Spiritual Interrogations: Culture, Gender, and Community in Early African American Women's Writing

Spiritual Interrogations: Culture, Gender, and Community in Early African American Women's Writing

Spiritual Interrogations: Culture, Gender, and Community in Early African American Women's Writing

Spiritual Interrogations: Culture, Gender, and Community in Early African American Women's Writing

Synopsis

The late eighteenth century witnessed an influx of black women to the slave-trading ports of the American Northeast. The formation of an early African American community, bound together by shared experiences and spiritual values, owed much to these women's voices. The significance of their writings would be profound for all African Americans' sense of their own identity as a people.

Katherine Clay Bassard's book is the first detailed account of pre-Emancipation writings from the period of 1760 to 1863, in light of a developing African American religious culture and emerging free black communities. Her study--which examines the relationship among race, culture, and community--focuses on four women: the poet Phillis Wheatley and poet and essayist Ann Plato, both Congregationalists; and the itinerant preacher Jarena Lee, and Shaker eldress Rebecca Cox Jackson, who, with Lee, had connections with African Methodism.

Together, these women drew on what Bassard calls a "spirituals matrix, " which transformed existing literary genres to accommodate the spiritual music and sacred rituals tied to the African diaspora. Bassard's important ill

Excerpt

Methinks I heard a spiritual interrogation— “Who shall go forward, and take off the reproach that is cast upon the people of color? Shall it be a woman?” And my heart made this reply—“If it is thy will, be it even so, Lord Jesus!” (Maria W. Stewart, “Lecture Delivered at Franklin Hall”)

IN HER “Lecture Delivered at Franklin Hall” in Boston on September 22, 1832, Maria W. Stewart includes this conversation with God. Significantly, this dialogue harkens back to an earlier encounter with divinity in Stewart's life for which this dialogue serves as a response. The call to political and social action is preceded by Stewart's conversion experience in 1830, which commands her “to come out of the world and be separate; to go forward and be baptized”:

Methought I heard a spiritual interrogation, are you able to drink of that cup that I have drank of? And to be baptized with the baptism I have been baptized with? And my heart made this reply: Yea, Lord, I am able. (66)

In the public forum of oratorical performance, Stewart speaks of the most private of communications—between self and Spirit. And it is this public utterance of private communication that marks so much of early African American women's writings, as the experience of Christian conversion figures so prominently in their texts. As Stewart's theological formulation makes clear, communication with Spirit is dialogical, a giveand-take signified by its interrogative nature. Unlike the commands, demands, catechisms, and chastisements that often characterized black women's interactions with white male and female owners/employees, and black male fathers, spouses, and community leaders, dialogue with Spirit signifies neither conquest nor coercion. Rather, God as spiritual interrogator asks questions that prompt a response from the “heart.”

It is within these private encounters with Spirit that African American women often experienced a conferral of personhood denied by larger social constructions of African American and female subjectivity. For it is within this divine dialogue that black women's subjectivity is produced even as her agency is acknowledged and affirmed. The “I” that . . .

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