- Reading Race through U.S. Women's Biographies
The understudied and underappreciated lives of Harriet Scott, Mary Chesnut, Sojourner Truth, Pauline Hopkins, and Beatrice Morrow Cannady provide rich details of their attempts to transform the nation and the eras in which they lived. Truth, Hopkins, and Cannady became reformers, pushing for full social and legal equality without distinctions based on race or gender. Whereas Truth used her voice and her body to call for change—for instance, by leading formerly enslaved refugees from the District of Columbia to safer homes in northern and western states after the Civil War—Hopkins and Cannady used their pens to advocate social and political equality for all. Harriet Scott arguably led a more private life, taking action in a more immediate way to ensure the freedom of herself and her daughters. Even after Dred and Harriet Scott became prominent because of their suits for their freedom, Harriet did not become a public abolitionist who spoke to the press or addressed local black church audiences or other reform communities. Yet Scott's action had great political [End Page 164] and legal consequences; the U.S. Supreme Court's 1857 decision made the unfree status of African Americans clear. The country's divisions over slavery and states' rights also affected the lives of white women, such as Mary Chesnut, a white slave mistress whose class- and race-based privileges were threatened by the disruptions of the Civil War.
These biographies highlight the difficulties involved in documenting the lives of women. In particular, enslaved black women rarely left direct firsthand accounts of their own experiences or ideas. It is therefore interesting that the best two biographies of those reviewed here are about illiterate enslaved women. In their biographies of Harriet Scott and Sojourner Truth, Lea VanderVelde and Margaret Washington knew that they did not have treasure troves of archival collections. Perhaps this motivated them to more creatively paint evocative descriptions of the era and place in which each woman lived and worked. Of the five biographers, VanderVelde overcame the greatest paucity of sources about her subject. In spite of this, she managed to create a compelling picture of how Scott likely thought and felt based on entirely circumstantial evidence.
VanderVelde's fascinating book, Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier, captures the environments in which Harriet Scott lived her life and filed her suit for freedom in 1846 (it took eleven years before the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Scotts's legal case). VanderVelde had no choice but to write an unconventional biography: Harriet Scott was illiterate and left no written records of her own, although her name and a very brief outline of her history did appear in the court documents. Harriet contended she was free because she had lived for several years in Wisconsin territory and because her master, the local Indian Agent, had performed a marriage ceremony for Harriet and Dred Scott and allowed her to move in with him, leading her to believe she had been freed. In addition to these court documents, VanderVelde unearthed one newspaper article that quoted Harriet Scott directly. These are virtually the only direct accounts of Harriet Scott that VanderVelde had to work with.
It is impossible...