- Black Women in New South Literature and Culture
Analyses of gender, including the core topics of masculinity and femininity, have expanded exponentially in recent years in Southern studies, a field that is fundamentally interdisciplinary and now increasingly global in orientation. Sherita L. Johnson's Black Women in New South Literature and Culture emphasizes the typically obscured and seldom mentioned impact of region on black women such as Frances E. W. Harper and Anna Julia Cooper, as well as on literary characters in fiction by Charles Chesnutt and white author George Washington Cable. Johnson's study intervenes by illustrating that such figures were typically marginalized to prioritize "race men" notwithstanding black women's pioneering contributions to dialogues on race. She succeeds at remedying the blind spots by foregrounding Southernness as a lens in studying these women, discussing selected Northern and Southern, black and white women's life stories published in the radical weekly magazine, the Independent, and analyzing strategies of black women's character development in several key fictions of late nineteenth-century regionalism.
Johnson's introduction begins by underscoring the impact of Southernness on figures such as Anna Julia Cooper. More broadly, she argues that black women as a [End Page 176] category, while obscured, are indispensable for examining the fundamental meanings of "the South" and "Southernness." In this study's first pages, Johnson reveals that she has "chosen to look at the black woman as both trope and social actor in the various texts that comprise the South, which in turn lets [her] carefully take apart ideas of 'really belonging' and of exile, and of the right sort of bodies" (6). This approach, along with her seamless analytical navigation across texts in literature and culture situated in a range of genres such as essays, poems, novels, speeches and autobiographies, is the basis of an effective methodology.
The first chapter emphasizes the difference that literal traveling in the U. S. South made in Harper's life and resituates her as a Southern writer, demonstrating the centrality of region in shaping her identity in such regard as race, class, gender, and sexuality. Here, Johnson's comparative look at the formative educational experiences of Harper and another native Marylander, Frederick Douglass, and her examination of their similar ambivalences about the South, significantly advance comparative study of black men and women not only in slavery but also in the postbellum era. Johnson probes Harper's extensive repertoire of letters, mainly composed of exchanges with William Still, to consider the hybridity of her Northern and Southern positions and her ambivalence about the latter. Furthermore, Johnson's study emphasizes the importance of explicitly situating Harper as a Southern writer to complicate her conventional assessments in African American literary history, including the history of black women's literature. As Johnson acknowledges in her footnotes, her identification of Harper as a Southern writer runs counter to Harper's typical classification as a Northern woman.
In her analysis of Iola Leroy (1892), long thought to be the first novel published by a black woman, Johnson illustrates how Harper's construction of the title character opens the door to the emergence of a new South, unsettling the racialist logic that typically excluded blackness from the white-centered notions of Southern identity that prevailed in the late nineteenth century. It is not mentioned but is worth noting as well that Harriet Wilson's Northern-set Our Nig (1859), the novella that eventually displaced Harper's signature work as the first novel published by a black woman, also recognizes the U. S. South's shaping influence on the nation's consciousness of race. Black women writers such as Harper are not often examined in relation to the thriving regionalism that emerged during the final years of the nineteenth century. It is therefore quite significant that Johnson's analysis, in foregrounding the Southern contours of Harper's writing, helps to reclaim them from the margins of this movement.
Valerie Smith, among other scholars of African American literary theory, has highlighted the utility of an approach that juxtaposes texts by...