Noliwe M. Rooks. Ladies' Pages: African American Women's Magazines and the Culture That Made Them.
African American women's popular culture in the decades following the Civil War remains something of a mystery to scholars, a premise that underlies Noliwe M. Rooks's investigation of selected African American women's magazines from the 1890s to the 1950s. She characterizes the research that led to Ladies' Pages as a mystery or a detective story, a testament to her efforts to locate these magazines and the scant attention paid them in histories of publishing. Rooks's study performs an important service by identifying these publications and situating them in the mutually informative contexts of the postbellum Great Migration, the rise of consumer culture, and African American women's attempts to redefine the sexual stereotypes applied to them in the dominant culture.
Rooks focuses on three magazines published, edited, and written by African American women: Ringwood's Afro-American Journal of Fashion (1891-1894), Half-Century Magazine for the Colored Home and Homemaker (1916-1925), and Tan Confessions (1950-1952). She posits that these magazines' concern with perceptions of African American womanhood mirrored the political goal of racial uplift--in which the more privileged would help elevate the disadvantaged through activism and the model of appropriate behavior-- characteristic of better-known journals from the era such as Crisis and Opportunity. Throughout her book, Rooks wisely accounts for the role of social class distinctions within the black community, noting that while the magazines often spoke simultaneously to the elite and to the working class, the perspective of the elite was just as often overrepresented. Driven by this class-consciousness yet occasionally working against it, the magazines attempted to reshape white America's perceptions of African American women. These magazines sometimes embraced the dominant "cult of domesticity" and sometimes rewrote it to reflect the realities of African American life.
The first chapter offers a comprehensive treatment of gender, class, and consumption, framing the magazines in their respective historically specific contexts. Rooks argues that the sensationalistic narratives of sexuality long attributed to African American women motivated the magazines' writers to "write back" to a history of oppression by creating new definitions of African American womanhood. Such definitions were also shaped by the Great Migration, which facilitated the mixing of classes and regional cultures in urban environments and offered the potential for personal reinvention. The magazines embraced this potential by encouraging readers to view individual fashion and consumer choices as expressions of gender and class status. Finally, they took advantage of untapped possibilities for niche marketing by reaching the substantial population of black female consumers overlooked by white women's magazines.
The second chapter concentrates on Ringwood's Journal, which ran during the downturn in African American economic standing and political power of the 1890s, a period that gave rise to African American women's activism and clubs dedicated to racial uplift. Many of Ringwood's contributors, including owner Julia Ringwood, were active clubwomen and members of the elite. Probing Ringwood's peculiar choice to locate the magazine's impetus in slavery rather than in the contemporary period, Rooks interprets it as a covert response to the history of antebellum rape that went publicly unacknowledged by many African American women of the time.
Ringwood's fashion advice, discussed in the third chapter, communicated to readers the idea that personal style is a public display of morality that could combat negative stereotypes of African American women. Ringwood's spoke of fashion to two audiences: the elite class of black women, for whom fashion represented class position, and working class women, for whom appropriate fashion choices indicated moral respectability despite their occupation as domestic laborers. Along with these messages, however, the magazine also betrayed a subtle distinction in status between the working class and the talented tenth, and between darker skin and lighter.
If Ringwood's was largely the domain of the elite, Half-Century, as Rooks argues in Chapter Four, marketed itself to the masses and reflected their concerns. Published during a high point in the Great Migration, Half-Century still embodied the concerns of the elite class. Nevertheless, the features of the magazine, including a shopping service that allowed women to order clothes through the magazine (and thus avoid the inconvenience and humiliation attendant to shopping in segregated communities) and the employment of dark skinned models, made the world of fashion more democratic. These features also made class status--or the signs of it--attainable to virtually anyone through consumerism.
The evolution of the relationship between domesticity and consumerism occupies the rest of the book. Chapter Five returns to Ringwood's, which in the 1890s offered a variation on the domestic imperative that women belonged in the home by encouraging young women to enter domestic labor in white women's homes in order to access the virtues of domesticity. Rooks views this paradoxical advice as an attempt to synthesize the realities of African American women's domestic labor with the prevailing ideology of domesticity in American culture at large. Chapter Six examines the development of domesticity in the twentieth century. Rooks argues that Half-Century communicated to readers that product consumption contributes to a happy home but marriage provides the ultimate cultural respectability. In contrast, Tan Confessions suggests that a paradigm shift had occurred by the 1950s, with black women's sexuality serving as a commodity itself. The magazine featured sexualized images on the cover and narratives promoting a secure marriage as the means of achieving higher class status. In these later depictions, African American women's sexuality was a prominent feature used to sell the magazine, yet it was tightly circumscribed to continue to affirm marriage and domesticity.
Rooks concludes her study by briefly discussing Essence magazine, long considered the first African American women's magazine, and O, Oprah Winfrey's magazine. While both Essence and O embody some of the characteristics and strategies of their predecessors discussed in this study, their corporate ownership (in the case of Essence) and their target markets (as with O) cause Rooks to resist placing them in the same category of African American women's magazines as those she researched.
Rooks characterizes her quest to locate these magazines as unraveling a mystery, yet she contributes to their ambiguity by neglecting to indicate where she ultimately found them. Nothing in the text identifies the precise location of specific issues, though the first chapter implies that they were elusive. A quick search on World Cat, however, reveals that the full runs of both Half-Century (reprinted as part of the Negro Periodicals of the United States series) and Tan Confessions (microform) are available at several research libraries. World Cat does not disclose when the microforms were created, so it is difficult to know whether they were circulating while Rooks researched this book. But this uncertainty, along with the lack of specific bibliographic citations, obscures the rationale behind some of the author's choices, specifically to use only one issue (November 1950) to support her conclusions about Tan Confessions.
While the book is vague about the inaccessibility of these two magazines, it seems clear that Ringwood's is indeed quite elusive; unfortunately, the limited availability of extant issues weakens part of the author's argument. For instance, Rooks says that Ringwood's was published monthly for four years, suggesting approximately a 48-issue run, but in her analysis she cites only two issues, which poses a problem since nearly half of the book concerns this magazine. The limited source material is most obvious in Rooks's second chapter's analysis of the history of antebellum rape. The intriguing argument that the magazine approached that history through a strategy of calculated silence lacks firm support, not only because textual silences inevitably lend themselves to multiple interpretations--as acknowledged by the author--but also because the two issues do not provide enough material to establish a clear trend of silences.
In contrast, the comparative wealth of material associated with Half-Century makes for much more substantive discussions and better-supported conclusions. The magazine ran for nine years, and Rooks references at least nine different issues. Focusing on the cover art and articles of one issue of Half-Century, Rooks offers a persuasive analysis of class status in its relationship to African American women's labor, fashion, and American cultural values.
While it is certainly understandable that not all issues of these magazines are available--or were available when the book went to press--by choosing not to account clearly for the source material, Rooks unnecessarily undermines an otherwise compelling work. Ultimately, however, in drawing attention to the very existence of these magazines, this book contributes to both African American studies and women's studies and will be useful to scholars looking for insight into the day-to-day experience of African American women as readers, consumers, and business people in the postbellum period.
Cynthia A. Callahan
The Ohio State University at Mansfield
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|Author:||Callahan, Cynthia A.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2006|
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