- Love and Marriage in Early African America
In Love and Marriage in Early African America, Frances Smith Foster has assembled a treasure trove of African American authored documents "from the beginnings of [African American] print culture until just before the Harlem Renaissance" (xiii). Including a wide selection of folklore, poetry, short stories, newspaper articles, letters, and autobiographical accounts, the volume demonstrates how African Americans helped to shape a nineteenth-century literary culture that ennobled heterosexual union, motherhood, Christian ethics, and close-knit family relations. At the same time, however, this anthology makes clear how the material reality of enslavement compelled the creation of a distinct African American literary discourse of love, marriage, and family that is characterized by heart-rending loss and sorrow. "My Dear wife for you and my children my pen cannot Express the griffe I feel to be parted from you all," an enslaved man sold to "Peterson atreader" writes in an 1858 letter (238). Playful lyrics about gals "Blacker 'an blackberries" (4), didactic advice about how to achieve domestic harmony, and fictional fantasies about male and female rescuers take on added meaning when they are read alongside letters and narratives that bemoan separation, violation, and powerlessness. The concluding selection, W. E. B. DuBois's "Of the Passing of the First-Born" from The Souls of Black Folk, poignantly articulates the book's thesis: African Americans have felt "the All-love" (326), despite the heinous intrusion of racist ideas and institutions.
The volume's breadth provides ample evidence that African Americans imagined and discussed love, marriage, and family in a variety of genres and mediums. The texts that address power relations between men and women are especially fascinating. Contests of will and conflicting accounts of culpability are dramatized in lyrics, stories, and newspaper notices. These selections not only enable a new reading of the works of well-known authors, some of which are included, but they also enrich our understanding of how African American men and women, enslaved and "free," imagine gender roles and relations as they "encounter the world's troubles" (115).
Foster's desire to reach "many kinds of people with many kinds of intents and purposes" has motivated her organizational choices (xxiii). Dividing the text into five sections, "In Love—with Love," "Whether to Marry—and Who?" "Proposals and Vows," "Married Life," and "Family Trees Rooted—in Love," Foster creates rubrics similar to those used in popular culture collections of [End Page 171] love poems, letters, and stories. Within each of these categories are two other classification systems designed to aid the reading process: The texts are organized chronologically by genre. Ironically, this structure imposes order on complex, untidy subjects: human feelings and relationships. Foster acknowledges this structuring: "I tried to tell a story using pieces from many places, times, and situations. I tried to make it orderly, but love, marriage, and family—and the writings about them—don't make one orderly picture" (xxv). Here Foster reminds us that when reading any anthology, we should remain aware that the editor has selected and arranged documents for specific reasons.
Foster is clear about her reasons and the story she wants to tell. She informs us in her brief introduction, written in the guise of a letter to her sister, that she wants the volume to change accepted knowledge about African American literacy and love. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, African Americans "had a viable print culture" that included writers, venues for publication, and interested readers that crossed national boundaries (xv). She also wants the volume to show that African Americans cherished and "sustain[ed] intimate relationships" and that she and her family are part of this tradition (xiii). "Reading this old material linked my life directly to those of our ancestors" (xvi), she writes.
Foster's project is a moving testament to the importance of historical recovery. Yet the anthology form raises questions that require our attention. For example, it allows readers the liberty of creating their own stories, selecting texts and...