Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Preacher Woman Sings the Blues: The Autobiographies of Nineteenth-Century African American Evangelists

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Preacher Woman Sings the Blues: The Autobiographies of Nineteenth-Century African American Evangelists

Article excerpt

By Richard J. Douglass-Chin. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8262-1311-1. Pp. ix + 228. $34.95.

Richard J. Douglass-Chin has written an important, albeit uneven, book on the origins of African American women's spiritual autobiography. Certain to appeal broadly to students of African American history, literature, and culture, Preacher Woman Sings the Blues: The Autobiographies of Nineteenth-Century African American Evangelists joins a number of recent works on the awesome mystique of the spiritual in black women's writings. Eight of the thirteen writers examined in this detailed chronological study published texts before 1900: Jarena Lee and Zilpha Elaw (chapter two); Sojourner Truth, Rebecca Cox Jackson, and Julia A. J. Foote (respectively, chapters three through rive); Amanda B. Smith, Elizabeth Broughton, and Virginia Broughton (chapter six). The life history of a ninth woman, Belinda, stolen into bondage, forms the subject of chapter one, its title ("The Cruelty of Men Whose Faces Were Like the Moon") taken from the African native's 1787 legal petition for reparations for involuntary labor. At chapter seven Preacher Woman pivots into twentieth-century African American women's literature by examining Zora Neale Hurston's acknowledgments and transformations of the sacred-blues black traditions of the modern novelist's literary foremothers. The eighth chapter reads the invocation and deployment of spirituality in recent novels by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and the late Toni Cade Bambara. Specifically, the book attends to oppositional discourses that emerge at the intersection of ecstasy, orality, Western literacy, and African expressivity. Douglass-Chin cogently combines analyses of the blessed and the blues to reclaim "evangelist" as a folk signifier and to ameliorate its definition so that "the evangelists may all be seen as blues `bad' women [...] cut from a more pious cloth than their secular singing sisters" (10).

Too frequently Preacher Woman drops the thread of blues matron and blues matrix as method and trope. However, a more urgent problem undermines Douglass-Chin's achievement: his study misrepresents the primacy of sentimentalism as deployed by both African- and Anglo-American women in the nineteenth century. It appears that Douglass-Chin perceives early black women's blues to be at odds with sentimentality. Indeed, Douglass-Chin insufficiently recognizes sentimental strategies, contending in the introduction that, "refusing to employ the sentimental form and content of so many nineteenth-century women's texts, the majority of the black female evangelists' works were ignored and bypassed on the literary market and simply fell out of circulation" (14; my emphasis). The relatively brief shelf life of most black holy women's writings, however, had more to do with poverty, illiteracy, and fallacies about black and female intelligence--all institutionalized by white patriarchy--than with their authors' failure to conform to the sentimental conventions of more lucrative narratives. Moreover, the rhetoric of one Baptist missionary's autobiography, The Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince (not cited in Preacher Woman) discloses deep ambivalence about the propriety of sentimentalizing black life. Significantly, Prince's Life first appeared in 1850 and was reissued at least twice--in 1853 and 1856. As such, it is representative of black women's spiritual texts.

An apparent bias against sentimentalism undercuts Preacher Woman most conspicuously in chapter rive, in which Douglass-Chin misreads Foote's combined engagement and subversion of sentimental pedagogy in A Brand Plucked from the Fire. Because Preacher Woman glaringly omits recent scholarship on the role of the sacred in early American sentimentalism, it cannot elucidate the thirteen authors' codification of Christian morality and theology in sentimental terms. …

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