Jarena Lee

The revolutionary nature of travel through the written word

Written by Money Mathibela

Edited by Katya Zabelski

Illustrated by Maia Walcott

Like a great deal of black women, I have always marvelled at the well-deserved justice extended to history makers who have been dealt a great disservice due to their historical context.  Jarena Lee shifted the narrative of literary and travel culture, highlighting how pre-historical writing by black folk only carried with it trauma-inducing undertones. Dr. Kiefer Lambert did a remarkable job of showing African American women in a post-emancipation America as creatives engaging in literary works detailing travel, a mostly pleasurable activity of leisure. The report eased the overwhelming burden of having to read and write about the dreadful experiences of prehistoric black women. 

Jarena Lee made exceptional use of her being born of free status in a time where most people of her race were not. She paved the way for there to be a precedent of literary and ministerial presence within her community. When I recently read former first lady Michelle Obama’s popular best-selling memoir, Becoming, I was filled with a sense of great pride that this type of literary style about one’s personal life journeys was made possible and popularized by Jarena Lee’s brave precedent. It is easy to lose sight of such important work in history as most historical work that embodies that impacted freedom in America today is that of marchers, freedom fighters and political groundbreakers. As highlighted by Dr. Kiefer Lambert, Life and Religious Experience (1836) was important as the documentation of travel through literature by African American women has seldom been branded an act of political rebellion and revolution.

It would even be an understatement to attempt to further commend Jarena Lee’s work half as excellently as Dr. Lambert did, but it feels worthy to mention that Jarena Lee’s project is even more impressive given that she was a self-taught writer with no prior literary training and education.  I can safely assume that the AME’s rejection to publish her journal due to undecipherable literary style was because it included entries with inconsistently dated passages that opposed the norm of evangelical writing written by ministers and pastors back then. I imagine it was difficult for the church, which was initially skeptical to let a woman take a pulpit, to find pleasure in reading Jarena’s humorous diary entry where she was indifferent about the death of a proprietor who denied her a church stage. Reading through some passages that were cited by Dr. Lambert, I am deeply inspired by Jarena Lee’s remarkable perseverance. She not only preached the word, she lived it. Her (journal) entries were reminiscent and illustrative of an African American woman’s thoughts, experiences, and opinions, which were not cared for by her community and the rest of the world in the nineteenth century, as highlighted by the AME’s resistance to publish her journal. Centralizing travel in her journal paved the way for women in the nineteenth century to find freedom to travel through itinerancy. She walked, so her fellow African American women aspirant preachers and travelers could run. 

As a pioneer of journal and travel writing, Jarena’s freedom to be selective and specific about which destinations she documented in her book is a profound depiction of the practice of her freedom to control the directive narrative of her work. Dr. Holland’s opinion that this was a philosophical and political stance is true because only the author of a memoir-style project is the sole person informed of one’s life experiences.  Also, the miscellaneous details in autobiographies are always often left out to avoid repetition and the over-saturation of information. Those being unable to be subject to fact-checking makes them an anomaly that made Jarena’s omission of some of her travels interesting, but also became a commend-worthy aspect of her overall freedom.  “The Religious Experience and Journal” journal format did not in turn make it obligatory for Lee to be explicitly open about every minute detail of her endeavors, the admission of the omission asserted this fact all too clearly. The selection of travel as the only theme Dr. Lambert focuses on, out of the other notable ones in Jarena Lee’s autobiography, perfectly encapsulates the overlooked themes of political freedom through literature, especially by African American and black women. Dr. Lambert’s keen eye for unappreciated details is exceptional, allowing me to truly praise Jarena Lee for different reasons than what the general public does. 

Experiencing Jarena Lee through new lenses in Dr. Lambert’s work was astounding. Seeing a black woman create a platform to enable herself to not be boxed into just one rebellious role makes for a newfound appreciation of the opportunities afforded to writers today. Jarena Lee’s influence paved way for the travel influencers, enabled Sarah Jakes to exist as a preacher, inspired the Gabrielle Unions (We’re going to need more wine) to venture into autobiographical work and created space for the overall aspirant multidimensional talents across the world sitting on gold mines. Dr. Lambert’s ability to see and highlight beneath what is appreciated at face value is revolutionary and commendable. It was a joy to read about this multi-talented woman.  Political rebellion comes in many forms, it just took a brave widower to set that admirable and iconic precedent.

Money Mathibela is a 25 year old law graduate, attorney trainee and freelance writer from Pretoria in South Africa. She has contributed greatly towards the area of empowering people of colour using her legal training and writing endeavors. Her projects have been published in magazines such as Teenbelle, Future Black Female, Into, diem and African Arguments.

Jarena Lee

“Notwithstanding I had my opposers I out-live them”

Jarena Lee Religious Experience and Journal (1849), page 78.

Written by Dr Kiefer Lambert

Edited by Jessica Hannah

Illustrated by Maia Walcott

Jarena Lee was born on 11th February 1783 in Cape May, New Jersey, and is thought to have died on 5th February 1864 in Philadelphia at the age of eighty (Knight 63-67). Although she is generally thought to have been born into freedom, more research is needed to confirm if Lee was indeed the daughter of free parents. When she was seven, Lee was sent “to live as a servant maid . . . about sixty miles from the place of [her] birth” (Lee 3). When she was in her early twenties, after finding religion and becoming a devout Christian, Lee appealed to Reverend Richard Allen to be allowed to preach. Allen, who was a leading figure in the African American religious community, refused to allow her to preach because he was opposed to female preaching (Lee 11). Jarena then married Joseph Lee in 1811, when she was twenty-seven or twenty-eight years old, and had at least two children. She was left a widow sometime between 1816 and 1819, when she would have been between thirty-two and thirty-six years old. At some point between 1816 and 1821, Lee finally did become a preacher after she seized the pulpit from a male preacher who, as she puts it, “seemed to have lost the spirit”, and delivered the rest of the sermon in his place (Lee 17). Her radical seizure of the pulpit led Allen, who was by that time the first bishop of the African-American Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, to overturn his earlier decision and recognise Lee as a preacher. She then took up her work as an itinerant (travelling) preacher, and travelled extensively across the US and into Canada, including into southern slave-holding states. Lee documented her early life and her work as an itinerant preacher for the AME Church in two autobiographical texts: Life and Religious Experience (1836) and Religious Experience and Journal (1849; hereafter Journal). The Journal reproduces and expands upon the earlier work. Lee funded the publication of both books herself and presented a version of the Journal to the AME Church in 1844 in the hope that they would publish it. However, the Church rejected the text for being, in their opinion, “written in such a manner that it is impossible to decipher much of the meaning contained in it” (Payne 190).

Whilst there are many possible ways to approach the Journal, this article will focus on travel as a theme and Lee’s self-characterisation as a travelling woman. Throughout the US in the nineteenth century, the movement of African Americans was highly policed by white Americans. Before emancipation, African Americans would need papers to prove that they were free when they moved between states, and when they travelled through states where slavery was legal, to satisfy white Americans that they were not runaways, insurrectionists, or agents on the Underground Railroad. After emancipation, de facto (societally enforced) and de jure (legally enforced) segregation would determine the spaces where it was acceptable for Black people to eat, travel, run businesses, live, or worship. Some of those restrictions continued until the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which, at the very least, ended de jure segregation.

In Lee’s Journal, travel is a constant feature of the “compact, ritualistic entries” that make up the majority of the work (Bassard 91). Those entries are stitched together into passages, rather than separated under dated headings, as might be expected in a diary or journal. Lee does sometimes provide dates, but not consistently. The entries describe Lee’s experiences in the places she visited, including the number of people she converted, the biblical passages she preached from, and any resistance she faced, before quickly shifting on to discuss the next location in her travels. An indicative example of Lee’s approach to recording her life and work can be seen in the following:

a friend carried me to Downingtown, where I took stage and went on to Lancaster; but prospect not so good there; they had a new Church but not paid for; the proprietor took the key in possession and deprived them of worshipping God in it. But I spoke in a dwelling house, and I felt a great zeal for the cause of God to soften that man’s heart or kill him out of the way; one had better die than many. Brother Israel Williams, a few days [later], called to converse with him on the subject, and he gave him the key; he was then on his death-bed, and died in a short time afterwards, and we must leave him in the hands of God, for he can open and no man can shut. I went on to Columbia and spoke in the Church, and my tongue fails to describe the encouragement I met with. The Lord converted poor mourners, convicted sinners, and strengthened believers in the most holy faith. God’s name be glorified for the display of his saving power. I led class, held prayer meetings, and left with a good conscience for little York. The first sermon I preached was in the Church at 10 o’clock in the morning, from Mat. xxvi, 26, 27, to a large congregation. (41)

In the highly compacted typeface of the Journal, the above quotation only takes up about half a page, despite detailing Lee’s experiences at three separate locations in Pennsylvania: Lancaster, Columbia, and York (see Fig. 1). For nearly eighty pages, from the point that Allen overturns his original decision not to allow Lee to preach, on page 17, to the end of the Journal, on page 97, Lee’s text, and Lee herself as the protagonist of that text, are almost constantly moving along at this rapid pace. The combination of that narrative tempo, Lee’s extensive travelling, and her exhaustive documentation of her journeying, makes travel a central theme within the book. The centrality of travel shapes the Journal into a kind of travelogue and fashions Lee’s characterisation within the book as a woman who is always on the move (Roberson 83). That characterisation of Lee as a travelling woman carried a clear and important message for African American women: despite the restrictions placed upon African Americans in the nineteenth century, and despite the sexist resistance that Lee faced, itinerant preaching presented a route to achieving the freedom to travel. 

Nevertheless, towards the middle of the Journal, Lee undermines the meticulous recording of her travelling by stating that she preached “at many other places too tedious for me to mention” and that she had been “visiting many places too tedious to mention”, which complicates how travel functions in the text (37, 39). Suddenly, Lee leaves the Journal behind and steps out of view, creating a break between the travel that she is recorded performing in the Journal and the travel that she carried out in the real world. Importantly, we only know that this omission has taken place because Lee tells us what she isn’t telling us. There is no need for her to acknowledge that there are places and experiences she found “too tedious” to record; as the author of the text and the only person who really knew her travelling, she could simply have chosen not to mention the omitted material at all. Therefore, Lee’s acknowledgment of the omission suggests that she had a purpose in pointing out her choice to keep some of her journeying out of the Journal. One possible motivation behind Lee’s authorial decision to omit travel and then acknowledge the omission was to further strengthen her self-characterisation as a travelling woman who is always on the move by creating an additional imagined world of travel that extends beyond even the substantial travel recorded in the Journal. Another potential motivation could have been to personally, politically, and philosophically assert her right to travel without documentation by declaring her control over the travel she disclosed and the travel she kept private. Throughout all of this, it is important to remain aware of the possibility that the travel Lee says she omitted did not actually take place. As with most autobiographical writing, Lee was able to accurately retell, or deviate from, reality in order to present herself and her life however she wanted.

Examining the theme of travel in Lee’s Journal brings out a series of interconnected and complex strands to the work, covering the expectations of autobiographical writing, the motivations and purposes of the authors of autobiography, how those motivations and purposes might reveal themselves through close reading, and how all of this affects an analytical approach to the reliability of autobiographical writing. Discussing those strands would push undergraduates to think deeply about their understanding of the relationship between an author and their autobiographical work. To the above analysis could be added literary theory on autobiography and travel writing, or discussions of history and the use of historical context when we read, or theories from Critical Race Theory and/or Black Studies.

Figure 1. Jarena Lee, Journal, 41.

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Selected Bibliography

Brekus, Catherine A. Strangers & Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845. University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Bassard, Katherine Clay. Spiritual Interrogations: Culture, Gender, and Community in Early African American Women’s Writing. Princeton University Press, 1999.

Knight, Frederick. “The Many Names for Jarena Lee.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 141, no. 1, 2017, pp. 59-68. Project Muse, url: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/686405. Accessed 5 June 2019.

Lee, Jarena. Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, Giving an Account of her Call to Preach the Gospel. Jarena Lee, Philadelphia, 1849, in Sue E. Houchins, ed. Spiritual Narratives, Oxford University Press, 1988. Internet Archive, url: https://archive.org/details/spiritualnarrati00mari/. Accessed 11 April 2023.

Roberson, Susan L. Antebellum American Women Writers and the Road: American Mobilities. Routledge, 2011.

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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