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University of Florida | Journal of U ndergraduate Research | Volume 13, Issue 1 | Fall 2011 1 A Ladylike Employment : Jennie Carter and the Performance of African American Womanhood in Reconstruction -era California Vanessa Attia College of Liberal Arts & Sciences University of Florida This essay illustrates how Reconstruction era journalist Jennie Carter borrowed the popular tropes of her eastern contemporaries and the cult of True Womanhood to legitimate her public voice as both an activist and a black woman. Conditions in the West allowed for her to break out of some of the more restrictive eastern traditions of black respectability, such as the reliance on rhetoric about light skin, desexualization, and overall rebuttals to plantation writing. Instead, Carter was able to extend her use of the respectability discourse to discuss temperance and to mobilize community activism around local politics. In other respects, Carter replicated the eastern tropes of black respectability that were most reliant on the cult of white True Womanhood namely, the ideals of domesticity articulated in the figure of the maternalistic schoolmarm. INTRODUCTION On Independence Day in 1868, an African American woman from Nevada County, California set down to paper her earnest plea to resurrect the black public school of San Francisco after a city decree that all except the colored school would open two days later. How long must we tamely submit to all this injustice? Must our children grow up in ignorance, to make true their estimate of inferiority? she asked the readers of the Elevator If I were a man, I wou ld battle until death; but as I am merely Mrs. Trask, I will have to keep in my place. They cannot prevent me from talking and writing, and my tongue and pen shall be busy.1 These were the words of Jennie Carter, who wrote a column of didactic essays for children in the San Francisco based African American newspaper The Elevator and, later, in the Christian Recorder Her columns evolved to include a variety of narratives on race, politics, and womanhood, spoken through t he semi autobiographical voice of an elderly narrator alternately identified as Mrs. Ann J. Trask and Semper Fidelis, or always faithful. No known photographs of Jennie Carter exist And yet, through her writings, Carter offers historians an opportunity to complicate the image of the western black female activist. While little is known about her life, her published articles provide us with a glimpse of an otherwise obscured view of black womens potential views, platforms, and experiences of effecting racial uplift in the Reconstructionera America of the transMississippi West. In 2007, literary historian Eric Gardner published a volume of Carters collected known writings, Jennie Carter: A Black Journalist of the Early West Gardners recovery work has allowed this obscure but fairly prolific black writer a chance to rise into the same academic discourse that more well known figures like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Ida B. Wells have been circulating for years. This essay will insert Jennie Carter into this historical discussion by comparing her methods of public self representation with that of Maria W. Stewart and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. These womens fiction, public personas, and moral investments embodied some of the prevailing urban images of the nineteenthcentury African American woman activist. Gardners introduction to the volume of Jennie Carters columns urges this kind of comparative inquiry, and this is a task that will I hope, illuminate the acceptable methods available in the nineteenth century for black women to represent themselves as public activists.2 Carters literary voice must be examined against the backdrop of the monolithic images of the respectable black wo man and Reconstruction activist of the mid Atlantic. What was it about the sociopolitical conditions of the West that made respectable womanhood the most logical and accessible performance available to black female activists who wanted to enter public di scourse? In the East, the image of respectability was made all the more relevant in light of the recent memory of slavery and black female sexualization immediate and pressing concerns for a region where the majority of African American s were illiterate an d most black women were employed as domestic servants. Carter, on the other hand, was writing for a western black population that was already comprised primarily of a literate middle class. Speaking to an already respectable black public, then, made it e ven more compelling and necessary for women like Carter to operate within the established rhetoric of respectability. Such an inquiry into this kind of gender performance can ultimately provide insight into the history of black feminist activism
VANESSA ATTIA University of Florida | Journal of U ndergraduate Research | Volume 13, Issue 1 | Fall 2011 2 and the te nor of racial history in the West, a challenge that is illustrated in existing scholarship on these fraught and complex subjects. Unlike existing literature on the subject, this essay will read the works of monolithic mid Atlantic black activists like Fran ces Harper against this newly discovered w estern counterpart in an attempt to test the powerful images of nineteenth century black respectable womanhood. By conducting a careful content analysis of Jennie Carters collected works, written and published f rom 1867 to 1873, I intend to illustrate the provisions under which black women in the West were able to construct a socially sanctioned public voice and image and how these terms were shaped by the transcontinental discourse on respectable African American womanhood. The tropes Carter employs surprisingly and closely resemble the images of the respectable black woman established by the literary traditions of mid Atlantic activists. CONNECTIONS BETWEEN THE CULT OF TRUE WOMANHOOD AND T HE BLACK WOMAN OF LETTERS The legacy of African American wom en writers and activists of the nineteenth century North and South is structured around a dominant discourse of female respectability. The cult of True Womanhood offered many opportunities for black women to redefine themselves after slavery ; it also estab lished a number of constraints that they were forced to act within and resist. Jennie Carter, as we shall see, broke free of some of these more constricting rhetorical traditions. An understanding of the constraints of respectability (as defined by the cul t of True Womanhood) will be crucial to make sense of the similarities and differences between Carters self representations and those of her eastern contemporaries. Since the late 1960s, American womens history has discussed the ideal image of the nineteenth century woman through the concept of a pervasive cult of True Womanhood. True Womanhood was defined by what Barbara Welter called the four cardinal virtues piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity.3 While not all women living in the nin eteenth century actually adhered to these ideals, they were, for all intents and purposes, culturally recognized and shared characteristics for the ideal woman. All of these traits were, moreover, explicitly attributed to white women. The cult of True Womanhood led black literary traditions throughout the nineteenth century, the tenor of which can be traced from the works of Maria W. Stewart, the first recorded woman of any race to lecture on political and theological subjects in public onward to the works of Frances Harper and the primary subject of this paper Jennie Carter. The dominant representations of activist black womanhood employed by these women are the maternalistic educator of the race, the intellectual woman of letters, an d the light skinned black woman. These images encompass intermingling concerns about the place of female voice, action, and image, all of which are only further complicated by the aforementioned nineteenthcentury constructions of womanhood writ large. The cult of True Womanhood created the boundaries wherein respectability for black women was defined. Black activist women of the mid Atlantic borrowed from the cult of True Womanhood, bending the model of white femininity to meet their own needs. They bor rowed from, played against, and played to aspects of the cult to their advantage, but its tenants also constrained what they could say and do as activists and respectable women. In the same motion that the cult of True Womanhood allowed black women to be public speakers and authors, it kept them restrained to the particular genres of their white literary exemplars primarily poets and writers of romantic fiction. It also constrained them to a very specific activist discourse, which emphasized the cultural politics of African American social roles but barred them from legislative political activism around issues like womens suffrage. The works of Maria W. Stewart deftly illustrate some of the earl iest rhetorical approaches of black female activism at the time of its recordable inception. Stewarts political speeches and pamphlets, written, circulated, and presented in Boston and the Liberator from 183133, predated the likes of such monolithic figures as Frances Harper, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass.4 Stewarts evangelical rhetorical style and the evolution of her views on appropriate female spheres of action were deeply informed by her religious beliefs.5 Stewarts texts reveal the tensions circulating between the ideal of True Womanhood as a tool for uplifting black women and the thenproblematic visions of intellectual power and religious mission that Stewart developed in her readings of the Bible and historical/philosophical texts The latter influences necessitated the conflicting shift from her original ideal of black womanhood6 in what Richardson characterizes as an evolution from the acceptable voice of the woman as teacher to the radical prophet role of a woman driven t o publically preach a social gospel. 7 Therefore Stewarts works reflect the early nineteenth century rhetorical attachments to (and implications of) the white standards of True Womanhood and the nascent development of an intellectual (as well as theolog ical) black womens culture as part of the black activist identity. Examining how women such as Stewart chose to navigate between these conflicting identities in the antebellum period will help inform my later inquiries into Reconstructionera activist ide ntity in the black press by providing a point of comparison. Ultimately, Stewart retreated from her daring spiritually driven arguments for racial uplift and returned to the conservative, acceptable tradition of the teacher this time quite literally. Fol lowing her years of speaking and publishing in Boston,
JENNIE CARTER AND THE PERFORMANCE OF RES PECTABLE W OMANHOOD University of Florida | Journal of U ndergraduate Research | Volume 13, Issue 1 | Fall 2011 3 Stewart moved to New York and cultivated a career as a teacher at an all black school. I will return later to the centrality of the image of the blackwoman as educator and the ways in which the limitations of this trope are indebted to the cult of True Womanhood. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper a freeborn Maryland poet, lecturer, and fiction writer of the Reconstructionera, was clearly not unaffected by the biological and social ideals of womanhood in the nineteenth century. In her first and only novel, Iola Leroy t he light skinned Iola was deliberately fashioned after white womanhood in Harper's attempt to counter the debasement and denial of black womens virtue. The contemporary way to do this in t he tradition of the plantation school was to hearken to the virtuous features and qualities of the southern white woman as they are outlined in the cult of True Womanhood. M odern criticism might be quick to point out the Anglocentrism of upholding an image of whiteness as womanhood, but given the rhetorical strategies that were available to Harper at the time, using this trope was not an unusual or entirely ineffective approach. And yet Jennie Carter, as I will illustrate, never portrayed a black woman's worth in association with her skin tone. These limitations of the cult of True Womanhood affected Harper because she was writing in the E ast an d, as a light skinned black woman herself, she needed to uphold certain tropes to preserve her respectability and elite standing in Marylands black middle class society. Carter, as we shall see, was still constrained by the transcontinental respectability discourse, but in necessarily different ways because of the demographics of the w estern black communities to whom she was speaking. After an analysis of the major concern s and rhetorical approaches of Harper and other prominent Northern respectable black women, it becomes apparent that the standards of respectable black activism and the conditions upon which black women's voices were allowed into the public sphere were exp ressed by the following tropes on the East C oast: the near white woman, the teacher, and the activist woman of letters. In order to represent an accessible black womanhood to broader latecentury audiences, writers like Harper spun depictions of women th at sought to close the divide between popular imaginary perceptions of white and black virtue. The New Negro Woman of the turnof the century was constructed to publically stake a claim on the black communitys place in social action and discourse.8 BL ACK WOMEN LIVED IN THE E ARLY WEST? A DEMOGRAPHIC PRIMER Black women comprised less than one percent of all females living in the Pacific states until 1920, but in California in particular their demographics lent themselves to the creation of a distinct geo graphical locus of elite black middle class womanhood.9 A majority of the black population in the California Bay Area by 1860 were eastern transplants. In San Francisco, fortyone percent of the black population was originally from the northern and mid Atl antic states, compared to the 37% who were from s outher n states.10 Lawrence de Graafs examination of Census records revealed that black women living in California in the latter half of the century were more likely to be older, have few children, live in ci ties, and be literate. According to Willi Coleman, in 1860, when the overwhelming majority of African Americans were illiterate, 74 percent of California's black female population could read and write This high degree of literacy produced cultural tastes, social life, and a concern for education that collectively gave a majority of blacks in cities like San Francisco a middleclass upbringing by 1880.11 These demographic characteristics notably distinguished black female populations of the West from those from the South. After the Civil War, the Census indicates that the number of black women in western states grew to the thousands and continued to increase over the second half of the nineteenth century.12 The presence of black middleclass women in the W est would have a great influence on the regions history of intellectual and civil rights activism, a history that would be both chronicled and supported by the voices of the Pacific black press. The earliest significant protests of black women took the form of individual law suits during the 1860s against the denial of civil rights, addressing issues like restricted or denied access to ride on streetcars and the right for blacks to testify in court against whites.13 Activist writing in the black press wo uld come to parallel the motivation s of the law suits of the 1860s as men and women negotiated the efficacy of effecting legal and social change through voice and through action. CONSTRUCTING THE PUBLIC FACE OF RESPECTABILITY Let our young men adopt none of the vice of the Anglo Saxon; our young women have all refinement of those around them, and the dear children every encouragement to study... We are on the eve of a glorious morning. May we awake every man adorned with true manliness every women with g entleness 14 With this statement, Carter encapsulated the relevance of public self representation to the task of racial uplift in the West. Carter manipulated the popular archetypes of respectable nineteenthcentury womanhood to create a public image for herself that cautiously toed the line between public and private action. An analysis of Carter's contributions to the Elevator read against the established Eastern constructs, can reveal the primary modes of constructing respectability and creating a public self available to nineteenth century black women. The rhetorical tropes that Carter most heavily relied on are those of the temperance activist, the teacher, and the activist woman of letters. An examination of these
VANESSA ATTIA University of Florida | Journal of U ndergraduate Research | Volume 13, Issue 1 | Fall 2011 4 archetypes can reveal Carters thoughts on the efficacy of voice versus action in enacting the work of a respectable woman. One mode of examining respectability, and its relationship to Eastern black icons and white models of propriety, was thr ough Carters representations of herself as a temperance activist. In one of the few investigations into African American relationships to the temperance movement, Denise Herds essay The Paradox of Temperance: Blacks and the Alcohol Question in Nin eteenth Century America, tracks the concept of alcohol as an enslaver of man.15 In the antebellum period, Herd notes that there was an overwhelming response in the free black population to the message of temperance, evidenced by the formation of successful mid Atlantic organizations like the Colored American Temperance society in 1830s Philadelphia.16 Temperance, in turn, became connected to the cause of abolition and the more abstract program of social betterment that the movements ideals of self help and moral responsibility offered free blacks temperance activity was thus deemed important for gaining social respectability and improving the overall economic and social position of blacks. 17 Carter upheld the value of sobriety for African Americans as a way of positively distinguishing the black community from the dominant community of white men. Associating whites with foolish drunkenness a nd blacks with sobriety and wit was one means of championing a public image of a morally and intellectually com petent (if not superior) black identity. T his was made all the more commanding by the gendered perspective of Carters anecdote. This investment distinguished her among her western contemporaries and put her in a similar camp as that of Harper and the mid Atlantic activists. For Carter, racial rights and social uplift were directly tied to the issue of temperance because of how sobriety could be used to frame the value of the black community against white incompetency and injustices.18 Furthermore, California black womens investments in education activism impacted the utility of their image of respectability as educators of children and professional teachers. The public face of the schoolmarm was closely tied to the struggle of black women to overc ome illiteracy and gain an education. This task was not as formidable in the West as in the South, for western black women had a markedly higher rate of literacy than did those in other regions. [and] only 26 percent of black women in the West were classi fied as illiterate in the 1860 census elsewhere in nation illiteracy was the norm.19 Campaigns for educational reform and access to public schools were, therefore, a central concern for these literate, middle class black women. In the early 1850s, there w ere no state laws dictating the source of public school funding or the inclusion of nonwhites, leaving most California communities with electively all white schools. The campaign for access to public schools in California was initiated in 1854 with the e stablishment of the first African American schools in the state in San Francisco and Sacramento, both cities where funding for colored schools was left entirely to private charity. In 1855 and 1856, the city school boards took over funding for colored s chools and black women formed committees to raise additional money.20 But the legal gesture toward the public funding of black schools by no means solved the issue of access. The development of public school campaigns was well documented and buttressed by the black newspapers circulating in the 1860s. Women remained ardent players in the fight for black school children to receive the educational resources afforded to white students and, as we can see from Carter, they believed in the power o f their voices to effect change. The legal segregation of California's public schools ended by 1890, and nearly a decade earlier in most western states, through the efforts of legislation and law suits.21 Not only were black women in California activists for educational reform, but many in their ranks of the middle class were also professional teachers. De Graaf notes that teachers comprised the elite of black working women, but their numbers were small in comparison to the total number employed outside the home.22 Work ing outside the home was, for most black women, a necessity despite their adherence to a Victorian ideal that exalted women's domestic role. The teacher, though, was situated in the ideal space to inhabit both the worlds of respectability (domesticity) and of necessity (paid labor). Other types of employment available to black women included domestic service, seamstressing, cooking, hotel or boardinghouse keeping,23 restaurant management, and real estate brokering.24 But black women who became teachers succeeded far more than other achievement oriented black women who struggled to become nurses, doctors, journalists, and editors.25 Carter, who claimed both the image of a former teacher and of a journalist, held a lions share of the cultural capital afforded to black middle class women.26 Moreover, Carter used her column to mobilize community efforts in response to specific local political issues. How was speaking out publically seen as an action that was or was not appropriate for black women? I f the voting booth was not a woman's place, what was? She wrote, Let each one bear in mind that any great enterprise by our people calls for united aid; and whether or not we each are assigned posts of honor, let us press on...27 I f women lack the same posts of honor awarded to respectable black men, what is the black woman's call to duty? Carter, after all, reiterated one of the common bel iefs of black activists of the time: that true black male suffrage and political rights had to be secured before the women talk of their rights. 28 While Carter may have been willing to set the legal rights of women on the backburner, she was highly invest ed in the power of gendered activism (indeed,
JENNIE CARTER AND THE PERFORMANCE OF RES PECTABLE W OMANHOOD University of Florida | Journal of U ndergraduate Research | Volume 13, Issue 1 | Fall 2011 5 her own) to incite political action and change. In one column, Carter took up the issue of unity over education reform in California: she says, Mr. Editor, write, cease not, get the people in San Francisco to act, act as a unit. Organize!! Present a united front to the enemy. Let all mankind know we are in earnest and are not to [sic] lazy to progress. 29 Jennie Carters columns illustrate how womens voices were valued in a domestic context by translating this ideal, through the pages of the Elevator, into a valued public voice in effect this allowed her to negotiate a space that was at once public/political and at the same time private/domestic. She says this of writing and the world of the womanof letters: It is a ladylike employment far better than small gossip, or contending for our political rights CONCLUSIONS Lawrence de Graaf, in his study of African American women in the West, observed, However distinguished black women may have become, they received virtually no recognition for their accomplishments from whites Although black women in [California] had entered several professions, participated in civic and wartime activities, and had est ablished numerous social organizations, [the Who's Who among Women in California published in 1922] does not mention a single black woman or group.30 Indeed, as early as Reconstruction, black female activists were speaking and writing not only for recognit ion in their community but to defend and legitimate the image of black womanhood and manhood to the nation at large. It would be more than half a century more before the white public would begin to give credit to the accomplishments of these African Americ an pioneers as the New Negros of the Harlem Renaissance, but the history of their activism, creativity, and intellectu al flourishing goes back much further and exceeds many of the artificial geographic boundaries that are touted in the dominant narrative of post Civil war black history. Although the tradition of representing respectability may have been less constrained in the West than it was in the East, t he conditions of Reconstruction America were still dominated by the forces of racism and oppression that prevented black women from being recognized for their activism (or, indeed, from living with any more freedoms than those allowed to their eastern cont emporaries). In the late nineteenth century, respectability discourse was transmitted throughout the social and physical landscapes of the expanding nation and it is important to remember that one way in which it traveled was through the voices of black w omen. Tracking the movement of this activist tradition from its inception in the east to its permutations in California allows us to problematize the history of gender in the West. It provides, moreover, a springboard from which to complicate claims that the sociopolitical and gender history of the W est was substantially different, or exceptional, in how it shaped sexed and gendered relations. Rather, when it came to the performance of black identity, the transcontinental dimension of nineteenthcentury re spectability discourse and the cult of True Womanhood overrode the differences in the multicultural class history of the W est It would seem as though the East C oast standards of respectability were imported along with the middle class black families that headed out W est. As Carter and her work illustrates, the most effective way for black women to engage in activism or achieve public power in the Reconstructionera West was through this respectability discourse, whose origins can be found in the literary t raditions of the North and South. A ctivist, community minded women like Carter resisted certain caricatured portrayals in much of the same way that eastern figures like Frances Harper pushed against portrayals of lower class blacks in the mid Atlantic states. Carter was willing to accept th e constraints that the cult of True Womanhood imposed on her voice and public behavior just as eastern women did. Such a conclusion, however, only raises further questions. Might the powerful relics of the cult of True Womanhood continue to inform sex and gender in the West despite racial and class differences? What were the experiences of earlier eastern imports to California might their experiences articulate a different discourse of womanhood? Moreover, can we find examples of women of color activists w ho were indigenous, rather than transplants, to the Rocky Mountain and Pacific states? How did this familiar, imported discourse about public women of color fit into the array of raced and gendered experiences in the Pacific West ? Jennie C arter is just one of many women yet to be resurrected from the historical record whose cautiously formulated voice can expose the complex preconditions within which black women could enter the public sphere after the American Civil War. NOTES 1 Jennie Carter, Letter to Mr. Trask, San Francisco, July 4, 1868, Elevator July 10, 1868: 1, in Jennie Carter: A Black Journalist of the Early West, ed. Eric Gardner (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), 40. 2 Gardner, Always Faithful: An I ntroduction, in Jennie Carter: A Black Journalist of the Early West, xvii. 3 Barbara Welter, The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820 1860, American Quarterly 18, no. 2 (Summer 1966): 152. 4 Marilyn Richardson, Introduction, in Maria W. Stewart, America's Fir st Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 4 5. 5 Richardson, Preface, in Maria W. Stewart xiv.
VANESSA ATTIA University of Florida | Journal of U ndergraduate Research | Volume 13, Issue 1 | Fall 2011 6 6 Richardson, Essays and Speeches, 1831 33, in Maria W. Stewart, 25. 7 Ibid., 26 27. 8 In 1890 [Harper] had been publicly designated as one of The Women of Our Race Worthy of Imitation. See Frances Smith Foster, Introduction, in Iola Leroy, xxx. 9 Lawrence B. de Graaf, Race, Sex, and Region: Black Women in the American West, 1850 1920, Pacif ic Historical Review 49, no. 2 (May, 1980): 286. 10 Willi Coleman, African American Women and Community Development in California, 1848 1900, in Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California ed. Lawrence B. de Graaf, Kevin Mulroy, and Quintard Taylo r (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001), 101. 11 Ibid., 102. 12 Glenda Riley, American Daughters: Black Women in the West, The Magazine of Western History 38, no. 2 (Spring, 1988): 18. See also: Ralph Mann, Peace without Prosperity, 1865 1863 Sh ared Values: Family Life and the Foreign Born, in After the Gold Rush: Society in Grass Valley and Nevada City, California 1849 1870 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982), 107. Mann notes that the census takers of 1860 proved reluctant to label a w oman occupationally unless she lived alone or was the sole supporter of her family, and unless the occupation was socially acceptable 13 De Graaf, 292. 14 Carter, Mistakes, Letter from Nevada County, Mud Hill, August 4th, Elevator August 16, 1867: 3, in Gardner, 4. 15 Denise Herd, The Paradox of Temperance: Blacks and the Alcohol Question in Nineteenth Century America, in Drinking: Behavior and Belief in Modern History, ed. Susanna Barrows and Robin Room (Berkley: University of California Press, 1991), 354. 16 Ibid., 360. 17 Ibid., 363. 18 Ibid., 309. De Graaf notes, moreover, that prohibition sentiment was strongest in rural areas of the West, where few black women lived. Most large cities were wet strongholds, and black areas were close to establishments that depended on liquor. 19 Ib id., 293. See de Graafs summarization of Census findings in footnote 27. 20 Coleman, African American Women and Community Development, 109 110. 21 De Graaf, Race, Sex, and Region, 294. 22 Ibid., 296. 23 Mary Ellen Pleasant was a famous boardinghouse kee per. 24 The most famous real estate broker may have been Biddy Mason. Riley claims that because of her charitable work she was called Grandmother Mason, a point which gestures to the cultural capital of the maternal black women within black communities. See Glenda Riley, American Daughters, 22. 25 Riley, American Daughters, 23. 26 Coleman claims that the overall tone set by the African American press in the West perpetuated an idealized version of women's place in society. In a style that was stuffy, moralistic, and Victorian,' female existence was tied to the domestic sphere, but he notes the Elevator as one publication in particular that was known for its relative liberalism. See Coleman, African American Women and Community Development,116 117. 27 Gardner, 52. 28 Elevator 5 November 18 69: 2 Mud Hill, Oct. 27, 1869, i n Gardner, 81. 29 Gardner, 70. 30 De Graaf, Race, Sex, and Region, 313.