Black Female Writers in the 19th and 20th Century

Curated by Lydia Tompkins 

Writing has long given a voice to all. Some choose to write because they feel they can better convey their ideas and feelings through the written word than the spoken. Others may feel that writing allows them to express themselves while remaining in the shadows of society. But it was a weapon of individualism and autonomy for female writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. This held even more true for Black female writers of these times, whose agency was far less compared to white women of the time. For Black people, reading and writing was an act of resistance, white enslavers thought the ability to read and write would instill ideas of autonomy and freedom into the heads of enslaved people, and so many Black people couldn’t read or write before the Civil War. After the Civil War ended, the majority of Black individuals sought literacy and by 1910 70% of Black people were literate. 

In this exhibit, we will look at three Black female writers all of who write in different genres and styles to show how resistance comes in different styles.

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"Life Lived in Peril: Women Under Capitalism" by Anne Slater, 2014, Creative Commons CC BY-NC 4.0, From the Feminist Community Archive of Washington

Life under capitalism is exhausting. Anne Slater makes that clear in their four-page pamphlet going into detail about the history and dangers that capitalism had and has on women. Displaying that this struggle has been happening for centuries before the piece was published in 2014. As Slater notes, “racism, another pillar of contemporary capitalism, subjects women to super-exploitation”, which is why the following selected artifacts highlight the resilience of Black women authors.

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"Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl " by Harriet Jacobs, 1861. From the Boston Public Library, accessed via the Internet Archive

Perhaps one of the most notable works by a Black woman author is “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs, written under the pseudonym Linda Brent. The book is written in the genre of slave narratives, which are autobiographical accounts of slave life from previously enslaved individuals. Slave narratives are empowering for authors to write, it gives them the ability to choose what they share and the ability to share it in all or as little details as they so choose, giving the writer complete sovereignty over their life for possibly the first significant time since being enslaved. Harriet Jacobs writing became popular amongst fellow abolitionists when published and then later had a resurgence in the middle of the 20th century when BIPOC issues were becoming more of interest to the general (white) public. Today it is widely taught in both secondary and higher education curriculum.

The turn of the 20th century brought on a new style of women’s storytelling, where the author questions societal expectations of motherhood, femininity, and domesticity through the use of romance, gothic, and mystery genres. Historically this was a movement dominated by white women. But Pauline Hopkins was one of, if not the first Black women to enter and excel at this style of writing. Because of the genres Hopkins chose to write on, she was able to touch on themes that her Black author peers weren’t able to do in their non-fiction work. Through their unique point of view, her characters are able to bring attention to how race plays into 19th-century society and how Black women of the time experienced societal living through the lens of diaspora.

From the three authors highlighted in this exhibit, we can see how diverse the writings of Black women can be even as early as the late 18th and 19th centuries when Black literacy was not steady. The use of these different genres illustrates different ways these women were able to show resilience, question Black women’s space in mainstream society, explore gender and sexuality, and express themselves in non-traditional ways.

Archives Used

Hopkins, Pauline E. “Contending Forces : A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North ... - Full View  | HathiTrust Digital Library.” HathiTrust. Boston :Colored Co-operative Pub. Co.,1900., n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2023.

Jacobs, Harriet. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. : Jacobs, Harriet A. (Harriet Ann), 1813-1897 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive.” Internet Archive. Boston: : Published for the Author, 1861. Web. 8 Mar. 2023.

Johnson, Maggie. “Virginia Dreams : Lyrics for the Idle Hour : Tales of the Time ... - Full View  | HathiTrust Digital Library.” HathiTrust. [Virginia?] : [publisher not identified], 1910., n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2023.

Slater, Anne. “Life Lived in Peril: Women Under Capitalism.” ::: University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections :::. N.p., 2014. Web. 8 Mar. 2023.

Other References Used

Coleman, Colette. “How Literacy Became a Powerful Weapon in the Fight to End Slavery.” history.com. N.p., 29 Jan. 2021. Web. 8 Mar. 2023.

Dworkin, Ira. “The Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins Society.” The Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins Society. N.p., 28 Feb. 2012. Web. 8 Mar. 2023.

McCaskill, Barbara, and Caroline Gebhard. “ Post-Bellum, Pre-Harlem: African American Literature and Culture, 1877-1919.” Project Muse. NYU Press, 2006. Web. 8 Mar. 2023.

Ouellette, Katherine. “The Literary Legacy Of Pauline Hopkins | WBUR News.” WBUR. WBUR, 12 Feb. 2021. Web. 8 Mar. 2023.

Williams, Heather Andrea. “‘Clothing Themselves in Intelligence’: The Freedpeople, Schooling, and Northern Teachers, 1861-1871.” The Journal of African American History 87 372–389. Web. 8 Mar. 2023.



About the Curator

Lydia Tompkins (they/them) is a senior at the University of Washington Bothell majoring in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies and Culture, Literature, and the Arts. Lydia hopes to continue studying literature at the graduate level after graduating.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank my husband Ryan for always supporting me and our wonderful kitties, Dexter and Mojo.

Black Female Writers in the 19th and 20th Century