Reviews 2017

Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century

Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century. Nazera Sadiq Wright. Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2016. viii + 187 pages. $28.00 (paperback).

The history of the fight to achieve basic human rights for African Americans, from slavery to the Black Lives Matter movement today, is typically depicted as being a masculine endeavour. Whilst one might hope that names like Harriet Jacobs, Dorothy Height, and Alicia Garza would drop freely in a discussion of the struggle, the names of men – Fredrick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and even Rodney King – tend to be recalled more swiftly. The place of children – especially girls – in this history is almost entirely overlooked. Nazera Sadiq Wright addresses this lacuna on two fronts: first by examining the figure of the African American girl as she is portrayed in literature, newspapers and ephemera, and secondly by evaluating the impact of these materials on young readers. Throughout the volume, Wright alludes to the brevity of African American girls’ childhoods compared to their white counterparts. Forced into labour where the risks of sexual abuse ran high, nineteenth-century African American girls grappled with adult issues before their bodies had fully matured. These real life circumstances are presented by Wright alongside her convincing analyses of the literary figure of the African American girl, who functions as a conduit for expressing the aspirations of a community seeking citizenship and racial progress.

Wright’s materials are eclectic. The expected classics – Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig (1859) and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) – are visibly present, but are complemented with excerpts from black newspapers, advice columns and pamphlets. Most the authors of these latter writings were anonymous, although Wright has managed to identify a number of key figures: "this group of community leaders was tiny, yet their influence through the printed word was great. They included editors, ministers, antislavery activists, journalists, and teachers" (2). The influential nature of these texts lies, in no small part, in the dearth of other material suitable for schools. During this period, education was a privilege that only the small, middle-class community could afford, and even that at considerable personal expense. The sharing of newspapers paid a critical role not only in informing literate African Americans about the topics of the day, but also in promoting and maintaining the literacy skills needed to further the cause of emancipation.

Wright’s volume is arranged in broadly historical order according to the text type. She begins with the early Black press, continues to novels from the Antebellum period, advice columns, and serialized novel from the late nineteenth century to Black conduct books. Her broad overview, presented at the outset, distinguishes between the writings of black men and black women:

black men tended to write the black girl as an ideal figure, or, more precisely, as their ideal figure. The black girls they wrote about were flat, two-dimensional figures....In contrast, black women writers tended to focus on the interiority of the girls. They wrote about their inner thoughts, their plans, their dreams and aspirations. (3)

One of her findings is the frequency with which women authors encouraged their daughters to envisage an adult life that was not centred on motherhood or marriage, a view not expressed by black men, even the exceptions to the generalisation above. The feminist aspirations of these writers of black girlhood are startlingly ahead of white women writers of this era.

The material leads Wright to distinguish between what she dubs "youthful girlhood" from the age of six onwards, and "prematurely knowing girlhood" from puberty onwards. This distinction highlights the aforementioned brevity of black girlhood as Wright exposes how early adolescent girls needed to take on adult concerns. The threat of rape and other forms of sexual and physical abuse are centre stage in this abrupt end to childhood, and Wright’s analysis uncovers ways in which older women prepared girls to cope with the constant physical and emotional threat. Sometimes "indecorous conduct and nonvirtuous behavior" were presented as "strategies for survival" (60), but only in the writings of black women. White authors also acknowledged the constant sexual threats, but presented the girls as suffering and/or dying as a consequence. These girls are presented as being in need of white benevolence: they inspire pathos, not admiration. The results not only flatten the black girl, her angelic white counterpart is also as dull as ditch water. Wright’s conclusions are fascinating but sadly she does not allow readers more than a glimpse of these feisty black girls found in ephemeral literatures as she devotes most of her pages going over familiar texts such as Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Her analysis skilfully highlights the way Jacobs’ Linda Brent must walk the knife’s edge between resilience and knowingness, and inspiring pathos and commitment from white readers, but others have exposed this doubled edged sword before. Wright’s original contribution comes from her extensive use of archival material much of which has not been presented in the context of girlhood studies before.

Wright is at her best in the final chapter, where she discusses advice columns in newspapers such as the New York Freeman and the Christian Recorder. The uses these texts to open up a world of activism, particularly focusing on the work of the journalist Gertrude Bustill Mossell. Mossell bravely exposed not only the threats posed by white mistresses and masters, but also threats from men within her own community positing that "Your girls can go home alone just as well as your boys. If possible, instill in their very nature that they are safer in their own hands than they are in the hands of any man – preachers not excepted" (110). Wright’s study is an important contribution to our understanding the history of African Americans. She presents this as a history of "racial progress." Sadly, the nineteenth-century black women writers like Mossell she cites still seem radical today. In today’s rape culture where women are still blamed for offences committed against them, and where men are treated as being incapable of controlling their desires, the idea that black girls "are safer in their own hands" still rings true.

Lydia Kokkola
Luleå University of Technology, Sweden