Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Fraudulent Bodies/fraught Methodologies

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Fraudulent Bodies/fraught Methodologies

Article excerpt

What do we do with the narratives, the authors, the spectacular figures that resist facile categorization in nineteenth-century studies? From the racially unmarked tales produced by Black women activists to the political outsider memoir of a traveling hairstylist, the subjects of the essays included in this issue of Legacy challenge long-standing definitions of race literature and complicate our understanding of the scope and range of nineteenth-century Black women's literary aesthetics. Wayward and unwieldy, the texts and figures discussed here incite debates about authenticity--discursive, generic, and racial--and force us to improvise new critical methodologies that disrupt narrow binaries (fake vs. real, legitimate vs. fraudulent). The innovative and forward-looking essays collected here encourage us to reexamine the critical methods that we use (or fail to invoke) in our readings of texts and figures that defy conventional categorization in nineteenth-century literary and cultural studies.

In short, each essay demands that we reconsider what kinds of criteria we trust. Each essay here triggers thoughtful reflection on how we formulate historical and cultural narratives about race and what kinds of historical and cultural documents we rely on to build a Black literary canon. Likewise, all of the critics here generate edifying ways to navigate textual and historical excesses and opacities. They critically re-interrogate the sociopolitical utility of racially indeterminate characters who fall outside the putative bounds of nineteenth-century Black women's fiction. They reevaluate conventional "tragic mulatta" strategies of characterization. And they challenge constrictive analyses of nineteenth-century Black women's narratives that reproduce essentialist readings of the texts as well as their authors. Poised to make a crucial intervention in how we think about the production of Black texts as well as Black identity formations in nineteenth-century culture, the Legacy essays in this special issue present new approaches to reading Black(ened) cultural marginalia in the archives.

The wayward bodies in this issue encourage epistemological speculation, and they create the kind of "lacuna" that Do Veanna Fulton reads in her exploration of racially indeterminate figures in the fiction of Frances E. W. Harper. Fulton's work illustrates the value in "open[ing] up" texts "for multiple and varied engagements by different reading communities" (Fulton, this issue). Her essay recovers the sociopolitical resonances of these kinds of anomalous literary figures who refuse recognizable strategies of racial categorization, and she makes plain the specific sociopolitical intervention that Harper's text creates by signifying on and disrupting the segregated culture of social reform movements.

Similarly, Xiomara Santamarina locates the waywardness in the narrative and authorial politics of Eliza Potter's A Hairdresser's Experience in High Life, a text that manifests a kind of social and political indeterminacy resulting in its canonical marginalization in nineteenth-century African American letters. Santamarina demonstrates the multiple ways that Potter articulates a socially oppositional and economically independent self in her narrative. On the one hand, this scholar's interpretation aligns Potter's work with other circum-Atlantic Black female entrepreneurs and travelers such as Mary Prince. On the other hand, Potter emerges in Santamarina's study as somewhat akin to her unconventional contemporary, the racially ambiguous actress Adah Isaacs Menken. Like Menken, Potter displayed a "lack of reference to racial injustices," "peripatetic" impulses, and a professed "desire to see the world," qualities that have resulted in her work's consistent exclusion from rigorous critical studies of nineteenth-century African American and women's literatures (Santamarina, this issue). Yet, Potter's text clearly warrants further analysis as an early literary work that reinforces Claudia Tate's important claim that "the racial protocol for African American canon formation has marginalized desire as a critical category of black textuality by demanding manifest stories about racial politics" (5). …

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