- Creating a Living Historiography:Tracing the Outlines of Philadelphia's Antebellum African American Women and Mapping Memory onto the Body
In 1865 Sarah Gudger left her master's farm in North Carolina to begin life as a free black woman. "Aunt Sarah," as she was called locally, had seen fifty years of slavery and watched from her porch in Asheville as America transformed into an emancipated nation. In 1937, at what she claimed was the age of 121, Gudger recounted her slave experience for the Federal Writer's Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).1 Her riveting narrative, in which the WPA transcriber attempts to capture her southern dialect in detailed phonetic spellings, is replete with descriptions of nightmarish conditions, cruel masters, violent lashings, and watching her mother be taken away. Gudger assures the interviewer, "Law, chile, nobuddy knows how mean da'kies wah treated."2
Sarah Gudger's WPA slave narrative, available online from the Library of Congress, is a part of the most concrete and widely accessible evidence attesting to black women's lives in America before Emancipation. However, while the WPA records and other [End Page 420] published slave narratives contribute a crucial part of American history, their compelling content and distinctively broken dialect can also serve to limit the modern American characterization of black women before 1863. In addition to these first-person accounts, persistent "Mammy" and "pickaninny" stereotypes that dominate popular culture's engagement with the period reinforce the notion that before the end of the Civil War black women in America were one monolithic enslaved, uneducated, and passive group.
The reality is that black women, from colonial times through the early nineteenth century, found ways to make bold choices within the confines of their situations at a time when much of society questioned whether they had the intelligence to even understand their circumstances. There are few biographies of these courageous women because, in contrast to their male counterparts, their actions were often personal and their audience was usually private. Their choices were subtle, but their impact was substantial and sustained. For each Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth, there are hundreds of other women who actively pursued social change and remain undocumented because evidence of their contributions and sometimes even their existence has been lost, ignored, or, worse, purposefully erased. Scholars and artists must begin to piece together the scraps of evidence that remain in order to revitalize their stories and fully recognize the foundational ways in which black women have shaped the American experience from its very beginning.
The scholar and the artist often face similar dilemmas when conjuring the voices of the past—particularly when those voices have been deliberately erased or marginalized in traditional historical narratives. And yet both scholars and artists may also share a common goal: to allow those oppressed voices to speak again and to invite contemporary audiences—whether readers or spectators—to imagine the experiences and understand the lives of a long-silenced community. Recapturing the lives of seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and early nineteenth-century African American women presents a particular challenge for both the historian and the theater artist. The traces that remain of their stories are often buried deep in records left by others. Scattered remnants and hints endure, tantalizing the modern researcher. John Ernest has described the process of reinscribing lost tales of African American history over familiar narratives as a kind of "performative historiography."3
The medium of performance offers a unique means to access, embody, and recuperate these lost histories. My current project, titled I Will Speak for Myself: Emancipating African American Women's Lives from Before Slavery and Beyond, works to unveil, document, and vivify long-forgotten early American [End Page 421] black women by blending historical research with performance in what I call a "living historiography." This project began as a series of monologues titled (Dis)Embodied Voices, which were partially inspired by early American scholar Odai Johnson's continued examination of issues of evidentiary absence when pursuing historical reconstruction. Johnson explored a similar lacuna of evidence when reconstructing Colonial Williamsburg's playhouse from nothing more than several postholes left in the dirt over two centuries ago...