- Victoria Earle Matthews:Making Literature during the Woman’s Era
Among late-nineteenth-century African American women writers, Victoria Earle Matthews inhabits a curious role. As a late-nineteenth-century black woman who successfully combined literary, oratory, and performative skills to shape her political agenda, she epitomizes what Elizabeth McHenry calls a “literary activist” (190). Matthews proved to be an organizational talent for the significant late-nineteenth-century print platform The Woman’s Era, was integral to the founding of the National Association of Colored Women (nacw), and authored the influential essay “The Value of Race Literature” (1895). In 1897, Matthews and Maritcha Lyons co-founded the White Rose Mission Industrial Association, a New York City settlement house that offered black women and children domestic training and helped migrating African American women find shelter. Matthews became the mission’s first superintendent and remained its leader until her death in 1907. Historians and literary scholars tend to focus on Matthews’s prominent role within the sociopolitical scene of the Woman’s Era—the last decade of the nineteenth century, which saw an increased formation of black women’s clubs fostering the public voices of their members—and give her literary output only a ceremonial nod.1 Part of this neglect of her literary work has undoubtedly resulted from the archival problem of locating Matthews’s fictional work; only “Aunt Lindy: A Story Founded on Real Life” (1889), her most famous story, has remained readily accessible in print and online. Two others, “Eugenie’s Mistake: A Story” (1892) and “Zelika—A Story” (1892), were originally published in the A.M.E. Church Review and are reprinted for the first time in this issue of Legacy.2
My goals in this essay are twofold. First, I want to continue the recovery of this important African American activist by shedding light on her contributions as a fiction writer and by examining her fiction in relation to her political [End Page 103] work within the black clubwomen’s movement. More specifically, I take her work as both a fiction writer and literary theorist as a starting point to examine the role black women writers played in shaping the larger aesthetic debates surrounding the literary representation of minorities. In the white- and male-dominated print market of the late nineteenth century, discussions about aesthetic value in literature often focused on genre. These arguments frequently presented themselves as ideological battles that lauded realism as progressive while deeming sentimentalism old-fashioned, and they turned deeply gendered and racialized after the Civil War.3 Read alongside each other, Matthews’s short story “Aunt Lindy” and her acclaimed essay “The Value of Race Literature” reveal the intersections of aesthetic and political vision that many African American women writers shared.
Second, I argue that Matthews’s short stories reveal tensions within the educated black community, especially the color politics that affected the black clubwomen’s movement and the fiction of this era. The female protagonists in “Aunt Lindy,” “Eugenie’s Mistake,” and “Zelika” are exemplary characters who embody the conflicts of colorism from both sides of this intraracial color line. Matthews’s deployment of these characters goes beyond conventional literary types such as the tragic mulatta and the dark-skinned folk of the enslaved past. While these types remain useful generic categories for describing different African American female depictions in such narratives, the ongoing recovery of texts by and about black women as well as scholarly contributions in the last two decades have challenged the cultural and literary pervasiveness of these tropes. Critical attention to the nuances of black female subjectivity and its representations points to the field’s dynamic re- and en-visioning of old and new frameworks. Such readings, represented, for example, in the 2007 Legacy special issue “Racial Identity, Indeterminacy, and Identification in the Nineteenth Century,” offer analyses that illuminate the complexity of nineteenth-century black women’s identities.4 It is in this vein, I suggest, that we pay attention to Matthews’s fiction. Her stories reveal a more fluid perspective on the politics of color and the construction of the ideal race woman that enables a more complex, multivalent approach to Woman’s Era...