Welcome to our 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.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we are all products of our time and environment. Everything we do…every thought we think…every action we perform…all of our earthly experiences are shaped by where and when we live. As I sit here typing this on my computer, I remember back to my freshman year of high school when I was quite literally among those lucky few in the very last class of students to use manual typewriters in our typing class. Students today certainly don’t learn to type on old-fashioned type writers. In fact, they don’t even really NEED typing classes…they learn to type before they learn to write, and almost everyone I know has at least one computer at home! Incredible. We are products of our time and environment, and today we live in an environment where, thanks to the Internet, the world and all the information therein is at our fingertips.
Delving into chapters 3 and 4, I had so many mixed emotions about what I read. The women in these chapters faced nearly insurmountable obstacles at every turn. Just the fact that they were black women in nineteenth century America means the deck was stacked against them. And yet, Maria Stewart, Jarena Lee, Nancy Prince, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary defied the odds and found a voice in a world that sought to silence them.
I was particularly struck as I read these two chapters, by the observation that black women were and are not a monolith. The women in these chapters each had their own ideas about what the role of an African American woman should look like, and each had unique thoughts about how these ideas about American society should come to fruition. I enjoyed reading about the strategies they used to get their messages across and the way they viewed both themselves and other women of color. I have a great appreciation for the struggle they endured in the social climate of their time. These women embodied strength, perseverance, and determination in the face of great trials.
One of the themes that emerged in Chapters 3 and 4, one of the great trials these women faced, was that of political liberalism but social conservatism. This was a time of social movement for both blacks and women, but not necessarily for black women. White women and black men both found some success as they carved out spaces for themselves in the social, political, and economic world, but neither group was particularly interested in the advancement and equality of black women. In chapter 3, while discussing Stewart and Lee, the author notes, “…both women were forced to contend with the prohibitions placed on black women by the power structures of black male institutions and, as a consequence, needed to devise strategies through which to test and overcome these limits.” Similarly, chapter 4 describes Shadd Cary as one who “appears to have been impatient with boundaries of all kinds, repeatedly attempting to transcend, if not erase, them. Yet given the attitude of both the dominant culture and the black male elite toward black women, Shadd Cary found herself time and again forced to confront boundaries of race, gender, and even nationality.” I found it both interesting and disappointing to realize that women of color have come a long way in some social scenarios, but still struggle with these same forced confrontations of boundaries of race, gender, and other issues today. I’d love to hear from our readers about boundaries you’ve confronted and how you’ve dealt with social conservatism that would keep women of color in a neat little socially-appropriate box. Have you dealt with this in your “real life”? Online? At work? Let’s discuss…