- Speaking Power: Black Feminist Orality in Women's Narratives of Slavery
As a concise study of literary texts by African American women, DoVeanna Fulton's Speaking Power is a well-written and provocative book of exceptional temporal as well as generic range. The fourteen works that Fulton examines—generated between 1850 and 1991 to explicate the impact of slavery on bondspeople in the United States—consist of slave narratives (both self-authored and mediated, bona fide and novelized) and other autobiographies, and neoslave narratives and other novels. Besides its sweeping coverage, the most significant achievement of Fulton's book is its investigation of the power of orality as developed and asserted by black women in the US. Moreover, in an introduction titled "So my mother told me" (an apt quote from the narrative of ex-slave Louisa Picquet), Fulton delineates precisely differences [End Page 406] between such keywords as oral tradition, traditions of testifying, black feminist orality, oral literacy, and forms of oral resistance that include sass and back-talk. Rigorously applying a black feminist epistemological standpoint that she argues cannot be matched for its accommodation of analyses "of the complex manner in which race, gender, class, and sexual positionalities affect oppression" (11), Fulton demonstrates that scholars have severely underestimated black women's "speaking power" of the title phrase—that is, the force of orality as the politicized practice of passing down (familial, mostly matrilineal) history.
A compelling feature of this book, carefully set down in the introduction, is its investigation of orality as both method and theme in literature by black women since the middle of the nineteenth century. Fulton persuasively argues that nineteenth-century black speech, both as public rhetoric and private communication, proved so spirited and vital that, especially after Emancipation ended forcible illiteracy among blacks, the representation of orality in black women's literature forms the practice of inscribing and otherwise documenting family lore and history once passed down only orally. It is an exciting intervention in black studies, fiction studies, rhetoric studies, women's studies, and studies of the history of slavery, particularly because scholars of literature and history so obstinately continue to disregard (albeit differently disregard) as inauthentic or insignificant ex-slave narratives literally written by someone other than the slave autobiographer, and scholars of other academic disciplines, like most Americans, generally disregard black women's speech and speaking power as ignoble, insincere, or inconsequential. Whereas academics tend to equate illiteracy with unintelligence and thus privilege the written word over the spoken, Fulton explicates the fluency of oral literacy and demands that it be reevaluated from a perspective and with a methodology that recognizes its complex features, such as naming and "'re-member[ing]' families through oral traditions" (3).
Speaking Power is comprised of a theoretical introduction, five chapters that delve into the fourteen literary texts (in groups of two, three, or four), and a concise coda. The introduction situates Fulton amid such established black feminist literary critics as Hortense Spillers and Hazel Carby, and amid such culture theorists as Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks. The exactness of her ideas proves that she invokes company she honorably keeps. In addition to The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, by Olive Gilbert (1850), Chapter 1 reads two ex-slave narratives published in 1861: Louisa Picquet, dictated by its eponymous heroine to Hiram A. Mattison, a white Methodist minister from New York, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, by Harriet A. Jacobs. This chapter effectively demonstrates (what Fulton shows but does not [End Page 407] name) the paradox of the fusion of literacy and orality, and the paradox of the use of orality to inscribe silence in black women's antebellum writings. For example, Fulton's discussion of Incidents validates her claim that Jacobs manipulates literacy, specifically literary strategies prominent in early US women's fiction, to inscribe the oral history of the purity of her maternal grandmother, Molly Horniblow (Incidents's pseudonymously named Aunt Martha). Even...