- Jennie Carter: A Black Journalist of the Early West
Eric Gardner's meticulously annotated collection of Jennie Carter's contributions to the San Francisco Elevator is an invaluable resource for readers interested in or unaware of black pioneer culture. Some of these early black [End Page 172] settlers caught California fever like their white brethren, but they also fled slavery and the segregationist policies instituted in the South following the Civil War. In his introduction, Gardner argues that the African American presence has long been overlooked in histories of the frontier, the literary West, and the public psyche. Recent studies have focused on buffalo soldiers or the lone figure of the black cowboy; however, Carter's writings prove that an active black community flourished on the frontier. Writing from the elder persona of "Mrs. Ann J. Trask" or under the pseudonym of "Semper Fidelis," Carter reported on the black society of "Mud Hill," a fictionalized community based on her home in Nevada County, California. With a sharp intellect and passionate commitment to moral education, Carter wrote of politics, segregated schools, racism, and women's rights. Gardner anticipates that, given the astonishing frequency of Carter's contributions to the Elevator, the circulation of her writing will lead to a more complete biography and the discovery of further publications.
What strikes readers first is Carter's unusual dialogue with Philip A. Bell, the editor of the Elevator. Bell's addenda to her contributions reveal an encouraging, but atypical, editorial relationship. "In the same issue" that featured her poem "Disappointment," for example, Bell wrote, "We prefer her prose. . . . Her poetry is sombre, melancholy; it gives evidence of antiquated ideas, and winter in the mind" (12–13f). Why did Bell publish but then subvert her poetry? Carter's poetic structure is not atypical of nineteenth-century black women poets, resembling in style if not in content that of her better-known contemporary, writer and activist Frances Harper. However, it is hard to quarrel with Bell's assessment, because "Semper Fidelis" is at her best when recounting sorrowful tales of slavery, such as "True Montague," which Gardner suspects might be autobiographical, or when offering scathing critiques of antebellum life, such as her sarcastic suggestion that a whipping post be enshrined as a memorial for a slaveholder. The memorial would include "the SUITABLE inscription: To the memory of L. C. St. C. She thought one thing needful, she has it here" (17). Several of Carter's supposedly fictional pieces dramatize the dispersal of enslaved families, indicating how raw and recent these experiences were for herself and her audience. She balanced these painful stories with reports on the planning and staging of emancipation celebrations.
Despite Carter's belief that "the arena of political life is not woman's proper sphere" (27), she had an excellent grasp of regional politics and a firm opinion of national party platforms regarding education, immigration policies, and labor. When viewed in their entirety, her writings reveal an ambivalence regarding women's suffrage. In an 1868 article she asserted, "We want our husbands and brothers to have the right of ballot, and then they can see that we get our rights" (27). By 1873, she had altered her position, threatening, "If men do not [End Page 173] do better soon, I shall be in favor of women taking judicial positions . . . ; and if, ever I get upon me the judicial robe, I will make the lawyers tremble" (102).
Gardner observes that Carter's prose style recalls the jeremiads of abolitionist orator Maria Stewart, who often sternly addressed free black communities (xxiii–xxiv). Writing on school segregation policies, Carter urged fellow African Americans "to first divest [them]selves of prejudice in regard to color" before fighting widespread white racism (41). Acts of racial violence and social injustice, gossip, religious hypocrisy, and bad manners infuriated her. Her temperance vignettes "[warned] . . . parents in California to refrain from wine drinking or giving to children, for so surely the taste cultivated in childhood grows with years" (63). Was Carter involved...