Wright-ing White: the construction of race in women's 19th century didactic texts.
In this article, I focus on texts written by one minor but prolific White female educator who published from 1856 to 1902. The tracts are purportedly aimed toward improving women's domestic skills and teaching children in entertaining ways the seemingly raceless subjects of botany, astronomy, and natural science. Yet, amidst lessons about beetles, ants, and needlepoint, the texts bear the imprint of a gendered 19th century racial imaginary and circulating anxieties about the uncertain boundaries of Whiteness. However innocent or raceless educational tracts may appear, writing has tremendous power to manufacture, sculpt, and deploy narrations of race and racial identity, to translate imaginary renderings of human beings into seemingly concrete yet always insufficient entities, to freeze free-floating cultural sentiment into material and consumable symbols. Writing didactic texts in the 19th century, I argue, is a racial act.
I first present four elements of the theoretical and conceptual framework for my larger project which explores the discursive work of gendering race in women's 19th century educational texts. I then offer an overview of various ways race operates in the texts. I follow these examples with a close reading of the racial machinations at work in a lesson about ants taken from a science and nature reader for children. Collectively, the examples point to intricate and fluctuating constructions of race historically and the unexpected locations in which they lurk.
Also, the system of informal education the texts represent is significant for expanding our understanding of women's educational contributions in this period before their full presence in formal institutions was endorsed. Indeed, informal education continues to be a central site of cultural learning and transmission that some argue has come to replace or extend the potency of formal schooling. Chat rooms, after school centers, reading groups, even computer games (1) and media culture are informal educational methods that have potential appeal and usefulness for a wide variety of people whose family responsibilities, health, geographic/travel limitations, and/or working-class status may constrain their activities. Understanding the fuller picture of women's experiences in education necessitates looking outside of traditional formats.
Theoretical and Conceptual Framework
In White By Law, legal scholar Ira Haney-Lopez argues that the courts were often called upon to consider the viability of individual claims of White identity by those seeking American citizenship in the late 19th and early 20th century. One of the crucial measures for determining whiteness through the courts was "common knowledge," that is, popular, widely held conceptions of races and racial divisions. Denying citizenship to a Chinese applicant in the well-known case In re Ah yup, the court relied as much on the popular understanding of the term "White person" as on scientific evidence: "the words 'White person" ... in this country, at least, have undoubtedly acquired a well settled meaning in common popular speech, and they are constantly used in the sense so acquired in the literature of the country, as well as in common parlance" (my emphasis). (2) In this sense, educational tracts, popular fiction, and school books contributed to shaping the "common understanding" of Ah yup's physiognomy and nationality as not White, which became the basis of his rejection for citizenship. As critical race studies scholars have explored, whiteness as a racial category has been tied to class standing, economic advancement, educational privileges, housing access and protection from violence and discrimination in American history--in addition to an array of smaller daily privileges (3)--as well as fundamental citizenship rights. The naturalization act of 1790 that limited citizenship to "free White persons" is a particularly striking articulation of this phenomenon.
Yet, as Matthew Frye Jacobson underscores in his detailed study, Whiteness of a Different Color, who exactly constituted this category of "free White persons" was by no means clear. Although "White" is asserted confidently in the naturalization act as if it captures a monolithic, immutable and self-evident fact of nature, soaring immigration into the country in the late 19th century transformed the terrain of Whiteness into highly contested ground with Nordic, Slavic, Mediterranean, and Celtic immigrants among others all battling for inclusion in the exclusive "Whiteness club" with all of its corresponding benefits and privileges. Rather than questioning the legitimacy and epistemological certainty of the racial category itself, the recurring and anxiety-provoking debate for lawmakers and common citizens alike was who deserved inclusion in the category and who were better considered merely, swarthy unworthies. (4)
Significantly, this struggle to delineate the boundaries of an authentic whiteness was occurring during the same period that governmental leaders began conceptualizing education as an ideal instrument for assimilating and forging future citizens. As educational historians Carl Kaestle, Henry J. Perkinson, and Joel Spring (5) have argued, a central goal of the common school movement was establishing a Protestant-imbued Anglo-American culture as dominant over the cultures of the diverse immigrants descending on American shores. In addition, rights of citizenship such as "universal White male suffrage" were seen to depend on "universal white education." (6) Given the prominence of these discursive trends, where more appropriate than schooling and didactic texts for future citizens to learn lessons about racial identity?
Second, this project both draws from and critiques critical White studies scholarship. A premise central to contemporary critical White studies is that concretizing, historicizing and contextualizing Whiteness offers to disrupt and displace an entity that masquerades as biological and natural, that attempts to capture an illusory and ambitious homogeneity, and that has held at times invisible, and almost mythological power. And yet, what has been called the "critical rush" in race studies in the last decade to interrogate the phenomenon of Whiteness has itself become a subject of academic scrutiny as various "risks" and "dangers" in such scholarship have been theorized. Despite scholars' intent to 'mark' Whiteness for the purpose of decentering it, the question has arisen whether scrutinizing the entity only serves to reify, inadvertently re-center, and even to nourish anew, the very category of "White" that scholars strive to deconstruct as racial fiction. (7) These growing critiques of this aspect of racial studies, particularly by historians, underscore the imperative that scholars avoid "arbitrary and inconsistent definitions" of whiteness and historicize, refine and root in archival data their use of this concept. (8)
Probing the contradictions of critical race theory is less a dismissal of its potential usefulness and rather, drawing from Judith Butler, a caution that we should be wary of what the "theoretical move to establish foundations" like 'race' or 'Whiteness' "authorizes and what it precludes or forecloses." (9) Approaching racial phenomenon with a pre-determined conviction of the invariant importance of, for instance, Whiteness, downplays the utterly constitutive nature of historical, cultural and regional context for subjectivity and signification. Or, to say that class, gender and sexuality, for instance, inflect or are inflected by race, that these are in fact mutually-constitutive categories is not to suggest that they are equivalent in significance--race may be far more salient as a conceptual entity in some contexts just as class or ethnicity or age or sexuality may be more formative and formidable categories in others. To draw from anthropologist Ruth Behar's reflections, "I have never felt more Jewish that when I am among Cubans.... I have never been more aware of my Cuban heritage than when I am among Jewish people." (10) And to draw from Mason Stokes, "queerness threatens Whiteness but Whiteness makes queerness more palatable." (11) The particulars of a given context contribute to determining saliency.
The tools of critical race studies can serve such determinations. To restate the significance of such projects mentioned earlier, tracing fluctuations in racial conceptions historically can contribute not only to understanding the material potency of racial categories in contemporary American culture but to clarifying how and why particular versions of race came to be created and maintained, what those expressions of race signify, and what labor they are mobilized to do.
Indeed, the didactic texts women produced for schools and the public in the late 19th century bear the imprints of a gendered racial imaginary and circulating anxiety about the uncertain boundaries of Whiteness specific to that time period. As Vron Ware argues, (12) Anglo-Protestant women cannot be separated from their formative locations in a White supremacist context, playing significant roles in the effort to fortify particular versions of Whiteness during a period in which mass immigration was transforming the American landscape and a Whiteness deemed authentic enabled U.S. citizenship. Opportunities for women to express xenophobic sentiment and racial conceptions publicly increased throughout the 19th century as women's roles were redefined in the wake of the women's movement and the numbers of female teachers and students grew.
Transformations in the printing industry and women's entry en masse into publishing also facilitated this pattern of public philosophizing. Between 1820 and 1860, women writers burst on to the literary scene and began publishing texts at a rate unprecedented in American history. With pens flying and morals flowing, homemakers, educators, and professional writers produced thousands of texts that were simply devoured by the reading public: for example, while publishing 5,000 copies of a single book was considered successful prior to the 1850s, authors commonly sold as many as 50,000 or 100,000 copies by the 1860s. (13) Insufficient scholarly attention has been given to the ways that race and White femininity speak in this large body of writing--particularly the educational tracts--of which many of the authors were White. I argue that didactic texts are prime terrain for exploring intersections among race and gender because it is a discursive regime produced almost exclusively by White women, imagined through female characters, and consumed by female readers and their children. It offers possibilities for considering female educators' conscious and unconscious lessons about race. Wright-ing Race
In this article, I draw from the work of one minor educator and author, Julia McNair Wright, whose publication record and breadth of didactic genres renders her work particularly appropriate for illustrating prominent discursive trends. Essential to emphasize, however, is that Wright is simply one of hundreds constituting that "damned scribbling mob" of women writers that so aggrieved Nathaniel Hawthorne in the 19th century. Scribble she did; between the years 1856 when she was 16 years old and 1902 when she died--quill and ink presumably still within reach--this prolific middle-class Presbyterian woman of English and Scottish descent published at least 117 books, 24 short stories, and 11 articles on an array of topics. (14) Just one of hundreds of educational, didactic, and religious writers at the time, Wright shares many characteristics Susan Coultrap-McQuin describes as true of the majority of female writers during this period. (15) Wright was born in the Northeast, specifically in Oswego, New York, in 1840. She was raised in a middleclass family. The ancestry she champions is both English and Scottish (16) and her public performance and textual endorsement of Protestantism was unwavering throughout her body of writings.
Although she shared many characteristics with her authorial contemporaries, Wright was unusual in terms of the number and variety of texts she produced. (17) She dabbled in the majority of the varied writing genres scholar Nina Baym argues female authors attempted as a whole across the 19th century. (18) She published: a series of science and nature textbooks; botany and astronomy readers for children; temperance novels; religious tracts; didactic fiction; science and nature articles; historical fiction; "ethnographies"; anti-Catholic treatises and massive housekeeping manuals. Wright sustained a publishing record for Presbyterian and popular presses for 46 years, releasing as many as eight books in an individual year (1870) and leaving only six years in her writing history bereft of titles altogether (1857-1859, 1861-62, and 1877). These gaps may be influenced by her marriage to, fittingly, a Presbyterian minister in 1859, the birth of her two children in the early 1860s, as well as a teaching position she held at a women's college in 1877. Although not uncommon to the period, this sustained writing record nevertheless represents contributions to (White) women's educational advancements in the conviction of women's intellectual potential and creative curriculums it illustrates. At the same time, however, these texts simultaneously participated in creating and disseminating racialized and gendered discourses with more pernicious implications.
Racial Construction in Didactic Texts
For the most part, Wright appears uninterested in "racial" issues, mentioning "race" only in passing in her texts, and predictably, when her characters are non-White, non-Anglo-Saxon, or, sometimes, non-American. Although her writing is purportedly directed toward other ends--educating children about bugs and beetles, improving women's domestic skills, even Protestant proselytizing--messages about race and constructions of racialized Others are foundational undercurrents in Wright's texts. Some short stories include peripheral African-American and Irish (19) characters, some children's books use characters of (excessive) color to propel their moral lessons, and some illustrations feature sharply contrasting representations of "White" and "non-White" Others. Explicitly raced characters are included only in particular contexts and are always overshadowed by the usually Protestant, benevolent, middle-class females who wield pin-cushions and ladles with flair and grace from fictional center stage. Although Wright tackles directly other pressing social issues in the time period directly such as brewing Catholic/ Protestant tensions--complicating "Whiteness" in the process--she overlooks, avoids, or simply finds irrelevant to her writing goals issues like Reconstruction, despite their presence on the national mind.
Toni Morrison argues that the very act of "enforcing racelessness in literary discourse is itself a racial act." (20) The fictional worlds Wright attempts to construct as raceless are just as revealing as and no more innocent than texts which grapple overtly with "racial issues" or which centralize, demonize, and colonize representations of people of color. And Wright's occasional and by all surface appearances random insertion of characters whose bodies bear the heavy weight of her racial imaginary is, if we are to concur with Morrison, the very vehicle by which her assumption of White racelessness is made possible. Through pervasive dichotomies of lightness and darkness, the construction of flat, peripheral or thickly-stereotyped characters of color, and the racialization of foreign land, a tenacious, steady Whiteness in served in these texts, consistent with Morrison's argument.
A central way race operates is through absence--what is not said. Wright's texts reveal much about 19th century racial epistemologies in that a steady pattern I call Authorial Saxonophilia permeates the characters she constructs, her textual phrasing, and her supporting illustrations. Most easily discernable, perhaps, is her unspoken assumption of a White audience as consumers of her texts, the significant pattern Morrison explores at length in canonical fiction as she assesses how the unquestioned presumption of a White audience has shaped the literary imagination. Wright's children's books and domestic manuals for women demonstrate similar ideological investments in matters of race operating in what might be called the 19th century "educational" imaginary. For instance, nary a darkly-shaded child or adult rears its head in her textbook illustrations; images scattered throughout her publications reveal primarily neatly-dressed, curly-headed, pale-skinned youngsters, often male, scampering alongside babbling brooks and flowering shrubbery. White children peer out windows; White women stir bubbling pots; young White males adorned in knickers swing in lush, charming gardens. In contrast to her direct treatment of women's right to vote, socialism, and labor conditions for women in factories, no overt commentary is offered on slavery, the Civil War, or Reconstruction.
Such patterns are replicated in language as well. When a narrator addresses the reader in a science and nature text, "no doubt you have often had your hands stained brown, for days from the husks of walnuts," (21) she assumes a fair-skinned child upon whose hands walnut stain would noticeably show. Consistent with curriculum theorists' critique of 19th century readers for their "distorted" racial representations, (22) such selective visibility undoubtedly reflect racist and discriminatory sentiment, unfair exclusion, and an unjustified over-representation of White youth that should be identified historically and rectified in present day. Indeed, such an argument is persuasive and careful analysis of historical representations can contribute to that mission. However, for my purposes here, I want to emphasize that the constructions mentioned above gesture to an educational racial imaginary--one that considers only authentically White children, usually male, relevant, perhaps even possible, in the orchestrations of this didactic world.
Whiteness as absent presence shifts to explicit marking in the opening preface to Wright's nature readers when the author names "Saxon" education a specific goal of the texts. The series, consistent with much of Wright's work, commences with a preface addressing her adult audience of teachers and parents, followed by a note to the "boys and girls" to entice them along their educational journeys. In the adult-oriented preface the author asks, "should not the first short, strong Saxon sentences be used to convey scientific facts rather than such trivial information as 'the boy has a new hat'?" Although the central emphasis of this rhetorical question is children's need for useful knowledge rather than trivialities, this utterance of ethnic and linguistic specificity--Saxon--is significant precisely because of its seemingly cavalier and uncritical mobilization during the historical period in which Whiteness, in all of its slippery transmogrifications, was increasingly contested and Anglo-Saxons were considered sufficiently White, indubitably White, to gain inclusion. Wright's deployment of the term in a preface directed to parents and teachers betrays an imaginary preoccupied with and centered on Saxon culture and language as a specific educational goal. The educational needs of Anglo-Saxon children are preeminent in this vision, and whose tongues, as a result, are sure to savor the emittance of their first, short, strong, Saxon sentences.
Race is also constructed through excessive marking. The "raced" characters who occasionally surface in her texts are always non-Anglo Saxon figurations. These African-American, Native-American and Irish beings are flat, peripheral and thickly stereotyped. The "white produced blackness" in the texts consists of one-dimensional, "time-blurred" (23)Black figurations which are mere tropes of servility--for instance, a hired hand here, a mammified nurse there, a wizened old Black man with possum expertise, a diminutive Asian. Like the tap-dancing Black sidekicks Ann DuCille analyzes in Shirley Temple films, racialized Others seem to provide "color, comedy and companionship" to the centralized Whites. (24)
Significantly, these racialized constructions are gendered, and they seem to enable a primarily unmarked but tenaciously present gendered and classed Whiteness in the texts. Thus, in religious tracts, masculinized and sinning single, Black, poor female characters are posed against devout, feminized, married and middle-class White females. The figure of "Fiddlin' Jim," for example, appearing in a 1902 Sunday School reader, bears the weight of such discourses. (25) An African-American female with a masculine nick name, Fiddlin' Jim has a laughing, jovial expression, a body adorned in gaudy attire befitting the minstrelsy, and comportment that includes legs slightly spread in a decidedly non-lady like manner. In contrast, the Protestant female who "saves" Jim is proper, graceful, and understated throughout the text. Similarly, in a temperance school book, the body of an adult but dependent dark skinned nurse serves as springboard for lessons about good and evil for a Scottish male youth. (26) In other texts, language is used as a code for signifying racial differences; bumbling, hired Black workers with excessively marked speech dialects are juxtaposed with profoundly articulate, efficient, and proper Protestant females. Such stereotypical and contrasting representations, embedded in educational tracts and directed toward middle-class readers, serve to perpetuate a fictionalized construction of Anglo-Saxon superiority which signals not only female authors' investments in racial delineations but to their gendered expressions as well.
Black figurations are the victims in this discursive battle, falling to the pages in frozen caricatures as if content to be immortalized in benevolent servitude.
Another method of constructing race is metaphorical, a type of conceptual Whiteness, conveyed through pervasive dichotomies of lightness and darkness. For example, in a series of anti-Catholic treatises published during an intense wave of Irish immigration to the United States in the second half of the 19th century, (27) the authors mobilize racial typologies commonly applied to people of color at that time to racialize and masculinize Irish Roman-Catholic Nuns and Priests. Irish people were often referred to as Blacks "turned inside out" at the time as if their pesky trickster physiognomies belied their true internal biological states as African or African-American. (28) Protestant females and girls in the texts are Whitened and feminized. For example, this passage describes the heroine of one Anti-Catholic tract: "Lilly was dressed in a white costume ... she was a delicate-looking girl, with hair of the palest flaxen hue, shining and soft ... she had ... transparent complexion ... and looking more like the ideal of angel or fairy on the painter's canvas."
The contrasting portrayals of Blackened priests and Whitened Protestants in these texts display common tropes of good/evil, angelic/demonic infused with extremes in xenophobic sentiment and fears of difference wrought by immigration. Consistent with prominent concerns, the texts portray Irish Catholics as threats to the Republic because of suspicion they held greater allegiance to the Pope than to democratic ideals: "When that finger of [Roman] decay has touched the ballot box ... public education, the freedom of the pulpit ... think how a race of betrayed and ruined children of free men shall wail curses on the head." (29) However, here, too, gender seems to matter because Catholic men and the political power their maleness wields in the Republic are constructed in these texts as particular threats to still disenfranchised and thus politically dependent and vulnerable Protestant women. In spite of what they may define as "authentic" Whiteness, Anglo-Saxon maidens and their legally-impotent mothers are positioned in these texts at the mercy of a looming, patriarchal, and racialized Catholic authority.
Finally, as I explore in the following example, race is constructed through racializing foreign land, botanical species, and insects, most apparent in Wright's series of science and nature readers for children. Animals, insects, as well as their cartoon representations, continue to be popular ways of teaching life lessons to children and were dominant in Wright's popular readers. This four part series, entitled Sea Side and the Way Side, was published in the 1880s and 1890s and reprinted until the 1920s for use in and outside school systems. While storytelling about "nature" and "animals" is often undertaken for pragmatic, elucidatory, and by Wright's account, noble reasons, Donna Haraway reminds us that the natural world helps humans tell stories about ourselves and the desire to watch animals and to make sense of our behavior through theirs--or theirs through ours--is never an innocent practice:
Nature is a topic of public discourse on which much turns, even the earth ... In the United States, storytelling about nature, whatever problematic category that is, remains an important practice for forging and expressing basic meanings ... my conviction [is] that people reaffirm many of their beliefs about each other and about what kind of planet the earth can be by telling each other what they think they are seeing as they watch the animals (my emphasis). (30)
Given the tendency to draw connections between "nature" and "culture," it is not surprising, then, that while discussing the activities of ants in Book Two of the series, the narrator remarks, "It is odd to see how much ant ways and ant soldiers are like human ways and human soldiers." (31) Odd, indeed. This musing comment is immediately followed with the assertion, "the ants make war to get slaves, or servants." (32) Narrating the natural world for children as part of their socialization into adult patterns of understanding is a process inextricably woven with cultural beliefs and is never innocent, neutral, or objective. Using human social relations to make sense of animal behavior reflects more than anthropocentric epistemology, it carries with it the desires of an author, the inflections of an historically-specific discursive field, the etchings of an era. Conceptualizing ants as warring, militaristic and greedy for slaves is a fictional chronicle that reveals as much about the author and circulating racial discourses in her epistemic field as it does about ants.
If we can open wide the gates of "the fairy-land of science,"--if we can bring the child near to the heart of nature,--if we can absorb his [sic] hours of leisure, and many of his hours of brain-work, in the study of nature out of doors, we shall have done much toward making him robust in body, sound in mind, cheerful of disposition, and useful in the future ... (33)
Wright mobilizes 19th century taxonomic categories to establish difference among families, orders, and species throughout her nature readers and this practice takes an intensely racialized turn in a lesson she entitles "Slave Ants." This lesson appears in Book Two of the series. To Wright, like the taxonomists from whom she draws, the art of comprehending distinctions among groups of organisms depends on astute observation and careful interpretation of how minute creatures themselves perceive and relate to one another. Such observations are infused with meaning through historically-situated understandings of the relations among living beings. The racially-laden "Slave Ant" lesson mobilizes, quite matter-of-factly, devastating human relationships to render ant maneuverings more intelligible to Anglo-Saxon children. And does so as if "slave" is an unremarkable adjective, useful for what it conveys about ant roles and relationships, but a term no different in connotation or impact in this time period than "Farmer Ants" and "Wonder Ants" described in other lessons. Indeed, the striking point of departure enabling this lesson to proceed is the assumption that "master" and "slave" are terms, and a type of relationship, with sufficient meaning for third grade children--such as farmers, for instance--upon which to base a lesson about ant behavior without introductory information.
An intriguing interpretation of ant dynamics ensues in this three-page lesson. The narrator explains that when "strange" ants attempt to enter other ant hills they are driven out, killed, or less often, treated kindly. Once, she put a "black ant" into the gate of a city of "brown ants" and marveled, "You should have seen how they drove him out! He ran as if he were wild with fear. Three or four brown ants came after him to the edge of their hill." (34) The creatures' apparent lack of camaraderie is attributed to a fundamental difference signified to the observer through variations in their bodily hues. Children are left to conclude that the color of ants, in this case, "black" and "brown," matters in the little organisms' potential to get along. Their bodies display surface evidence of a more deeply-rooted essential difference between (assumed) disparate ant types that render them naturally incompatible, in fact, adversarial. The speed of the black ant's retreat is attributed to the perceived threat its "difference" poses to the brown ants.
In other ant dynamics in the lesson, the significance of color is exchanged for more explicit analogies to human racial systems. The "chief family" of slave-making ants (owners) is called "The Shining" because their bodies "shine with a gloss like varnish." A well-orchestrated slave ant society is comprised of several central roles: the slave-makers, the masters, and the slaves themselves. The bodies of slave-makers are not described, but masters, with utter predictability, are of a "light or red color, with a bright gloss" while the slave ants are "dark or black." (35) Ants of this type are an international phenomenon as both slaves and slave-makers are apparently "found in many parts of the world." (36) The roles and responsibilities of owners, masters, and slaves in ant communities, as might be expected, differ dramatically. In areas where slaves are held, "masters never do any work. They make war and steal slaves" and slave babies. The slave ants are the ones who "do all of the work," even in the case of war, at which point they, "fight for the hill and their owners." (37) Though owners do "fight bravely" if a war comes, they are otherwise indolent creatures. They
walk about their hill in an idle way ... [they] do not build the house, nor nurse their babies, nor feed themselves. Often they do not even clean their own bodies. They leave all these duties to the slaves. The slaves feed their owners, and brush and clean them, as a servant cleans his master's coat. When the ants are to make a move, the slaves pick up their masters, and carry them away. (38)
As we watch the author watch the ants, it is clear she and the experts from whom she draws interpret ant behavior through a racialized and hierarchical lens in which interactions among minute living creatures are judged in terms of servility, dominance, idleness, and industry. Owner performance is condemned as idle, gluttonous, and ineffectual--shades of a post-war abolitionist sentiment, perhaps--while the survival of the ant community seems to rest on persevering, industrious slaves. Note in the passage above that the term "slave" gains additional explanatory muscle through a comparison to a "servant" (cleaning his "master's coat") as if the term might be more familiar to White middle-class school children and their meanings relatively synonymous, their duties similar.
In the vision of nature channeled through these science and nature readers, is it merely coincidental that "worker" ants are smaller, darker and more numerous than soldiers and leaders? Might the relative darkness of any given ant be more likely to constitute it and its activities as a "worker" rather than "leader" to observers? The traffic between nature and culture (39) here is evident in that ant activities are infused with masculinized meanings drawn from human labor--workers, soldiers, captains--and the names themselves derived from those comparisons. Such traffic is evident in other examples as well: (1) masters are able to "march to the hill of a tribe of ants which they wish to seize for slaves": (2) slave babies are pilfered and raised alongside owners young; and (3) absolute difference in roles is upheld even at death, and after, as dead slaves are buried in one locale and owners in another.
Ant dynamics in a brief children's lesson may be the last place one might expect racial issues to be legible. The particulars are easy to overlook as the reader becomes immersed in the author's storytelling. Yet, the characteristics and color invoked here seem imbued with racialized undertones that mimic biologically-rooted conceptions of difference in the 19th century social milieu. What racial work is this snapshot of the ant world mobilized to do? These stunning constructions can be interpreted in various ways. Most importantly, perhaps, the cavalier mobilization of "slave" and "master" to convey insect maneuverings to an imagined audience of young-White-citizens-in-the-making dismisses, or judges irrelevant, the historical specificity and significance of these roles and their devastating human consequences. It minimizes to Anglo-Saxon children, in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction, American slavery's shattering effects. In fact, the lesson seems to romanticize slave status as noble and diligent, the very backbone of the ant community, in contrast to the slothfulness of Masters.
These constructions (indolent masters, industrious slaves) may indeed be a post-war abolitionist commentary coded in feminized indirection. They may intend to speak of the power of the Protestant work-ethic to grapple with the vagaries of fate. They may reflect no more than an opportunistic educational strategy in which educators draw from legible discourses and taxonomic convention to elucidate phenomenon to children efficiently and creatively. But here is the work of gendered racial construction. To return to Donna Haraway, "my conviction [is] that people reaffirm many of their beliefs about each other and about what kind of planet the earth can be by telling each other what they think they are seeing as they watch the animals" (my emphasis). Read through Haraway's lens, the primarily female educators at this time, (40) charged with making the natural world comprehensible to young (White) future citizens, narrated that world in terms comprehensible to themselves and in the process reaffirmed their own beliefs. Indeed, this "slave ant" lesson may have only been possible--conceivable--in a gendered White racial imaginary whose actual or ancestral bodies had not borne the burden of legalized racial domination.
As part of a curriculum for shaping "useful" future citizens, other elements of the lesson are instructive. The narrator reports that owners are "kind to their little slaves" who "seem to do very much as they please" as they grow up. Rather than characterize owners in a negative light, this passage suggests that slave life, perhaps even in American history, was really not so bad. Or that "kindness" might be sufficient salve for abduction and domination. Or that domination is the inevitable articulation of differential status and that kindness demonstrates owner integrity. Remarkably, the patronizing phrase, "little slaves," serves to infantilize slaves in the ant world just as has occurred historically in human relationships.
Wright's work is useful for what it suggests about women's investments in racial categories during the late 19th century and reminds us of contemporary investments as well. For White women advancing their own budding identities as professional educators and authors as well as their economic viability in territory only newly available to some American women, such investments are not inconsequential. This tension complicates interpreting this body of work in solely demonizing or celebratory terms for its participation in racialized constructions or as a recovery narrative of long lost female authors. Exploring how particular representations are not only imbued with historically-specific beliefs about race but how their production by a White middle-class female author racializes and genders them in particular ways is useful for propelling our understanding about the machinations involved in racial labor, the dissemination of its products, and its varied inscriptions.
From carefully-crafted diction to the "fantastic figure" of an Irish-Catholic Priest used to signify xenophobic threats to nation, conceptions of race and the elaborate social labor involved in their creation are ever-shifting. The fearful, at times desperate, frequently violent, labor that has bolstered and protected the bastions of whiteness from intruders deemed undeserving was accomplished through a variety of textual, legal and social means in the 19th century--with costs both for those who struggled to maintain it and for those who were excluded from entry. Probing Whiteness, teasing it apart, revealing its vulnerabilities, may inch us toward an "unsettled and disturbed Whiteness" that is more about tentativeness than certainty, that refuses the utopianism of White abolitionism and what Stokes sees as the illusory comfort of a reinvented and more honorable Whiteness. (41)
Lucy E. Bailey
Oklahoma State University
(1) Juliam Sefton-Green, "Informal Learning: Substance of Style?" Teaching Education, 14.1 (2003): 37-51. Sefton-Green offers a gentle reminder that "informal learning" co-exists with formal education rather than operates separately from it.
(2) Ian F. Haney-Lopez, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race, (New York: Routledge, 1996), 5.
(3) Peggy McIntosh's personal reflections on white privileges are relevant here, as well as George Lipsitz's analysis of both individual and economic investments in whiteness historically. See McIntosh, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," Independent School, (Winter 1990): 1-6. See Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998).
(4) Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998)
(5) See Carl F. Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools in American Society, 1790-1860, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), 72; Joel Spring, The American School; and Henry J. Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education 1865-1990, (Boston: McGraw Hill, 1991).
(6) Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic, 72.
(7) Eric Foner, "Response to Eric Arnesen," International Labor and Working-Class History, 60 (2001): 57-60.
(8) Eric Arnesen, "Whiteness and the Historians' Imagination," International Labor and Working Class History, 60 (2001): 3-32. Foner, Response, 57-60.
(9) Judith Butler, "Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of 'Postmodernism'," in Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange, ed. Seyla Benhabib et al. (New York: Routledge, 1995), 35-57.
(10) Ruth Behar, Visiting Address, The Ohio State University, 2001.
(11) Mason Stokes, The Color of Sex: Whiteness, Heterosexuality and the Fictions of White Supremacy, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001).
(12) Vron Ware, Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism and History, (London, UK: Verso Press, 1992).
(13) The reasons for these shifts are varied and not attributable solely to public desire. Increasing literacy rates, the association of reading with middleclass notions of refinement, technological improvements that made publishing texts more efficient and affordable, as well as the emergence of advertising and promotional gimmicks among publishers all contributed to the increases in production.
(14) The background information as well as a complete list of Wright's publications is compiled in Lucy Bailey, "'A Plain Woman's Story'," unpublished master's thesis, (The Ohio State University, 1997).
(15) Susan Coultrap-McQuin, Doing Literary Business: American Women Writers in the Nineteenth Century, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
(16) My use of the word "champions" here is a reference to fictional genealogies, to ancestral narrative, to the aspects of ancestry one heralds--such as Scottish and Anglo-Saxon in Wright's case--over ethnicities and genealogical elements that are unknown or are considered less laudable.
(17) In the Auto/biographical I, Liz Stanley argues that the auto/biographical genre has reflected codified ideas of whose lives are worthy of study: often men, often prominent figures deemed "great" men. Implicit in my research "on" Wright may be the message that this, too, is a life worthy of study, and I do not wish to discount this as a potential interpretation at some other time in some other work. My interest here, however, is not to praise Wright's individual "accomplishments," and thus concretize further what features constitute a female life "worthy" of study, but to examine her work as a fertile site in which hegemonic 19th century discourses are legible.
(18) Nina Baym, Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and About Women in America, 1820-1870, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993 ).
(19) This is a particular "racial" construction at this time familiar to scholars and well-established in research. Indeed, Jacobson explains that the Irish were often seen as "blackened," an effort to mark distinctions among the panoply of "whites" by drawing from existing racial typologies generated from those applied to the bodies of Africans and African-Americans.
(20) Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, (New York: Vintage, 1992), 46.
(21) Wright, Sea Side and Way Side, Book Three, 45.
(22) See Gillian Klein, Reading into Racism: Bias in Children's Literature and Learning Materials, (London, UK: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985); Louis A. Castenell and William F. Pinar, eds, Understanding Curriculum as Racial Text: Representations of Identity and Difference in Education, (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993).
(23) "Time blurred" is drawn from historian Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940, (New York: Pantheon, 1998).
(24) Ann duCille, "The Shirley Temple of My Familiar," Transition 73, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 25.
(25) Wright, "Fiddlin' Jim," in Studies in Hearts. (New York: American Tract Society, 1902).
(26) Julia McNair Wright, "Lesson XXII: Little MacDuff and His Nurse." The Temperance Second Reader for Families and Schools. (New York: National Temperance Society and Publication House, 1891), 52-54.
(27) Julia McNair Wright, Priest and Nun.
(28) Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White, (New York: Routledge, 1995), 41.
(29) Julia McNair Wright, Priest and Nun.
(30) Donna Haraway, "Otherwordly Conversations; Terran Topics; Local Terms," Science as Culture 3 (1992): 64-98.
(31) Julia McNair Wright, The Sea Side and the Way Side, Book Two (Boston: D.C. Heath and Co., 1888), 23.
(32) Wright, Sea Side and Way Side, Book Two, 23.
(33) Wright, Sea Side and Way Side, Book Three, iv.
(34) Wright, Sea Side and Way Side, Book Two, 24.
(35) Wright, Sea Side and Way Side, Book Two, 25.
(36) Wright, Sea Side and Way Side, Book Two, 25.
(37) Wright, Sea Side and Way Side, Book Two, 26.
(38) Wright, Sea Side and Way Side, Book Two, 26.
(39) Haraway, Otherworldly, 64-98.
(40) Educators were increasingly female in the 1880-1890 decade when the first two books in the series were published. See Jackie Blount, Destined to Rule the Schools: Women and the Superintendency, 1873-1995, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1998).
(41) See Stokes for a description of various approaches to deal with the hegemony of whiteness including Noel Ignatiev's provocative "race traitor" camp, and Joe Kincheloe and Shirley Steinberg's idea that we strive for less pernicious, more liberatory definitions of White identity.
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|Title Annotation:||Julia McNair Wright|
|Author:||Bailey, Lucy E.|
|Publication:||Journal of Thought|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2006|
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