A Black Daughter of the Revolution

Article excerpt

Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins: Black Daughter of the Revolution. By Lois Brown. Chapel Hill: The University Press of North Carolina, 2008. xiv + 690 pp.

I am a daughter of the Revolution, you do not acknowledge black daughters of the Revolution but we are going to take that right.

Pauline Hopkins, 1905

(qtd. in Brown 537)

Therein lies the tale. If we recognize the name Pauline Hopkins, we know her as editor of the Colored American Magazine and author of Contending Forces, Hagar's Daughters, Winona, and Of One Blood. We would not be surprised, would generally expect, that her biographer would validate Hopkins's reputation for fierce insistence upon national citizenship and racial and gender equality by quoting or alluding to the titles of her best-known works. However, Lois Brown chose to title her densely researched epic Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins: Black Daughter of the Revolution and to build her reconstruction of this "fifth-generation New England writer, feminist, and public intellectual" with a self-definition, at an occasion, and on a site redolent with a legacy of freedom fighting and resistance (16). In so doing, Brown eschews the obvious characterization of a solitary, feisty female in favor of a scion and regional representative, an example and exemplar, a subject and a metaphor. In so doing, Brown manifests a central cause and effect of Hopkins's and other early African American women's lives and letters and becomes herself another "black [daughter] of the Revolution."

Hopkins's and Brown's perspectives on and practices of life writing are characteristic of African American women's literature, especially that of the nineteenth century. They use words as weapons, practice art as activism, combine personal narratives and political prognostications to test the abilities of language as testimony, testimony as witnessing, witnessing as influencing, impacting, and changing. To better understand and appreciate the contribution that Brown makes with her biography, we need to look back and to look around at what has been done in the African American autobiographical tradition and at what we need to do if we are to write honestly and effectively about it.

Using writing as fighting is a tactic rife with complex and sometimes conflicting imperatives. (1) Art enlisted for a cause must avoid the captivity of propaganda. Aesthetic activism requires and exploits subtle directness and wide-lens focus. It assumes naive readers but needs readers who are experienced with word weaponry.

Titles become forays. Seemingly simple or excessively detailed, they signify more than meets the eye. For example, in 1836, Jarena Lee's autobiography The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee, a coloured lady; giving an account of her call to preach the gospel indicates that Lee intends to record her personal material history but with a focus upon her spiritual development. Designating herself as "a coloured lady" invites comparison with Hopkins's "black daughters" not simply by calling attention to themselves as women of color but by their mufti that displays a status regularly denied women of African descent. Lee is a "lady." Hopkins is a "daughter." Like Hopkins, Lee not only confronts racism but sexism as well. Bach writes as an infiltrator in male-dominated fields and claims a share of that territory for themselves and for other women. In 1846, one of Lee's fellow itinerant ministers and occasional traveling companions published Memoirs of the Life, Religious Experience, Ministerial Travels and Labours of Mrs. Zilpha Elaw, An American Female of Color: Together with Some Account of the Great Religious Revivals in America. This title not only reinforces the work of Lee but skirmishes with traditions that assumed women should not write histories. Reading Elaw's Memoirs comparatively with Lee's Life moves the characterization of these individual women as defiant, religious fundamentalists to members of a religious sisterhood, illuminates their literary kinship, and reveals signifying as more than a rhetorical technique in oral African America. …