- Twentieth-Anniversary Reflections on Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746–1892 by Frances Smith Foster
Although I received a PhD from the University of Virginia, where I specialized in nineteenth-century American literature, back in the late 1980s those credentials didn’t require any particular knowledge of African American literature, and certainly not of any tradition of African American writing. At best, understanding African American literature meant knowing about a handful of books that could be fruitfully compared with the work of such major writers as Melville or Hawthorne—with, of course, the terms of the comparison inevitably being defined by the writers and tradition I knew. Thankfully, my students—all African American for a time, as I was involved in a recruitment program at Virginia—were only too happy to guide me toward an awareness of my ignorance. Because of them, I started on a self-determined program of reading that seemed to me more demanding than the PhD program I had just completed, particularly in that I’m still working on it today. Fortunately, I was blessed with excellent mentors, William Andrews and Francis Smith Foster, both of whom I had never met and would not meet or even communicate until much later in my career. But I read and studied their books carefully.
My education was advanced considerably a few years later when Foster published Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746–1892. Indeed, that book kept me busy for many years, in that it both provided me with a demanding reading list and challenged me to think about the tradition behind the list. Of course, it is Foster’s particular talent to present monumental challenges as calmly and unpretentiously as you please. “Not only did African American women appropriate the English language to record their truths,” she states in the book’s beginning pages, “but assuming prerogatives to its literary traditions, they consciously revised that tradition to more accurately conform to their truths and their visions” (2). That’s a sentence that will keep you up nights, I’ve found, especially when supported by Foster’s paradigmshifting study of African American women’s writings. How can you hope to read individual writers and texts without a strong sense of the tradition (which extends beyond literary productions and takes one into complicated historical and cultural realms)? But how can you come to an understanding of the tradition, except by reading writer after writer, text after text? Of course, one can simply take Foster’s word on both the tradition and the texts, but it seems to me that everything that Foster writes is written to foster debate, additional research, new discoveries, and alternate perspectives. You need to bring something to the table, not just come to it for ready truths. [End Page 118]
It would be difficult to identify the single most important revelation presented in Written by Herself, but it is eminently possible to talk about the book’s ethical imperative. As Foster notes in her acknowledgments and demonstrates in every chapter, when she approached this project, “critical discussion of early African American women writers was virtually non-existent” (ix). Reprinted texts, anthologies, bibliographies, encyclopedias, and the like—the resources that make the work we do possible—were virtually nonexistent (with a few notable exceptions) before Foster, Henry Louis Gates Jr., William Andrews, and others led the charge to research, organize, and publish such foundational work. And the critical discussion? Without Barbara Christian, Frances Smith Foster, Nellie McKay, and only a few others, where would we be? Written by Herself was not the last word on literary production by African American women from 1746 to 1892, and in fact Foster doesn’t deal in last words. It was a deeply thoughtful and detailed overview of a tradition that demands our attention, and Foster’s model for responding to those demands remains unsurpassed.
Beyond all else, Foster taught me the importance of staying up nights to grapple with my own ignorance, so...