The title and subtitle of Hazel Carby's book provide the clue to its contents. Carby [End Page 310] argues that the image of the southern white woman—the wife of the plantation owner and the mistress of the plantation—formed the model for womanhood: woman is pious, pure, submissive, and domestic. When the Afro-American woman novelist appeared on the scene, that image of true womanhood had to be reconstructed. The southern belle may have been the model of noble womanhood, but her skin was always white.
Carby examines the narratives of black women written between the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for the light such narratives throw upon the place and function of the novel in American culture. In May 1893, at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, the World's Congress of Representative Women was comprised overwhelmingly of white women delegates. Six black women, however, did address the Congress, all of them protesting the relatively small role American black women had been given in the women's suffrage and temperance movements. Widely regarded as the greatest fair in history, the locus of the exhibition was the "White City," built to house the exhibits in Jackson Park on Lake Michigan. It was literally and figuratively a white city to black Americans, for it symbolized the failure that the high hopes of emancipation and reconstruction had begun.
Carby's book, which sets forth the contradictions experienced by black women who tried to establish a public presence in the nineteenth century, has four major concerns. First, black women had to confront the dominant domestic ideologies of womanhood from which they were excluded by the definition of "woman." Second, this book questions contemporary feminist historiography and literary criticism that presupposes sisterhood between black and white women. Third, although Afro-American literary and cultural history tends to marginalize the political importance of black women, the nineteenth century witnessed the beginning of black women's autonomous organizations and the intellectual activity and productivity of such organizations. Fourth, the book presents a history of the emerging black woman novelist.
As a first step toward assessing black feminist theory, Carby considers its history and major tendencies. "Reconstructing Womanhood," states Carby, "embodies a feminist critical practice that pays particular attention to the articulation of gender, race, and class. . . . This book works within the theoretical premises of societies 'structured in dominance' by class, by race, and by gender, and is a materialist account of the cultural production of black women intellectuals within the social relations that inscribed them." A revision of contemporary feminist historiography must investigate how racist ideologies have operated under different historical conditions. Carby claims that her book is a contribution to such a revision, a revision that examines the boundaries of sisterhood.
The publisher's jacket describes Carby's book as "the first book to interpret and provide a cultural history of black American women's writing from slave narratives to the early twentieth century." This book deserves a respected place in what has become today a burgeoning literature dealing with Afro-American writers.
Studies in Black American Literature, Volume III: Black Feminist Criticism and Critical Theory contains six essays devoted to the field. The first, Abena P. B. Busia's "Words Whispered over Voids: A Context for Black Women's Rebellious Voices in the Novel of the African Diaspora," examines the emphasis on the spoken voice in the fiction of black women writers in Africa and America, finding these [End Page 311] voices rebellious, and defining the black woman's identity in self, in folk traditions, and in female bonding. Missy Dehn Kubitschek's essay, "Subjugated Knowledge...