- Executing Race: Early American Women's Narratives of Race, Society, and the Law
At the 2005 meeting of the Society of Early Americanists, Annette Kolodny called for more literary-historical scholarship that speaks to the hard facts of women's lives in the colonial Americas, scholarship more alert to the human costs for Euro-American, African American, and Native American women of transatlantic imperialism and the local cultural regimes that sustained it. Sharon Harris's Executing Race: Early American Women's Narratives of Race, Society, and the Law advances this important project.
As readers of Legacy know, Sharon Harris has made many significant contributions to the study of early American women's writing. Her Selected Writings of Judith Sargent Murray (Oxford University Press, 1995) reintroduced the incomparable early American feminist to literary scholarship; Harris also edited the well-received anthology American Women Writers to 1800 (Oxford University Press, 1996), which recovered almost one hundred woman-authored texts representing women's ideas and experiences in the colonial and early national eras. Executing Race is most notable for its new and revealing biographies of lesser-known early American women authors such as Lucy Terry and Ann Eliza Bleecker, along with its clear-sighted assessment of how Anglophone North American white women both profited from and lost by colonialism.
Harris's introduction offers an overview of colonial and early national thought on race and gender. Reviewing scientific and legal writings by Cotton Mather, Linnaeus, Jefferson, Rush, and others, she examines the impact of "gendered scientific racialism" on white women and women of color (3). Chapter one tracks shifts in the racialized and gendered rhetoric, argumentation, and prosecution of eighteenth-century infanticide cases. In this context, Harris's research yields stark insights into the lives of marginal poor white women and women of color. (For example, she discovers that Patience Boston, a Native American woman executed for infanticide in 1735, was counseled by the handkerchief-veiled Reverend Joseph Moody, the inspiration for Hawthorne's short story "The Minister's Black Veil" .) But as Harris herself notes, their stories are devastatingly difficult. Reading this book three months after giving birth to my second daughter, I found myself compassionately drawn both to the very young children who died brutal deaths and to their mothers, who had invariably survived gruesome circumstances. Rarely do studies of early American literature afford us such piercing views into the lives of truly marginal women.
Subsequent chapters offer insightful biographical profiles of the slave petitioner Belinda, [End Page 199] the poet Ann Eliza Bleecker, her politically radical daughter Margaretta Van Wyck Bleecker Faugeres, the novelist Tabitha Tenney, and African American griot Lucy Terry. These analyses offer a tremendous resource to scholars and students of early American women's writing, as well as to anyone who wants to do a better job teaching their historically foundational works. Harris steadily and unsentimentally reconstructs the lives of these women authors. She never reduces their stories to simple scripts of resistance and she acknowledges their complex humanity, moments of complicity, and failures of vision as well. This clarifying perspective is especially useful in her account of white authors like Ann Eliza Bleecker and Tabitha Tenney, both of whom, Harris observes, resolve their quarrels with the gendered costs of colonialism and the patriarchal social order by projecting blame onto people of color. Harris characterizes both Bleecker and Tenney as "resisting colonizers" who "[challenge] many of the old colonialist ways but [hold] dearly to other aspects of colonizing systems of power and difference" (80). She offers an especially insightful reading of Bleecker, observing that white women have been expected to sanction the abandonment and destruction of their families in the service of national fortunes and imperial ventures. This is one of the best accountings of white women's implication in colonialism that I have yet encountered. Equally noteworthy is Harris's compelling analysis of Lucy Terry's "Bars Fight" as a satire on the captivity sagas of the master class.
In striving to...