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.