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Some Penguin Classics, as we’ve noticed on rare occasions in the past, are quietly awe-inspiring, and this certainly applies to a new addition to the line, The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers, edited by Hollis Robbins and Henry Louis Gates, who also write the volume’s introductory essay. The Penguin Portables are always highlights of any reprint season, but this one is outstanding even by the series’ own standards: it collects dozens of writings from fifty-two black women whose life stories encompass the whole spectrum of ways they overcame the most formidable obstacles their era could erect. As Robbins and Gates point out in their Introduction (the Introduction comes across as decidedly drab, but then, alongside the rhetorical fire being thrown by the women in this anthology, almost any contemporary writing would come across as drab), all these writers had one central motivation – to make their own voices heard:

The fifty-two writers who appear in this anthology demonstrate a will to engage intellectually, in print, with the world, with other women generally, and with each other individually. These women writers looked at the world around them, before and after Emancipation, and resolved to speak out, to grapple with the political and social fact of their existence, and to begin to articulate the foundations of black feminist thought, wide ranging and far seeing.

porable 19thcThe selections range from fiction to polemic to poetry to drama, and the authors range from illiterate slaves to wealthy freeborn sophisticates, from well-known names like Harriet Jacobs and Sojourner Truth to obscure figures, some of whom are only just recently being brought to light after a century of living in footnotes. And the timing of the excerpts likewise varies, with writings from fugitive writers, Reconstruction writers, and writings from the heart of the American Civil War, as in the case of Charlotte Grimké, who published a ringing series of dispatches in 1864 in the Atlantic about her time teaching newly freed slaves on the Sea Islands of South Carolina:

Daily the long-oppressed people of these islands are demonstrating their capacity for improvement in learning and labor. What they have accomplished in one short year exceeds our utmost expectations. Still the sky is dark; but through the darkness we can discern a brighter future. We cannot but feel that the day of final and entire deliverance, so long and often so hopelessly prayed for, has at length begun to dawn upon this much-enduring race.

These women wrote their way into a new world; indeed, they largely wrote that new world into existence. Fannie Barrier Williams, the first black woman to graduate from the Brockport State Normal School (now the State University of New York at Brockport), wrote “The Intellectual Progress of the Colored Woman of the United States Since the Emancipation Proclamation” in 1893 speaking directly to the need for such a world:

No organization of far-reaching influence for their special advancement, no conventions of women to take note of their progress, and no special literature reciting the incidents, the events, and all things interesting and instructive concerning them are to be found among the agencies directing their career. There has been no special interest in their peculiar condition as native-born American women. Their power to affect the social life of America, either for good or for ill, has excited not even a speculative interest.

The prose throughout this volume is powerfully evocative in ways that even some of the best Penguin reprint anthologies can seldom match – for obvious reasons: these women were pitting their rhetorical talents in many cases against the triple disenfranchisement gender, race, and iron shackles, and they all know it. As beloved school principal Edmonia Goodelle Highgate writes at one point: “I don’t believe in world-saving – but I do in self-making … Create something. Aspire to leave something immortal behind you.”

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