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Written By Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746-1892.

This book is important because of the quality of its analysis, the breadth of its knowledge, and the significance of its concerns. In clear prose, Professor Foster examines a selection of extremely varied writings produced by African American women over a century and a half, locating each within multiple discourses: the literature of African American women, of American women, of African Americans, and of the nation. In the process, she offers some important insights into our diverse literary and political cultures. The rich result is indispensable for students and teachers.

Foster begins by claiming that, "in many ways, the story of the African American woman is the quintessential enactment of the New World being, combining the religious faith of the Puritans and the Protestant evangelists with the Common Sense approach to social betterment of Paine, Jefferson, Franklin, and Lincoln." Asking why the voices of these women have not been heard and their stories have not been told, she writes that, "to begin to answer such questions, one must consider the impact of race, gender, and class upon writing, upon the creation of literature, and upon its reception."

Foster invites all of us who study noncanonical writings to think about the relationships between our work and the literary tradition of African American women: "Given their identification as the Other, much of what we learn about the status of women, of African Americans, or of all those who were excluded by appearance, national origin, or class can be applied to our understanding of African American women and their literature." The literary discourses of these Others, she asserts, is inevitably subversive, "essentially concerned with testifying against that which would confine or repress their experiences and with testing the possibilities of language to replace rejected versions of self, art, and society with more accurate and positive representations." African American women, like all the marginalized who chose to participate in public discourse, she writes, "appropriated the English literary tradition to reveal, to interpret, to challenge, and to change perceptions of themselves and the world in which they found themselves."

Foster's selection of African American women's texts is, for me, something of a surprise. In her discussion of Colonial and Revolutionary writings, I expected her analysis of Phillis Wheatley's Poems On Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), but not her attention to "Bars Fight," Lucy Terry Prince's early narrative poem commemorating the 1746 Indian attack on Deerfield, Massachusetts. In her discussion of post-Revolutionary texts, I expected Maria W. Stewart's Productions (1835), but not its contextualization in terms of the early literary societies organized by African American women in New England and Mid-Atlantic cities. Completely new to me were the 1783 petition of "Belinda of Boston" to the general court for a portion of her Loyalist master's estate and the 1795 letter from Judith Cocks to her owner, both testimonies to the continuing efforts of African American women to use written language to effect change.

Discussing the literature of the 1830s, which Foster identifies as a discourse of social welfare and moral improvement addressed to men and women, black and white, she analyzes writings by freeborn Northern urban women like Jarena Lee (1836), Ann Plato (1841), and Zilpha Elaw (1846) within multiple contexts, including the genre of spiritual autobiography and the American ideologies of gender in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Some of Foster's most interesting ideas focus on this antebellum period when, she argues, the writings of African American and Anglo-American women diverged, with black women continuing to address promiscuous audiences (composed of men and women) and white women increasingly addressing their texts to female readers. Searching for the reasons for this divergence, Foster writes that, "at the moment when women's literature was emerging as a discrete and popular genre, the color line was as much, if not more, of a barrier between women than gender distinctions were between white man and women." While the antislavery movement presented an opportunity - the only opportunity - for black and white women to meet as equals, at least in theory, many white abolitionists "allowed, even imposed upon, virtually every African American woman writer the authority of slave experience." Challenging other literary historians to explore the issue of racism, Foster notes that, "in general, during the era of the most fervent social reform, an era that saw the end of slavery and the rise of women's liberation, the color line divided African and Anglo-American women, restricting their occasional cooperation to anti-slavery issues and causing woman's literature with its more diverse interests to develop along separate paths."

Foster argues that Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) was unlike the works of other female black writers like Zilpha Elaw, Nancy Prince, Harriet E. Wilson, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper because Jacobs decided to "write across the color line," addressing an audience primarily composed of white women. Examining the relationship Jacobs establishes between her narrator and her chosen reader, Foster applies Robert Stepto's notion of "the discourse of distrust" to identify Incidents as "a forerunner of the postbellum literature by African American women, literature which, with the elimination of legal slavery and other women's increasing recognition of women's joint concerns, including suffrage, temperance, and the Reconstruction of the country, makes possible once again a conversation between women across the color line."

When she turns to post-Civil War writing, Foster makes another observation that I find particularly significant: "Historians, economists, and political scientists have long acknowledged what literary scholars have not, that the years between 1865 and 1877, commonly known as the Reconstruction era, were largely shaped by concerns about the role of black people in American social systems. On the whole, scholars of American literature have not placed race so squarely in the center of that era." Foster centers her discussion of this period on Elizabeth Keckley - whose Behind the Scenes (1868), she argues, is a prototype of subsequent black-authored success stories, including Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery (1901) - and on the work of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Foster, who edited Harper's writings in A Brighter Coming Day (1990), presents a detailed discussion of the poetry. Her observation that in "Our English Friends" Harper's poetic voice speaks "not as a member of a freed race but as a citizen of a revived country" creates a rich context for the Aunt Chloe poems. Written for a mass audience, they are here handled with the critical seriousness that they merit.

Like her earlier analyses, Foster's treatment of turn-of-the-century writings embeds them within the context of discourses of race, class, and gender. Of the situation of female black writers in this period, she notes: "African American women found themselves separated from African American men and from Anglo-American women. Black men on the whole were becoming as sexist as white ones.... On the other side, Northern women who had earlier identified their status as a form of slavery ... now gave priority to the feelings of former slave mistresses and opted for a segregated woman's movement." Foster discusses Octavia Victoria Rogers Albert's The House of Bondage (1890) within this historical context. Asserting that this book is engaged in resisting the Plantation School being mythologized by writers like Thomas Nelson Page, Foster characterizes Albert's use of "the masks of race rituals" as "a literary counterpart to the innovative music of African Americans. Like blues or jazz, the lines may appear repetitious or the melody sound familiar, but they do not repeat exactly or they riff the readers away to new, different, and compelling interpretations."

Foster concludes her study with a discussion of books published in 1892: Lucy A. Delaney's From Darkness Cometh the Light, Ida B. Wells's Southern Horrors, Harper's Iola Leroy, and Anna Julia Cooper's A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South. These authors, Foster writes, were conscious both of their historic literary past and of their perilous present. "Their lives and their letters demonstrate that many of them believed that the place where they lived was in fact the place where the true mettle of the nation would be tested."

Today, as we begin seriously to examine this proposition, it is good to have Foster's book. Grounded in current theory and rooted in African American letters, in women's writing, and in traditional American literature, Written by Herself invites us all to consider the centrality of these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century African American women's texts.

Reviewed by Jean Fagan Yellin Pace University
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Author:Yellin, Jean Fagan
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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