Black and White Women's Travel Narratives: Antebellum Explorations

By Waters, Kristin | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2006 | Go to article overview

Black and White Women's Travel Narratives: Antebellum Explorations


Waters, Kristin, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Black and White Women's Travel Narratives: Antebellum Explorations Cheryl J. Fish. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.

The vision of nineteenth-century black women traveling the world to St. Petersburg and Jamaica, the Mediterranean, Haiti, Cuba, and Panama defies popular imagination and jolts us away from the more typical picture of this period, of half-stripped women in bonds trudging the few steps from slave quarters to cotton fields. Yet two of Cheryl Fish's three essays in Black and White Women's Travel Narratives paint a portrait of what she calls "mobile subjectivities" of just this sort. The travel narratives of Nancy Prince and Mary Seacole, freeborn blacks from Boston and Kingston, Jamaica, provide a corrective to the notion of ubiquitous slavery among blacks in the antebellum period. The original sources for Fish's analysis, the intriguing A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince and the absolutely delightful Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Strange Lands provide rewarding reading, even for someone with a casual interest. Going beyond the first-hand accounts, Fish whips up a marvelous concoction of detailed and fairly exhaustive scholarly sources and, frankly, quite brilliant analyses of these two under-studied figures.

This book also contains an essay on nineteenth-century literary maven Margaret Fuller that, while intriguing in its own light, seems slightly out of place here. Prince and Seacole have in common race, gender, and atypical for black women, the experiences of world travel. Fuller, white, privileged, and an editor of the literary magazine the Dial, had an entirely different set of attributes and resources at her disposal. Her travel to the American Great Lakes, and her contributions to the genre of travel writing provide interesting if somewhat incongruous subject matter.

Fish investigates the ways in which Prince's slave-like domestic circumstances in Gloucester, Salem, and Boston were mitigated only by escaping US antiblack racism and traveling to Russia where her husband was a guard for the tsar and she was proprietress of a garment-making business. According to Fish, through further travel and travelwriting, Prince "does not appeal directly for the abolition of slavery" but uses her narratives to offer a "scathing critique" in the manner of one whose "freedom and mobility has permitted them to see and compare in international contexts" (34). …

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