- Courting Communities: Black Female Nationalism and "Syncre-Nationalism" in the Nineteenth-Century North
How might one locate black women in the nineteenth century? More broadly, what does it mean to talk of a black community in the nineteenth-century United States—or beyond, in Canada or England? These are questions to which Kathy L. Glass devotes herself in her important study, Courting Communities: Black Female Nationalism and "Syncre-Nationalism" in the Nineteenth-Century North. Glass begins by noting that "black women activists participating in racial uplift projects during the nineteenth century troubled the boundaries of race, space, nation and time, creating new cognitive mappings of community" (1), but her project explores as well the ways in which black women activists were themselves troubled by the boundaries of race, space, nation and time. The creation of "new cognitive mappings of community," accordingly, was less an innovation than a fundamental necessity; it required various attempts to locate black women's experience and agency when all the other maps proved either pointedly misleading or otherwise inaccurate and counterproductive. Noting that the black female activists featured in this study "acted from an accumulation of 'situated knowledge' which forced them to see the world differently," Glass locates them in what she calls "syncre-nationalism," by which she means "a form of community building that operates both within and beyond the boundaries of the nation-state" (1). "Syncrenations," she explains, "function as experimental spaces where traditional cultural and social divisions are transgressed, where people from different races, genders, religions, and cultures find common ground" (1)—an imagined community, in short, nowhere to be found as a settled fact but still manifest in the scattered visions and activist lives that found self-definition by transgressing the usual ideological, juridical, and social boundaries of both white and black nationalism. A syncrenation, one might say, is a state of becoming, a collective of commitments and activities that reveal a community not yet known, even to itself.
Glass divides her study into five primary chapters, each devoted to an important activist: Sojourner Truth, Maria Stewart, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Anna Julia Cooper, and Frances E. W. Harper. Like many other scholars, Glass owes a great debt (which she acknowledges) to the foundational work of Frances Smith Foster's Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746-1892 (1993), and to Carla L. Peterson's "Doers of the Word": African-American Women Speakers & Writers in the North (1830-1880) (1995). The work of Foster and Peterson—along with the important [End Page 197] historical and biographical work guided by Darlene Clark Hine and the essential textual recovery projects led by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—has done much to map out the contours of nineteenth-century black women's intellectual, cultural, and literary history. But while the lives and work of a number of black women have received scholarly attention over the past few decades, recent publications indicate that the activists Glass examines—Truth, Stewart, Shadd Cary, Cooper, Harper—along with Ida B. Wells and only a very few others, are taking their place as the great women of this developing historical narrative.
Great women, of course, like great men, make for problematic historical narratives, but one of the great strengths of Courting Communities is that Glass does not attempt to offer a singular, neatly coherent, or linear historical narrative. She is as interested in differences, ruptures, and departures as she is in constructing a stable framework for understanding nineteenth-century black women's activism. "Unable to ground themselves in any single pre-existing community of resistance," she notes, these women "took on the difficult and demanding work of 'courting communities,' of calling collectives into existence through diverse forms of subversive spiritual, political and cultural work" (1). These are women with "nationalist tendencies" who either could not find themselves or simply did not fit into "either the black or official nationalist traditions" (4), women who "worked both within and against the assumptions of republican motherhood" (6), women who actively promoted "unstable constructions...