- Maria W. Stewart’s “The First Stage of Life”:Black Girlhood in the Repository of Religion and Literature, and of Science and Art
“The First Stage of Life” (1861) is a six-page short story by Maria W. Stewart, African American woman writer, orator, and activist. It is serialized in three parts in the Repository of Religion and Literature, and of Science and Art in April, July, and October 1861.1 From 1858 to 1863, the Repository was a black magazine administered by black men and designed for black readers. It was based in Indianapolis, and in 1861 its chief editor was John Mifflin Brown.2 Published quarterly with each edition containing just over twenty bound pages of poems, parables, and essays, the magazine attracted black households with rising amounts of disposable income and leisure time. Today, the Repository is a non-circulating, non-digitized, rare black magazine on microfilm at the Indiana State Library with one extant issue housed in Harvard University’s Houghton Library.
Stewart’s serialized story about a black girl’s coming-of-age published in an early black magazine broadens the contributions African American women have made to nineteenth-century print culture, and her early emphasis on black girlhood invites further study on the methodologies, frameworks, and emerging trends that continue to shape the canon of early African American literature and print culture. This article explores what we gain by examining the intersection of black girlhood and black print culture studies. To define black girlhood, nineteenth-century African American women writers distinguish between youthful and knowing girlhood, a demarcation that is represented by a black girl’s age and offers rhetorical advantages for race activists. Identifying black girls as youthful and therefore childlike removes sexual suggestion from their bodies. The growth from youthful to prematurely knowing girlhood occurs when black girls gain a deepened awareness of their precarious positions and seek methods for their survival. To emphasize a black girl’s age as a textual marker recognizes that, similar to all women, black women in the antebellum period experience a youthful period and undergo distinct stages of growth and maturity into [End Page 150] womanhood. These stages of girlhood enable black women writing in the nineteenth century to record the specificity of black women’s actual, lived experiences during the period. “The First Stage of Life” expands methodological boundaries by contributing to the production, development, and vitality of African American children’s print culture. An analysis of black girlhood in the “The First Stage of Life” reveals an allegory for the isolation and hardships many African American women experienced in the pre-Civil War climate and the necessary steps they took to achieve civic inclusion.
Stewart’s short story about an orphaned black girl named Letitia serves to define community networks as vital for black women’s survival against the impact of laws passed during the pre-Civil War era. Letitia’s growth from abject to aware with the help of a worthy and nurturing black community allegorizes the personal effects of an increasingly hostile white culture on the everyday lives of African American women in the antebellum period. Stewart presents Letitia as a lonely black girl without the care of a nurturing mother figure, illustrating the hardships many African American families experienced when mothers who were free or enslaved laborers could not always be available to their children. Stewart also approximates in the story the experiences of African American women on the lecture circuit, including Stewart herself, who was an orator and activist in the 1830s and who navigated the public lecture circuit and faced hostile receptions.3 Although Letitia suffers throughout the story, community members help Letitia cultivate certain habits that teach her independence and discipline, and she emerges triumphant. “The First Stage of Life” joins nineteenth-century texts that feature black girls as main protagonists, such as the anonymously authored The Tawny Girl (1823), “Theresa—A Haytien Tale” (1828; signed by “S”), Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859), Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), and Frances E. W. Harper’s Trial and Triumph...