A Hairdresser's Experience in High Life

A Hairdresser's Experience in High Life

A Hairdresser's Experience in High Life

A Hairdresser's Experience in High Life

Synopsis

Here is the first fully annotated edition of a landmark in early African American literature--Eliza Potter's 1859 autobiography, A Hairdresser's Experience in High Life. Potter was a freeborn black woman who, as a hairdresser, was in a unique position to hear about, receive confidences from, and observe wealthy white women--and she recorded it all in a revelatory book that delighted Cincinnati's gossip columnists at the time. But more important is Potter's portrait of herself as a wage-earning woman, proud of her work, who earned high pay and accumulated quite a bit of money as one of the nation's earliest "beauticians" at a time when most black women worked at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Because her work offered insights into the private lives of elite white women, Potter carved out a literary space that featured a black working woman at the center, rather than at the margins, of the era's transformations in gender, race, and class structure. Xiomara Santamarina provides an insightful introduction to this edition that includes newly discovered information about Potter, discusses the author's strong satirical voice and proud working-class status, and places the narrative in the context of nineteenth-century literature and history.

Excerpt

This edition of A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life (1859) brings new visibility to a black woman’s autobiography that challenges many of our ideas about nineteenth-century African American history and literature. A firsthand account of work, race, and femininity, A Hairdresser’s Experience 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. The author, Eliza Potter, was a freeborn African American woman who migrated west from New York in the 1830s to become one of antebellum Cincinnati’s most popular hairdressers. Even though many in her day devalued black women’s work, Potter based her claims to public authority over her clients and readers in her work: her book offers modern readers the critical voice of a working woman who deftly manages to turn the tables on her white elite female clients—women who by virtue of their race and class were considered her social superiors. The fact that she earned high wages and accumulated quite a bit of money as one of the nation’s earliest “beauticians” to white social-climbing women when the majority of black women worked as laundresses at the bottom of the occupational ladder only enhances the piquancy of Potter’s text.

A Hairdresser’s Experience provides insights into the ways that black working women—one of the nation’s most marginal populations—were able to shape their identities as entrepreneurs and social critics, long before the twentieth-century advent of the better-known Madame C. J. Walker. Published in Cincinnati, a border city on the Ohio River between “North” and “South,” on the eve of the Civil War, this autobiography illustrates how . . .

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