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What Makes an African-American Novel a Classic?

Having edited a number of Penguin Classics, including Solomon Northup: 12 Years a Slave, Ida B. Wells: The Light of Truth and The Portable Frederick Douglass, Dr. Henry Louis Gates begins the anthology, The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers, by offering insights into what makes an African-American classic.

Longevity, resonance, transcendence and their ability to “reveal the human universal through the African American particular” are the requisites for works included in this collection. Hollis Robbins describes the collection as evidence of the effort by African-American women “to [write] themselves into full citizenship and subjectivity, within and outside of what W.E.B. DuBois called ‘the Veil.’ It is indeed all of these things as well as a precise and accessible entry into the early writings of African-American women.

The collection’s chronological arrangement within genres is useful for understanding the progression of 19th century Black women’s intellectual lives. History unfolds and African-American women are presented as multidimensional beings whose contributions to American life extended beyond fields, kitchens and nurseries, to newspaper rooms and halls of government.

It is poignant that the first section, Personal Accounts of Abolition and Freedom, begins with an address by an anonymous speaker. This nameless woman frames the ties that bind the enslaved African-American with the free. A warning that mixed race heritage is not what elevates her audience but their commitment to seeing all people of African descent free and enfranchised is what does so is a bold and powerful beginning.

This section includes writings by and about former slaves: Isabella Baumfree, who would become Sojourner Truth ; Mary Prince; and Harriet Jacobs, as well as the speeches of Maria W. Stewart. The lesser known writing of Nancy Prince and her meticulous recording of a ship captain’s disregard for his free Black passengers’ safety reminds us that manumission papers or even having been born a free person of color was no guarantee of the law’s protection for African-Americans.

Elizabeth Keckley’s account of Mary Todd Lincoln’s life after the White House and the musings of Eliza Potter, a hairdresser to rich ladies in New Orleans, offer insight into the experiences of free and financially independent Black women.

Fugitives and Emigrants: Moving West and North features writings by and about African-American women moving from slavery to freedom. Of particular interest is Mary Ann Shad Cary’s documentation of life for the emancipated in a Canadian village. Cary describes the rules and regulations that governed life for those who made it to Canada.

The section entitled “Northern Women and the Post-War South” captures the excitement and hope apparent in the writings of educated African-American women who thought it their duty to travel south and teach their newly freed kin. Edmonia Goodelle Highgate’s description of her horseback rides and the joy and balance they brought to her life of service is an early lesson in “self-care” for social activists. In Memories: Looking Back, Julia A.J. Foote, Jarena Lee and Zilpha Elaw document the great role faith played in the lives of these women. They emphasize that their callings to preach, teach, minister and pray were as great as any man’s.

The section Poetry, Drama, and Fiction is similar to previous anthologies dedicated to early African-American women’s writing and includes an excerpt from Sarah E. Farros’s True Love. Written in 1891, this Dickensian novel is unusual in that an African-American writer imagines White characters’ lives but does not engage race . Its addition broadens the category of African-American women’s writing and allows it to include work other than social protest.

Women Addressing Women: Addresses and Essays invites readers to contemplate the role relationships between women played as they shared, taught, admonished, encouraged and prophesied one another into humanity and wholeness. The writings are evidence that 19th century Black women were creating their own places in society and developing their own strategies for how their great nation of sisters would survive and then thrive outside of bondage. Further evidence is found in Education and Social Reform and the final section, Women Memorializing Women.

This collection shatters the well-rehearsed stereotypes of Black women as social and political caricatures and invites the audience to see these whole people striving to become part of a whole nation.

Hollis Robbins declares that The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers is an anthology held together by the intention of the writers in that they “insist upon the recognition of women’s intellect as essential to the history of black life in nineteenth-century America.”

This is true. These women did not just insist. Even now the power of their collective work demands that acknowledgement.

Dr. Tarshia L. Stanley is the director of the E.W. Githii Honors Program at Spelman College.

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