Comparative Review Essay, Glenda Gilmore and Tera Hunter

To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War; Tera W. Hunter. Harvard University Press, 1997.

Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920; Glenda Gilmore. University of North Carolina Press (1996).

Review Essay

In Tera Hunter’s To ‘Joy My Freedom, and Glenda Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow, Black women’s experiences after emancipation are examined through their positions as workers, activists, and mothers within Southern society. Tera Hunter and Glenda Gilmore each provide comprehensive analyses of the subjects of their respective works during the period of time between Reconstruction and World War I. Both books are focused on a period of time that saw enfranchisement and then rapid disenfranchisement of Black men, through the lens of African American women’s participation in social, political, and economic spheres. Though each book largely excludes the socioeconomic group of the other in its narrative, Hunter follows Black women’s labor, primarily in Atlanta, GA, while Gilmore focused on the concepts of race and gender that helped shape the emerging middle class in North Carolina, each book provides crucial insight into the women it focuses on, and when read together, these two books reveal the nuanced, and conflicting, worlds that these women lived in.

Hunter’s examination looks not only at the type of work that was available to Black women in this period, but the wages, working conditions, and impact on their family situations that the work had. Emancipation gave Black women freedom to dictate many of the terms and conditions of their own labors that had been denied to them under slavery. Hunter is clear to describe the lack of freedom from assault, racial persecution, and gender hierarchies that working class African American women faced, and the related decrease in autonomy many African American women had because of these threats. The struggle to balance the vulnerability of Black bodies with the crucial roles that Black women filled as laundresses and domestic servants in white households provides the reader with an understanding of the tenuous place within society that these women held. Hunter does not shy away from exploring the conflict between the African American laboring women and their white employers to highlight the labor struggles and the power that these women ultimately were able to summon through the washerwomen strikes in Jackson, Galveston, and Atlanta.

Both works look at the emergence of southern progressivism, and the violent resistance to that progress. Atlanta is the center of Hunter’s analysis as it represented an intersection of urban development and rural migration; the city had a reputation of forward-thinking progressivism while at the same time was one of the breeding grounds for what Gilmore coined New Men. Gilmore credits New Men with promoting Jim Crow and escalating violence against African Americans because their white male masculinity felt threated by successful and prominent African Americans, who these New Men considered a threat to the future of democracy. Gilmore’s analysis centers on the political and feminist ties that united white and Black women in the fight for women’s suffrage as evidence of the progressivism that was present in North Carolina during this period. The expansive educational opportunities available to Black women and men, compared to those available to white women, serve as further evidence of progressive ideals at work in North Carolina. These educational opportunities allowed African American women to postpone marriage and gain higher educational levels that were deemed necessary to create the “Best” men and women to lead the next generation.

Gilmore argues that shifting concepts of masculinity, racial superiority, and political power prevailing in the post-bellum period forced African Americans to battle the creation of Jim Crow legislation by embracing Victorian ideals of Domesticity, education, and hard work. Black women, seeing their families cut off from participation in politics joined with each other and, more tenuously, with white women for reform for their communities, in the form of schools, temperance societies, and health care as activists to promote change. Using the concept of “Best men” and “Best women” to contextualize the accommodationist beliefs that Black men and women needed to act as ambassadors for their race, an idea made popular by Booker T. Washington, Gilmore explains the burden felt by the first generation of middle class African Americans after the end of slavery.[1] It was the success of the “Best” men and women in demonstrating their equality to white middle class men and women that eventually brought a backlash of racism and violence through the New Men, who felt the established racial and gender hierarchies slipping away. Within the discussions of racial violence and oppression, Gilmore and Hunter both demonstrate the fracturing effects of Jim Crow on  the African American communities, a much ignored aspect of Reconstruction history.

Women attempted to reclaim their identities from the racial oppression by engaging in recreational activities such as dancing, being active in their church communities, and forming aid groups to help their communities and to promote solidarity among their professions and class. Gilmore highlights the interplay of class divisions and racial identities in creating a nebulous boundary for “Best men” or “Best women” and the problems that emerged from those definitions in Jim Crow as younger generations of men and women came of age, and sought to carve out their own identities in society. Through leisure excursions, such as dancing and listening to jazz as a means of asserting individuality and expanding Black culture, “Best” men and women’s vision of racial uplift was challenged by this younger generation. Gilmore’s examination of gender and the formation of Best Black Men and Women highlights the double edged sword that such behavior seemed to carry, bringing criticism on younger generations of African Americans from both the white community, who, Hunter highlights, viewed Black sexuality as a threat to society and inseparable from jazz and dance, and the middle class Black community who viewed this behavior as undermining the progress of equality. Neither author fully explores this fragmentation, leaving a fascinating research path underdeveloped.

Highlighting role of class in determining the struggles and causes that these women faced in post-bellum society gave voice to silenced women in both working and middle class communities in southern societies.  For Gilmore, a post-bellum generation of middle-class Black women emerged as educated diplomats to white society, focused on reform movements to improve their communities and change prevailing racial stereotypes of African Americans that were formed within antebellum society. The working class women whom Hunter focused on embraced the autonomy to move from the country to the city to escape oppressive conditions, and later the freedom to move out of Atlanta to northern cities that defined the Great Migration to seek opportunities. However, both authors focus on the struggles that existed for each group within Jim Crow, and the ways that those tensions complicate the understanding of the experiences of African American women, and more broadly African American communities, in the early twentieth century. One their own, each book is an insightful and crucial work for understanding African American, Women’s, and Social histories at the turn of the twentieth century; when paired together these two works offer a well-rounded insight into the divisions and struggles that were present within these communities, most importantly they reveal the divergent ideas of racial uplift that dominated the twentieth century in action. I cannot recommend reading these two books enough.

 

[1] Booker T. Washington and W.E.B DuBois had well-known, and well documented, differing opinions regarding racial uplift. Washington was an accomodationist who believed that in order to earn the respect of white supremacists African Americans needed to emulate and surpass middle class white families in their behavior, education, and business acumen.

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Racial and Sexual sins in Antebellum New Orleans

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Fundamentally, The Strange History of the American Quadroon  aims to debunk the mythological, hyper-sexualized representations of female quadroons of popular historical sources. In doing so, she explains how the attraction of the quadroon transformed New Orleans into a place of the exotic “other,” resulting in the tourist-centered culture that the city is today. Cementing Clark’s arguments is the newly-formed black republic of Haiti, whose refugees introduced over 1,000 free blacks to the city and caused a demographic imbalance of free black men and women for the city’s marriage market. Clark argues that these free women of color, who emigrated from Haiti with few resources, informed the stereotype of quadroons as fortune hunters who were inspired by their mothers to become the concubines of rich, white men. This book, finally recovering the lives of free black women in New Orleans from their pervasive literary exploitation, powerfully changes the ways in which the general public and academics conceptualize issues of race and sex in American history.

Clark first traces the origins of the quadroon to early national Philadelphia. Political concerns reflected conflicting ideologies between merchant and elite classes, influenced by the city’s commercial ties to Saint-Domingue. Philadelphia, the largest port city at the end of the eighteenth century, saw an influx of around 2,000 refugees from Saint-Domingue in the 1790s as a result of the French and Haitian Revolutions. The term quadroon became an epithet of promiscuity intertwined with political and social anxieties over commercial interests and racial equality. Clark’s connection between Philadelphia and New Orleans rests upon her argument that fears of interracial violence and black rebellion, expressed most potently in the political and commercial capital of Philadelphia, became assuaged with the emigration of 9,000 Haitian refugees from Cuba to New Orleans in 1809. The Haitian quadroon abated fears of black insurrection because she was socially and sexually conquered by white masculinity. This argument, though backed by the fact that free black male refugees were not allowed into the city, is not satisfactory in light of the preventative laws passed in the United States in order to curb slave rebellions, which continued to occur throughout the early nineteenth century.

Clark’s most striking arguments describe the varied experiences of quadroon women of New Orleans, proposing that economic disadvantages upon arrival to New Orleans, as well as civil codes barring interracial marriage, led many emigrant quadroons to become the ménagère, or housewife, of white men of middling business and elite classes. This Haitian practice allowed free black and mixed race women to exercise autonomy of self and household; in public depictions, this practice became equated to the plaçage complex (a 20th century term) in which quadroons “were imagined as romantically tragic kept women” who were “dependent and defenseless” in their largely transient relationships with men who would go on to marry white women instead (66). In reality, Clark explains, many white men (whom she terms “bachelor patriarchs”) established long-lasting and exclusive relationships with quadroons, acknowledged parentage of their children, and lived with them as almost-normal families. However, many other free black women of mixed parentage became prostitutes or were sold as sex slaves in markets that helped romanticize quadroons as exotic and sexually alluring as New Orleans became increasingly marketed as a site of sex tourism.

Though her chapters are organized thematically, Clark traces the transformation of the quadroon, and therefore the culture of New Orleans, from the late eighteenth century through the nineteenth century. The quadroon ball, in particular, and its depictions in literature demonstrate the degradation and exploitation of mixed race women for the pleasure and entertainment of white men from all over the country. Women who once publicly courted the upper class in the antebellum period were increasingly put on show for the rabble and sold as tourist attractions in the postbellum period. Fundamental to this transformation were the popularized accounts, often hearsay, of the quadroon as an orientalized, seductive, lavish, or tragic character particular to the scapegoated city of New Orleans, a site that represented the racial and sexual sins of the rest of the country. Clark explores the travel narratives, abolition literatures, novels, and sociological discourses published by Karl Bernhard, Lydia Maria Child, Joseph Holt Ingraham, and Harriet Martineau, respectively, which perpetuated these mythologies. However, Clark also brings forward letters, baptismal records, marriage licenses, and wills from the New Orleans archives which alter this strange history of the American quadroon and the Crescent City. Contrasting these sources, Clark’s book powerfully proves the consequences of shifting the nastier bits of America’s past onto certain people and certain places.

 

What Golden Age?

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John C. Appleby’s Women and English Piracy examines the gendered world of piracy in the years from 1540 to 1720. Making a crucial intervention into studies of both Atlantic and women’s history, Appleby explores the increasingly violent and masculinized characteristics of English piracy as it expanded from England to Ireland, the Barbary Coast, Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, and English North America. Appleby discredits the notion of a “golden age” of successful and prevalent piracy in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, arguing instead that piracy became increasingly desperate. In Appleby’s telling, women become primary witnesses to these quite unromantic transformations in English piracy. Appleby thus expands both public and scholarly understandings of English piracy, highlighting the experiences of women of varying backgrounds as agents and victims as receivers of plunder, abandoned wives and mothers, victims of violence and sexual exploitation, as well as the occasional accessories to piracy itself.

Appleby first describes the rise and fall of English piracy from 1540 to 1720 as context for his subsequent, thematic chapters which are more focused on the experiences of women. Appleby emphasizes that coastal and river piracy (around the British Isles and Thames) in the earlier years of this period was largely economic in nature and dependent upon women. Pirates’ neighbors, wives, partners, friends, and mothers provided home bases for pirates who needed food, shelter, and entertainment upon arrival to shore. These women were instrumental to the distribution and sale of plunder, which provided pirates with their profits.

Appleby claims that the global expansion of English piracy in the early seventeenth century had significant repercussions for women’s lives and piracy itself. As pirates embarked on lengthier and more distant voyages, wives were increasingly abandoned and contact between pirates and their families decreased; overall, women became less important to the business of piracy. As pirates established bases on islands such as Jamaica, Providence, and Madagascar, women’s interactions with piracy revolved around selling rest, relaxation, sexual recreation, and only occasionally receiving plunder. Piracy became more masculinized through bonds of fraternity that formed on ever-lengthening voyages at sea; while once a means of economic support, piracy became a more self-interested means to the end of drinking, gambling, and whoring.

After warfare with Spain declined at the end of the seventeenth century, English privateering evolved into indiscriminate piratical plundering. Public pressures heightened national offenses against piracy through force and law. Thus, pirates around the globe increasingly encountered difficulty in recruiting crew members over the seventeenth century, resulting in impressment and enslavement. Appleby describes the tens of thousands of people captured by Barbary pirates by the end of the seventeenth century; while some English women became captives, many more were left without sons or husbands to provide for them, so they actively petitioned local authorities and the national government for help in paying ransoms. These petitions, while outside of the scope of English piracy itself, provide valuable documentation of how women were impacted by piracy in a dearth of source material from poor, often illiterate, women.

One of Appleby’s central points is to give a voice to the voiceless as he breaks down traditional associations of piracy with sex in this period, decidedly including issues of nonconsensual relationships. Temporary relationships that pirates had with Native women were often orchestrated as transactions for power and goods on behalf of local people, often Natives themselves. Appleby’s exploration of the interconnectedness of piracy with the African slave trade emphasizes African women’s frequent subjection, with impunity, to rape and degradation by pirates’ violent appetites. Appleby emphasizes that even white prostitutes in the Atlantic became subject to the whims of violent men come to shore so satisfy their sexual desires.

Appleby fundamentally argues that elite women such as Graine O’Malley of Ireland and Lady Elizabeth Killigrew of Cornwall, as well as the illegitimate-born Mary Read and Anne Bonny were uncommon of women’s participation in piracy. While the latter two women represent the poorer classes of women who associated with piracy, female piracy was rare due to the fraternity of masculinity that permeated pirate culture. Increased violence toward and abandonment of women coincided with the decreased involvement of women in business-related matters; for Appleby, these deliberate changes represent a pirate culture that became more disorganized and more desperate in the attempt to maintain an extra-legal, seafaring lifestyle.  Appleby’s scrutiny of the long-celebrated “golden age” of piracy recovers, as far as source materials allow, voices that have long been missing in pirate studies. Thus, this narrative takes readers across time, space, ethnicity, class, and gender in a way that re-works, and actually demystifies, popular and academic conceptions of piracy.

Gender, Violence, and Memory

The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971. Nayanika Mookherjee; Duke University Press, 2015.

The Spectral Wound

What is the goal of studying the experiences of women in history? This is a unifying question for many women historians I think. How we come to terms with violence, war, and women’s histories has become something that I find myself more focused on this semester as the classes I have been taking are focused on the intersections of rupture, memory, and violence. Rape narratives are fundamental to the narrative of collective memory of the war, and in the case of the Bangladesh War of 1971, the struggle for independence. In The Spectral Wound, Nayanika Mookherjee tries to understand the memory of Bangladesh’s war of independence from Pakistan through the national recognition of rape victims by the Bengali government; not only has the government recognized the victims but they named them birangonas, or heroinesPublic memory or as Mookherjee calls it, the “pathological public sphere,” forces the deconstruction, reconstruction, and reinterpretation of the events of 1971 that results in shifting politics and a continual search for compensation and closure by the victims.

The mantel of birangona grants victims of rape during the war a status that absolves them of the shame that often accompanies sexual violence in Muslim cultures. At the same time, many of the birangonas are expected or coerced into sharing their accounts of rape publicly as a means of reinforcing the anti-Pakistan rhetoric. A point that Mookherjee emphasized throughout the book is the need to incorporate women as part of the new nation, that created the need to form the emblematic heroine as a way of not only incorporating women into the nation, but as protecting the future of the nation. Personal memories become public in the recollection of the war, and the victims are reliving their trauma in everyday life as other victims of violence do, but must also relive it on the public stage. In the foreword, Veena Das explains the dichotomy of expected behavior and reality, but also highlights the role of the expectations that the victims must navigate, “It was often alleged various people in Bangladesh that women from respectable families who were raped never told their stories and that stories of rape were a ruse for poor women to extract something from the government” (xii). It is these divisions that continue to keep this spectral wound open in Bangladesh.

These women serve as the wound that Bangladesh suffered during war and symbolize the wounds the Bangladeshi people suffered before independence. It is a difficult concept to understand how a woman can be heralded as birangonas and at the same time shamed because they are not adhering to the gendered expectations of society by remaining silent; though perhaps it is not too difficult to understand in the wake of so many high profile sexual assault charges in the news that women are both called heroines and expected to remain demure and silent. What bothers me about these accounts of rape is the way agency is stripped from the women, and though they are birangonas they remain a subject of derision.

The term spectral is an interesting choice, do we think this means that the women, their families, and the nation are haunted by the memories because they don’t know how to put the “ghosts” of the rupture to peace? Is there ever peace for the victims of violent sexual assault or do they have to learn to live with their ghost? It is the threat of continuous rupture that puts these women in a difficult space of belonging; political violence (which these rapes most certainly were) doesn’t end when the violence has ended, but echoes into the future.

Mookherjee provides a nuanced, and thoughtful exploration of the ways that Bangladesh honors victims of sexual violence even as they strip the “heroines” of agency through the commercialization of their memories. In addition to exploring the ways that state intervention in the rape of hundreds of thousands during the war for independence changes both the public and individual memories of that rape, Mookerhejee also examines the way that the loss of masculinity through sexual assault extends the trauma through time and across relationships. By refusing to focus solely on the female victims of the war, Mookherjee swings at the gendered dimensions of history and memory.

Even though Mookherjee’s work is focused across the globe and a century after my own research interests, I believe that her insights and her approach to the topic provide tools to navigating my own research and the ways that those wounds remain open. I found watching Mookherjee talk about her process and the lives that these individuals found outside of their role as birangonas shifted my perspective on the research that she did; this becomes a story with a glimmer of hope.

Talk Given by Mookherjee

https://youtu.be/l4c76A9W3mc

This is an NPR story that I came across the morning that I finished this book on the legacy of sexual violence in Korea: https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/11/13/563838610/comfort-woman-memorial-statues-a-thorn-in-japans-side-now-sit-on-korean-buses?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=2041

A Social Healer

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (1990).

A Midwife’s Tale is divided up into ten chapters, each focused on a specific aspect of Martha Ballard’s life, and the corresponding diary entries.  Ballard’s accounts are so rich in material that “the problem is not that the diary is trivial but that it introduces more stories than can easily be recovered and absorbed” (25). So much of Thatcher Ulrich’s writing seems to connect to other readings that we have done as part of our blog; it is easy to make connections to Home and Work, to Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs, to Revolutionary Backlash, to Damned Women, and especially Revolutionary Conceptions.

Several aspects of Martha Ballard’s diary stand out to me, but I am afraid I can only address a couple of them. In the first chapter, Thatcher Ulrich sets out to define the circles that a midwife would have fit into; something that became increasingly important as professionalization of medicine began to gain momentum in the early nineteenth century. Labeling Martha Ballard and her sister midwives as “social healers” Thatcher Ulrich takes the concepts which we have seen used to define early American economy and community by authors such as Boydston, and applies that to the craft of the midwife. It is important to define the place in the community that a midwife would have held, as Martha Ballard and Thatcher Ulrich make clear her only job was not to deliver babies; a midwife was expected to treat the ill, provide herbal medications, ensure safe delivery of children, help prepare the bodies of the dead, observe autopsies, and of course maintain her own home and garden. These expectations of the midwife would not have been fruitful if there wasn’t a social support system in place to assist her; hired helpers, daughters, nieces, neighbors, and even occasionally husbands or other men from the community would be called upon for assistance to ensure the success of the midwife. Thatcher Ulrich stresses that Martha Ballard’s experiences were not exceptional and that she was, “one among many women with acknowledged medical skills. Furthermore, her strengths were sustained by a much larger group of casual helpers” (62). This revelation (perhaps too strong a word) gives much more importance to the practice of calling on neighbors; in order to maintain the social network and bonds that were needed to keep her successful, a midwife (or really any woman during that time) would have had to maintain her relationships with as many of her neighbors as she could so that she would be confident in her ability to call on them for help. As I was reading this I kept thinking back to the ways that these social calls were portrayed in period dramas, Anne of Green Gables (1985) stood out to me. Rachel Lynde is the pesky neighbor who is always seen calling on Marilla Cuthbert in the 1985 version, and Rachel is portrayed as a bit of an overbearing, nosey neighbor who is determined to interfere in the Cuthbert’s affairs. The 2017 version of Anne of Green Gables however shows a more realistic relationship between Marilla and Rachel; Rachel comes to help Marilla with canning, and the share a friendship that works to highlight both the solitude of housekeeping in the late 18th and early 19th century, but also the important bonds that women shared through helping each other with larger tasks. This is the invisible work that Boydston argued allowed for the survival and success of the community.

The other aspect that I would like to focus on is the breadth of sources that Thatcher Ulrich pulled from to create this book. She clearly spent a lot of time working on reading and transcribing parts of Martha Ballard’s diary, but she also used the diaries of several men from the town, court documents, county and state census data, store ledgers, and personal correspondence when she could find it to pull Martha Ballard’s life from the shelf and give her story to the world. I readily admit that I am jealous of how many sources Thatcher Ulrich was able to compile for this project, as I continue to struggle to find personal letters and diaries of the women who I would like to write about. I would be curious to know how much time she spent on her research before she was able to piece together a firs

t draft. However jealous I am of her source material, I do recognize that it is Thatcher Ulrich’s ability to weave it together in a compelling narrative that not only made this such a powerful book for me to read, but won her the Pulitzer.

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Image of Martha Ballard’s Diary

Thatcher Ulrich closes the book with Martha Ballard’s death in 1812 at the age of 77 by saying this:

Her restraint in recording the sins of her neighbors, her humility in acknowledging her own, her charitableness, even her martyrdom and self-pity, were molded by this ethic of caring. But unlike the thousands of midwives and ordinary Christians who have always lived by these standards, Martha Ballard ensured that she would not be forgotten… To celebrate such a life is to acknowledge the power—and poverty—of written records (342-343).

I am so happy that I read this book, not just because of the wealth of information that it provided me, but also for the insight into the life of eighteenth century women. I do not think this level of insight would have been possible without having her own words available to us.

It might be clear that I really liked the newer deeper version of the tale of Anne Shirley, here is a link to the trailer:

Trailer for Anne of Green Gables on Netflix: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2017/04/04/trailer_for_netflix_s_anne_of_green_gables_series_from_moira_walley_beckett.html

 This is an excellent documentary from the BBC on British homes. The documentaries demonstrate exactly how much work was put into “everyday” tasks such as cooking and cleaning. No wonder Martha Ballard would rather have the girls do the washing!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_cOj6ha5SM

Lucy Worsley If Walls Could Talk “bedrooms”

A Woman in the Periphery

A Woman in the Periphery

Our Nig, Or, Sketches from the Life of A Free Black, In a Two-Story House, North Showing That Slavery’s Shadows Fall Even There. Harriet Wilson (1859).

Harriet Wilson begins her autobiography with a poem for her mother:

            Oh, Grief beyond all other griefs, when fate

First leaves the young hear lone and desolate

In the wide world, without that only tie

For which it loved to live or feared to die;

Lorn as the hung-up lute, that ne’er hath spoken

Since the sad day its master-chord was broken!

Moore. (page 1).

Typically, I would leave poems, or other headings out of a response, but this poem set the tone for the rest of the book. I was unsure what Our Nig was going to be like, I had read that it was a response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and that it compliments Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl well. There are parts to Wilson’s prose which bring to mind these other works, as well as the writings of Sojourner Truth and even seduction novels. Frado is the protagonist who is abandoned by her white mother and black step-father at the Bellmont estate at the age of seven.  The Bellmonts took Frado in as an indentured servant, and began to refer to her as “Nig”.  The story recounts the ways that Frado survived her time as the Bellmont’s servant, and the abuse that she received at their hands and the hands of northern antebellum society. Wilson emphasized the similarities between her treatment and the treatment of slaves, not just in physical labor and abuse but also in the restrictions on her behavior (not sitting down to eat) and her travels (restrictions on school or church attendance). Wilson successfully highlights the failures of indentured servitude in the U.S. After Frado turned 18 and was freed from her contract she became ill and had to rely on the community for support while she was ill and recovering. Seeking out the Bellmonts, who she believed owed her some assistance for her years of service, resulted in Frado being insulted and turned out.

Wilson’s story is a bit difficult to get through despite its brevity. The timeline is muddled, and there is no concrete way of knowing where Frado is living based on the evidence provided within the story. The only reason the audience understands that it takes place in the north is because Wilson puts it into the title. The account of Mag, Frado’s mother, is equally confusing. I thought that Mag was a free Black woman until she married Frado’s father and Wilson brought up how demeaning it was for a white woman to marry a free Black man. The book gained much more narrative power as I researched the life of Harriet Wilson. Wilson is credited as the first Black author to self-publish a book in the U.S., though this is a contentious claim. Wilson based Frado’s life on her own; Wilson’s mother was an Irish washerwoman and her father was a free Black man who worked as a Hooper. Wilson was also orphaned as a young child and forced to work as an indentured servant in a New England home. Wilson’s life was lived almost entirely in the periphery; she was a woman born of a mixed-race marriage, she was working in servitude in a time of slavery, and yet she never conformed to the expectations of her gender or race.

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Statue of Harriet Wilson

 

Here is the transcript of an interview with Henry Louis Gates who rediscovered Our Nig in 1982 (interview was 2002): http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment-july-dec02-gates_07-23/

Here is a brief bio on Harriet Wilson (and the source for the image of her statue): http://www.harrietwilsonproject.net/harriet-wilson-.html

Here is the book electronically through the University of Virginia http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/africam/ournighp.html

Gender and Culture Shift in Native Life

Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835.  Theda Perdue (1998)

Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835 explores the ways that Cherokee culture changed as white Americans (colonists and later citizens) pushed westward through Cherokee country. Theda Perdue successfully proves her thesis; “in the eighteenth century women may have become more secure in some roles—as farmers and as socializers of children, for example—and in the nineteenth century, Cherokees incorporated aspects of Anglo-American culture into their lives without fundamentally altering values or totally restructuring gender (9).” To prove this, Perdue provides the reader with a foundational understanding of the way that Cherokees understood gender, and gender roles- as actions and fulfillment of social roles. By beginning the book with the tale of Selu and her role as corn-goddess, and earth mother, Perdue gives us a baseline for what we believe traditional gender roles and responsibilities would have been for Cherokee women. In following the changing economic and political world that the Cherokees found themselves immersed in at the end of the eighteenth century the audience can begin to fully grasp the breadth of changes that were beginning to occur in Cherokee lives.

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Statue of Selu on The Corn Mother’s Temple

 

It is crucial to highlight that Perdue doesn’t claim that gender roles, or women, were unchanging over time; rather she emphasized the ways in which women adapted traditional gendered expectations to allow their culture to survive. Perhaps the most detrimental to female autonomy, because of the changing economic and political atmosphere, was the decline of the matrilineal clan as the center of Cherokee life. When life was centered around the clan, and family, women would have held significant power over resources, and relationships; as the focus of life began to shift towards an Anglo-American ideal of domesticity the Cherokee women began to lose their authority. In contrast, Cherokee men began to value individual wealth and property as part of the adoption of Anglo-American culture, which put them in a position of power over their children- something that Perdue argues they would have not had before this shift in economic power. I found it fascinating that Perdue provided examples of both how this was embraced by fathers, and how this acculturation was not universal as many maternal uncles or mothers continued to be the primary authority over the lives of children.

 

This new shift in cultural and economic power resulted in many Cherokee children being sent to missionary schools so that they would be able to succeed in this new society. In my undergraduate work, I read excerpts from Zitkála-Sa’s, American Indian Stories (1921), in which Zitkala-Sa describes the missionary school experience, and the struggle of living in two separate cultures simultaneously. When initially setting out to read Cherokee Women, I expected to see similarities between Perdue’s research and Zitkala-Sa’s anecdotal writing; however, Perdue’s discussion of cultural genocide which the Cherokee found themselves facing that made Zitkala-Sa’s writing, and Perdue’s, much more effective and powerful. I found Perdue’s exploration of the missionary school perhaps the most fascinating part of the book, likely because of my previous readings on it. I had not realized that the schools depended so heavily on parental cooperation for continuing operations—something that Zitkala-Sa does not go into. I would like to find some more readings that look at how the children managed to straddle the two distinct cultures- or even refused to submit to the missionary school’s codes of conduct.

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Zitkala-Sa (Red Bird) was Lakota and wrote extensively in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (2001), is considered crucial to reexamining the history of the United States as Richter shifts the focus out towards the non-native world, from the Native “center” of the narrative. Perdue managed to do this before Richter through incorporating firsthand accounts by Native individuals, and weaving them in with Cherokee religion to build a tangible world in which the women she is studying lived in. In addition to shifting the focus of the narrative, Perdue created a piece of work that is crucial to any discussion of Cherokee life with her discussion of gender and social structure. While my counterparts each wrote about specific pieces of the book which they felt were most important to Perdue’s thesis, I think that it is her definition of gender in Cherokee life, and how it shifted along with internal and external forces that is the most important (and interesting) addition to the historiographic discussion of native life, and gender history.