Eliza Potter. A Hairdresser's Experience in High Life.
Eds. DoVeanna S. Fulton Minor and Reginald H. Pitts. Speaking Lives, Authoring Texts: Three African American Women's Oral Slave Narratives. Albany: SUNY P, 2010. 193 pp. $80.00 cloth/$29.95 paper.
African Americanists coming of academic age in the last thirty years have witnessed a period of literary recovery and critical production unsurpassed in its breadth and richness. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers and Richard Yarborough's seminal Library of Black Literature series have helped to repopulate early African American literature, gender and cultural studies into fields that are now diverse and bustling areas of intellectual inquiry. The archival discoveries and scholarship of academics such as Frances Smith Foster, Jean Fagan Yellin, Carla Peterson, Elizabeth McHenry, and Lois Brown have punctuated the phoenix-like rise of nineteenth-century black women's literary culture as a field of study. This work has given wing to exciting new scholarship that sometimes flies in the crosswinds of received understandings of literacy, geography and reform that have, until recently, characterized nineteenth-century African American literary history.
The books reviewed here highlight texts and critical currents that challenge conventional understandings of antebellum African American women's autobiography. They also represent some of the best of the editorial work that distinguishes the scholarship of the past several decades. Antebellum black autobiography has largely been associated with self-emancipated people who escaped the South and transformed themselves into authors and activists. For this reason, the texts reprinted in these two editions have puzzled the few students of antebellum race relations, black literature, and American slavery who have encountered them. Many of these works are set outside of the ideological and geographical borders that map conventional conceptualizations of the antebellum period; some are oral narratives that claim the agency, authority and authorship most often associated with literacy's relationship to freedom. As such, these are life stories, to borrow from Nell Irvin Painter, that until now have rested uneasily alongside the corpus of American slave narratives and the critical paradigms that have emerged to interpret them (Painter vii).
The superb introductions and additional information these new editions provide promise to bring understudied texts--and the questions they pose--to the critical foreground. When grouped together with Painter's edition of Sojourner Truth's narratives and R Gabrielle Foreman and Reginald Pitts's edition of Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig, for example, these narratives form a substantial body of writing that, as Santamarina puts it, challenges "many of our ideas about nineteenth-century African American history and literature" (xi). Together, as Fulton claims, they highlight the "multiplicity of African American lives and experiences as well as the manifold rhetorical styles" black women employ (3). They can now be more productively paired, taught and studied with other lesser- and well-known texts, and will surely yield exciting new scholarship that addresses not only the narratives themselves but also the broader field-shifting questions they raise.
The author and subject of Eliza Potter's A Hairdresser's Experience in High Life (1859) styles herself as a social/society critic and free entrepreneur. Both living outside of and challenging the North-South divide, she travels from Cincinnati overseas to France and Great Britain and also to the South to work. Potter's narrative is part travel narrative, part gossip column. As in any mixed family, it finds itself claiming kin with folks--or in this case, genres--that resemble each other only if one looks closely. Her travel narrative might productively be read in concert with testimonies by and scholarship on peripatetic black sailors, nursemaids and preachers. Potter joins such figures as Martin Delany, William and Ellen Craft, Nancy Prince, William Wells Brown, Harriet Jacobs, Zilpha Elaw, and Sarah Remond in laying claim to transnational explorations we are just beginning to associate with a politics of mobility, black cosmopolitanism, and literary culture. Of course, many of these authors concerned themselves "with the dynamics of race and U.S. racial domination" (Santamarina xii). Potter disturbs this trend, instead focusing "on her successful work history and the mobility that work offered" (xii). She thus offers a different lens through which to view African American class, labor and mobility.
As its editor points out, Eliza Potter's autobiography delighted Cincinnati's gossip columnists at the time of its first appearance. Potter's revelations, introduced with such intimacy-evoking clauses as: "I could neither find paper nor time to tell you half the things as come under my notice" (94), may puzzle academic readers conditioned to look for a social critique delivered with a sharper political edge. But an emphasis on fashion, clothes and hair in Potter's era anticipates what appears in some columns of important late-century newspapers such as the Woman's Era, the official organ of the black women's Club movement. Though some contemporary readers have focused on (and have come to expect) a protest rhetoric that responds to enslavement, disenfranchisement, and Jim Crow, African American authors and newspapers display a wide variety of other interests. Strident critiques of racial injustice often appear side-by-side with columns addressing international affairs, temperance, elocution, and the fine details of fashion.
As recent scholars building on the work of Claudia Tate and Ann duCille have taken pains to explain, domestic concerns can sit comfortably beside traditional forms of political expression, and are often used to express critique and appropriation. In High Life, Santamarina points out that the social authority Potter claims in relationship to her white clientele "subverts racial and class hierarchies" (xxi) even as it affirms them. Ultimately, Santamarina argues, "Potter establishes her authority as a social critic by endorsing, rather than opposing, a social structure based on authority" (xxi). Still, High Life's fascination with the values of an economic order that affirms elite social power does not temper an insurgency that muddies white women's often sanitized class and gendered entitlements. "My avocation calls me into the upper classes of society," Potter announces as she opens, "and there reign as many elements of misery as the world can produce" (3). "No one need go into alleys to hunt up wretchedness," she goes on, "they can find it in perfection among the rich and fashionable" (3). When one links this strand of High Life to Amelia Johnson's racially indeterminate temperance novel Clarence and Corrine (1890), for example, one can trace the razor-sharp critique of white familial dysfunction that runs through black women's texts that are often dismissed as irrelevant because they don't highlight reform in ways that readers have been trained to recognize.
The critical importance of Santamarina's scholarship on class, work, and labor in nineteenth-century black writing is underscored by a 2010 Center for Community Economic Development study ("Women of Color, Wealth, and America's Future") that illustrates the staying power of economic concerns in black women's lives. In this century, in our time, the median net worth of single white women ages 36-49 is $42,600; yet, at the height of our working years, single women of color in the same age group have a median wealth of just $5.00 (yes, five dollars). Academic work that explores all aspects of black women's (historically undervalued or historically overlooked) labor is crucial to an understanding of our economic and social pasts and presents. Like her Belabored Professions: Autobiography and Black Women's Labor, this edition by Santamarina is an important contribution.
Considering the ground-breaking advances in biographical recovery (magisterial biographies of Harriet Jacobs and Pauline Hopkins, and new work on Lucy Terry and Harriet Wilson come to mind), the only area in which this volume leaves readers wanting more is the story of Potter's life beyond the pages the book covers. Broad swathes of Potter's story are still missing, and recent collaborations and conversations among literary historians, genealogists, and independent scholars have proven so fruitful that one wishes that this emerging community had come together to uncover more about Eliza Potter.
DoVeanna Fulton and Reginald Pitts's Speaking Lives, Authoring Texts: Three African American Women's Oral Slave Narratives benefits from such a collaboration between accomplished critic and noted genealogist. Each of the three texts included in Speaking Lives is introduced by a chronology that belies in its order and simplicity the labor that made it possible. The edition includes three oral narratives--Louisa Picquet, The Octoroon: A Tale of Southern Life (1861), The Story of Mattie J. Jackson (1866) and Sylvia Dubois (Now 116 Years Old), A Biography of the Slave Who Whipped Her Mistress and Gained her Freedom (1883)--which were previously published only in separate volumes. As he and his coeditor did in their collaborative work on Harriet Wilson, Reginald Pitts mines newspapers, probate, census, marriage, pension, and death records, resurrecting and stringing together details that facilitate historically informed interpretations. Pitts has resuscitated Louisa Picquet's later life, confirming the activism of the church in which she was involved, and in her husband's Civil War pension records, evidence of her literacy. Likewise, the research featured in Speaking Lives, Authoring Texts allows one of the few black (and Native American) amanuenses, Dr. Lucy Schuyler Thompson, to come to life as an antislavery activist, entrepreneur, and healer, as it also explains what happened to Mattie Jackson after her narrative's end. In sharp contrast to a previous edition of the Dubois narrative, Fulton and Pitts offer a cogent and compelling introduction and framework. They gather previously scattered but relatively copious information about Dubois and present the text in both standardized English and in the original phonetic spelling of the first edition (a product of the spelling reform movement meant to preserve the sound of the spoken English). In doing so, they provide for the first time a memorable and important text that can be productively taught in history, literary, women's studies, linguistics, and folklore and anthropology courses.
The texts included in Speaking laves, Authoring Texts not only display the importance of as-told-to narratives, but also further complicate accepted geographical conceptions of enslavement and freedom, while affirming the centrality of maternal relations in narratives of slavery. Though all three women were enslaved, none of them followed a standard South-to-North, slavery-to-freedom trajectory. Jackson and her family were held as property in Missouri; Dubois lived in New Jersey both as a bondwoman and as a free woman. Though the editor of the Picquet narrative focuses on her Southern experiences, the story of Picquet's efforts to redeem her mother from Texas is situated in her tours of the North and the Midwest, where she traveled and spoke to raise the money that ultimately reunited them. Her volume was published in Cincinnati, just two years after Potter's narrative delighted the gossip columnists of the Queen City they shared.
Speaking Lives, Authoring Texts troubles understandings of both literacy and authorship. Fulton refuses a singular valorization of the narrative "written by herself," a concentration on the mastery of writing which "obscures and dismisses the significance of oral narratives as texts authored by their narrators" (3; emphasis in original). Formal literacy, as other critics have suggested, should take its place beside, rather than above, the cultural and political literacies that nineteenth-century African American women's texts and literary organizations so often foregrounded. Mattie Jackson's narrative makes this case in the strongest terms. She continually stresses her and her mother's reading powers--the information and pleasure they get from newspapers and their interpretative audacity as they do so--as reasons for their owners' viciousness. Mattie bends a switch (laid out by her mistress) awaiting both Mattie's master's return and her own back. She testifies that, "as I was not pleased with the idea of a whipping, I bent the switch in the shape of a W, which is the first letter of his name" (110). Mattie not only substitutes the initial of her own name with his and avoids the whipping, but she also then narrates that it is her master rather than she who ultimately receives a hundred lashes at the hands of a Union general who discovers through Mattie that her master has disobeyed Union orders. By converting her figurative inversion into the physical realm, this scene punctuates its subject's formal and political mastery of language, letters, and politics, even as its form of an as-told-to narrative suggests a different story.
Sylvia Dubois (Now 116 Years Old), A Biography of the Slave Who Whipped Her Mistress and Gained her Freedom (1883) is a postbellum narrative that stresses Dubois's agency and oral power. Partly because the original editor's experiment with phonetic spelling "stands between Dubois and the reader" (26), it is the least studied of the three texts Fulton and Pitts have included--though their presentation of this lively narrative provides a likely remedy. Like the others, the Dubois biography was originally republished in the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers. The 1988 introduction was driven by an emphasis on the text's factual inconsistencies and on the accuracy of Dubois's age; its focus overshadowed Dubois's highly original voice, her affirmation of her bodily strength and size, and her willingness to take on, both physically and verbally, those who challenged her authority or her freedom. Indeed, Dubois's text flies in the face of the paradigms through which we have come to characterize gender and respectability in the late nineteenth century. Within her narrative, she not only "whips her mistress," she then goes on to own a bawdy tavern, to dance with abandon, to swear with real gusto and to speak her own mind. With its focus on a woman's bodily strength and oral power on the one hand, and on regional ethnography, ethnographers, memory, and straightforward and humorous expression on the other, it teaches beautifully.
In her previous work, Speaking Power: Black Feminist Orality in Women's Narratives of Slavery, as in Speaking Lives, Authoring Texts, Fulton links discursive mastery and authorship to testimony and to scenes of inception rather than solely to the latter stages of production (that is, to publishing), and distribution, in which authors such as Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Wilson, and Frances E. W. Harper were so involved. As she groups together the texts featured in this edition and makes a case for the importance of oral narratives, Fulton also offers useful disaggregations, pointing out the very different editorial (or coauthoring) relationships and power dynamics at work in the production of oral narratives. These range from Picquet's relationship with her editor, the Rev. Hiram Mattison (in which he is so removed from his subject that he finds out indirectly, from an announcement she has published in a local paper, that she has already achieved her mother's freedom, the goal that motivated the text), to Mattie Jackson's familial, ongoing and intimate connection to her editor, Dr. Thompson, to the more regional and linguistic interests that motivate Sylvia Dubois's editor. This edition glosses these different and differential power relations as well as it glosses the scenes of contestation, control, and collaboration between "author" and "amanuensis." Such work calls for the collaborative research and recovery this edition models, and for new critical vocabularies to capture such coauthorial acts.
Fulton and Pitts's as well as Santamarina's complementary editions, offer a great deal to the fields of nineteenth-century historical, African American, autobiographical, and gender studies. Recovery and editorial work are labors of love. Though they go largely unrewarded in the metrics of the academy, the resurrection of so many buried and disremembered books and lives has been accomplished through complex coauthorial acts across time and place. Speaking Lives, Authoring Texts and A Hairdresser's Experience in High Life build upon and honor this editorial tradition. As scholars teach these texts and write about them, we will thank the editors for bringing these extraordinary voices, texts, and lives to our attention, to our classrooms, and to our research and writing.
Reviewed by P. Gabrielle Foreman, University of Delaware
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|Title Annotation:||Speaking Lives, Authoring Texts: Three African American Women's Oral Slave Narratives|
|Author:||Foreman, P. Gabrielle|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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