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  • Love and Marriage in Early African America
  • Cedric Gael Bryant
Frances Smith Foster . Love and Marriage in Early African America. Boston Northeastern UP, 2007. 360 pp. $22.95.

The pernicious logic of the "peculiar" institution of slavery concerning love and enduring affections of any intimate or familial kind among black people was that such emotions were primitive, ephemeral, or altogether nonexistent. This was the confident view Thomas Jefferson expressed in "Query XIV" of Notes on the State of Virginia: "[Blacks] are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them." These reflections on emotionality and the black body did not originate with Jefferson, but were, by 1787, the year Jefferson published the Notes, already a prevalent part of the ideological construction of Africans in antebellum America. Over the next hundred years, this seemingly immutable racial logic would be contested by abolitionist movements on both sides of the Atlantic, a civil war, the postbellum Reconstruction period, and another hundred years of hard-won Constitutional and civil rights. However, because "contested" doesn't mean "vanquished," it has perhaps taken this long to produce an edited anthology of eclectic verse, short fiction, and creative nonfiction (letters, memoirs, diaries) that documents a literary tradition that was there, all the time, waiting to be read.

Frances Smith Foster's Love and Marriage in Early African America is a stunning reply to the pre-modern discourse concerning race and the emotive black body. Foster's anthology historically stretches from the earliest known written expressions of intimate feelings about love and marriage, as well as courtship, by "anonymous" African American writers to the letter titled "Rebecca Primus to Parents and Sisters," which is dated "Feb. 8, 1867, Fri. 11 a. m." and published in 1976. However, range of expressive [End Page 508] form and diversity of audience, rather than an emphasis on chronology, was the editorial goal: a book that works "for many kinds of people with many kinds of intents and purposes," Foster stresses. The anthology is divided into five sections, each of which is subdivided by selections based on genre: "lyrics, letters, memoirs, stories, newspaper articles, etc." This arrangement makes it possible to experience the material in different ways: historically by genre; by genre ahistorically; historically by author; ahistorically by author; and, any combination thereof. The result is a unique edition "with many kinds of intents and purposes."

It is also an anthology that runs joyously through the emotional scales, striking every feeling and attitude from the first, "anonymous," selection in the book, the prototypically bluesy "What's You Lookin' At Me Fer?" ("I'se got milk up in my bucket, / I'se got butter up in my bowl; / But I hain't got no Sweetheart / Fer to save my soul"), to the admonitory advice from the Christian Recorder about "'How to Avoid a Bad Husband': 'Never on any account marry a gambler or a profane person, one who in the least speaks lightly of God or religion. Such a man can never make a good husband.'" From the perhaps surprising poetic evidence that Phillis Wheatley "did have a love life," to Paul Laurence Dunbar's passionate poems of "lowly life," to the racial uplift verse and fiction of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Pauline Hopkins, to the letters and "Autobiographical Accounts" of slavery, resistance, freedom, and loss, Love and Marriage in Early African America is a trove of all-but-forgotten and canonical writings about how, to paraphrase Toni Morrison, black people remained whole in a world that wanted them in pieces.

The ties that bind so lovingly in this anthology, "'til death us do part," are expressions not only of love and marriage, but also of sisterly respect and affection. Foster's introduction "By Way of an Open Letter to My Sister" breaks free of constraining, conventional forms of "address" and creates circles of addressees, the most intimate and important one in various ways...


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pp. 508-509
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