6 Fascinating African-American Women Writers of the 19th Century
By Nava Atlas | On | Comments (0)
Given the circumstances of the 19th century, both before and after emancipation, African-American women writers who took up the pen to write full books or other substantial bodies of work were rare indeed. It’s worth noting that before the Civil War, it was illegal to teach African-Americans to read in many states, not just in the South. So to write a novel or autobiography was a radical act for a black woman of that era, whether she had been enslaved or free born.
Not surprisingly, many of the books, essays, and poetry produced by African-American women writers dealt with slavery. Most of the autobiographies and thinly veiled novels discussed here were in the genre of slave narrative.
Lest you think we’ve forgotten Phillis Wheatley — the first African-American female poet to be published, and one of the first women of any background to be published in the colonies — we haven’t. She’s not included in this list because she lived and wrote exclusively in the 18th century. Here are six fascinating 19th-century African-American women writers whose talent and daring are ripe for rediscovery.
Hannah Bond (aka Hannah Crafts)
Hannah Bond (pen name Hannah Crafts, born 1830s – date of death unknown) escaped slavery around 1857 and settled in New Jersey. Her only known book was The Bondswoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts, Fugitive Slave from North Carolina. This autobiographical novel, likely written in the 1850s or 1860s is one of the first novels written by an African-American woman, and uniquely by a fugitive slave.
Not much is known about Hannah’s life, though it has been inferred from details in her novel that she was of mixed race and enslaved in Virginia. The manuscript of The Bondswoman’s Narrative was discovered some one hundred fifty years later by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., authenticated, and published for the first time in 2002. It has been extensively studied and analyzed by professor Gregg Hecimovich of Winthrop University. According to this September 18, 2013 story in the New York Times that uncovered the author’s true identity:
“Beyond simply identifying the author, the professor’s research offers insight into one of the central mysteries of the novel, believed to be semi-autobiographical: how a house slave with limited access to education and books was heavily influenced by the great literature of her time, like Bleak House (Charles Dickens) and Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë), and how she managed to pull off a daring escape from servitude, disguised as a man.”
The Bondswoman’s Narrative on Amazon
Julia C. Collins
Julia C. Collins (1842 – 1865), believed to have been freeborn, worked as a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania once she reached young adulthood. In 1864, she began to write essays of racial uplift for The Christian Recorder, produced by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Curse of Caste, or The Slave Bride was serialized in The Christian Recorder beginning in early 1865. It’s the story of a mixed-race mother and her daughter who encounter barriers to love and opportunity due to slavery and racial bias. Not much is known about Julia Collins’ short life, though apparently, she was well educated.
Unfortunately, she didn’t live to finish her novel, dying of tuberculosis (then called consumption) in late November of 1965. The Curse of Caste, along with Julia’s other writings, were collected and published with analysis and commentary in 2006 by Oxford University Press.
The serialized novel was just reaching its climax as the author lay dying, and was never completed in its own time. The editors of the 2006 volume supplied two alternative endings. Some critics found that to be presumptuous, along with the claim that this was the first published novel by an African-American woman (as it erroneously states on the modern cover, above). Most scholars, including Henry Louis Gates, Jr., agree that Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig (1859) and Harriet Ann Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) hold that distinction.
Still, The Curse of Caste is considered a great discovery, a story that in real time explored race and gender issues, interracial love, and oppression in American life. Here’s a review of the 2006 edition in the New York Times.
Frances Watkins Harper
Frances Watkins Harper (1825 – 1911) was an ardent suffragist, social reformer, and abolitionist in addition to her renown as a poet and author. She wrote prolifically from the time she published her first collection of poetry in 1845, at the age of twenty. Freeborn in Baltimore, Maryland, she was also known as Frances E. W. Harper and by her full name of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
Erlene Stetson, in her 1981 book Black Sister: Poetry by Black American Women, 1746 – 1980, described Frances Harper’s poetry as “stylistically diverse and reverberated with a creative tension between her polite Victorian style and a sociopolitical content concerned with slavery, temperance, and suffrage.”
Frances became active in anti-slavery societies in the early 1850s and was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. She also began lecturing and was widely praised as a compelling public speaker. Her 1854 collection Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects was one her most successful publications. Much later, the novel Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892) was another critical and commercial success.
Her heartbreaking poem “The Slave Mother” is arguably her best known. Here’s a portion:
He is not hers, although she bore
For him a mother’s pains
He is not hers, although her blood
Is coursing through his veins!
He is not hers, for cruel hands
May rudely tear apart
The only wreath of household love
That binds her breaking heart.
Frances Harper published some eighty poems in her lifetime, which, in consideration with her fiction and nonfiction works, should have earned her a prominent place in American literature. Of all the writers listed in this post, she was the one with the most complete literary career. Learn more about her remarkable life.
Harriet Ann Jacobs
Harriet Ann Jacobs in 1894
Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813 – 1897) was known for Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861). After repeated rejection, Harriet decided to self-publish the book, an impressive feat for any woman of that era, let alone one that had spent years as a fugitive slave.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is an autobiography, though it reads like a novel. According to the 1987 Harvard University Press edition: “Harriet A. Jacobs was born a slave in North Carolina in 1813 and became a fugitive in the 1830s. She recorded her triumphant struggle for freedom in an autobiography that was published pseudonymously in 1861 … Incidents is the major antebellum autobiography of a black woman. Along with Frederick Douglass’s account of his life, it is one of the two archetypes in the genre of the slave narrative.”
Writing pseudonymously as “Linda Brent,” the book’s narrator, Jacobs recounts the history of her family: a remarkable grandmother who hid her for seven years; a brother who escaped and spoke out for abolition; her two children, who she rescued and sent north. Incidents is also notable for its brutal honesty about the sexual abuse of female slaves. Learn more about Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and about the remarkable life of Harriet Ann Jacobs.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (1818 – 1907), who was born into slavery and later emancipated, became a successful seamstress and social reformer before writing Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868). This autobiography traces her journey from slavery in Virginia and North Carolina to become the seamstress of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, during her years as First Lady.
Shortly after she bought her own freedom and that of her son in 1860, she moved to Washington, D.C. and built an impressive dressmaking business, serving the wives of the capital’s elite. Not only did she sew Mrs. Lincoln’s clothing, she also became her close confidante.
Behind the Scenes is an amalgam of first-person slave narrative and tell-all. Elizabeth’s portrait of the First Family sparked a bit of controversy since it broke some rules of privacy. Still, her warm and intimate friendship with Mrs. Lincoln endured. Interestingly, George Saunders’ 2016 novel Lincoln in the Bardo quotes passages from Behind the Scenes.
Elizabeth Keckley may not have been a literary figure per se, but the importance of Behind the Scenes, coupled with her successful dressmaking business as a newly minted member of the black middle class, made her a notable figure worth reconsidering.
Harriet E. Wilson
Photo: The Root
Harriet E. Wilson (1825 – 1900) is another figure in the small group of pioneering female African-American female novelists. Born free as Harriet E. Adams in Milford, New Hampshire, she was the mixed-race daughter of an Irish washerwoman and an African-American barrel-hooper. She was orphaned early and worked for several years as an indentured servant. Released from servitude at age eighteen, she struggled to make a living. She married twice, was widowed, and endured many hardships.
Her novel Our Nig, or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black was published anonymously in 1859 by a Boston publisher. Her motivation for writing the novel was to raise money to care for her young son, who was ill. This battle was lost, as little George died in the poorhouse in which she had boarded him, at age seven.
Our Nig didn’t make a splash when first published, and remained obscure until it was rediscovered by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in 1982. It’s considered one of the first novels published by an African-American author. It remained Harriet Wilson’s only novel. After her child’s death, she went on the public lecture circuit to speak about her life. Gates called Our Nig “a complex response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
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