Thank you for joining us for 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 earlier post that outlines the book discussion concept.
Carla L. Peterson’s book – ““Doers of the Word”: African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880) – is not for the casual reader. It does not lend itself to speed reading or skimming; instead, it requires a commitment of time and effort on the part of the reader. For me, however, the knowledge that I have gained is well worth the time and effort.
My assignment is to discuss Chapters 5 and 6. As I was reading these two chapters and learning about the lives, the experiences, the struggles, and the literary work of the women who were the subjects of these two chapters, this quote from Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr kept running through my head: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same).
The women — Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Sarah Parker Remond — highlighted in Chapter 5 came from very different socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. However, one thing was constant in both their lives — the ongoing struggle against racial prejudice and oppression. Remond, who had difficulty accepting the reality that her status as a well-to-do African American did not protect from racial prejudice and hostility, described that ongoing struggle in these words:
In joy or sorrow, whether pursuing the pleasures or business of life, it [prejudice against colour] has thrust itself like a huge sphinx, darkening my pathway, and, at times, almost overwhelming the soul constantly called to meet such a conflict.
Although we are separated from these sisters by more than one hundred and fifty years, we, as African American women today, still face that ongoing struggle and our souls and spirits are still in danger of being overwhelmed.
Watkins Harper and Remond also faced the struggle of defining themselves and not being defined by the dominant white culture. Chapter 5, entitled – “Whatever Concerns Them, as a Race, Concerns Me” – discussed the different oratorical and literary styles employed by Watkins Harper and Parker Remond to define themselves and to spread their messages. While Watkins Harper consistently used the oratorical and literary form of sentimentality to appeal to the compassion and sympathy of her audiences, Parker Remond moved away from sentimentality to an oratorical and literary form designed to show her audiences what is “just and true.”
Both Watkins Harper and Remond were striving to reject the prevailing notion in the dominant white culture that African American women orators and writers were “masculine” or “grotesque.” However, because of the unwillingness of the dominant white culture to see African American women as complex beings, they found themselves being described in terms of the “chastity” of their language and the “purity” of their voices instead of being perceived on their own terms.
African American women of today still have to do battle with the way we are portrayed or viewed by the dominant white culture. We are subject to being characterized as angry or militant or too masculine because of the tone and timbre of our voices, because of the expression on our faces, or because or our speaking or writing styles.
Chapter 6, entitled – “Forced to Some Experiment” – discussed the rise of the novel as a form of literary expression among African American women writers in the 1850s. Peterson posits that writing novels afforded Harriet A. Jacobs, Harriet E. Wilson, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, the writers highlighted in Chapter 6, a combination of freedom and protection.
The use of fictional characters allowed them to step way from the personal narratives that still left the narrator feeling like a commodity. By speaking through their fictional characters, they were free to write about topics, such as the relationship between capitalism in the North and slavery in the South, that they could not discuss as openly when using their own voices. They were also free to make stronger statements about those topics. At the same time, they could create experiences for their fictional characters, thereby being able to include a wider array of experiences while not being forced to share painful, personal experiences.
However, the exercise of their literary freedom was always constrained by the ever present need to find publishers for their work. Furthermore, they often walked a tightrope between pleasing white audiences who knew very little about the African American experience and maintaining a sense of community with their African American readership, a tightrope that many of us still walk today.
I urge each one of us to think about the barriers and obstacles confronted by the African American women in Chapters 5 and 6. I then urge us to think about how many of those same barriers and obstacles are still faced by African American women today and to join the discussion.