Why We Need to Revisit Reconstruction: And a Second Shameless Plug

Dear Reader, after a MONSTER summer cold, I am back to posting regularly. This time, I want to talk about Reconstruction and why we need to revisit it. And I’m also going to shamelessly plug one of my new books.

Dear Reader, thank you for stopping by once again. I had a MONSTER summer cold that stopped me in my tracks. I think my hair hurt! But I’m back. Reader, here’s a thing: in order to understand modern-day race and racial tension in America, instead of looking forward, we need to look backwards. Let me narrow this time-slot down: we need to look at the years 1865 to 1877. Historically, this is known as Reconstruction.

In my latest publication, I reached way back and over (Yes, at this juncture in the posting, this is a shameless plug).

Downloaded from Amazon.com

This book critically and pedagogically (in a teacherly way), re-examines early Black women’s literature and goes over and down to the Caribbean. Well, those two things do not seem related, but they are. Ultimately, this book (and the reason for this shameless plug), is a reexamination of literature and events from the Revolutionary-War era to Reconstruction from Black women’s point of view. Early Black American women’s literature was transnational before it became an academic buzzwords, and that is why the Caribbean is included in this text. Some Black women, like Zora Neale Hurston and Una Marson, are literary bridges from the United States to the Caribbean and vice versa.

Why did I do this? Why did I reach way back and over? Before I dive into the Reconstruction era, I want to discuss some of the people who fed the righteous, Jeremiad pens of the Reconstruction-era writers. And I want to challenge us to re-read some of the writers who came before Reconstruction. Read them in the context of their times, please, and stop imposing our “stuff” onto them. Look at the cultural attitudes and popular “science” of their day. If we do that, we begin to see how “political” these early writers really were and how their politics helped to inform the assertiveness of Reconstruction-era writers.

First of all, America’s first Black poet was a woman. We know that. Students of literature from kindergarten to graduate school know Phillis Wheatley. However, I have a problem with the way we teach Wheatley. It is commonly written in the “introduction” pieces in most anthologies that feature any of Wheatley’s poetry, that she is an apolitical, New Testament poet who steered clear of politics in order to gain her freedom. In most anthologies, it is written that Wheatley and her husband disappeared from the public eye.

Popular portrait of Wheatley floating around the Internet.

Wheatley is often compared to another early Black poet, Jupiter Hammond, who also references the New Testament throughout his poetry. Here is one of his New Testament poems: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52545/an-evening-thought-salvation-by-christ-with-penetential-cries

Now, I have a problem with the way we teach Wheatley for several reasons: 1.) Wheatley WAS NOT originally published in the United States. When we are teaching and writing about earlier poets, we forget about this philosophical construction called the Great Chain of Being. At the time when Wheatley would have been writing, this philosophical construction sanctioned a burgeoning race-based economic system and was further supported by objective “science” of the day. What is the Great Chain of Being? I’m glad you asked. The Great Chain of Being was a concept that says that the universe is ordered and fixed. Everything and everybody has a “place” in it. God was at the top, followed by angels, followed by man, followed by animals, plants, and inanimate objects. Here is a simplified (and clear) diagram of the Chain.

Downloaded from: https://sites.google.com/a/uconn.edu/authority-power/the-great-chain-of-being

This sounds rational enough, I suppose. But the problem with this thinking is how “man” was segmented. If Europeans constructed the Great Chain of Being, what color of people were conveniently placed next to the angels? What color of people were conveniently placed next to animals? If you guessed that Anglo-Saxon, Western European people were placed next to the top, you guessed correctly. If you guessed that dark-skinned people of sub-Saharan Africa were placed next to the bottom, again, you guessed correctly.

As a matter of fact, for a very long time, Black people were called the “missing link” between animal and man (especially after the theory of evolution shook the world) and were sometimes put into human zoos in order for white audiences to view how the missing evolutionary link behaves.

This is a popular picture of a human zoo. This snapshot was taken in St. Louis, Missouri. It was common to show African people in animalistic settings long before Tarzan.

Phillis Wheatley who would have been a child and writing during this era, was thought of as an experiment. Since Black people did not have a strong written language component, they were thought of as unteachable and not in possession of any sort of “civilized” intelligence. When Wheatley and early poets like Hammon constructed original poems, the very act of their creations was seen as earth-shattering. Wheatley did some epistemological damage just putting pen to paper. She blew up a philosophical/theological order of things and her literacy had the potential to ground the burgeoning mercantile capitalism machine of her day to a halt! This could not be (of course, a law was made to stop Black literacy in the name of gold, but this is another post). Wheatley, who can be properly classified as a neoclassical poet in the way of Alexander Pope in her methods, was “tested” by several leading men of her colony. After having passed their “test,” she still was not published in America, because she was a woman.

2.) That brings me to my next point. Women in early American society were governed by the same “conduct literature” and sexist attitudes that limited women’s intellectual output in Great Britain. In Great Britain, women and women’s educations were severely limited. In fact, education in Great Britain was limited in many regards. Education, for a very long time, was considered a private, family matter. Wealthy people paid tutors to educate their children in the home, and most of the time, women were left out of this process. There were few exceptions for wealthy women. As slavery enabled a middle class in Great Britain to rise, women began to receive more education in the home (women were not allowed to enter British universities until the 1860s, and even then, their degrees were SEVERELY limited. They were finally admitted to British colleges and allowed to take a full degree in the 1920s). One example of a highly-educated woman who was NOT royal or even upper-class is Aphra Behn. She was the first British woman to earn her living by writing. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aphra-Behn

When women began to receive more education and participate in the public intellectual life of Britain, they were derisively called, “blue stockings.” For a woman to write, publish, and become a public intellectual, she was often charged with giving men “the blues.” We would like to think of Mary Wallstonecraft’s bright star, but when she died from blood poisoning following childbirth, one of her male critics stated that she got what she deserved as the weaker sex who played around in men’s work(real classy, right?). The thinking about gender and the body politic in Great Britain evolved into a two-sphere way of thinking. The public sphere (the world of business and politics) was for men. The private sphere (the world of the home and caretaking) was for women. This was published in most literature and popular magazines and came to be known as “conduct literature.”

Those British people who emigrated to the United States brought this way of thinking with them. Eventually, it evolved into The Cult of Domesticity or the Cult of True Womanhood. For THE classic article on this, please see Barbara Welter’s “The Cult of True Womanhood.” Get the full text here: https://english.hku.hk/staff/kjohnson/PDF/WelterBarbaraCULTWOMANHOODinAQ1966.pdf

In early colonial America and into the early 1900s, women, regardless of their race, class, or color had no business speaking in the public sphere, according to popular and educational thought.

Ironically, the first political essayist America produced was Maria W. Stewart, a Black woman.

Picture of a young Maria W. Stewart

Stewart dismissed the two-sphere, gendered thinking of her day, stating that God, specifically the God of the Old Testament, gave her the authority to speak to scandalous/miscengenated (mixed-gendered) audiences. She needed no sanctioning from any man of any color to go about God’s work (this should remind of Sojourner Truth, right?). Here is one of her most powerful speeches condemning racism in the Boston area. I thank Blackpast.org for providing a map: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/1832-maria-w-stewart-why-sit-ye-here-and-die/

For Wheatley and a woman like Stewart, again, just the acts of speaking and writing wereloaded with political/theological/economic/scientific/philosophical ammunition. Women writing? Black women writing and speaking in the public sphere? That was an act of cultural sedition. Every word they put on the page, regardless of whether it was “apolitical” by our standards, was a bullet in the white male patriarchal supremacist machine of their time.

3.) Here is a problem with how we teach Wheatley: do we read Wheatley closely, or do we approach her body of work with a dismissive attitude? Are we teaching her as “routine” or out of some kind of obligation that we pay homage to the woman who started the African American literary tradition in the United States? Phillis Wheatly was well-versed in politics in America and in Great Britain. How can we continue to teach her as “apolitical” when she produced poems like these? https://poets.org/poem/his-excellency-general-washington

A Black woman spoke to a white, male army general who would go on to become the president of the United States in neoclassical poetry.

By the way, this image downloaded from poets.org, is my favorite one of Wheatley. She is a fully-realized woman and not a little girl sitting at a table.

Wheatley’s poetry, like most writers of the Revolutionary era, shows that she paid attention to and was aware of the hypocrisy encoded in Revolutionary rhetoric. She links the tyranny that white male American political leaders claimed they suffered under mad King George III with her own enslavement. https://poets.org/poem/right-honourable-william-earl-dartmouth

When placing Wheatley in her own, transnational context, how can we continue to teach her as “apolitical”?

Now, I feel that this post has gone on for a while, and I am still on the bread of the sandwich without getting to the meat. The meat will have to come during the second post on this topic, and I will bring it to you soon. I promise. By the way, Phillis Wheatley did not just “disappear” and die in obscurity. She married a man, John. Some writers of the late 1800s/early 1900s claim that he may have been jealous of his wife’s fame and treated her poorly. Others claim that John was a victim of racial discrimination in America’s North and never could get his business off the ground. That is why they lived in poor conditions. At any rate, Wheatley died of an asthma attack in her early 30s. She had one son. Her worsening asthma was a by-product of the racism in Massachusetts that she and her husband experienced.

Where did I get information about Wheatley’s death? Gertrude Mossell, a writer of the late 1800s/early 1900s. She produced an anthology/collection of polemic tracts that answered the Cult of True Womanhood.

Now, are you convinced that we need to revisit Reconstruction? There is so much information missing. There is so much context not in the texts that we teach from and read. It’s mandatory that we visit these earlier writers, earlier historical events, and earlier tracts of thought in order to fill in some egregious gaps about Black writers and our contemporary lives. But tune in later this week. I’ll be back with more.

This is from my research interests. I have not taught this material, yet.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
LaToya R Jefferson-James

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. Welcome! The professor is in! Come in and stay a spell. Let’s discuss and learn from one another.