Elevate Difference

Activist Sentiments: Reading Black Women in the Nineteenth Century

In Activist Sentiments, P. Gabrielle Foreman examines reading practices and literacies—formal and social/vernacular—among African American women from 1859 to the 1890s. Foreman is concerned with literary production, reception, and consumption, and the ways that these practices offered opportunities for protest and resistance that have been overlooked.

The subjects of Activist Sentiments are Harriet Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl), Harriet E. Wilson (Our Nig: or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black), Frances E.W. Harper (Iola Leroy), Victoria Earle Matthews, and Amelia E. Johnson. These women published works in the genre of domestic novels, a genre that scholars often have described as overly sentimental. However, these writers were also activists, journalists, and reformers. Foreman points out that “broader historical movements are embedded in the writings.” She uses the term “histotextual” to describe the recasting of historical events and debates in seemingly sentimental novels.

Earlier scholarship has described these authors as concerned primarily with appealing to white women reformers for sympathy, for example in the cause of abolition. Foreman points out that this analysis is very limited. The relationship between white and black women in the reforma movements of the mid-to late nineteenth century (abolition, temperance, suffrage) was extremely complex. Ivy Schweitzer, professor of women’s studies, has highlighted the fact that in the 19th century black and white women “were subject to different, in fact antithetical, but mutually constituting cultural imagery.” For example, while African American women could appeal to white women on the basis of womanhood and motherhood, for support in efforts to eliminate slavery the power differential between the races remained.

Identities are constructed in relationship; a “good and charitable” woman needs someone toward whom to be charitable. White women reformers, while allies on one level, might have viewed black women as victimized and in need of help. As we build coalitions in the twenty-first century, this a danger which still should cause wariness.

Similarly, tropes of domesticity and idealized motherhood take on a new tone when one realizes that they are written in light of slavery and ongoing racism. These themes are not merely used in imitation of white women’s novels, but express a longing for the option of domestic bliss for all African Americans, while also reaching out to white women on familiar literary territory. Embedded in the novels Foreman finds critiques of the dominant white society, so that while having an outward form of normative respectability, the novel can be a site of resistance.

Hazel Carby and other scholars have written about the impact that the cult of the virtuous white mother would have on perceptions of black womanhood—stereotypes of white purity contrasted with black sexuality. However, Foreman helps us to see that the African American writers in her discussion do not allow those stereotypes to rest easily.

The women in Foreman’s book were activists whose interests in political reform shine through their novels. Some of their fiction had been dismissed as “merely” contributions to the genre of domestic and sentimental novels. However, as Foreman makes evident, the texts contain many examples of protest, as well as race and class consciousness. By looking at these nineteenth century works, readers will be reminded that multiple levels of interpretation always exist simultaneously. We would do well to choose an interpretation that empowers the authors, that empowers the voices of women who have too often gone overlooked.

Written by: Lisa Rand, January 7th 2010

Thank you for the review. PG Foreman