- A Voice beyond the South:Resituating the Locus of Cultural Representation in the Later Writings of Anna Julia Cooper
In the century since her best-known and often quoted work A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South was published in 1892 when Anna Julia Cooper was only thirty-four years old, it has been all too easy to mythologize her as a lone, quaint figure relegated to the 1890s American South. Valorized as a founding mother of black feminist thought or dismissed for her ostensibly middle-class Victorian values and Christian moral code, it has been much more difficult to recover the nuances and complexities of a woman whose career spanned three generations. After A Voice from the South, Cooper's national and international career as a writer, scholar, educator and activist continued for another six decades. She produced several essays and articles, she translated Charlemagne's Pilgrimage so that a new generation of U. S. students could study this classic French text, she penned her memoir, The Early Years in Washington: Reminiscences of Life with the Grimkés, and she completed her dissertation, L'Attitude de la France à l'égard de l'esclavage pendant la Révolution (France's Attitude toward Slavery during the Revolution), a work which rivals A Voice in its scope and insistence on reconstructing a history that places the voices of the colonized at the center and not the margins of colonial and anti-colonial discourse.
In this article I examine two of Cooper's later essays in which issues of voice and cultural representation are central themes. Her essay "The Negro's Dialect," written in the 1930s, utilizes a practical linguistics approach to expose the politics of cultural representation, while "Sketches from a Teacher's Notebook," written circa 1923, interrogates both the theory and praxis of giving voice to the voiceless. By evaluating the challenges and possibilities of expanded cultural representation for African Americans and by offering a more nuanced examination of the politics of voice, both essays update and/or revise critical models launched in Cooper's earlier writings.
In "The Negro's Dialect" Cooper offers a sophisticated examination of the interplay between the production of cultural images of African Americans and the perpetuation of racialized domination, analyzing what Ralph Ellison would later refer to as "the endless sacrificial rites of moral evasion" in which constructions of blackness in American popular culture are part of the framework used to conceal the discrepancy between the professed ideals and the practiced realities of American democracy ("Perspectives" 778). For Cooper, the production of dominant cultural images of African Americans worked to conceal blacks' humanity and diversity while contributing to an essentialized and hierarchal notion of African American difference. In the essay Cooper critiques the role of the popular press in constructing and reinforcing stereotypical images of African Americans, focusing specifically on misrepresentations of what were supposedly African American linguistic practices. Her analysis suggests that the implied deficiencies in African American linguistic practices were presented by the dominant press as a metonymy for a general lack of genuine civility on the part of African Americans. She then asserts that the press reports and dominant popular cultural images of African Americans not only buttressed the social and political status quo, but also were economically lucrative. [End Page 57] Additionally, her cultural critique lays the groundwork for later intersectional analyses of gender, class and economics in relation to the politics of race, rights and cultural representations.
Cooper begins "The Negro's Dialect" by recalling an anecdote regarding Paul Robeson's performance in Othello, a "story" she notes "that has gone the rounds in the press" (238). According to reporters and critics, Robeson, while performing the height of Othello's "sublime fury," slips into his "Southern dialect," demanding, "Where am dat handkerchief, Desdemona?" In stating that there's nothing like "a bit of local color" to create interest on "this side of the Atlantic, where a black man is not true black unless he says 'am dat,'" Cooper begins her critique of the "am dat" construction, exposing the process through which supposedly African American characters are constructed on the stage and...