"... So You Can See, Color Makes No Difference": Race, Slavery and Abolition in A Hairdresser's Experience in High Life

Article excerpt

A Hairdresser's Experience in High Life, published in 1859 by freeborn Cincinnati hairdresser Eliza Potter, offers modern readers a voice that contradicts many of our understandings of nineteenth-century African American literature. An exciting first-hand account of work, race, and femininity, this narrative speaks to the possibilities for "working womanhood" that dressing white women's hair offered a Black working woman in the United States before the Civil War. Given that, in her day (as in ours), many Americans considered Black women's labor for white women to be menial and without value, the fact that Eliza Potter published opinionated and largely disparaging insights about the rich white women who were her social superiors is nothing short of remarkable. While we might safely assume that Black working women commonly perceived their white female employers in less than flattering terms, what makes this instance of frankness so singular is that it was published, read, and reviewed by white readers, some of whom were likely the clients she spoke about. (1) Alternately irreverent and high-minded, Potter the author delights and scandalizes readers with accounts of social-climbing, or "parvenu," women, all the while never letting her readers forget that she earned high wages and accumulated quite a bit of money as one of the nation's earliest beauticians (13).

Potter's focus on the foibles of her elite clients and the "domestic bitterness" featured in their lives, combined with a scarcity of biographical data on Potter herself, has kept A Hairdresser's Experience in High Life on the margins of nineteenth-century African American literary studies ("The Author's Appeal" iv). This is a rich field centrally concerned with slavery, racism, and African American activism geared around abolition and uplift. Problematically, A Hairdresser's Experience makes no reference to racial injustices and has a peripatetic narrator whose central investment is a "desire to see the world" (11), resisting some of our rubrics for literary race relations in nineteenth-century public print spheres. Given what we know about African American women's difficult negotiations of femininity and their racial proximity to slave women in the cultural imaginary, we have to wonder how a Black working woman could have cultivated the kind of authority Potter displays in her text. Could she have been passing for white? Also, how could a Black woman author represent herself as an independent working woman who proclaims her "liberty" in the book's first paragraph and not as a goal to be reached at its end (11)?

Elsewhere, I have argued for the importance of A Hairdresser's Experience on the basis of its unconventional insights into the ways that some Black working women were able to shape their identities as entrepreneurs and social critics even when they remained on the political margins of a nation that viewed them as irrelevant (see Belabored Professions). Part travel narrative and part work narrative, A Hairdresser's Experience dramatizes the authorship possibilities enabled by Potter's hard-won economic independence, but it also speaks to the benefits that Potter reaped because she expressed many of the culture's anxieties about the well-being of femininity and classed identity during the nation's commercial expansion (Santamarina 103-38). That is, even if Potter's subordinate race and class made her an unlikely candidate for the role of "social critic," the fact that she articulated many of the anxieties associated with the period's fear of "confidence men and painted women," to use Karen Halttunen's term, offered her legitimacy among her readers that she might not otherwise have had.

It would be a disservice to Potter and to her narrative, however, to suggest that the significance of A Hairdresser's Experience resides only in the singular position of its author relative to her employers, her readers, and the text's principal subject matter, elite white womanhood. …