- A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life by Eliza Potter, and: Speaking Lives, Authoring Texts: Three African American Women’s Oral Slave Narratives ed. by DoVeanna S. Fulton Minor and Reginald H. Pitts
African Americanists coming of academic age in the last thirty years have witnessed a period of literary recovery and critical production unsurpassed in its breadth and richness. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers and Richard Yarborough’s seminal Library of Black Literature series have helped to repopulate early African American literature, gender and cultural studies into fields that are now diverse and bustling areas of intellectual inquiry. The archival discoveries and scholarship of academics such as Frances [End Page 472] Smith Foster, Jean Fagan Yellin, Carla Peterson, Elizabeth McHenry, and Lois Brown have punctuated the phoenix-like rise of nineteenth-century black women’s literary culture as a field of study. This work has given wing to exciting new scholarship that sometimes flies in the crosswinds of received understandings of literacy, geography and reform that have, until recently, characterized nineteenth-century African American literary history.
The books reviewed here highlight texts and critical currents that challenge conventional understandings of antebellum African American women’s autobiography. They also represent some of the best of the editorial work that distinguishes the scholarship of the past several decades. Antebellum black autobiography has largely been associated with self-emancipated people who escaped the South and transformed themselves into authors and activists. For this reason, the texts reprinted in these two editions have puzzled the few students of antebellum race relations, black literature, and American slavery who have encountered them. Many of these works are set outside of the ideological and geographical borders that map conventional conceptualizations of the antebellum period; some are oral narratives that claim the agency, authority and authorship most often associated with literacy’s relationship to freedom. As such, these are life stories, to borrow from Nell Irvin Painter, that until now have rested uneasily alongside the corpus of American slave narratives and the critical paradigms that have emerged to interpret them (Painter vii).
The superb introductions and additional information these new editions provide promise to bring understudied texts—and the questions they pose—to the critical foreground. When grouped together with Painter’s edition of Sojourner Truth’s narratives and P. Gabrielle Foreman and Reginald Pitts’s edition of Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig, for example, these narratives form a substantial body of writing that, as Santamarina puts it, challenges “many of our ideas about nineteenth-century African American history and literature” (xi). Together, as Fulton claims, they highlight the “multiplicity of African American lives and experiences as well as the manifold rhetorical styles” black women employ (3). They can now be more productively paired, taught and studied with other lesser- and well-known texts, and will surely yield exciting new scholarship that addresses not only the narratives themselves but also the broader field-shifting questions they raise.
The author and subject of Eliza Potter’s A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life (1859) styles herself as a social/society critic and free entrepreneur. Both living outside of and challenging the North-South divide, she travels from Cincinnati overseas to France and Great Britain and also to the South to work. Potter’s narrative is part travel narrative, part gossip column. As in any mixed family, it finds itself claiming kin with folks—or in this case, genres—that resemble each other only if one looks closely. Her travel narrative might productively be read in concert with testimonies by and scholarship on peripatetic black sailors, nursemaids and preachers. Potter joins such figures as Martin Delany, William and Ellen Craft, Nancy Prince, William Wells Brown, Harriet Jacobs, Zilpha Elaw, and Sarah Remond in laying claim to transnational explorations...