Welcome to our first discussion of the book “Doers of the Word”: African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880) by Carla L. Peterson. If you are confused about this Black History Month segment, please see our post from last week that outlines the book discussion concept.
As Carla L. Peterson explains her purpose and begins to explore the lives of women highlighted throughout the book, I am most struck by the realization that before this book, I knew mostly names of black women connected to southern slavery. This is the narrative of black history. It ends and begins with slavery. When I think of northern abolitionists I think of white people but mostly white women. Black women have been completely erased from the northern abolitionist narrative, which allows for the development of a narrative that views northern whites as the savior of enslaved southern blacks. This, of course, continues an ongoing hierarchy of indebtedness and development of the benevolent oppressor. I believe the very act of expanding our awareness of the diversity of experiences of black people in the 1800s breaks down the oppressive nature of our history and forces us to view the black experience as an individual experience. Our history is not a homogeneous monument to one specific type of oppression (slavery). Just as there is not one narrative of oppression to capture black experience today, there was not of the past either.
So, OF COURSE there were northern black women advocating for the abolition of slavery through their own writing, speeches, and ministry. I just didn’t know who they were. Most of my knowledge of black history outside of slavery starts with the Harlem Renaissance. I have deprived myself of the beautiful narratives of so many pioneers. Women who understood what it meant to sacrifice their own sense of community in order to strengthen the community of others. These are women who were erased from not only white spaces but black male spaces as well: “…the discourse of these black women constitutes a particular form of hybridity in its disruption not only of the discourse of the dominant culture but also of that of the black male elite.” Even black men thought it was in their own best interest to not see black women. “…The black male leadership strove, in what it believed were the best interests of the community, to contain heterogeneity, silence difference, and gender blackness as male.” These women demanded a space within the margins and were simultaneously empowered and oppressed by their new position. The black women in this book navigated both spaces designated for men and white women, thus molding intersectionality in ways that we are still striving for today.
The second chapter examines the life and public career of the deeply religious Isabella Baumfree, better known as Sojourner Truth. Truth was a slave and a free person. She was unable to read or write, but she designated two white women to write her biography. Unfortunately, we are left with a narrative of Truth that cannot be separated from the white gaze. Peterson points out that even the speeches we know from Truth have been included and selected in the biography by white women and reinforces their own view of Truth instead of the one that Truth would have necessarily presented. What I found most interesting about this detail is that Sojourner Truth is the most well-known black woman in this book and also the only one whose narrative is left entirely to be interpreted through whiteness. I can’t help but wonder if the fame of Truth is entirely due to her representation through the lens of whiteness. Would all of the other women be more famous and taught in our American history classes if their identities had been filtered through the othering sieve of whiteness? Regrettably, blackness seems to be most palatable when viewed through the simplistic gaze of whiteness.
A recurring white critique of Truth’s oratory style is that it came across as “disjointed” to some in her audience. Peterson posits that this appearance of disjointedness was intentional, “Did she knowingly invent a double discourse that would allow her to reach beyond her white audiences to speak to those of her own race, particularly its women, thereby imagining community and working toward the creation of an African-American local place?” We currently do not know one way or the other, but I would like to believe that Truth’s ability to code-switch between multiple groups allowed her to transcend the constraints of her white audience. She consistently stood in spaces of whiteness, blackness, masculinity, and femininity and had to reach each facet of her audience. She would have had to develop speech that would allow her to speak beyond whiteness to blackness in a way that extended past white vernacular without offending her white audience. Her white audience did not take offense, but instead questioned her abilities and intelligence.
I read this chapter this weekend after the Super Bowl and Beyonce’s halftime performance. I couldn’t help but draw the comparison between the two. Most of Truth’s audience seemed to miss what many of Beyonce’s audience did as well. Even though black people are capable of standing in white spaces and doing so flawlessly, sometimes their message isn’t for white people. Sometimes it just doesn’t apply and can’t be understood from a place of whiteness. Many see that as an affront or weakness, but for those of us that are forced to occupy white spaces while carrying our black spaces within ourselves, these types of messages penetrate deep into our souls and demand the visibility and communal life of our blackness. For a rare moment, blackness supersedes whiteness.
I enjoyed these two chapters and feel connected to the women in this book. While our experiences differ and much has changed for the better, the underlying messages and themes resonate with me. I find especially interesting the ongoing navigation and development of white spaces by black activist women across time. It is both uplifting and heartbreaking to see the underlying similarities as aspects of their coexistent visibility and invisibility of being a black woman in a white world echo my own.
There is a lot to unpack in the first two chapters of this book and no way to effectively cover it in a single post, so I encourage you to read the book. I hit on only a couple of the points that I thought were interesting, and I hope everyone will chime in with their own thoughts and points in the comments on the blog. There is so much good stuff here. I did not do it justice.