Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon: The Forgotten History of an American Shrine, by Scott E. Casper, $25, Hill and Wang (January 2008), ISBN-10: 0809084147, ISBN-13: 978-0809084142, pp. 320.
As many peopl e k n ow, the father of our country declared in his will that his enslaved servants would be free, once his widow, Martha, joined him in death and no longer needed their services. This book notes, however, that she feared that the prospect of instant freedom might tempt the servants to harm her, and so she freed them early, in 1801. Nevertheless, slavery lived on at Mount Vernon. Martha herself owned many slaves not covered in her husband’s will, and later heirs brought workers required for the upkeep of the homestead, farmland and neighboring properties.
Even after slavery ended, newly freed African-Americans were among those employed by a preservation society to maintain the estate and greet tourists. These included a mulatto woman, Sarah Parker Johnson, born into slavery in 1844, who served faithfully at Mount Vernon after the Civil War until her retirement in 1892. She died in 1920.
Scott Casper uses her story to anchor a highly detailed history of African-American life at Mount Vernon, other Washington family holdings and the surrounding free Black communities. Extracted from numerous documents, it is a rare and engaging account of how Black labor contributed to the wealth and welfare of America’s first family and to the nation.
Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower (Gender and American Culture), by Deborah Gray White (Editor) $21.95, University of North Carolina Press (March 2008), ISBN-10: 0807858811, ISBN- 13: 978-0807858813, pp. 320.
Seventeen African-American female historians tell how they navigated their careers in the field of history. The narratives are arranged in the order that each scholar earned her doctorate in history — from Nell Irvin Painter, formerly of Princeton University, Ph.D. from Harvard University, 1974, to Dr. Crystal M. Feimster, Ph.D. from Princeton University, 2000. As such, it offers a chronology of their experiences and struggles in a field that has not been the same since Black women grabbed the opportunity to do some of the telling.
New Black Feminist Criticism, 1985- 2000: Barbara Christian, by Gloria Bowles, M. Giulia Fabi and Arlene Keizer (Editors), $35, University of Illinois Press (September 2007), ISBN-10: 0252031806, ISBN-13: 978- 0252031809, pp. 272.
Long before most people — Black or White, female or male — knew that a body of work by Black female writers existed, Barbara Christian almost single handedly created space to critique it. By the early 1970s, she knew that the new Black female voices deserved the world’s attention. Christian, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, believed, as the authors say in the introduction to this collection of her later essays, that “if writing is not written about, it disappears.”
Colleagues, she recalled, “warned me that I was going to ruin my academic career by studying an insignificant, some say nonexistent, body of literature.” New, then, were the likes of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. Fortunately, she persisted, and such writers did not disappear.
Academic Mothers, by Venitha Pillay, $34.95, Trentham Books (September 2007), ISBN-10: 1858564174, ISBN-13: 978- 1858564173, pp. 206.
The author, who admits to entering a doctoral program to find “someone over the age of three with whom I could chat,” examines how academic women connect the dots between thinking and motherhood. Such women defy the traditional notions that intellectual, rational, logical thought are the domain of men and nurturing, loving, sensitive, mother-like feelings are the domain of women. Using journals and interviews, she tracked how three scholar nurturers fit the two halves into a whole.
Pillay, a senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria in South Africa and mother of two, knows the territory herself. Interestingly, the writer, a self-described Black South African, is of Indian origin and studies three White women in South Africa. She does that, Pillay explains, in part to tune out the racial dynamic. Whether American women will accept the logic, relate to her subjects and find this inquiry relevant is difficult to say, but she raises questions worth pursuing. D March 20, 2008 | Diverse 23 D032008_BackofBook:D032008_BoB 3/5/08 6:11 PM Page 23
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