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The University of North Carolina Press
Belabored Professions: Narratives of African American Working Womanhood / Edition 1

Belabored Professions: Narratives of African American Working Womanhood / Edition 1

by Xiomara Santamarina
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Belabored Professions: Narratives of African American Working Womanhood

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807856482
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date: 10/31/2005
Edition description: 1
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.58(d)

About the Author

Xiomara Santamarina is associate professor of English and Afro American and African studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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Belabored Professions

Narratives of African American Working Womanhood
By Xiomara Santamarina

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2005 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-5648-2


From Fields to White House

Four very different African American working women and texts are at the heart of this exploration of antebellum race, labor, and femininity. These autobiographers were born enslaved and free between 1797 and 1827 and lived and worked in different regions of the United States. They worked under northern and southern slavery, as free laborers in the South, in the North, and in the "West" of the day (the Western Reserve of Ohio), and they performed wide-ranging labor, from enslaved and indentured farm labor to domestic work as laundresses, nurses, and servants; from itinerant manual work to skilled artisanal labor as hairdresser and dressmaker for elite white women; as social arbiter for social climbers in Cincinnati; and even as "confidante" to a First Lady. Yet given this wide range of statuses and labor practices, in their texts, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Wilson, Eliza Potter, and Elizabeth Keckley all reclaim the value of their productivity, deconstruct the degraded nature of black women's labor, and reconnect this self-supporting labor to recognized norms for social legitimacy. When they chose this ground as the basis for their own advocacy, these women deliberately deployed the "power within their powerlessness" as workers to negotiate their cultural devaluation as black women.

Perhaps the best known of these women in her day and ours, Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), is credited with the famous address to the Akron, Ohio, Women's Rights Convention in 1851 that stands as the most recognizable instance of such a deliberate rhetorical deployment of labor. Born in upstate New York, Truth worked as a slave until age thirty, when she was emancipated in 1827 under New York State's emancipation laws. Though she worked mostly as a domestic servant between her emancipation and the occasion of the speech that launched her new midlife career as an activist, a central aspect of this speech (as recorded at that time by the Anti-Slavery Bugle) emphasized the link she established between her agricultural labor and the civic recognition to which she felt entitled: "I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman's rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?" Truth's description of her field labor resisted her transformation into one of the degraded creatures that her listeners could easily have associated with the exploited slave woman of antislavery discourse; instead, it emphasized her productivity with an inventory of different farm tasks: plowing, reaping, husking, chopping, and mowing.

This inventory of tasks illustrates how Truth represented herself as entitled to equality, not simply on the basis of being a woman, but as a formerly enslaved working woman. For Truth-who performed both domestic and farm labor while a slave-her history of field labor, in particular, functioned to prove she had "as much muscle" as a man and could perform "as much work as any man." Despite the negative connotations attached to black women's field labor, Truth supported her claim to being "woman's rights" on the basis of this working productivity. She chose to describe the labor she had performed as a member of one of the nation's most disparaged populations not to accede to that exploitation, but precisely as a basis for demanding civic recognition. When she did this, Truth located her enslaved agricultural labor in relation to Jeffersonian agrarian ideals that linked farming to civic virtue, ironically troping her own self-reliant figure as enslaved working woman to appear as a raced and gendered version of the early national "husbandman." Through this trope, Truth appealed to and contested the amnesia over the roles slaves and women played in producing this figure of republican virtue.

Truth's work history as enslaved agricultural worker and as freed, unskilled laborer aptly symbolizes the overdetermined and abject significations associated with the labor performed by black women, enslaved or free, in the antebellum United States. In an industrializing North rife with anxieties about the wide-ranging effects of social and economic transformations, emerging middle-class citizens and white workers found common ground in their pronounced distaste for "nigger work," "working like a nigger," or "slaving" in occupations that were viewed as particularly onerous and lowly. Black women's iconic debasement, produced in part by slavery's "degendering" of women who performed physical labor and by black women's disproportionately large presence in the bottom ranks of female workers (as menial or unskilled labor), meant their work (and not simply their sexual vulnerability as slaves/workers) could be viewed as a symptom of racial and gendered "degradation."

This potent mix of manual labor and degraded black femininity is evident in an anecdote Frederick Law Olmsted related from his travels in the South in the early 1850s:

We stopped, for some time, on this plantation, near where some thirty men and women were at work, repairing the road. The women were in majority, and were engaged at exactly the same labor as the men; driving the carts, loading them with dirt, and dumping them upon the road; cutting down trees, and drawing wood by hand, to lay across the miry places; hoeing, and shoveling.... Clumsy, awkward, gross, elephantine in all their movements; pouting, grinning, and leering at us; sly, sensual, and shameless, in all their expressions and demeanor; I never before had witnessed, I thought, anything more revolting than the whole scene.

Olmsted, writing as a reporter for a northern newspaper, attempted to record objectively the conditions in the South in an effort to persuade southerners of slavery's economic inefficiencies. But his inventory of these women's tasks-cutting, driving, hoeing, and shoveling-concludes with a perspective very different from Truth's: rather than testifying to these women's strength and to the economic benefits accrued from these slave women's versatility, these women's "fit" performance of labor is read as a sign of moral degradation. The leap in Olmsted's logic from the necessary physical exertions inhering in roadwork and the condition of these women's dress to his attribution of sensuality and "shameless" "leering" in what may have been simply their curiosity about his curiosity clearly underscores what appears to have been an almost visceral response to the sight of these women. So negatively do the women affect the antislavery reporter's sensibilities that he naturalizes their "degradation" and represents it as irrevocable: "If these women, and their children after them, were always naturally and necessarily to remain of the character and capacity stamped on their faces ... I don't know that they could be much less miserably situated, or guided more for their own good and that of the world, than they were. They were fat enough, and didn't look as if they were at all overworked, or harassed by cares, or oppressed by a consciousness of their degradation."

Even if today's readers recognize Truth's claim to her field labor as a proud one, Olmsted's remarkable description of these female slaves testifies anew to the high stakes involved in, and the contested nature of, Truth's public assertion of the value of women's manual, field labor. It also shows how antislavery insistence on the slave's inefficient labor potentially jeopardized the former slave's protest of her exploitation on the basis of that labor's value. As labor historian Jonathan Glickstein explains, "The antislavery movement's desire that political economy correspond with its sense of morality led it to ignore or screen out those objective developments that undercut this correspondence: above all, perhaps, the evidence of slave labor's actual viability in ... agricultural enterprise."

Scholars of Truth invoke her famous Akron speech almost exclusively in the context of her later public speaking career, which means that little, if any, connection has ever been made between the speech and the auto/biographical effort, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850), that closely preceded it. Though scholars commonly refer to later versions of Truth's collaborated auto/biographies (the 1875 and 1878 versions, in particular) in which accounts of Truth's speaking career figure prominently, the critical neglect of Truth's first effort at self-representation, published in collaboration with abolitionist amanuensis Olive Gilbert, has perpetuated The Narrative of Sojourner Truth's exclusion from the critical tradition of black/slave autobiography (which includes other "as told to" narratives). More important, however, this neglect has prevented recognition of the literary origins of Truth's egalitarian speaking persona. If we read The Narrative of Sojourner Truth as autobiography, we not only broaden our understanding of Truth's "authorship" of an autobiography; we also recognize the overlooked significance of her rhetorical embodiment as a black female worker. For a hallmark of this little-understood text is Truth's insistence on polemically deploying her productive labor, while a slave, as a basis for her membership in the body politic against, and despite, slavery's coercions.

Though Truth is renowned for her independence and polemical public persona, she was not alone in valuing the civic and cultural contributions of black working women's labor. Other antebellum texts published in different parts of the nation introduced readers in "local" public spheres to the working contributions of African Americans. From laundress Chloe Spear to wallpaper hanger Elleanor Eldridge, and from butler Robert Roberts to devoted Catholic barber Pierre Toussaint, the prosperity and success of presumed economically subordinate blacks were central aspects of a black publicity that preceded and, in most cases, existed outside the public spheres of abolitionist reform with which African American cultural production has been exclusively associated. Truth, commonly considered in isolation from other contemporary black women as something of an exception and even as "exotic," appears in this context as referring to and participating in a larger conversation concerned with black workers' contributions to various facets of national life and culture. One of my goals is to sketch the outlines of such a larger conversation and to imagine the questions, methods, and implications that arise from reading texts that are problematic for, and sometimes even indifferent to, the traditions of black protest and reform that have been identified as central to an emergent African American literary tradition.

Like Truth before them, Eliza Potter, Harriet Wilson, and Elizabeth Keckley autobiographically reformulated their agency along the lines of their labor, emphasizing the dignity of their work in all its aspects, even as they recognized the constraints and inequities structuring their work practices. Like many workers of the day, white and black, they tried to mediate the negative effects that emerged from the nation's industrialization-rationalized production, skill erosion, the permanent (and increasingly impoverished, or "dependent") status of wage labor-by appealing to often contradictory cultural discourses that bespoke the "dignity of labor" and the civic virtue of those who earned their living "by the sweat of the brow." Even if the day's harsh economic and social realities belied the democratic potential of the (white male) worker's political enfranchisement during the Jacksonian era, there was still a sense in which a consensus about the virtue of self-reliant labor offered workers an opportunity to claim their work as necessary and important to the nation's development. In this way, the autobiographies of Truth, Wilson, and Potter refer to, yet point beyond, the period's problematic rhetorical contexts for black women's labor: they illustrate the overlooked role these women played in the shift from earlier views that validated skilled labor exclusively, to broader views on the dignity of all kinds of wage labor, and to a more universalistic understanding of citizenship that included all wage workers-black, white, male, and female.

As authors, these women spoke out about the symbolic, social, and economic value that they produced under difficult circumstances not to accede to their exploitation as field workers or as domestic or personal servants, but rather to redeem the status of increasingly commodified, deskilled, and devalued labor precisely as a basis for civic recognition. It almost goes without saying: this was an exceptionally difficult task. But to some extent African American working women shared the challenges that white (immigrant and native) women faced working in a culture that simultaneously exploited and demeaned their labor. Contradictory attitudes about women's labor during the antebellum period sparked both black and white women's protests of the devaluation of their work and assertions of their entitlement to the sexual and economic independence their wages afforded them, even as the poorest of wage workers. As one Lowell, Massachusetts, factory woman responded when asked why she continued working in the mills despite the lengthy hours and low wages: "Why [do] we work here? The time we do have is our own. The money we earn comes promptly; more so than in any other situation; and our work, though laborious is the same from day to day; we know what it is, and when finished we feel perfectly free." Their exploitation did not constitute an argument against their working, but quite the opposite: it offered them a site from which they could argue for a civic and social entitlement to which they did not otherwise have access as spouses, daughters, and domestic laborers. Consequently, when they described their work, working women invoked republican rights rhetorics that emphasized the independence-producing, or character-building, potential of their wage labor. While these rights languages were eclipsed by the emergence of the "cult of true womanhood" in the 1840s and 1850s, texts like the Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge (1839), in which a white amanuensis argued specifically for the rights of a "colored laboring woman" to fight a white man's theft of her property, stand as an instance of white and black women's earlier, more volatile, discourses about labor. Despite black women's invisibility in accounts of industrializing and collectivizing labor, these autobiographies dramatize the degree to which black working women continued to work within this "tradition" as participants in the late-nineteenth-century radicalizing of labor, leading the way for later formulations valorizing women's "right to labor."

Even as this working publicity points to existing interracial concerns about women's labor, it also displays the specificity of racial difference. This is not surprising, given the material and cultural disadvantages African American working women experienced in comparison to white working women. Black women occupied the narrowest range of occupational opportunity (narrower even than that of immigrant women) over longer periods of their lives than did white working women, many of whom viewed factory or wage labor in terms of temporary participation in the marketplace prior to marriage (although certainly marriage in itself did not guarantee "rising" above labor). That is, even as white women struggled against poverty and the association of labor, femininity, and degradation, they had more "safety nets" in place than black women. Black working women, for example, who married black men-among the poorest workers in the nation-were much more likely to continue working after marriage: for these women, labor, not marriage, was the greater certainty.

More important, unlike most white women, black women performing public labor-as opposed to private, or "domestic" unpaid labor-constantly had to mediate the "public" iconicity that was conferred on them by their racial proximity to slavery, if not their status as slaves or ex-slaves. Even as they "exploited" their own conditions of working exploitation to contest their racial and gendered debasement, this selfsame autobiographical publicity could reinscribe their hypervisibility, not simply as gender deviants, but as representatives of African Americans' racial degeneracy. Even if the labor of white women potentially degendered them, this degradation was not seen as a racial characteristic, or as testifying to the nature of all white women. Because of the representational dynamics of racial synecdoche-wherein one ethnically or racially marked individual is perceived to represent the whole race-black women's degradation as workers could and did become easily conflated with notions of blackness-male and female-as racially degenerate.


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Table of Contents


Preface. It Is No Disgrace for Either Sex to Engage in An Honorable Employment


Introduction. From Fields to White House

Part I. Constraints

Chapter 1. Race, Work, and Literary Authority in The Narrative of Sojourner Truth

Chapter 2. The View from Below: Menial Labor and Self-Reliance in Harriet Wilson's Our Nig

Part II. Opportunities

Chapter 3. Enterprising Women and the Labors of Femininity: Eliza Potter, Cincinnati Hairdresser

Chapter 4. Behind the Scenes of Black Labor: Elizabeth Keckley and the Scandal of Publicity

Coda. Moving Beyond Antebellum Reform: African American Working Women and their Traditions




Slave women working on the roads in South Carolina

Elleanor Eldridge

Sojourner Truth

Cincinnati Daily Gazette review of A Hairdresser's Experience in High Life, October 19, 1859

Cincinnati Daily Commercial review of A Hairdresser's Experience in High Life, October 20, 1859

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Offers the promising approach of using labor as a means to parse the interlocking identities of race, class, and gender.—American Historical Review

Providing an erudite analysis of an under-appreciated text, Santamarina deepens our understanding of nineteenth-century black working women's commitment to making and disseminating knowledge about themselves, their community, and the wider world. Such insight makes Belabored Professions an invaluable contribution to the fields of literary criticism, American history, and African American studies.—North Carolina Historical Review

If the only accomplishment of this book were to provide new information about the four women and their texts, it would be a welcome contribution to the field. That it accomplishes so much more makes it an awesome addition. Xiomara Santamarina takes texts that have refused to fit comfortably into existing paradigms and shows us how to reshape our paradigms to fit the rediscovered texts. She appropriately blends labor history and literary analysis, cultural studies and feminist theory into a proper consistency with which to work the materials of nineteenth-century African American women's lives. Without sacrificing interest or accessibility, Belabored Professions becomes a model for others who labor in the research profession itself.—Frances Smith Foster, Emory University Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746-1892

Widens the frame of analysis for reading the lives and texts of nineteenth-century Black women. . . . A must read for scholars, teachers, and students of gender, race, and class studies as well as literary studies.—Legacy

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