Do Me Justice: Responses to the Literature and History of Six 19th Century African American Women

Written by Dr Kiefer Lambert

Edited by Jessica Hannah

Illustrated by Maia Walcott

Introduction

“Children, as there is no school to-day, will you read Sojourner the reports of the Convention? I want to see whether these young sprigs of the press do me justice.”

– Sojourner Truth, quoted in Anthony, Gage and Stanton, History of Woman Suffrage Vol. 2 (1881), page 926.

When, in the late 1860s, Sojourner Truth challenged the “young sprigs of the press” to do her justice, she was perhaps being a little unfair. By that time, Truth was already the legendary figure that many people are familiar with today: the tall, physically powerful, formerly enslaved woman, who had walked away from her enslaver’s plantation because he had broken an agreement to free her, had become involved in the Cult of Matthias in New York City, had shunned her enslaved name by renaming herself Sojourner Truth, had calmed a riotous mob by singing to them, had published her narrative, had begun copyrighting and selling portraits of herself to raise money, had campaigned for women’s rights, had stopped Frederick Douglass mid-speech with the question “Is God Gone?”, and had given her own famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. No one, apart from Truth herself, could ever really hope to “do justice” to her. 

Fortunately for me as a researcher, and unfortunately for me as a writer, Truth is not an exceptional figure amongst the six African American women that I research. Researching Jarena Lee, Maria Stewart, Harriet Tubman, Charlotte Forten, and Anna Julia Cooper is just as rewarding, and doing them any sort of justice is just as difficult. Nevertheless, it is my hope that the six brief articles that form my part of this collaboration with Project Myopia do those women some kind of justice and contribute to the essential work of encouraging the study of Lee, Stewart, Truth, Tubman, Forten, and Cooper, and the lives and literatures of African American women more broadly. Each of my articles focuses upon one woman, and includes a brief biography, a discussion of one element of her literature, and a suggestion about how studying her work would be a beneficial addition to undergraduate curricula. I largely concentrate upon English Literature and History curricula, because they are the two disciplines that I am most familiar with, but the literature I discuss is rich and complex and would be highly beneficial across a broad scope of disciplines. 

I am delighted that this collaboration with Project Myopia has already resulted in more engagement with the lives and literatures of the women that I study, through the work that has been commissioned to go alongside my articles using financial support from the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities. Those commissions include critical and creative companion pieces to my articles by Black female writers and reimagined portraits of Lee, Stewart, Truth, Tubman, Forten, and Cooper created by Maïa Walcott, a Black female artist. During our initial conversations about this collaboration, Rianna and Maïa placed those commissions within the context of the limited availability of material by and about Black women in archives, which have historically been curated with a myopic dismissal of the value of preserving materials relating to women of colour. The shortage of archival material relating to Black women that results from that myopic approach to preservation means that it is essential to develop engaged creative and critical responses to the material that we do have available to us. The outputs of that engagement with what we can and cannot know about Black women throughout history builds up the archives themselves through the creation of new materials that learn from, preserve, and reimagine the legacies of Black women. Therefore, the inspirational works produced by Maïa and the writers are vitally important to both this collaboration and the legacies of Lee, Stewart, Truth, Tubman, Forten, and Cooper. 

The creation of freely available resources on the Black women that I study is another important aspect of this series. Regardless of my personal values or the values of my work, it remains the case that I am a white, male, British, funded researcher whose research into nineteenth-century African American women’s lives and literatures engages with historic and continuing traumas that I have not experienced and cannot comprehend. It would be unacceptable for me to lock all of my research away in academic publications that are often hard to access and would therefore only really benefit my reputation as a researcher. Keeping that knowledge trapped within the academy would do little to preserve and celebrate the legacies of the women that I study or to encourage engagement with their lives and works.

Ultimately, this series aims to bring Lee, Stewart, Truth, Tubman, Forten, and Cooper more public attention. I hope that it helps build their legacies and living archives, and I hope that it encourages educators to teach nineteenth-century African American women’s literature in their classes, seminars, and lectures. Most of all, I hope that the series does some justice to the incredible Black women that I have the privilege of studying, and who continue to amaze and confound me with the depth of meaning in their work every time I return to their writing, speeches, and storytelling.

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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