restricted access Thinking Through Things: Labors of Freedom in James McCune Smith's "The Washerwoman"
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Thinking Through Things:
Labors of Freedom in James McCune Smith's "The Washerwoman"

I. Coming to a Head: Editorial Distaste in Frederick Douglass's Paper

From 1852 to 1854, a case was made in Frederick Douglass's Paper for rethinking who ought to be dignified with the appellation Heads of the Colored People. James McCune Smith provoked this discussion via a series of nine short literary sketches collected under that title, all of which focus on the lives and livelihoods of assorted free black laborers: bootblacks, washerwomen, news vendors, and grave diggers, to name just a few. Largely set in New York City, where the author was a black resident of considerable prestige,1 Heads of the Colored People had a particular urgency in the years of its composition. McCune Smith wrote the series immediately following the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, during a widespread depression among black laborers in New York City who were rapidly losing jobs to white European immigrants, and amidst the endemic racism of Northern U.S. culture.2 In choosing these particular subjects for literary representation, McCune Smith lent an aura of dignity to the increasingly desperate economic, political, and cultural circumstances of the free black worker. The series forced a reconsideration of what types of people should be viewed as the "heads" of free black U.S. society. In addition, Heads of the Colored People pushed [End Page 291] readers to think about what freedom actually consisted of in the racist world of the antebellum North, where the most popular cultural discourse of black "heads" was the racialized pseudo-science of phrenology. John Stauffer, McCune Smith's contemporary biographer, rightly draws attention to the phrenological play that McCune Smith engages in by titling the series Heads of the Colored People. Through his title, McCune Smith takes the obsessively anatomized heads that populated works of phrenology--studies that were explicitly meant to justify hierarchies of racial inferiority--as his subject matter, but turns them on their ears (MCS, 188). That is, like the craniological studies put forth by leading lights of U.S. phrenology Josiah Nott, Samuel Morton, and Joseph Glidden, these Heads of the Colored People are placed upon public display, but for markedly different aims. McCune Smith's focus on heads positions these black laborers as essential to the struggle for black social uplift, not because they are leading political activists, but because their relationship to the objects of their labor makes them privy to reworked forms of knowledge about chattel slavery, object relations, and freedom in the antebellum United States.

Due to its focus on black manual laborers, Heads of the Colored People—although bent on undermining antebellum race-science—was met with reservations within McCune Smith's abolitionist milieu. The pieces were published in Frederick Douglass's Paper, and Douglass publicly expressed his editorial misgivings about McCune Smith's choice of subject. After the 1853 publication of the sixth sketch titled "The Editor," in which McCune Smith conveys the story of a black editor who must have his wife take dictation "because our editor cannot write; nay, if the whole truth must be told, he cannot read!...," Douglass penned a public response to McCune Smith.3 In it, Douglass chastises him for ignoring black citizens of "talents and real ability" (MCS, 213 & 245). Douglass, who spent much of his lifetime fashioning and re-fashioning himself as an American "Representative Man," closes the editorial by asking, "Why will not my able New York correspondent bring some of the real heads of the colored people before our readers?" Peppered throughout the piece are allusions to [End Page 292]

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Shine Sah? Circa 1899. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZ62-120748.

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those who can rightfully claim, in Douglass's estimation, the title of "real heads" including: founders of literary societies, religious leaders, and black business owners who can unequivocally claim their businesses as "the property of a colored man." At this point in time, Frederick Douglass was an advocate of racial uplift via the cultivation of black, bourgeois sensibilities that would help to assimilate black...