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  • Homes On-the-Road, Terrorized Cabins, and Prophetic Nightmare-scapesEmma J. Ray's Unsettling Western Fantasies
  • Shelly Jarenski (bio)

Despite almost thirty years of scholarship on women's experience in the mythic West of the United States, scholarship that began in many ways with Annette Kolodny's The Land Before Her, the frontier myth continues to conjure gendered notions of pioneerism, nonconformity, and adventure. Even when the gendered aspects of this myth are challenged, the American West that most people imagine is still inherently white. In many ways the story of African American women's experience as agents in one of the most palpable fantasies of American belonging has been obscured or erased.1 This erasure has given us an inaccurate sense of both the United States' and African American history. As Eric Gardner's recent work has powerfully documented, this erasure has also given us a truncated definition of African American literary history, one that is limited to the long-form stories of enslaved and ex-enslaved people in rural southern and urban northeastern geographies. And, as Kolodny argues, it has caused the prevailing fantasy of the United States' frontier to be one of "privatized erotic mastery" rather than one of a "home and familial human community within a cultivated garden" (xiii); and, to extend Kolodny, the dominance of one fantasy over the other has fueled realities of genocide and environmental exploitation. Finally, this erasure has limited our perceptions of who belongs in the nation's narratives, defining who gets to be a "real American" and who does not.

However, placing African American women's narratives at the center of our study of American western literature presents a counternarrative to the mythic West by re-centering feminized ideologies of community, care, and cooperation into the pioneer fantasy, [End Page 381] including reimagining these feminized ideologies into environmental relationships. Re-centering African American women's narratives of the West also shifts African American literary history, extending it beyond rural southern and urban northeastern geographies. And, of course, re-centering African American women's narratives in our study of American western literature allows us to reimagine national belonging. This essay aims to unsettle some of our conceptions of belonging, and of the West, by studying the 1926 memoir of Seattle-based, formerly enslaved evangelical reformer and itinerant preacher Emma J. Ray, titled Twice Sold, Twice Ransomed: Autobiography of Mr. and Mrs. L. P. Ray.2

Although Ray's narrative conforms to masculine aspects of the frontier fantasy at times, more often it breaks with those norms by positing decidedly feminized ideals of resistance and coming of age. For example, Ray and her husband, L. P., find their second freedom—that is, salvation—by conforming to the norms of temperance, service, and grace. Also, Ray transitions from a meek, passive, and placating woman at the beginning of the narrative to an outspoken leader by the end, and she does so through her reliance on Black, often female, communities of piety, such as the Colored Women's Christian Temperance Union and Methodist tent revivals, rather than through any kind of isolationist self-reliance or trials with the landscape. Ray's coming of age in the midst of communities is a reversal of the "solitary Black westerner" stereotype defined by Quintard Taylor as "a solitary figure loosened from moorings of family, home, and community" (qtd. in Johnson 11). Ray's reversal and resituation of this stereotype is crucial for the way we imagine race as well as gender, as Michael Johnson argues that this figure functions imaginatively to "transcen[d] race in part by separating himself from the black (eastern) community to become a member of white (western) society" (11). Ray's coming of age is instead embedded in western, Black, religious communities led by women.

In addition to these racialized and feminized modes of resistance, Ray deploys three connected, deeply unsettling themes in her autobiography: mobility, domesticity, and the environmental imaginary. These themes were of crucial importance to those people who were held in bondage's post-emancipation realities, and they have [End Page 382] special resonance for women in the context of the mythic West. These themes are unsettling in Ray...


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pp. 381-414
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