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  • Elizabeth Keckley’s Behind the Scenes; or, the “Colored Historian’s” Resistance to the Technologies of Power in Postwar America
  • Carme Manuel (bio)

Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley, “an unabashed and often plainly self-congratulatory success story” (Andrews, “Changing” 234), encountered brutal hostility at its publication. The reasons for this were due mainly to the political events taking place in the country after Lincoln’s death. Mrs. Lincoln’s “Old Clothes Scandal” was just a distraction designed to convey unpalatable critiques of white America.1 But Keckley’s principal aim was to question white conceptions of American identity as defined in the Fourteenth Amendment. Thus, what Barbara Foley calls “the narrative illusion of historicity” (390) is exploited in Behind the Scenes for a variety of political ends. In fact, it was Mary Lincoln who, after reading the book, disparaged her former employee as “the colored historian.” As did many other significant female and male black writers who wished to explore the tribulations of both slavery and post-Civil War racism, Keckley chose what might be labeled a “his/herstorical discourse”—that is, a hybridized narration in which the gendered male/female self can be appraised only as a historical entity in order to engage in political action.2 There are three elements which made it possible for her to do so at the time of the composition of her text: her status as a free middle-class black woman before the war and her involvement during these years in liberatory black politics; the political optimism that early Reconstruction years encapsulated for blacks; and the new social approach to the rising power of the press and the visual media. Keckley depended on the potential of referentiality that written and visual media presented to expose both her version of her life and of American history from a radical, female, middle-class, and African American point of view.

It is crucial to note that Keckley was part of the black social elite that had developed in Washington and other large cities based, according to Leon Litwack, on “deeply rooted distinctions . . . of class, education, income, occupation, and acculturation to white society” (513).3 As a dressmaker in the South throughout the 1850s who had arrived in the capital in the early 1860s, Keckley fits into the group of free Negroes that Ira Berlin refers to when he explains that “the 1850s were also a time of unprecedented prosperity” (343). Keckley’s rise to notoriety is already embedded in the authorial information on the front page of her book: “Formerly a Slave, but More Recently Modiste, and Friend to Mrs. Lincoln.” Her self-presentation is balanced on two poles that are made to appear extreme: “slave” and “modiste and friend” to Lincoln’s widow. The French word she uses to describe her labor echoes the prestige that this profession had for Americans at the time. In a period where feminine fashion was ruled by publications such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and was reverential to prescriptions by French royalty, an African American woman’s being both a “modiste” and “friend to Mrs. Lincoln” meant to be on the top rungs of the black social and vocational ladder.4 In a way similar to that described by Clare H. Crowston, who discusses the emergence of the eighteenth-century couturière in France (3), it can be argued that Keckley emerged from the intersection of two distinct forces: first, from cultural conceptions of black femininity that cast needlework as an appropriate black female [End Page 25] trade and encouraged black women to work for white clients of their own sex; second, from gendered and raced divisions of labor in America that accepted black women in this type of work. Yet, as a black modiste, Keckley had an influence that was more crucial than the importance Crowston assigns to the figure of the seamstress in French culture. In a presentation of self as a professional mantuamaker with a workshop in Washington and a number of employees under her responsibility, this black woman stood both as a teacher and a surrogate mother to other black...


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