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Seven Can I Get a Witness? The Implications of Prophesying for African American Literary Studies When Jarena Lee, Julia Foote, Maria Stewart, Frances Gaudet, and other prophesying daughters finished writing their narratives, they actually had created what I call autometagraphies. That is, their narratives reveal an understanding of themselves that transcends earthly constructions of their lives and identities. Every aspect of their being was interpreted from a metaphysical vantage point that allowed them to see themselves as prophesying daughters, a perception that would in many ways require them to challenge nineteenth-century notions of who they should be. They saw themselves retrospectively through new-found spiritual lenses. Their writing about their own long and arduous travel excursions, emotionally charged conversion experiences, profound interpretations of the Bible, and undying passion for social change reveals clearly a consciousness that had been formed and informed by their close relationships with and commitments to God— the metaphysical—who had everything to do with all incidents, events, or lack thereof that occurred in their lives. Their lives, works, and selfperceptions are inseparable. In the preceding chapters, I have delineated how these women’s perception of themselves as prophesying daughters shaped what and how they chose to write these autometagraphies. As the discussion has revealed , they used rhetoric around the Pauline conversion experience to dispute mainstream society’s distrust of their intellectual, literary, and missionary abilities as writers and preachers. They also likened themselves to Jesus’ disciples to justify their travel, which itself altered in various ways the American cultural and spatial landscape. They utilized 111 112 Prophesying Daughters effectively their own understandings of the Bible to offer alternative readings of scriptures and to legitimate their “aberrant” actions. And, finally, in their texts they used their calling as prophesying daughters to be active agents for social change. What this reveals is that the act of prophesying offers us insight into the ways in which these black religious women understood and ordered their lives. In their identification of themselves as prophesying daughters , Lee, Foote, Gaudet, and Stewart provide us with clear examples of the use and application of religion and religious perspectives in their lives and writings. I contend that illuminating the complex ways that black women preachers had to (re)negotiate religious belief and conviction in the context of the nineteenth-century’s sexist, elitist, and racist climate is one of the primary contributions that these texts make to African American literary experience and literary production. In light of the above, then, what are the implications of my study for African American literature in general and for African American women’s works in particular? In other words, how can this study help expand the ways we critically examine several of their black female contemporaries and predecessors such as Phillis Wheatley, Frances E. W. Harper, Elizabeth Keckley, and Harriet Jacobs, all of whom employed religious discourse and rhetoric throughout their writings? How is the study helpful when we consider that the appropriation of religion and Christian ideas by black women writers and intellectuals cannot be a coincidence? Historically, blacks have had a long and paradoxical relationship with Christian religion in this country. Furthermore, what about this notion of the women’s perception of themselves as people “called” to make a difference? How is that significant to the field of African American literary studies? I begin to address these questions by proposing a theory of prophesying. Before delineating the features of a text that could be said to prophesy, I situate my proposal of a new theory within contemporary debates in African American literary studies about where to place or displace theory. Since the eighties, critics have engaged in interesting and sometimes heated discussions about whether approaches to interpreting African American literature should be theoretical or practical (meaning political ). In her seminal essay addressing this issue, Barbara Christian responds to what she calls a “take-over in the literary world” by those who have “changed literary critical language to suit their own purposes” of a new theory within debates in African American literary studies about where to place or displace theory. Can I Get a Witness? 113 and have consequently “reinvented the meaning of theory.” Although she notes that her first impulse in regard to this takeover was to “ignore it,” she finds it difficult to do so because the decision to use or overlook theory plays a key role in the lives of scholars and professors. The use or nonuse of theory, Christian argues...


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