seemed invisible--which is to say that I personally would have preferred a higher proportion of direct quotation to exegesis. For me, also, Peterson's assumption--indeed, insistence--that the dominant culture was absolutely monolithic is an historical simplification at odds with her nuanced understanding of African American history. As a scholar of African American literature, she is not bound to provide a full-dress description of the dominant culture. But the cacophony of mainstream discourse in the antebellum era, which has been well-demonstrated by such historians as Charles Sellers and Edward Pessen, must have influenced the black women's rhetorical decisions in many ways.

These are caveats. Overall, the reader of "Doers of the Word" takes away a compelling group portrait of highly individualistic and admirably courageous women who were first in the fields of public writing and speaking that have come to be so important to African American women and men. Certainly every scholar of African American literature will want this book on the shelf.
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Author:Baym, Nina
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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