- Hidden in Plain SightUncovering the Career of Lucretia Howe Newman Coleman
In 1893, Monroe Majors, author of Noted Negro Women: Their Triumphs and Activities, characterized the writings of Lucretia Howe Newman Coleman as “spicy,” adding: “Her poetic effusions reach such a depth of thought and meaning which at once establishes her claim to the title which critics have been liberal in bestowing” (197–98). In The Afro-American Press and Its Editors, Irvine Garland Penn wrote of Coleman, “As a poetic writer, there is possibly no female Afro-American of her age that can surpass her” (385). Charles Spencer Smith called her a “famous colored authoress” (“New Descriptive”); Reverend William J. Simmons of The American Baptist thought Coleman had the potential to rival—if not surpass—Harriet Beecher Stowe (qtd. in Penn 385). Yet despite her inclusion in numerous accounts of prominent female African American writers published in her lifetime, Coleman has, for the most part, been absent from broader contemporary considerations of late-nineteenth-century African American women’s literature. Scholars have treated her “life and career” as if they were entirely “undocumented” (Nelson 124), and to a degree they are right: reflecting the vagaries of print culture and preservation, the majority of Coleman’s writing has been lost, as has at least one sketch about her by a colleague.1 Only a few of her short pieces and her novelized biography of the African Methodist Episcopal bishop Benjamin W. Arnett, Poor Ben: A Story of Real Life (1890), survive. To date, contemporary acknowledgments of Coleman cite Poor Ben and a single, misdated lost poem as the only known examples of her work.
In the absence of a substantial corpus, no effort has been made to excavate her career as an author. However, Coleman and her literary activities can be traced, even if some of her actual productions might be irretrievable. Mapping Coleman’s life and career facilitates a consideration of one of the era’s female [End Page 227] African American journalists and provides insight into a variety of factors African American women writers might have negotiated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including marriage, family, gendered and racialized opportunities, and the market—the same factors that influenced her apparent disappearance from the pages of the black press. Likewise, Coleman’s occupational story draws attention to the ways that currents in African American life shaped opportunities for female authors, particularly the religious press and club work, while also directing their energies to family and community in a way that hindered their careers more broadly. And like many other historic women writers, Coleman was subsumed under male authors and editors who both facilitated her career and may have taken credit for her work. A better understanding of Coleman’s experience thus also has the potential to contextualize further and therefore enrich the study of those whom critics most frequently consider, including Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins, Amelia Etta Hall Johnson, and others, broadening our understanding of African American literary culture in the era. Coleman’s absence from current academic accounts highlights how gendered expectations and limitations negatively affect the literary reputations of nineteenth-century women writers—today as well as in their own time.
At the same time that Coleman’s writing itself has gone unacknowledged, so too has the relationship of that work to her community; composed of the people who perhaps benefited most from her intellectual contributions, that community may have been her most appreciative audience. Coleman’s work advanced literacy, culture, and activism within her Minneapolis cohort, if not her own career. Such work evokes Eric Gardner’s call in Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature to expand our understanding of African American literary production beyond the genres and pathways that have historically shaped not only the African American canon, but also our understanding of African American print culture. As Gardner observes, “our near-obsession with specific kinds of narratives has drawn sharp and narrow boundaries around ‘what counts’ as and in black literature” (9). Never located in the Northeast with its established African American print culture networks, Coleman benefited from the opportunities that geography enables (in...