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  • Fixating on and Fixing the African American Woman's Representation of Self in Modern Periodicals
  • Lourdes Arciniega

A free race cannot be born of slave mothers. A woman enchained cannot choose but give a measure of bondage to her sons and daughters. No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.

—Margaret Sanger, The Birth Control Review

Margaret Sanger, founder of the first birth control clinics in the United States, published The Birth Control Review, a journal that ran from February 1917 to January 1940, specifically to challenge the Comstock Law, a federal act governing the "Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use," in effect since 1873 (Jütte; Kranz), which prohibited the dissemination of birth control information. Sanger had to word her content in a legally ambiguous manner to avoid censorship; thus, her writing straddled a fine line between calling attention to the need for birth control education and avoiding giving direct information on contraceptive devices. From the very first issue of The Birth Control Review, which bore the headline "Shall We Break this Law?", Sanger was forthright in her journal's mission as a powerful forum for reproductive rights activism. The "We" in Sanger's headline called everyone, regardless of gender or race, to participate in the struggle for access to universal birth control education. Thus, in 1919, she edited a special "Negro" issue of The Birth Control Review to address reproductive politics in the context of the African American population.1 Sanger's periodical featured two reproductive-rights texts by African American women playwrights: the drama They That Sit in Darkness by Mary P. Burrill and the short story The Closing Door by Angelina Grimké.

This article explores how the African American voices in this issue of The Birth Control Review were carefully chosen by Sanger to promote her own ideology, and not necessarily to further African American interests. Yet, when these African [End Page 231] American playwrights wrote dramas and stories for Sanger's Birth Control Review, they re-created and reinstated the neglected African American woman and mother on stage and set up African American maternity as a controversial site from which to debate reproductive rights and women's rights in general. More importantly, publishing these dramas in Sanger's periodical gave these two women playwrights an opportunity to access and define a ground-breaking public and cultural space more attuned to African American women's voices. As a result of her publication in Sanger's journal, aspiring and unknown playwright Burrill found a multicultural audience for her present and future work. Grimké's short story became the precursor for her canonical play Rachel (1920), the first drama written by an African American woman playwright to enjoy a commercial production. By addressing reproductive rights for Sanger's periodical, these African American playwrights embarked on a journey of artistic transformation that would later bring them theatrical recognition.

Burrill and Grimké were part of a rising Little Theatre Movement2 of "resistant" playwrights, to borrow a term that Jill Dolan applies to feminist critics. Dolan argues that resistant readers analyze "a performance's meaning by reading against the grain of stereotypes and resisting the manipulation of both the performance text and the cultural text that it helps to shape" (Spectator as Critic 2). Defying the pressure to tailor their reproductive-rights narratives to the expectations of Sanger's mostly white audience, Burrill and Grimké created innovative African American women's drama that left a theatrical imprint for other contemporary playwrights to follow.3

Writing on the link between drama and periodicals, Susan Smith contends that periodicals were an "important site of public deliberation, contestation and intellectual circulation, at once interlocking and in tension" (xi). Furthermore, she states that drama was a "powerful agent in the attempt to establish and sustain difference and distance between the middle and the lower classes and between the Anglo-Saxon and the various 'Others'" (xv). Documenting and disseminating racial and social anxiety, periodicals were reflections of the continuous struggles for...


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