Lillian B. Horace and the Literature of White Estrangement: Rediscovering an African American Intellectual of the Jim Crow Era

By Watson, Veronica | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Lillian B. Horace and the Literature of White Estrangement: Rediscovering an African American Intellectual of the Jim Crow Era


Watson, Veronica, The Mississippi Quarterly


IN THE SPRING OF 2003 KAREN KOSSIE-CHERNYSHEV DISCOVERED THE DIARY and literature of Lillian Bertha Jones Horace at the Fort Worth Public Library in Fort Worth, Texas. It was an important moment not only because Horace is "Texas's earliest known African-American woman novelist, diarist, and biographer" (Kossie-Chernyshev, "Introduction" v) or because she exemplified the resilience and determination of African American women living in the Jim Crow era, but also because she is one of the few African American Southern women writers we know of working in the 1940s. Born in 1886, she was a contemporary of another famous Southerner, Floridian Zora Neale Hurston, who traveled to Harlem and back to pursue her education and craft. Likewise, Horace pursued her education outside of the South, where restrictions were most severe, taking courses at the University of Chicago, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Columbia University, and Simmons University, where she also served as Dean of Women (Kossie-Chernyshev, "My Encounter" vii). And like Hurston, Horace returned to the South, both literally and metaphorically, to do her life's work. She was an artist in an age that told black women that such dreams were out of their reach. Yet she wrote and, following the path of another determined woman from a different era, Harriet Jacobs, she self-published at least one novel when it became clear to her that the literary establishment was not ready for her vision or vitality.

The names that dominate the literature of this period and place (the post-War South) are a who's who of major Euro-American writers, authors like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Ellen Glasgow, and Robert Penn Warren. These writers explore the human, regional, and historical landscapes that shape the often conflicted consciousness of the South: they celebrate its unique culture, mourn its passing, seek to understand its legacy to the nation, anticipate its rebirth. And they try to imagine the shape of a South defined by something other than its troubling embrace of racist ideologies. The exploration of those themes and concerns is what most in the academy recognize as Southern literature. But few African American authors are included on this list; our voices typically enter as an afterthought or an addendum to the "canon" of Southern literature. Really, among African American authors publishing in the 1940s, only Hurston is regularly discussed as a Southern writer, although as late as 1993 Jan Cooper felt compelled to make that case in the essay, "Zora Neale Hurston Was Always a Southerner Too." In fact, the lack of representation of African American voices in the typically-identified corpus of Southern literature is so glaring that scholars have actively sought to reclaim the South as an imaginative home and muse for black writers. In articles and chapters like Brookhart's "Spiritual Daughters of the Black American South," literary scholars now look for the geographical and imaginative connections African American writers have maintained with the South. James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and even Richard Wright have been offered as evidence of the lingering longing African Americans have for their homeland and as exemplars of the complicated relationship black America has with the American South. But Lillian B. Horace is no "spiritual daughter"; she is a Southerner by birth and choice. Her life and art provide us a key to understanding the living conditions, individual and group identities, and aspirations of African Americans who chose to remain in the South. Horace offers us a first-hand view of the ways that black women of the era understood themselves and the world south of the Mason-Dixon line.

I received The Diary of Lillian B. Horace from Dr. Kossie-Chernyshev in late 2007. At the time I read it I was struck by the free-ranging intellect evidenced in the pages. If it was a topic of interest and conversation in the 1940s, Lillian Bertha Jones Horace was thinking and writing about it in her diary: the future of African American citizenship, wars in which the US had engaged, World War II and the scapegoating and persecution of Jewish people, US politics and political personalities, Black Boy by Richard Wright. …

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