Cheryl J. Fish. Black and White Women's Travel Narratives: Antebellum Explorations.
In Black and White Women's Travel Narratives, Cheryl J. Fish tracks the wide-ranging and often transnational mid-century travels of three women, black and white--Nancy Gardner Prince, Mary Jane Grant Seacole, and Margaret Fuller--and their hybrid accounts of travel and self-discovery. With its "recuperative and comparative" focus upon early women travelers outside dominant Anglo-American traditions of travel and writing, the book seeks to reframe existing and emerging work on "questions of travel" within African American and American literary studies. These relatively under-examined figures and texts compel us to, in Fish's words, "rethink the relationship between the early literature of travel, medical history, and mobile workingwomen of the African diaspora."
What transcultural alliances are made possible, Fish asks, as these women crossed and re-crossed the "black and white" Atlantic? The book does not celebrate travel as a "liberating power of movement," rather it examines how travel placed these women in contexts of political upheaval and imperial power that provoked profound ambivalence towards nation as home. Chapters on Prince and Seacole investigate mobility as a gendered trope and practice in the early writings of the African diaspora to shift, in the fashion of Carla Peterson, the emphasis given to the slave narrative as the "dominant genre" of black antebellum writing. These women, according to Fish, are important yet critically neglected cultural agents of travel in what Paul Gilroy theorizes as the productive intercultural space of the black Atlantic. To "gender" the black Atlantic requires, however, more than the substitution of a female passenger for a male sailor, and the book's stated decision to not "foreground questions of modernity and resistance to it" is rather unusual given its gendered reconstruction of Gilroy's black Atlantic.
Fish, like Sandra Gunning, brings the black Atlantic to bear upon early figures such as Prince and Seacole, and reveals that black disaporic identification was not always antithetical to nation and empire, but often worked in concert with them. The first chapter follows Prince, a freeborn black American, on a nine-year sojourn in Russia, involvement in the Boston Female Antislavery Society, and benevolent labor in post-Emancipation Jamaica. Prince's "transnational epistemology" and her contestation of US national identity and black American emigration in the West Indies, according to Fish, emerge from the necessarily national contexts of missionary travels and Christian benevolence. Far from transcending the nation or ethnic identifications, the national context of Prince's transatlantic circuits determines the liberal rhetoric of progress, reform, and "racial uplift" found in her narrative.
Seacole, the black Jamaican "heroine" of the second chapter, is similarly "a transatlantic traveler of the Americas" who significantly intervenes within and reconfigures "discourses of war, medicine, and imperialism on both sides of the Atlantic." Fish situates Seacole within a tradition of travel writing and the history of Western mercantilist endeavors in the geographical contact zones of the Central and South American Gold Rush frontier and the Crimean War in the 1840s-50s. Seacole's strategic self-presentation as a "yellow woman" allowed her to negotiate and claim public space in the face of her erasure from Crimean War chronicles often dominated by the figure of her nursing rival, Florence Nightingale. Traveling unchaperoned as a woman of color, Seacole, according to Fish, accomplishes a textual subversion akin that of the colonial mimic, which "enables her to accommodate the discourses and regulatory regimes of empire even as she attempts charmingly to disrupt and refigure them."
The third chapter tracks the travels of white transcendentalist writer Margaret Fuller to the American Great Lakes in 1843, and reads her "epistemological" quest westward to the American frontier as a hybrid text, a poetic ethnography that blends autobiography, history, critical reading, and a gender and race-based analysis of expansionism. The reading of Fuller is a fitting culmination to the arguments developed in the preceding two chapters. Fish gradually advances a theory of hybridity, defined generally as "the mixing of different persons or things," to describe the aesthetic structure of these three women's texts and their fashioning of mobile, unfixed narrative subjectivities. Whereas Prince's and Seacole's racial difference situates them as the "hybrid subjects" of their narratives, Fuller, in contrast, freely takes raced, amalgamated, and/or foreign figures as hybrid "texts" in her narrative quest to become a "more integrated American subject."
Fish writes Black and White Women's Travel Narratives in the spirit of rethinking paradigms of 19th-century women's agency, and brings a diverse methodology to bear upon these texts. Key critical concepts such as "mobile subjectivity" and "resistant truth-telling" help illuminate the complex labors and travels of other 19th-century black women such as Ellen Craft, Sarah Parker Remond, Harriet Jacobs, Amanda Berry Smith, and Ida B. Wells. Fish's insistence, however, upon reading the three women as "counter-agents" rebellious to normative categories of womanhood, discourses of domesticity, and literary traditions often fixes her discussions within a dyad of complicity or resistance. While the coda moves towards addressing "how individual subjectivity and new social formation are made in the spaces of cross-cultural exchange," the book does not rigorously track the circulation, transmission, and at times inadvertent conjunction of ideas, genres, and peoples characterizing these developments. How exactly do these contemporaneous women and texts address each other? More could be made of the suggestive resonance, for example, between Fuller's attraction/repulsion to ideals of the European "motherland" and Seacole's likewise contradictory colonial relations with imperial England and her claims of "surrogate motherhood" over British soldiers in the Crimea.
The book's juxtaposition of a domestic American travelogue with black Atlantic travels does propose some new directions for future research on comparative mappings of the early black and white Atlantic. Local and regional transit within national space, Fish implies, is tantamount to the vast cultural displacement of diasporic migration. All three women, black and white, share similar experiences of "dislocation." Even Fuller found herself a "foreigner in her own country" over the course of her American travels. Fuller's tendency to displace her sense of alienation onto hybrid surrogates, however, must be distinguished from Prince and Seacole, who often found themselves internalizing and symptomatically writing this colonial ambivalence towards nation as empire. In this vein, the book articulates both the possibilities and limitations of the post-and transnational turn in American literary studies. Only by contextualizing the early literature of the Americas within the black and white Atlantic as Fish suggests, can we begin to grasp the complex historical articulations of post-national or diaspora identifications that emerged through tense and complicated engagements with empire and nation.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2005|
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