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A 'Portable' Overview Of A Complex, Compelling History

Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon.

Mary Prince's story is, in some ways, a familiar narrative. Born a slave around 1788, she was abused by a mistress, Mrs. Wood — beaten, forced to work when ill, refused the chance to buy her freedom. Eventually, she sought emancipation on English soil. When she declares "All slaves want to be free — to be free is very sweet," it feels of a piece with the general story we, as a nation, are told about black women in the 19th century: downtrodden, then free.

But as excerpted in The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers, Prince's biography offers much more complexity. Prince marries a free man, a situation the Woodses can't quite reconcile; her emancipation begins with the Woods kicking her out in a fit of pique. The account, published by her employer Mr. Pringle, made Pringle the object of a libel suit and brought Prince to court. And in this excerpt, Prince delivers a pointed rebuke to anyone who believes that era's dominant narrative, "that the slaves do not need better usage, and do not want to be free."

I talk a lot about books being "in conversation." Sometimes the links are clear — The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers is in conversation with anthologies of black or 19th-century literature that sideline these women. It's also in conversation with cultural studies like Beyond Respectability, which discusses the work of many women who appear here: Fannie Barrier Williams, Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell.

But Nineteenth-Century African American Woman Writers is also in conversation with itself — and against that dominant narrative. Editors and professors Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Hollis Robbins have assembled an incisive collection of pieces by over 50 women, spanning nearly a century of written work, and highlighting the importance of such narratives in trying to illuminate the past. Mary Prince's cry for emancipation isn't just part of a tidy story of slavery and freedom — it's part of a complex and compelling whole.

Though this is a book meant to be referenced rather than devoured, almost any selection makes for absorbing reading, and as a whole they cover a breadth of tone and experience that defies a neat history. Some aspects of its overarching narrative are universal — every woman here is pushing for further freedom and visibility of black women, no matter their current legal position — but even then, the approaches are tellingly varied. (The academic remove of Northern-born abolitionist Sarah Parker Remond sits alongside the visceral recollections of ex-slave Louisa Picquet.)

Though this is a book meant to be referenced rather than devoured, almost any selection makes for absorbing reading, and as a whole they cover a breadth of tone and experience that defies a neat history.

That variety makes for a wide map of American-American womanhood before and after the Civil War. Some excerpts hint at an increasing influence in cultural spheres: Eliza Potter wrote the tell-all A Hairdresser's Experience in High Life in 1859, a vaguely judgey observation of high-society nonsense; in 1881, Abby Fisher (likely a former slave) published What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, which, according to Robbins and Gates, marked a way "cooks not necessarily Southern or black" could "familiarize themselves with 'Old Southern Cooking'."

This is another fundamental demand of this book: unspoken connections. The 19th century's increasing interest in 'black culture' was a double-edged sword that offered visibility but also required performance. Black women novelists and essayists faced the assumptions of white audiences. In one of the book's standout selections, Ella Sheppard writes about her time as one of the Jubilee Singers, a choir who went on tour as a last-ditch fundraising effort for Fisk University, faced racism at home, and eventually became the toast of Europe. But she notes with dry regret how they got more famous the more 'slave songs' they included in their program — suggesting the pressure to acquiesce to what people 'expected' from Southern African-American women.

This isn't a book seeking tidy answers about the "right" ambitions. This is a portrait of a complicated era — Victoria Earle Matthews was already writing about "The Value of Race Literature" in 1895, considering a contemporary literary canon like the one collected here. And occasionally, something calls us to task across the years: Mary Church Terrell's scathing essay on the abuses of the "convict lease system" could have been written this week. The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers isn't an easy read. It is, however, a rewarding history, and a reminder that the past is never a single narrative. It's a conversation with itself and with the present, well worth having.

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