Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha (#BookReview)

I came across Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1953-published novella, Maud Martha, on JacquiWine’s blog last year, and was confident it was a book for me – so I bought the e-Book version and read it slowly on my phone and iPad whenever I was out and about. This sort of reading doesn’t work for all books, but it did for Maud Martha because it is told in short vignettes (or “tiny stories” as Brooks’ called them) which cover the protagonist’s life from her childhood to motherhood. Her voice is so fresh, so honest, so real that I was completely captivated.

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) is a new author for me, perhaps because she was primarily a poet. In fact, Maud Martha is her only novel. She was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize (1950) and the first African American woman to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1976), but these are just two from an honours-filled career.

My edition of Maud Martha has an excellent introduction by the American critic and academic, Margo Jefferson. She ponders the novel’s disappearance from view, and posits that “it sank beneath the weighty canonical force of first novels by two of Brooks’s Black male peers”. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible man appeared in 1952, and James Baldwin’s Go tell it on the mountain in 1953, the same year as Maud Martha. By comparison, Maud Martha “looks” slim but, in real weight, it is anything but. Jefferson quotes from Brooks’ memoir in which she discusses the autobiographical element of the novel: ‘It is true that much in the “story” was taken out of my own life, and twisted, highlighted, or dulled, dressed up or down.’ I read this as meaning that what she describes is “true” though not necessarily factual. It’s “a novel”, says Jefferson, “by a Black woman about working-class Black life in the twenties, thirties and forties”.

“But dandelions were what she chiefly saw”

The book opens with an exquisite description of seven-year-old Maud Martha. It introduces us to a young girl who has dreams but also has her feet on the ground:

She would have liked a lotus, or China asters or the Japanese Iris, or meadow lilies—yes, she would have liked meadow lilies, because the very word meadow made her breathe more deeply, and either fling her arms or want to fling her arms, depending on who was by, rapturously up to whatever was watching in the sky. But dandelions were what she chiefly saw.

And, she was happy with them, those “yellow jewels for everyday”:

She liked their demure prettiness second to their everydayness; for in that latter quality she thought she saw a picture of herself, and it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower. And could be cherished! 

These opening paragraphs are telling: we learn a lot about Maud Martha – as you can see – and we are introduced to Brooks spare, poetic style. It is because of language like this that Brooks can tell Maud’s story from the early 1920s to the 1940s in barely 100 pages. Jefferson describes Brooks’ style as “like a sonnet sequence, each story delights in sensory and emotional details and each reveals another aspect of Maud Martha. Poets take liberties with prose notions of a story arc”.

So, through the stories Maud Martha grows up, questioning the real world while dreaming of New York, which is “a symbol” for her of “what she felt life ought to be. Jeweled. Polished. Smiling. Poised. Calmly rushing! Straight up and down, yet graceful enough”. She knows it’s a dream, but she stands by her right to dream. And, anyhow, “who could safely swear that she would never be able to make her dream come true for herself? Not altogether, then!—but slightly?—in some part?” This is a young woman, in other words, still with her feet on the ground but with imagination as well. 

Meanwhile, life goes on. She marries Paul who is fairer than she, enabling him to “pass” among whites or, at least, be more easily accepted by them. She knows her darkness pulls him back, “makes him mad”, but she’s not cowed. She knows who she is and what she can offer.

What she wanted was to donate to the world a good Maud Martha. That was the offering, the bit of art, that could not come from any other. She would polish and hone that.

And so she soldiers on through the bright moments and the disappointments, like settling for a kitchenette with a shared toilet when she marries Paul. Moments like these are universal. Other moments, though, are less so, because, of course, she faces racism – again and again – at the movies, while shopping for a hat, at a beauty parlour. A particularly painful occasion occurs when Santa Claus treats her little daughter Paulette differently from the white girls – and Paulette notices.

Another occasion concerns Maud Martha’s taking work as household help, because Paul is out of work. However, the way her employer and employer’s mother-in-law assume her inferiority causes her to understand “for the first time … what Paul endured daily … as his boss looked at Paul, so these people looked at her. As though she were a child, a ridiculous one, and one that ought to be given a little shaking …”. She decides to leave the job. Her employer won’t understand, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that she’s “a human being” too, and she will not be treated otherwise if she can help it.

What makes Maud Martha special then is her – to use a cliche – resilience. No, it’s more than that, it’s her level-headed sense of self and a willingness to call what she sees. What’s remarkable in Brooks’ telling is the humanity and, often humour, with which she does it. Take, for example, Maud Martha’s description of her first beau:

He was decorated inside and out. He did things, said things, with a flourish. That was what he was. He was a flourish.

She was desperate to have a boyfriend, but not that desperate.

Maud Martha is just delicious to read. It is deeply, distressingly insightful about Black American experience in all the horrific ordinariness of ingrained, oblivious, white superiority, but the combination of intelligence, dignity and humour with which Brooks tells her story takes your breath away.

Gwendolyn Brooks
Maud Martha
London: Faber & Faber, 2022 (orig. pub. 1953)
ISBN: 9780571373260 (e-Book)

W.E.B. Du Bois, “Strivings of the Negro People” (#Review)

W.E.B. Du Bois by James E. Purdy, 1907, gelatin silver print, National Portrait Gallery, which has released this digital image under the CC0 license

While I knew of W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), it wasn’t until I read Nella Larsen’s Passing earlier this year that I was inspired to read something by him. Americans will probably know him well, but Wikipedia (linked on his name) describes him as a “sociologist, socialist, historian and Pan-Africanist civil rights activist”.

He grew up, continues Wikipedia, in “a relatively tolerant and integrated community” in Massachusetts, and from quite early on was involved in the equal rights movement for African Americans. In 1909, he was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Wikipedia writes that:

Du Bois insisted on full civil rights and increased political representation, which he believed would be brought about by the African-American intellectual elite. He referred to this group as the Talented Tenth, a concept under the umbrella of racial uplift, and believed that African Americans needed the chances for advanced education to develop its leadership.

Du Bois and Larsen were both involved in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Du Bois, says Wikipedia, wrote that “a black artist is first of all a black artist.” While I love art with meaning, I don’t necessarily like prescription in the arts. However, when a group is so powerless, I completely understand the desire to expect all who can to put their shoulder to the wheel. We are certainly seeing a lot of it here in First Nations writing, and I’m loving (and learning from) the truths being told.

I am still in Melbourne so don’t have my copy of Passing, with its excellent introduction, but the idea of “racial uplift” underpins much of the novel. It is supported by its main female protagonist Irene who belongs to the new Black bourgeoisie and is committed to the “uplifting the brother” project. But Larsen also explores through this novel, Du Bois’ theory concerning “double consciousness”, which, originally, says Wikipedia, referred to the

psychological challenge African Americans experienced of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes” of a racist white society and “measuring oneself by the means of a nation that looked back in contempt”. The term also referred to Du Bois’s experiences of reconciling his African heritage with an upbringing in a European-dominated society.

In other words, he’s saying that African-Americans have this two-ness or split whereby they are always conscious of how they view themselves and of how others view them. I don’t think things have changed much for people of colour. It must be exhausting, this being conscious, whether you like it or not, of how others view you (and then worrying about what behaviour that might bring).

Strivings of the Negro People

So, now Du Bois’ piece. The Atlantic published “Strivings of the Negro People” in August 1897. It is still available via their site. They introduce the article with a quote from within it:

“It dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.”

This refers to the moment when, still a young boy, Du Bois realises that although he is just like everyone else (“like … in heart and life and longing”), he is excluded from the white world by “a vast veil”. The piece explores what this means. It’s a plea and a treatise on the treatment of African-Americans, a reasoned argument on the value to both “races” of recognising and appreciating each other. It’s also an analysis of the failure of the hope and promise of emancipation over the three decades between 1865 and the writing of the article in 1897.

I found the analysis telling. He explores the trajectory of hope and action decade by decade, pinpointing the failures. But, he starts with the observation that no matter how hard a black person might study and work, might even do better than their white peers, “he” always faced a wall that was “relentlessly narrow, tall and unscalable to sons of night”.

Then, comes the plea:

He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not wish to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes—foolishly, perhaps, but fervently—that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.

Then he turns to emancipation which had taken place thirty years before, and observes that “the freedman has not yet found freedom in his promised land”. In the first decade there was “merely a prolongation of the vain search for freedom”, but as the second decade dawned there was an awareness of another possibility, the ballot. With enthusiasm, black men “started with renewed zeal to vote themselves into the kingdom” but “the decade fled away” bringing nothing but “suppressed votes, stuffed ballot-boxes, and election outrages that nullified his vaunted right of suffrage”. (You get the gist, I’m sure, given recent history.)

However, another idea also raised its head in this second decade, ‘the ideal of “book-learning”’ (education). Again, he resorts to biblical language (though apparently he was agnostic, if not atheist):

Here at last seemed to have been discovered the mountain path to Canaan; longer than the highway of emancipation and law, steep and rugged, but straight, leading to heights high enough to overlook life.

It might take longer, but … and so, he writes,

Up the new path the advance guard toiled, slowly, heavily, doggedly; only those who have watched and guided the faltering feet, the misty minds, the dull understandings, of the dark pupils of these schools know how faithfully, how piteously, this people strove to learn. It was weary work.

It didn’t achieve the desired goal, but it did something, “it changed the child of emancipation to the youth with dawning self-consciousness, self-realization, self-respect”. People started to understand and analyse their burden. And what did they find? Poverty, yes – “to be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships”. And ignorance. But also “the red stain of bastardy, which two centuries of systematic legal defilement of Negro women had stamped upon his race”. This meant, he writes, “not only the loss of ancient African chastity, but also the hereditary weight of a mass of filth from white whoremongers and adulterers, threatening almost the obliteration of the Negro home”. A social and moral degradation.

At this point, Du Bois turns to discuss the “shadow of a vast despair”, the shadow being “prejudice”. It’s interesting, because he suggests that prejudice is ‘the natural defense of culture against barbarism, learning against ignorance, purity against crime, the “higher” against the “lower” races’. “The Negro” would support, he continues, “this strange prejudice as is founded on just homage to civilization, culture, righteousness, and progress”. BUT, the black man is

helpless, dismayed, and well-nigh speechless; before that personal disrespect and mockery, the ridicule and systematic humiliation, the distortion of fact and wanton license of fancy … the all-pervading desire to inculcated disdain for everything black.

Still, they press on with hope – not for “nauseating patronage” but for ‘a higher synthesis of civilization and humanity, a true progress, with … the chorus “Peace, good will to men.”’

So, he gets to the third decade suggesting the attempts and strivings of the first two were of “a credulous race childhood”. The ballot, education and freedom (“of life and limb”… “to work and think”) are still needed, but through “work, culture and liberty” must be fostered the “traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition to, but in conformity with, the greater ideals of the American republic, in order that some day, on American soil, two world races may give each to each those characteristics which both so sadly lack”. His arguments become somewhat idealised but his point is valid – that African Americans had much to offer the nation.

Interestingly, his Wikipedia article tells how his 1935 history of Reconstruction which argued for the active and constructive role played by black people in this period ran counter to the “orthodox interpretation” of white historians (surprised?). It was virtually ignored until the late 1960s when it ‘ignited a “revisionist” trend’ in Reconstruction historiography. By the 21st century, his book had become a foundational text in these studies!

A very interesting man, whose legacy continues for his forward, clear thinking about the social and psychological mechanisms of race.

Nella Larsen, Passing (#BookReview)

For last year’s Novellas in November, Arti (of Ripple Effects) posted on a book and author I’d never heard of, Nella Larsen’s Passing. She also discussed its 2021 film adaptation. Quite coincidentally, that same month, my Californian friend Carolyn wrote positively about the film in a letter to me. It sounded right up my alley, so how grateful was I when, this month, Carolyn sent me the book. I decided to squeeze it in …

According to Wikipedia, Nella Larsen (nee Walker) was born in a poor part of Chicago to a Danish immigrant mother, and a father “believed to be a mixed-race Afro-Caribbean immigrant from the Danish West Indies”. He disappeared early in Nella’s life, and her mother married another Danish immigrant. Because of Nella they were seen as a “mixed” family and were not welcome in the mostly white neighbourhood where they’d moved. Nella grew up in that difficult limbo of being neither white nor black.

Eventually, she married a Black-American* physicist and they moved to Harlem where they became involved with “important figures in the Negro Awakening”, later known as the Harlem Renaissance. I share all this because it is relevant to Passing, which was her second novel.

Passing, set mostly in 1927, tells the story of two Black women, Irene and Clare. Both can pass as white, but Irene lives in Harlem with her darker doctor husband, while Clare lives in white society, as a White, with her Black-hating banker husband. At the start of the novel, Irene receives a letter from Clare, referring to an accidental meeting they’d had in a swish hotel in Chicago where both had been “passing” as white. This meeting had been 12 years after they’d last seen each other as teens in Chicago, at which time Clare had been whisked away by her White aunts after the death of her drunken janitor father.

Two years had passed since that uncomfortable Chicago meeting, two years during which Irene had done her best to forget an occasion “in which even now, after two years, humiliation, resentment, and rage were mingled”. But now, Clare was wanting to see Irene again …

“they always come back” (Brian)

Much has been written about this book, which speaks directly to the challenges and conflicts faced by African Americans at the time. There was a new Black bourgeoisie – a professional middle class – to which Irene belongs, and in which she feels comfortable. She’s committed to the whole “uplifting the brother” project and does good works to that end. Clare, on the other hand, has turned her back on her race. The scene is set, we think, for conflict.

And there is, but if you think it’s going to encompass a simple dichotomy, you would be wrong. From the start, Larson keeps us on our toes, forcing us to see two very different ways of living as a black woman in that place and time. The story is told third person, but through the perspective of Irene. She is the conservative rule-follower who is sure of her path, while Clare, who is probably closer to Larsen herself, is more adventurous, a risk-taker. She’s lively, sensual, a breath of fresh air, but how are we to read her – and, for that matter, Irene?

As the novel progresses, we (and our allegiances) are tossed between the two, just as tensions between the two ebb and flow. Are we to approve Irene’s conscientious approach to life, or should we empathise with the “lonely” Clare who wants to reconnect with the black community? Both are flawed characters. Irene’s choice involves buying into the whole aspirational, consumerist, success-focused values of the bourgeoisie, so much so that she rides rough-shod over the wishes and needs of her husband and sons. Clare, on the other hand, might be lively but she can also be “selfish” and “wilful”, with her risk-taking being potentially dangerous or damaging to others, including her neglected young daughter. It’s clear that if her husband discovered she’d been touched by “the tar brush”, she’d be in deep trouble. It’s to Larsen’s credit that we do not see these characters as black and white (hmm!).

Irene and Clare are not the only characters in this tight novella, but the most interesting of the others is Irene’s husband, Brian, who finds himself caught between the two women after Clare inveigles herself into their lives. At the end of Part 1, just after the meeting in Chicago, Irene is preparing to return home to New York and Brian whose “old, queer, unhappy restlessness had begun again within him, that craving for some place strange and different, which at the beginning of her marriage she had had to make such strenuous efforts to repress.”

“caught between two allegiances” (Irene)

Passing is told in three parts – Encounter, Re-encounter, and Finale. In Re-encounter we learn more about these characters through their interactions, and we discover the source of Brian’s restlessness. He is, potentially, another adventurer, though different to Clare.

Early in this final part, Irene and Brian discuss Clare, “passing” and race. Brian has a more nuanced understanding of “race”, it seems. Answering Irene’s question about why those who pass “always come back”, he says, “if I knew that, I’d know what race is”. Much later, we learn that race is at the core of Brian’s restlessness. When Irene upbraids him for honestly answering their son’s question about lynching, he lashes out:

…I’d feel I hadn’t done my duty by them if I didn’t give them some inkling of what’s before them. It’s the least I can do. I wanted to get them out of this hellish place years ago. You wouldn’t let me. I gave up the idea because you objected. Don’t expect me to give up everything.

Passing is about many things, only some of which I’ve discussed. It’s about convention and security versus risk and adventure, about gender and marriage, about class and money, and about self-definition. There is much here that is universal about human nature, but, of course, race is a driving factor. As the novel draws to its conclusion, Irene finds herself

caught between two allegiances, different, yet the same. Herself. Her race. Race? The thing that bound and suffocated her.

But, there is another layer to this novel, a foreshadowing of something darker. Half-way through the novel, Irene says to Clare that “as we’ve said before, everything must be paid for”, while a little further on, Clare says to Irene

“Can’t you realize that I’m not like you a bit? Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really, ‘Rene, I’m not safe.”

It’s chilling, but I’ll leave it there. I was engrossed by this novel from its opening sentence to its clever, unsettling ending.

* I’m uncertain about nomenclature, given the language used in this 1920s novel is not what we use now. I hope I’ve made a fair call.

Nella Larsen
New York: Penguin Books, 2018 (orig. pub. 1929)
ISBN: 9780142437278

James Weldon Johnson, Stranger than fiction (#Review)

Several months ago, I bookmarked a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offering – as I often do for later use – but, despite its being a very brief offering, I’ve only got to it now. It’s on James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), and was timed, 17 June 2021, to synchronise with the 150th anniversary of his birth.

American readers here may know Johnson, but many of the rest of us probably don’t. Wikipedia describes him as an American writer and civil rights activist, but that hides a wealth of accomplishments. LOA, lists his achievements in a news item. He

  • wrote one novel, The autobiography of an ex-colored man, “which is considered by many critics to be the first modern African American novel and a major inspiration for Harlem Renaissance writers”.
  • was a lawyer, the first African American from his county, or perhaps state, to pass the Florida bar exam.
  • was an educator, and president of the Florida State Teachers Association (for Black teachers).
  • was a songwriter who, with brother Rosamond and friend Bob Cole, wrote dozens of popular songs. Many ended up in Broadway musicals of the early 1900s. They also wrote two songs used for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 campaign. One of these, “Under the bamboo tree,” was a big national hit in 1902 and was later performed by Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me in St. Louis). He and his brother wrote and composed the hymn “Lift every voice and sing,” also known as the “Black national anthem”.
  • was a diplomat, U. S. Consul in Venezuela (1906–1909) and in war-torn Nicaragua (1909–1912).
  • was a journalist at The New York Age, supervising its editorial page and writing a daily column for over ten years.
  • was an activist with the NAACP, who, in his role as field secretary, significantly increased the number of branches and the size of the membership.

LOA’s Story of the Week includes some biographical information that inspired his novel, and the text of his 1915 New York Age editorial which discussed the critical reaction to the novel.

“Stranger than fiction”

When I saw the title of this offering, I expected an essay, perhaps an entertaining one, on that old adage that “truth is stranger than fiction”, but I didn’t know the author then. What I got was something far more interesting.

LOA prefaces the essay, as usual, with some explanatory material. In this case, they start with two “dramatic experiences that would inform his writing and activism for the remainder of his life”. One occurred in 1895, when, as an enterprising new teacher (a black man, remember) he asked to visit a white school to see and compare practices. He did so, but apparently a few days later he learnt that his visit “had raised a hullabaloo”. Parents had objected to the presence of a “Black man” in their children’s classrooms. Johnson wrote that “The affair was fomented to such an extent that the board of education felt it necessary to hold a meeting to inquire into the matter and fix the responsibility for my action.” To their credit, the superintendent and the school’s principal stood their ground, and it all blew over.

The second involved his meeting a journalist in a park in 1901, at her request. She wanted to fact-check an article she was writing on the disproportionate damage done to Jacksonville’s Black neighbourhoods by the Great Fire. She and Johnson were confronted by “eight or ten militiamen in khaki with rifles and bayonets” who had “rushed to the city with a maddening tale of a Negro and a white woman meeting in the woods”. Again, it was resolved, but the ordeal left its mark.

Johnson’s novel, The autobiography of an ex-colored man (1912), which was inspired by experiences like these, has been described as the first fictional memoir by a black person. Set in late nineteenth to early twentieth century America, its protagonist is a young biracial man, known only as the “Ex-Colored Man”. Because of such experiences as witnessing a lynching, he decides to “pass” as white for safety and advancement reasons. The book chronicles his experiences and ambivalent feelings about his decision.

The book did not sell well initially, but sold very well three years later, after, says LOA, Johnson revealed himself as the author and “distributed several thousand copies of a glowing review that had appeared in Munsey’s Magazine“. This brings us, finally, to the essay, “Stranger than fiction”, which was published in 1915 in his daily column in The New York Age, where he was editor.

His aim was to give “a brief overview of the novel’s critical reception” but it was partly inspired, says LOA, by rumours that the estate of a wealthy woman publisher, Miriam (Frank) Leslie, was being contested by her late husband’s relatives on the grounds that she was the daughter of an enslaved women and therefore ‘her relatives had “no heritable blood”‘.

Johnson states at the beginning of his essay, that his book (novel)

produced a wide difference of critical opinion between reviewers on Northern and Southern publications.

Northern reviewers generally accepted the book as a human document, while Southern reviewers pronounced the theme of the story utterly impossible. A few of the Northern reviewers were in doubt as to whether the book was fact or fiction.

For many Northern reviewers, in other words, the work was so “real” they could barely believe it was fiction. (It doesn’t sound that, like Helen Garner’s critics, this bothered them.) Southern critics, on the other hand, asserted that the work was unbelievable because, writes Johnson,

the slightest tinge of African blood is discernible, if not in the complexion, then in some trait or characteristic betraying inferiority. This is, of course, laughable. Seven-tenths of those who read these lines know of one or more persons of colored blood who are “passing.”

As it turned out the Miriam Leslie rumours were unfounded, but Johnson at the time, believed it could have been true, and, if so, was “stranger than any fiction”. Which, ironically, just goes to prove the adage, whether the story was true or not!

Meanwhile, I was interested, though not surprised given how things are still playing out, in the disparity between Northern and Southern critical responses some 50 years or so after Abolition. Not strange at all, unfortunately.

James Weldon Johnson
“Stranger than fiction”
First published: New York Age, 1915
Available: Online at the Library of America

Fannie Barrier Williams, Women in politics (#Review)

It’s been months since I posted on a Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offering, but this week’s piece by African American activist, Fannie Barrier Williams, captured my attention. Several LOA offerings this year have been relevant to the times – including stories about infectious diseases – but this one is so spot on for so many reasons that I could not pass it up.

Fannie Barrier c1880, photographer, public domain via Wikipedia

Fannie Barrier Williams (1855-1944) was, according to Wikipedia (linked above), an American political and women’s rights activist, and the first black woman to gain membership to the Chicago Woman’s Club. According to LOA, she was also the first African-American to graduate from Brockport Normal School and “quickly became part of Chicago’s black elite when she moved there with her lawyer husband in 1887”. She was a distinguished artist and scholar.

However, it’s her activism that is my focus here. Wikipedia says that “although many white women’s organizations did not embrace their black counterparts as equals, Barrier Williams made a place for herself in the Illinois Woman’s Alliance (IWA).” She represented the viewpoint of black Americans in the IWA and “lectured frequently on the need for all women, but especially black women, to have the vote”.

And so we come to her little (in size not import) piece, “Women in politics”, which was published 1894. It concerns women voting. Universal suffrage was still some way off in the USA, but Barrier Williams commences by arguing that the “fragmentary suffrage, now possessed by women in nearly all states of the union”, will certainly and logically lead to “complete and national suffrage”. So, with this in mind, she, says LOA’s notes, “challenged women to use their newfound political power wisely”. She asks:

Are women ready to assume the responsibilities of this new recognition of their worth? This question is of immense importance to colored women.

She then poses, provocatively,

Must we begin our political duties with no better or higher conceptions of our citizenship than that shown by our men when they were first enfranchised? Are we to bring any refinement of individuality to the ballot box?

Her concern is that women – but we could read anyone really, giving it broader relevance – should not vote on partisan lines. Her concern is that voting along party lines will achieve nothing, and that

there will be much disappointment among those who believed that the cause of temperance, municipal reform and better education would be more surely advanced when the finer virtues of women became a part of the political forces of the country.

Hmmm … this seems to trot out the belief that women will bring “womanly” virtues, those more humanitarian-oriented values, to politics, which history has not necessarily borne out. However, this doesn’t belie the main point about voting thoughtfully.

She then discusses the opportunity for women to vote in Chicago for the trustees of the state university, but notes that the two women candidates have aligned themselves, respectively, to the republican and democratic tickets. She says that “so far the campaign speeches and methods have not been elevated in the least degree above the dead level of partisanship”. She doesn’t want to discredit these women’s good motives but argues that

this new opportunity for self-help and advancement ought not to be lost sight of in our thirst for public favors, or in our eagerness to help any grand old “party.” We ought not to put ourselves in the humiliating position of being loved only for the votes we have.

It seems that these two women candidates were white women. What she says next reminds me of Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous women and feminism (2000)which Angharad of Tinted Edges recently reviewed. Angharad writes that “Moreton-Robinson argues that because of feminism’s inherent but insufficiently examined white perspective, Indigenous women are excluded, minimised or merely tolerated conditionally. She argues that because race is considered to be something that is “other”, white feminists are unable to acknowledge their own race and associated privilege, their own role in perpetuating racial discrimination and are therefore unwilling to relinquish some of that power.”

A similar point was made over 100 years earlier by Barrier Williams:

The sincerity of white women, who have heretofore so scorned our ambitions and held themselves aloof from us in all our struggles for advancement, should be, to a degree, questioned. It would be much more to our credit if we would seek, by all possible uses of our franchise, to force these ambitious women candidates and women party managers to relent their cruel opposition to our girls and women in the matter of employment and the enjoyment of civil privileges.

She continues that “we should never forget that the exclusion of colored women and girls from nearly all places of respectable employment is due mostly to the meanness of American women” and that voters should use the franchise to “check this unkindness”. She urges voters not to focus on “the success of a party ticket for party reasons”. This would make them “guilty of the same folly and neglect of self-interest that have made colored men for the past twenty years vote persistently more for the special interests of white men than for the peculiar interests of the colored race”.

Strong words, but history surely tells us true ones. So, she asks voters “to array themselves, when possible, on the side of the best, whether that best be inside or outside of party lines”.

For Barrier Williams, as for many who fought for women’s suffrage, the vote was not just about equality but about what you could do with the vote. It was about having the opportunity to exert “a wholesome influence in the politics of the future”. The words may be strange to our 21st century ears, but the meaning still holds true – and is a timely one to consider now!

Fannie Barrier Williams
“Women in politics”
First published: The women’s era, 1894
Available: Online at the Library of America

Annie Parker, Passages in the life of a slave woman (Review)

I have, this year, reviewed a couple of Library of America‘s (LOA) stories about slavery in the USA, one being Harriet Ann Jacobs’ “The lover”, and the other William Wells Brown’s, Madison Washington. I’ve always been interested in slavery in the US, so when Annie Parker’s “Passages in the life of a slave woman” appeared in my inbox, I of course wanted to read it – and discovered yet another intriguing story.

When I say I discovered “another intriguing story”, I don’t just mean Parker’s story but the story of Parker herself. Let me explain. Parker’s story, “Passages in the life of a slave woman”, was published, according to LOA’s always illuminating notes, in Autographs for freedom. This was an annual anthology of antislavery literature published as a fundraising venture by the Rochester Ladies Antislavery Society. (Only two were apparently produced). The anthologies included “original works by such dignitaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Theodore Parker, William Wells Brown, Catherine M. Sedgwick, William H. Seward, and Horace Greeley”, as well as Frederick Douglass’ novella, The heroic slave, about Madison Washington. They also included two pieces by Annie Parker – a poem, Story telling”, and the story I’m discussing here. But, here’s the thing – no-one, says LOA, apparently knows who this Annie Parker is (or was).

So, like any good blogger, I did an internet search – just a little one – and found a guest post on the blog of the IAHI, aka, the IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis) Arts and Humanities Institute. The guest post, published in September 2014, is titled “In Search of Annie Parker by Professor Jack Kaufman-McKivigan”. Kaufman-McKivigan’s post concerns a symposium that was coming up in October at which experts were “to examine the historical and literary significance of Douglass’s novella, The Heroic Slave.” In preparation for this event, staff members were engaging, he said, in some “literary detective work” – and one of these projects was trying to identify Annie Parker.

Harriet Ann Jacobs, 1894 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Harriet Ann Jacobs, 1894 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Kaufman-McKivigan writes in the post that in recent decades her story “has been anthologized several times as one of the earliest works of fiction by an African-American author”. That’s interesting in itself, because it means they (whoever “they” are) have assumed she was an African-American contributor. It could be so, and the story could be autobiographical, but I also wondered, given the lack of information about her, whether “Annie Parker” was a pseudonym. Anyhow, our professor says they found a couple more articles by an Annie Parker in a temperance journal from Geneva, New York, but then the trail went “cold, very cold”. Genealogical research, he says, turned up “a few possible ‘Annie Parkers’ in the upstate New York region” but none had “any known connection to the antislavery movement and all were white”. He then posits that Annie Parker may not have been a runaway slave as others have speculated, but might have been “a pen-name”. The question then is whose? One possible idea is the above-mentioned Harriet Jacobs. There are some valid reasons for making this connection, as he explains in the post – so do read it at the link above if you are interested. Why Jacobs might have wanted to use a pseudonym is a question the literary detectives are now working on. All very interesting – and one of the reasons I do enjoy these LOA offerings.

Now, though, the story – which is told first person in the voice of a slave, after the opening paragraph is told third person. I was, I must say, quite flummoxed by this. The paragraph has some odd punctuation, in that there are opening quotation marks but no closing ones. LOA’s notes suggest this is to indicate that the rest of the story is composed entirely of her narrative. Fair enough, though I don’t quite understand why Parker needed to start with the third person, except that it does make for an easy way of telling us who the narrator is.

The story is told by the slave, Phillis, sister of another slave, Elsie, who had died giving birth to her second child. Both Elsie’s children – the first, a son, and the newborn, a girl – were fathered by “the young master”. The son, who looks too much like his father is sold off before the young master brings a wife home, thus preventing any awkward questions being asked. Meanwhile, Phillis cares for the daughter, Zilpha, as she grows up to young womanhood. I won’t give away the story here but simply tell you that LOA introduces it as a “tale, charged with incest and gothic intrigue”. You can read it at the link, below. It’s only 6 pages.

This is not a story about beatings and cruel physical treatment. Indeed the new mistress:

proved a kind and gentle mistress. All the slaves loved her, as well they might, for she did everything in her power to make them comfortable and happy.

But, we never forget that slaves are powerless – and, as we know only too well, when anything happens that threatens an owner’s happiness or security, little thought, even on the kindest plantations, is given to the “feelings” of the slaves. They are possessions and can be moved around at will. Their emotional or psychological needs, let alone their physical safety, are not relevant. And so, in this story, as certain truths come to light, the owner takes actions to protect his security and happiness. The irony is that he, like his mistress, is generally (perhaps “superficially” is the better word) kind and fair, but there are limits – and it is the impact of those limits that we are left with, confirming once again what a destructive institution slavery was, indeed is.

Annie Parker
“Passages in the life of a slave woman”
First published: In Autobiography for freedom, 1853.
Available: Online at the Library of America

William Wells Brown, Madison Washington (Review)

William Wells Brown,

William Wells Brown, 1852 (Courtesy Project Gutenberg, via Wikipedia)

Having recently reviewed Harriet Ann Jacobs’ story “The lover” in the Library of America‘s (LOA) Story of the Week program – and also having seen the movie 12 Years a Slave – I couldn’t ignore William Wells Brown’s story, Madison Washington, when it appeared last month as an LOA offering.

Brown (1814-1884), like Jacobs, was born into slavery. He managed to escape to Canada when he was 19. LOA’s introductory notes tell us that within a decade he’d married, moved to Buffalo, and taught himself to read and write. He lectured against slavery in both Europe and the USA. In 1847, he published Narrative of a fugitive slave which apparently sold so many copies that four printings needed to be done in less than two years. Wikipedia tells me that his novel Clotel, published in England in 1853, is considered to be the first novel written by an African-American. He lived in England from 1849 to 1854, due to the increased risk of recapture posed by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.

During and after the American Civil War, Brown continued to publish fiction and non-fiction, earning a reputation as one of the most prolific African-American writers of his time. He apparently actively recruited black Americans to fight in the Civil War, and supported African-American migration to Haiti.

The story published by LOA is just one from his book, The black man: His antecedents, his genius, and his achievements, which contains sketches of the lives of individuals who, Brown writes in his “Preface”,

by their own genius, capacity, and intellectual development, have surmounted the many obstacles which slavery and prejudice have thrown in their way, and raised themselves to positions of honor and influence.

He concludes his Preface with:

If this work shall aid in vindicating the Negro’s character, and show that he is endowed with those intellectual and amiable qualities which adorn and dignify human nature, it will meet the most sanguine hopes of the writer.

The sketch chosen by LOA concerns Madison Washington. But, before I write about that, I must say something about his name. I’ve often been intrigued by how many African-Americans were, and are, named “Washington”. Presumably this has something to do with George Washington, but what exactly? According to the Huffington Post, the 2000 US Census reported 163,036 people with the surname Washington, of whom 90% were African-American. This is apparently a far higher “black” percentage than for any other common name. The article describes a rather complex situation regarding the name. It tells us that during the early post-abolition period, when slaves were allowed to have surnames, many chose Washington. This is most likely linked to the president. However, George Washington had, the article explains, a complicated relationship with slavery, and so the reasoning behind the use of the name is not totally clear. Interestingly, in the case of Madison Washington, his first name is also the name of a slave-owning president? Coincidence?

Now to “Madison Washington” the story! It starts with a description of the man:

Among the great number of fugitive slaves who arrived in Canada towards the close of the year 1840, was one whose tall figure, firm step, and piercing eye attracted at once the attention of all who beheld him. Nature had treated him as a favorite. His expressive countenance painted and reflected every emotion of his soul. There was a fascination in the gaze of his finely-cut eyes that no one could withstand. Born of African parentage, with no mixture in his blood, he was one of the handsomest of his race. His dignified, calm, and unaffected features announced at a glance that he was one endowed with genius, and created to guide his fellow-man.

The story proper then begins six months into his time in Canada when his employer, pleased with his work, realises that Washington is discontented. Upon his enquiry, the story comes out. Washington had a wife with whom he’d planned to escape, but the escape plans had gone awry and he alone had got away. His aim was to work hard, and save the money to purchase her freedom, but he’d begun to realise that it would take him five years to save the required money. So, what does he do? He decides to return to the south, ignoring advice to the contrary and risking recapture, to effect her escape. As Brown reports, “Liberty is worth nothing to me while my wife is a slave”.

Well, the inevitable happens, but Washington manages to escape again, this time by orchestrating a mutiny on the “Creole” which was carrying him and other slaves to the New Orleans slave market.  Via this mutiny, he effected the freeing of 128 slaves, resulting in what is recognised as the most successful slave revolt of the period, more successful than the more famous Amistad mutiny which freed only 53 slaves.

Brown’s telling of the story shows Washington to both a principled and resourceful man – principled because of his treatment of the sailors once the ship was under slave control and resourceful because of the careful planning he’d done to prepare for an escape. It is also, though, rather melodramatic, which is typical of the times, and involves the amazing coincidence of his wife, the “majestic, “beautiful and accomplished” Susan, being on the boat. According to LOA this is “an almost certain apocryphal addition” that appeared in an article a year after the mutiny. It makes for a good story, however!

Interestingly, in 1853, Frederick Douglass wrote a novella, The heroic slave, presenting a fictional account of Madison Washington. Wikipedia, which told me that Brown’s 1853 published Clotel is considered to be the first African-American-written novel written, also states that Douglass’s novella “is now considered the first known piece of African-American fictional literature”. Let’s let Wikipedia fight it out because, in the end, I don’t think it really matters. What matters is that African-Americans were writing and being published, and that we can still access to their works today.

William Wells Brown
“Madison Washington”
First published: In his book, The black man, his antecedents, his genius, his achievements, 1862.
Available: Online at the Library of America or in Documenting the American South

Harriet Ann Jacobs, The lover (Review)

It’s a while since I read a story from the Library of America‘s (LOA) Story of the Week program, but when I saw Harriet Ann Jacobs’ story “The lover” appear in its list of Top 10 stories from 2013 I felt it was time to rectify my tardiness – particularly with the movie, 12 Years a Slave, about to be released here. This story is, in fact, a chapter from her memoir Incidents in the life of a slave girl.

Harriet Ann Jacobs, 1894 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Harriet Ann Jacobs, 1894 (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Last year was the bicentenary of Jacobs’ birth. Her mother died when she was 6 years old, making her an orphan-slave. Her first masters, LOA says, taught her to read and write, but that mistress died when Jacobs was 12, and she was left in the will to a 3-year-old! That brought her into “a household that introduced her to the true barbarities of slavery”. Jacobs eventually escaped to the north in 1842, when she was nearly 30 years old. Her memoir was published in 1861 by best-selling author of the time Lydia Marie Child, under the pseudonym, Linda Brent. According to LOA, the book and its author enjoyed some minor celebrity in the north at the time, but disappeared pretty quickly, probably due to its being “overwhelmed by the war and later by emancipation”.

LOA goes on to say that it was then “largely forgotten”. Most academics, they say, believed it had been written by Child, suggesting that it may have been “loosely based on Jacobs’s life but ‘too melodramatic’ … to be an actual slave narrative”. However, in 1971, historian Jean Fagan Yellin uncovered the truth of its authorship. She eventually published a biography of Jacobs in 2005, Harriet Jacobs: A life.

The chapter published by LOA as “The lover” gives us a sense of Jacobs’ feisty, resilient nature. It starts with:

Why does the slave ever love? Why allow the tendrils of the heart to twine around an object which may at any moment be wrenched away by the hand of violence? When separations come by the hand of death, the pious soul can bow in resignation, and say, “Not my will, but thine be done, O Lord?” But when the ruthless hand of man strikes the blow, regardless of the misery he causes, it is hard to be submissive. I did not reason thus when I was a young girl. Youth will be youth. I loved, and I indulged the hope that the dark clouds around me would turn out a bright thing. I forgot that in the land of my birth the shadows are too dense for light to penetrate.

I love the way this paragraph confirms that the young-in-love are the same at any time, in any place. Hopeful. Optimistic. How universal. But, how not universal was the situation Jacobs found herself in! She goes on to tell how she’d fallen in love with “a young colored carpenter; a free-born man” in her neighbourhood. She loved him “with all the ardor of a young girl’s first love”. He proposed to her and wanted to buy her from her masters.

Knowing her masters, Jacobs held out little hope for his success, but writes of how “this love-dream had been my support through many trials”. So, she enlisted a sympathetic white woman to plead her case. How nice to read that there were sympathetic white people. Of course the white woman had little to lose other than perhaps the respect and friendship of her peers. I won’t tell you the rest of the story. It’s short and is more powerful in her own words. You can read it at the link below.

A decade or so after her escape (a story in itself) to the North, and over some period of time, Jacobs wrote her book. Then, in the 1860s, she began a career as an activist newspaper journalist. She also worked as a relief worker amongst refugee slaves in Alexandria (Virginia). It was tough work – not only because of the work itself, but because Alexandria, on the border between North and South, had a largely secessionist population. The terrible conditions described by Scott Korb, associate editor of The Harriet Jacob Papers, in his articles “Harriet Jacobs’s First Assignment” and “Harriet Jacobs’s War” reminded me of Geraldine Brooks’ scenes of the Washington DC area in her novel March:

All I could notice was the blight of this place: the pigs wandering the street and dead horses bloating by the roadside … Washington is flooded by the ragged remnants of slavery, contraband cast up here to eke out what existence they may. I felt a pang for the little bootblacks, crying our for trade and going without …

So, I checked. Brooks did, it seems, draw from Jacobs’ book to create her slave character. Now I feel I should read Jacobs’ whole book.

Harriet Ann Jacobs
“The lover”
First published: As Chapter VII of her book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861.
Available: Online at the Library of America

J. Herman Banning, The day I sprouted wings

There are a couple of reasons why I decided to read  James Herman Banning‘s (1899-1933) short essay, The day I sprouted wings, which was this week’s offering from the Library of America. Firstly, it is about the first male* African-American who achieved his pilot’s licence, which ties in nicely with the novel, Caleb’s Crossing, that I recently reviewed, about the first African-American to graduate from Harvard. And secondly, his attempt to be, with Thomas Allen, the first African-American to fly cross-country, was partly funded by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential campaign, and I recently reviewed Hazel Rowley’s biography of Franklin and Eleanor. I like it when my reading criss-crosses like this, filling in gaps and/or expanding out from one topic into another overlapping one.

Banning’s essay was first published in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1932. According to LOA’s notes, the Pittsburgh Courier was one of the leading “race” papers of the day. The article is very short but worth reading, not only because he tells an entertaining story about his first solo flight but also because he has a lovely, natural and expressive storytelling style. I’ll just give two examples.

The first one occurs in the second paragraph where he describes the importance of the first solo flight for pilots:

This is the first time when the student pilot conclusively proves to the world at large that he has both nerve and ability. To himself he proves that he is nothing but a scared, witless fool who hasn’t had half enough flying lessons.

The second example comes near the end of the article when he is in flight:

I felt as only one who flies can feel – that here, at last, I have conquered a new world, have moved into a new sphere. I had sprouted wings, a rhapsody in air, but the stark realisation came to me that I had yet a landing to make!

“A rhapsody in air”! Love it. The article also chronicles how he “acquired” his first plane and the circumstances leading to his first flight. It’s a good story. Not surprisingly, racism is a factor in his life – particularly in the manner of his death – but it is not something he raises in his story here. I’d love to know why he doesn’t … but that is another story I guess.

J. Herman Banning
“The day I sprouted wings”
First published: Pittsburgh Courier, December 17, 1932
Available: Online at the Library of America 

* Bessie Coleman (died 1926) was the first female pilot of African-American descent and the first person of African-American descent to hold an international pilot licence.