- Activist Sentiments: Reading Black Women in the Nineteenth Century
P. Gabrielle Foreman’s Activist Sentiments: Reading Black Women in the Nineteenth Century is a combination of literary criticism and cultural history. Deeply rooted in archival research, Foreman’s book focuses primarily on five authors—Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Wilson, Frances E. W. Harper, Emma Dunham Kelly-Hawkins, and Amelia E. Johnson—to both examine nineteenth-century practices of reading and analyze the intersections between African American women’s authorship and activism.
Comprised of an introduction, a coda, and five main chapters corresponding to each of these authors, Foreman’s book puts pressure on the act and fact of “reading,” [End Page 319] interrogating not only “African American women’s literary production, reception, and consumption” (2) in general but also the specific ways in which black women’s texts were understood by different historical audiences. In turn, Foreman argues for present-day readings that call attention to these texts’ “simultextuality.” Rather than maintaining that reformist messages rested on a foundation of coded, or subtextual discourse, Foreman’s stress on simultextual modes of interpretation argues that multiple meanings were immediately present on the surface level to “culturally and historically literate readers” in the nineteenth century (6). By emphasizing simultextual readings, Foreman illuminates the multivalence of the texts under discussion, showing the ways in which they drew on formulas of sentimental expression while offering resistant and reformist significance as “hidden in plain sight” (7). Furthermore, Foreman argues that her chosen authors grounded their texts in “histotextuality,” relying on their audience’s knowledge of specific historical events. Activist Sentiments offers readings that necessarily proceed against the grain. They jolt us out of the complacent rhetorics that have come to shape our understanding of now-canonical black books including Our Nig, Incidents on the Life of a Slave Girl, and Iola Leroy.
Foreman’s use of simultextuality is most clearly demonstrated in her close and astute reading of Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In this chapter, Foreman argues that Jacobs offers her audience guidelines for a simultextual reading that would allow them to perceive how the fictional Linda Brent triumphs over Dr. Flint while the actual Harriet Jacobs is raped and possibly impregnated by Dr. Norcum. Foreman’s interpretation is provocative and compellingly presented, establishing what many scholars may have long wished to suggest. Foreman’s simultextual reading of the two narrative possibilities challenges the presumption that while nineteenth-century black males challenge and resist the idea of “truth,” black women’s texts of the same period tell and embody only one truth. For its part, Foreman’s research on Molly Horniblow, fictionalized in Incidents as “the good grandmother” Aunt Martha, complicates Jacobs’s representation of this character as the epitome of true womanhood. Foreman’s simultextual approach unveils a grandmother who both shields Linda Brent from Dr. Flint’s advances and condemns any effort on Linda’s part to run for freedom and return for her children. Foreman here poses questions about the complexity of the good grandmother’s own sexual history and unsympathetic response to Linda’s dilemma about which scholars have remained largely silent. Activist Sentiments will thus reorient our discussion of Incidents in a positive direction.
This said, the effects of Foreman’s linkage in each chapter of fictionalized characters with their historical counterparts meets with varied results. The analogous relationship between character and historical counterpart is at times argued too stridently. Foreman’s simultextual readings of Harriet Wilson and Frances E. W. Harper are not as successful as her reading of Jacobs. Moreover, the chapter on Jacobs’s Incidents confusingly precedes the chapter on Wilson’s Our Nig without explicit reasoning for the violation of chronology. Foreman’s analysis of Jacobs bleeds into her chapter on Wilson, and is frequently used to explain discursive moves in Wilson’s text such that Jacobs’s 1861 book appears to foretell its 1859 predecessor.
Foreman’s chapter on Wilson’s Our Nig demonstrates the influence of Defoe’s Pamela on Frado’s...