Charlotte Forten

Charlotte Forten and This Dream I Am Born With

Written by Niko Nelson

Edited by Katya Zabelski

Illustrated by Maia Walcott

https://open.spotify.com/episode/24FlNOnxDWj9T110BzKvKe?si=61e4cb5ae10144de

Dear C,

You have come to me

To become the reverend 

of what I have thought entirely 

For the society within me 

Transcends time 

Dissolves our relaxed past 

Inspires our self-same continuum 

Where I have been you all along

But you never me

Except as the spirit I call upon 

In my waking dreams

I cannot see or hear, yet I am

Every new thought, what I have always known 

You made of me centuries ago

And this dream I am born with 

Fills the lines running through all 

Our lower levels with the unfinished

Fit into floors

For the flesh rebirths 

Every word spins 

Lives that couldn’t exist

Then or now

Yet here we are

Yet hear we in arms see

Every year of each moment landing where we meet

Twins twitching to soothed sounds of chaos 

Vibrating at perfect pitch 

for me to reach

Across seas and flickering lights of fire 

Electrifying the sight of my eyes 

Reflecting mirrored light

There is not much more beyond 

Colors never touched but felt

The moment sound is word is meaning 

It’s a hot burning light you made 

Our sun turns a future to be known again

I see your face on trees and their missing branches 

Rewind this moment’s unfolding clarity 

Release our hold on the eternal string that even cut, still one

A drop in the rising level of what has been 

Knowing we see what is

A week but a lifetime flown by

For me to see our eyes closed and brow bowed

I think it was maybe you adjusting my vision 

All those years ago

crazed in the context of what was

So know I see Now 

This unified vision every breath

We pass through the earth’s shadow

Underneath the Sabbath moon

Niko Nelson is a multi-genre writer from California. She was featured in the Library Foundation of Los Angeles’ Writing Our Future, as well as in the anthology That Devil Music: Best Rock Writing. Her work has also appeared in places like Art Nouveau Magazine, Monday Night Press, Language Trainers and Empty Mirror. She received her BA in Literary Studies from The New School University and her MFA in Creative Writing from Otis College of Art and Design.

 

Charlotte Forten

“Constantly I ask myself Cowley’s question ‘what shall I do to be forever known?’ 

This is ambition, I know. But, oh! How very hard it is to do and feel what is right.”

 – Charlotte Forten, Journals (1854-1892), page 261.

Written by Dr Kiefer Lambert

Edited by Jessica Hannah

Illustrated by Maia Walcott

Charlotte Forten stands out from the other African American women in this series because of her comparatively privileged background. Whilst she still faced the brutalities of race- and gender-based discrimination, Forten was born into a free, wealthy, middle-class family on 17th August 1837 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her parents were Mary Virginia Woods and Robert Bridges Forten. Her paternal grandfather, James Forten, was a Revolutionary War veteran, sailor, inventor, and entrepreneur, whose fortune the Forten family were still reliant upon when Charlotte was born (Forten 3-5; Maillard 52). Her mother founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 alongside Charlotte’s paternal grandmother, Charlotte Vandine, and aunts, Margaretta, Sarah, and Mary Forten (Forten 9). In 1853, when she was sixteen, Charlotte moved to Salem, Massachusetts, to complete her studies in a non-segregated school environment (Forten 17). After studying at Higginson Grammar School and Salem Normal School, Forten became a schoolteacher, before going on to do the work that she is primarily remembered for: teaching formerly enslaved people in the South Sea Islands after they had been freed during the US Civil War (1861-1865) (Forten 23, 28, 37). Forten travelled to the South Sea Islands in October 1862 and remained there for around eighteen months. In December 1878, Forten married the Reverend Francis Grimké in Washington, DC (Forten 51). In January 1880, she gave birth to her only child, a daughter called Theodora. Sadly, Theodora died five months later, on 19th June 1880 (Forten 52). Forten died in Washington, DC on 22nd July 1914 (Forten 55).

The central focus for people studying Forten is usually her Journals, a collection of five separate diaries that she began in 1854 and kept until 1892, which were collated into a single volume and transcribed by Brenda Stevenson for publication in 1988. The journal entries are an eclectic mix of personal reflections, daily narratives, gossip, and literary criticism, and include demands for more abolitionist sentiment from the clergy, an off-hand comment about the personal life of famed African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and accounts of Forten’s experiences wearing bloomers (66, 86, 151, 240). Amongst that mix, one consistent feature in the entries is Forten’s extensive reading. Kristen Hillaire Glasgow’s collation of the texts that Forten mentions reading in the Journals includes over 180 writers and nearly 300 works (204-225). That extensive reading is indicative of the importance that literature held in Forten’s life, not only as something that she enjoyed reading, but as something which she also enjoyed creating. She wrote at least fourteen poems, seven of which were published, eleven essays, three of which were published, and one unpublished short story (Alexopoulus et al. passim). After printing Forten’s poetry in his collection, The Black Man (1863), William Wells Brown proclaimed that “were she white, America would recognize her as one of its brightest gems” (199). In 1869, Scribner published Forten’s English translation of Émile Erckmann’s Madame Thérèse (1863). However, despite her successes in gaining publication, Forten never received the kind of recognition that Brown insisted she deserved. 

Within the Journals, Forten’s literary engagement and her writerly ambitions become intertwined in her diary entries, which display writing techniques that she picked up from the literature she read. In her response to Dinah Maria Mulock Craik’s A Life for a Life (1859), for example, she wrote:

A little while ago a friend read to me Miss Mullock’s [sic] ‘A Life for a Life.’ The journal letters, which I liked so much, were at first addressed to an unknown friend. So shall mine be. What name shall I give to thee, oh ami inconnu? It will be safer to give merely an initial – A. (362; emphasis original)

After giving her imagined reader this identity, Forten sporadically addresses entries to “dear A”, such as in the following: “There, dear A., I have forgotten to tell you the cause of our fright last night” (419). Elsewhere, Forten uses Gothic tones when discussing Elizabeth Hawthorne, who she describes as having “an eerie, spectral look which instantly brought to my mind the poem of ‘The Ancient Mariner,’ and for a moment gave me the strange, undefined feeling of dread and yet of fascination which I so powerfully experienced while reading that ghostly tale” (84-85). Apart from Forten’s literary reference to “The Ancient Mariner”, which creates a Gothic framing for her representation of Elizabeth, the description of Elizabeth as “eerie” and “spectral”, and Forten’s narration of her own “dread” and “fascination”, are applications of Gothic literary style that are undoubtedly deliberate, rather than incidental, because Elizabeth was the sister of the Gothic writer Nathanial Hawthorne.

Those adoptions of writing techniques that were picked up from publicly available literature are an interesting inclusion within the Journals, which initially appear to be private writings that were never intended for a public audience. Other than a two-part article about her time on the South Sea Islands, which Forten developed from her journal entries for publication in The Atlantic in 1864, the Journals themselves were never published during her lifetime, nor is there any known archival evidence that she sought to publish them. Nevertheless, the use of writing styles from popular fiction, even within that private-seeming autobiographical document, suggests an attempt to prepare the Journals for a public readership, blurring the lines between Forten the diarist and Forten the creative writer. Those blurred lines have created some uncertainty amongst scholars about whether the text can be properly classified as a private document or if Forten had some unknown public ambitions for the work (Braxton 90; Koch 61; Peterson 185; Xavier 445). Those potential public ambitions create uncertainty around the reliability of the text itself, because if Forten intended some of the Journals to be read by the public then she may have shaped the text to present her life in a way that she considered appropriate for a public audience. If Forten did not have a public audience in mind, she is more likely to have been direct and candid and therefore more reliable. 

The combination of historical interest, created through Forten’s engagement with key figures and events of the nineteenth century, and her literary experimentation, makes her Journals a valuable text for study on undergraduate History and English Literature courses. A key skill that History students are expected to develop is the ability to scrutinise the reliability of a historical source. Forten’s Journals would be a good test of that ability, because of the potential unreliability caused by her turns to fictional writing techniques. English Literature students are taught about unreliable narrators, but asking them to consider the impact of a potentially unreliable narrator in a text that appears to be private autobiography would push their understanding of unreliable narrators further and could lead to deeper questions about whether autobiographies are always a little unreliable.

Selected Bibliography

Alexopoulus, Michelle, et al. “The Life and Works of Charlotte Forten Grimké.” 11 June 1996. Charlotte Forten Folder. Salem Public Library Archive. 

Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition. Temple University Press, 1989.

Brown, William Wells, The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. Documenting the American South, url: https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/brownww/brown.html. Accessed 11 April 2019.

Erckmann, Emile. Madame Thérèse; or, The volunteers of ’92. Translated by Charlotte Forten, Charles Scribner and Company, 1869. Hathi Trust, url: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=miun.ahs1924.0001.001&seq=3. Accessed 10 August 2023

Forten, Charlotte. The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké, edited by Brenda Stevenson Oxford University Press, 1988.

Glasgow, Kristen Hillaire. Charlotte Forten: Coming of Age as a Radical Teenage Abolitionist, 1854-1856. PhD Dissertation. University of California, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, 2019. ProQuest, url: https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/charlotte-forten-coming-age-as-radical-teenage/docview/2354422734/se-2?accountid=10673. Accessed 26 February 2022.

Koch, Lisa M. “Bodies as Stage Props: Enacting Hysteria in the Diaries of Charlotte Forten Grimké and Alice James.” Legacy, vol. 15, no. 1, 1998, pp. 59-64. JStor, url: https://www.jstor.org/stable/25679251. Accessed 13 November 2018.

Maillard, Mary, editor. Whispers of Cruel Wrongs: The Correspondence of Louisa Jacobs and Her Circle, 1879-1911. University of Wisconsin Press, 2017.Peterson, Carla L. “Doers of the Word”: African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880). Oxford University Press, 1995.

 

Kiefer Lambert (né Holland) completed his PhD and a short postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Edinburgh between September 2018 and October 2023. He now works in professional services at the University of Manchester, where he supports academic staff with their funding applications.

Maïa Walcott is a multidisciplinary artist working across mediums and specialising in illustration, painting and sculpture. Her focus is on British Caribbean home-making traditions and how Caribbeans used art and culture to make a new ‘home place’ in Britain. She has illustrated for major organisations like the Wellcome Collection and has contributed her art to publications such as The Colour of Madness and The Bad Mind Zine.

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