- Discovering the Woman in the Text:Early African American Print, Gender Studies, and the Twenty-First-Century Classroom
In 2011, I ran into a former student who had taken part in a course I taught in 2008 titled “Rediscovered: African American Women Writers and the Trajectory of a Tradition.” She had since graduated and was, at the time, a second-or third-year law student. The course she took with me pushed students to rediscover elements revealing the often under-examined, the forgotten, and the overshadowed imprint of nineteenth-century black women’s lives and activism on the private and public dimensions of their local communities and the national landscape. Many students grumbled that semester, and one may have even cried, as I asked them to forage through the vast expanse of letters to the editor, original contributions, and a seemingly endless array of ephemera about social, political, and domestic subjects to find the threads from which to fashion their own arguments about black women’s lives within a larger historical trajectory. The student I reencountered was one of the main objectors, yet several years later she dropped by my office to tell me how that impossible and daunting archival research assignment had opened her eyes to ongoing systems of power and domination and their relationship to the past. More importantly, she reflected deeply on the array of women she encountered in the journal Woman’s Era, who dared to declare themselves an “army of organized women” whose mission it was to “make the world better” (Ruffin 14). These women, she noted, inspired her to view both the systemic problems in her environment and her role in transforming them differently. For me, this student’s story epitomizes the value of teaching from and researching in the early archival materials, as it reminds us of how transformative such encounters can be.
My own interest in teaching this course was sparked by two then recently published pieces: Frances Smith Foster’s “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Theresa?” and Phillis Wheatley’s originally unpublished poem “Oceans.” During the first two weeks, I introduced students to these two texts along with other primary and secondary source materials. I selected Foster’s article because her questions about what we can know or prove when doing this kind of research [End Page 8] brought to the forefront the challenges, frustrations, limitations, and rewards of working with early African American print. Published serially in Freedom’s Journal in 1828, “Theresa,—A Haytien Tale” was both progressive and puzzling in terms of its heroic female character and its anonymous authorship. As Foster observes, the text “complicate[s] our current ideas about genre, gender, race, religion, and universality in early African America” (637). Likewise, the discovery of “Oceans” in 1998 breathed new life into Wheatley scholarship, raising new, challenging questions about the first black female poet whose biography and poesy continue to resist definitive readings. I started with these texts so that students could experience how the litany of unanswered questions pays homage to the ways the early African American archive continues to resist and demand further inquiry. I asked students to engage with, rather than flee from, the gaps, omissions, silences, and erasures that encourage further exploration into the materiality of black women’s experiences in early America.
At the same time, I worked to get students to see the continuity existing between the past and the present. For the first half of the semester, they read contemporary African American women’s historical fiction, feminist and race scholarship, and current news stories about black women’s lives, writings, and activism. In migrating backwards from the contemporary to the historical source materials, they were being invited to discover for themselves a trajectory from those early women’s writings to the modern writers still fashioning the written word to give themselves and their myriad concerns public visibility. I encouraged students to immerse themselves in the original source materials so that they might reanimate the lived experience of a neglected or forgotten writer or prevailing social concern. More specifically, I asked them to consider the challenges involved in negotiating the demands of gender, nationalist, and racial...