African American Women Writers of the 19th Century
New York Public Library
Reviewed October 2004
With increasing access to education and higher rates of literacy, African Americans entered a period of literary productivity in the second half of the 19th century. This website helps promote access to many works by female writers from this period. The texts allow readers to reconstruct both the intellectual and the prosaic lives of these socially and politically marginalized participants in America’s past.
The site contains digital versions of 52 books and pamphlets by 37 authors published before 1920. There are many genres of work represented: poetry, short stories, histories, narratives, novels, autobiographies, social criticism, and theology, as well as a few economic and philosophical treatises. The collection includes both the first book of poetry and the first book of essays published by African American authors (Poems on Various Subjects, Religions and Moral by Phillis Wheatley , and Essays by Ann Plato ).
Some of the works, such as Harriet A. Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) currently regarded as the most in-depth and textured pre-Civil War slave narrative written by a black woman in America are now available in inexpensive published forms, but many are much more rare. A large number of the authors were slaves or daughters of slaves, but a few came from more affluent social positions. Getrude Bustill Mosell, for example, was a member of a distinguished African American family, Eloise Bibb was the daughter a customs inspector in New Orleans, and Frances Frank Rollin‘s father was a wealthy lumber merchant.
After Emancipation, a number of these authors managed, remarkably, to produce their writings while working as domestic servants and seamstresses, while others became secondary teachers and university lecturers or worked as abolitionists and religious leaders. The range of voices collected here will allow teachers to point to the commonalities as well as the differences of African American women’s experiences in 19th-century America: What central preoccupations do many of the authors share? Under what circumstances were African American women able to dedicate their lives to occupations other than domestic service? At what points in this time period did their options seem the most and least limited?
The database can be browsed by title, author, or genre and is searchable by keyword. The site, however, provides limited background information about the authors and the era in which they wrote. There is a 600-word introduction on the general aims of the Schomburg Center and the historical background of this particular collection. The site also presents brief (roughly 500-word) biographies for each writer. Instructors will have to look elsewhere for more in-depth contextual information about African American women’s historical experiences. They will find useful information at the Association of Black Women Historians website, and in the works of Darline Clark Hine, including A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America.1
Many of the works contain photographs, but it is not very easy to search for these individually. Viewers may also access hundreds of illustrations through the Digital Schomburg database, Images of African Americans. The collection includes images on Family; Portraits, Women; and Social Life and Customs.
Instructors could use this rich material in a number of ways. Students might examine how the inclusion of African American women’s perspectives alters more standardized narratives of American history. Students could analyze Elizabeth Keckley’s fascinating Behind the scenes, or, Thirty years a slave, and four years in the White House, to examine how this unusual portrait of the domestic life of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd transforms their understanding of the Civil War era or the American Presidency.
The texts also offer many possibilities for discovering new insights into the construction of race and racial identities. American perceptions of blacks and blackness are most often presented from the point of view of white authors, but students could use these sources to study how various African American writers described blacks, whites, and racial identity. Amanda Smith, a lay preacher with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, offers one intriguing perspective in her discussion of the relative merits of white and black missionaries in Africa. Students could contrast her views with Frank (Frances) Rollin’s presentation of race in her biography of the physician and abolitionist, Martin Delany (Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany).
1 Darlene Clark Hine, A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America (New York: Broadway Books, 1998).