restricted access Black Exaltadas: Race, Reform, and Spectacular Womanhood after Fuller
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Black Exaltadas:
Race, Reform, and Spectacular Womanhood after Fuller

Much has been achieved in this country since the first Declaration of Independence. . . . But the noble sentiment which she expressed in her early youth is tarnished; she has shown that righteousness is not her chief desire, and her name is no longer a watchword for the highest hopes to the rest of the world.

—Margaret Fuller, "Fourth of July," New York Tribune (1845)

The silence in the house was painful. These were representatives of the people for whom God had sent the terrible scourge of blood upon the land to free from bondage. The old abolitionists in the vast audience felt the blood leave their faces. . . . "Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt's land, Tell ol' Pharaoh, let my people go," sang the woman. . . . Spell-bound they sat beneath the outpoured anguish of a suffering soul. All the horror, the degradation from which a race had been delivered were in the pleading strains of the singer's voice. It strained the senses almost beyond endurance. It pictured to that self-possessed, highly-cultured New England assemblage as nothing else ever had, the awfulness of the hell from which a people had been happily plucked.

—Pauline Hopkins, Of One Blood (1905)

To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it "the way it really was" (Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.

—Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History" (1940) [End Page 135]

Spectacular womanhood was for Margaret Fuller an instrument of reform. She wielded it by staging her own famously "magnetic" person before friends and students, and by embedding examples of iconic femininity throughout her writings, where myriad figures from history, literature, and an imagined future stand alongside each other. For Fuller, such displays could communicate a transcendent ideal, and through its irresistible force, effect change: "never have I known minds so truly virgin," she writes of the "Exaltadas," an envisioned class of "maiden[s]" from whom, she prophesied, "would issue a virtue by which [the world] would, at last, be exalted too." 1 Central to Fuller's idealist project is the conception of femininity as a long-suppressed resource that must now serve where masculinity has failed. In her masterwork, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, she declares that "the time is come when Eurydice is to call for an Orpheus, rather than Orpheus for Eurydice," and promises that Adam will be redeemed by a new Eve, "the Virgin Mother of the new race" (WNC, 12, 60). However, Fuller also warns that woman is not yet ready to lead, to reveal Truth. Something—Eurydice's captivity, Eve's shame—always delays the promised transformation. My first epigraph, taken from an 1845 New York Tribune column in which Fuller denounces the annexation of Texas as a slave state, begins to indicate how the reformer theorizes Woman's obstructedness. 2 It presents another example of Woman impeded in her mission. As an allegorical figure for the U.S. nation-state, she is charged with the exceptionalist task of conveying freedom's ideal to her global audience. But Liberty's image is obscured by unrighteous "desires" that coincide with the "tarnish" of slavery. In her, as in the original Eve—who necessitates a new Eve to serve as "Virgin Mother of the new race"—corrupt feminine sexuality and racial unfreedom converge in overdetermined corporeal excess. Further on, Fuller calls for "shining examples" through which to bring about "the salvation." But this vision is set in an unspecified future, a receding horizon of transcendence, a telos beyond history and the tarnished bodies that inhabit it.

Sixty years later, Dianthe Lusk, the heroine of Pauline Hopkins's 1905 novel, Of One Blood, performs in Boston's Tremont Temple. 3 In the extraordinary scene from my second epigraph, [End Page 136] Hopkins stages her own version of a spectacular womanhood that draws nationalist identification and encodes a national truth. Like Fuller's tarnished Liberty, Dianthe performs a revelation of meaning that acts powerfully upon listeners. Like Liberty again, her image is racially inflected—she appears with the Fisk Jubilee...