- Jennie Carter: A Black Journalist of the Early West
Jennie Carter: A Black Journalist of the Early West is the first collection of the extant contributions of Jennie Carter, a journalist of Mud Hill City, California, to the San Francisco Elevator between 1867 and 1874. In his introduction, Eric Gardner places Carter in dialogue with the nineteenth-century writers, Maria W. Stewart, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and the nineteenth-century women "periodical writers and editors studied in, for example, Rooks's Ladies Pages: African American Women's Magazine and the Culture that Made Them" (xxvi). While making space for Carter within these respective traditions, Gardner argues that she is distinct in her geographic location in the West. To begin the process of placing Carter's work within the West, he contends that we must first recognize "that there was a black literary West, one that reached back well into the nineteenth century, and one that most scholars have ignored" (xxvi).
Even with the relatively recent increase in scholarship being produced on literatures of the West and the black West by scholars such as Noreen Groover Lape and Blake Allmendinger, our understandings of the West, Gardner argues, have at best been limited. In his view, these studies largely "ignore black periodicals, place the "beginnings" of a black literary West much later than they should, focus heavily on men, and sometimes echo the limited sense of the black West as a place of cowboys [End Page 513] and Buffalo soldiers only" (xxviii). Gardner's rediscovery of Jennie Carter's works not only reveals the complexity of the black literary West, but also the limitations of regional- and gender-biased interpretations of African American existence in nineteenth-century America.
According to Gardner, Jennie Carter's writing career began after her husband Dennis Carter, a successful musician, introduced her works to Phillip A. Bell, the editor of the San Francisco Elevator. In her seven-year career with the periodical, Carter published short stories, poems, and essays. The genre of her works is neither wholly fiction nor wholly nonfiction; rather it shares with Harper a distinct weaving of the two. In the writings included in Gardner's volume, Carter assumes the name "Ann J. Trask" and signs her works with "Semper Fidelis." Gardner suggests that she used pseudonyms in order to hide her true identity. This idea is plausible but it is also likely that by assuming the identity of "Mrs. Trask," an older woman, the younger Jennie Carter was afforded more authority in her writings with her audience. That audience began as just "children and grandchildren," however, as Carter acknowledges by the end of her August 16, 1867 article titled "Mistakes": "I commenced writing for the children, and have wound up writing for everybody" (5).
In writing to everybody, "Mrs. Trask" speaks as an elder whose life experiences enable her to talk within and outside of the bounds of the locally specific California context in which she writes, and the domestic, private spheres in which she situates herself as a wife and a mother. The domestic in this reading, as Gardner rightfully suggests, views the work at home as being "directly tied to the work of making a community and a nation" (xvi). This understanding of the domestic can be found in her letter published on January 30, 1868, where she argues that, "A mother's influence at home, in private, and often though she labors in suffering, is great, and the world is better far than if she were lecturing on politics, or taking man's position in society" (23). Such a reading of the private and domestic spheres makes her most distinct from her contemporary Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Carter, as seen in her stated position in this letter, was against the entrance of women into what she deems the masculinized public spaces of politics; however, she resists reading the private sphere or the domestic as being apolitical.
While appearing to be rooted within the "feminized" spheres of the private and domestic, through her writings, Carter persistently...