Maria Stewart

Mother Of All Souls

Written by Jamila Pereira

In response to Dr. Kiefer Lambert

Edited by Katya Zabelski

Illustrated by Maia Walcott

Immeasurable and unbearable, those are our feelings. 

Not theirs to carry or theirs to scrutinise, they are ours to keep. 

These feelings of ours are as heavy as rocks and as strong as Aqueles. 

“So yes, they might doom us too.” 

Change is no longer an option at the table, so we ought to, and we will hold anger and bitterness deep within until we can no longer breathe. 

Coloniality engraved our names on its chest and denied us of any dignity. 

And even though we’re invisible in this rotten society, its eyes layer thickly through our skin.

As we choke in dreams of liberation and plant seeds of revolution, we wonder whose freedom do we long for beneath these corpses.

Ours or yours? 

A burden too hefty to bear when the duty isn’t truly ours to execute. 

The patriarchal imprint in our backs will never be acknowledged or valued

Thus, the struggle will never dissipate, it will never be destroyed. 

Will healing ever be a solution, if we have not been granted the right to walk yet?

So, as I rise, pave towards freedom and lose my words across the seven winds,

I pray you listen.

I pray you dare shame us. The epitome of life itself!

As if your existence and someone’s meaty lips were not sacredly married through a stroke and eternity. 

Don’t you know I dance vigorously through fertility as I approach the Red Sea? 

It isn’t a heartbeat, but yes, a tuneful uterus that guides me every step of the way. 1,2,3, and maybe 4 steps through vessels, rivers, and fluids. 

Although we can’t swim against the patriarchal tide and our breathing gets heavier every time, we still reach the full moon in this resilient pink canoe. 

Bow down as the Mother of all souls deploys everlasting damehood between our thighs: the gift to gift life, love, deceit and, nonetheless, bloody Marie.

Jamila is a Bissau-Guinean freelance writer, poet and International Relations graduate, based in Leeds. Jamila’s work can be avidly found both in Portuguese and English, through platforms such as Black Ballad, Grown Magazine and Bantumen, where she explores the politics of the identity of Black women in the diaspora and beyond. She is also a screenplay writer, a shortlisted member of the Top 20 Merky Books Writer’s Camp 2019 and a co-author of anti-racist and political anthologies published by Brazillian publisher, Editora Urutau.

Maria Stewart

“Oh, America, America, foul and indelible is thy stain! Dark and dismal is the cloud that hangs over thee, for thy cruel wrongs and injuries to the fallen sons of Africa. The blood of her murdered ones cries to heaven for vengeance against thee.”

– Maria Stewart, Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart (1835), page 18.

Written by Dr. Kiefer Lambert

Edited by Jessica Hannah

Illustrated by Maia Walcott

In four separate texts, Maria Stewart used the same brief summary of her early life:

I was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1803; was left an orphan at five years of age; was bound out in a clergyman’s family; had the seeds of piety and virtue early sown in my mind; but was deprived of the advantages of education, though my soul thirsted for knowledge. Left them at 15 years of age; attended Sabbath Schools until I was 20; in 1826, was married to James W. Stewar[t]; was left a widow in 1829; was, as I humbly hope and trust, brought to the knowledge of the truth, as it is in Jesus, in 1830; in 1831, made a public profession of my faith in Christ. (Productions 3-4)

Even within that short autobiography, it is evident that grief played a prominent role in Stewart’s life. She lost her parents when she was five years old, and in her mid-to-late twenties she lost her husband in 1829 and David Walker, a close friend and famed Black abolitionist, in 1830. However, for Stewart, grief was not solely a personal experience. Instead, grief was a central part of Black life in the nineteenth century US, and she explores that centrality in her semi-autobiographical short story “The First Stage of Life” (1861) through the life of her protagonist, Letitia (Gardner 163). Therefore, as there is no known existing portrait of her, it is highly fitting that Maïa Walcott’s imaginative portrait of Stewart uses a veil to poignantly express that grief, whilst addressing the fact that her features remain unknown to us. 

After her husband’s death and her conversion to Christianity, Stewart rose to prominence in Boston in the early 1830s as a political activist, public speaker, and writer. Whilst she was still in her early thirties, Stewart’s revolutionary rhetoric saw her face such strong opposition that she was forced to leave Boston. Sometime between September 1833 and April 1834 she moved to New York State, where she worked as a teacher. She moved to Baltimore, Maryland in 1852, and then on to Washington, D.C. in 1861, taking up teaching positions in both cities. Stewart was appointed Matron of the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington in the early 1870s, and remained in the city until she died in December 1879 (Richardson 84-102).

During the early 1830s, Stewart’s essays and speeches found a home in an abolitionist newspaper called The Liberator. Outside of publication in The Liberator, Stewart produced two pamphlets and one book in the 1830s: “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality” (1831), “Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart” (1832), and Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart (1835). Much later, Stewart wrote “The Proper Training of Children” (1861), an essay derived from a speech that she had given at the Ladies’ Literary Festival in 1860, and the aforementioned short children’s story entitled “The First Stage of Life” (1861), which both appeared in an African American publication called Repository of Religion and Literature, and of Science and Art (see Gardner 156-157). Finally, Stewart published Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart in 1879, reusing the name of her 1832 pamphlet. Meditations reproduces the text of Productions (1835) along with the addition of a preface, letters of commendation, a biographical sketch that was written by an acquaintance, and a short autobiographical piece by Stewart entitled “Sufferings During the War.”

Throughout her texts, Stewart’s complex rhetoric seamlessly intertwines multiple themes. Those themes include Black Americanness, self-making, Christianity, and the jeremiad. Stewart’s rhetoric of Black Americanness asserts that Black Americans are due the same rights as white citizens because of the integral role that Black people played in the creation of the US, from the enslaved people whose enforced labour created the nation’s wealth to the Black soldiers who had fought against the British in the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). One clear example of Stewart using that rhetoric can be seen in the following: “We will tell you, that it is our gold that clothes you in fine linen and purple, and causes you to fare sumptuously every day; and it is the blood of our fathers, and the tears of our brethren that have enriched your soils. AND WE CLAIM OUR RIGHTS” (Productions 20).

Stewart’s rhetoric of self-making uses the American mythology of the “self-made man,” which celebrates the American dream of social mobility by lionising people who rise from humble origins to positions of prominence (Wyllie 9-13). Stewart uses that theme by highlighting her own rise from what she calls her “obscure” origins as a signifier that she should be listened to. This rhetoric can be seen in her statement that “Men of eminence have mostly risen from obscurity; nor will I, although a female of a darker hue, and far more obscure than they, bend my head or hang my harp upon willows; for though poor, I will virtuous prove” (Productions 79).

            Stewart’s use of “hang my harp upon willows” draws upon Psalm 137:2 and is illustrative of how she subtly combined her own words with words and phrases taken from the Bible. Indeed, Stewart’s words are so closely intertwined with biblical language and references that Valerie C. Cooper suggests she “speaks a kind of ‘Bible- ese,’” and “has so shaped her ideas in scriptural-sounding words and phrases that it is sometimes difficult to tell where the Bible ends and where Stewart begins” (17).

Another instance of Stewart’s Bible-ese can be seen when she addresses the nineteenth-century political movement calling to send free African Americans to Africa. In response, Stewart states “They would drive us to a strange land” (Productions 72). As a straightforward declaration, Stewart appears to be simply highlighting that the movement would be transporting Black Americans to a location unfamiliar to them. However, the notion of being in a “strange land” is a key biblical motif that expresses the Hebrew experience of exile. The connection between African Americans and biblical Hebrews was made consistently in Black religious rhetoric in the nineteenth century, because African Americans, like Hebrew people in the Bible, had been separated from their nation and enslaved. Therefore, the biblical narrative of the Hebrews as a chosen people, protected by a God who eventually struck down their oppressors and set them free, was a powerful story for African Americans. That biblical story provided both a promise to Black people that God would set them free and a language of threat that they could – and did – use to predict a forthcoming holy vengeance that would be faced by their white oppressors. The biblical threats that nineteenth-century African Americans included in their rhetoric commonly appeared in the form of “jeremiads.” A jeremiad, named after the prophet Jeremiah, is a Judeo-Christian tradition of lamenting the condition of suffering faced by a group of people and predicting holy vengeance against the people responsible for that suffering (see Moses, passim).

An example of the jeremiad in Stewart’s work can be seen in the following: “O, ye great and mighty men of America, ye rich and powerful ones, many of you will call for the rocks and mountains to fall upon you, and to hide you from the wrath of the lamb, and from him that sitteth upon the throne” (Productions 18-19). Not just biblical sounding, Cooper notes that Stewart is drawing upon a verse from Revelation 6:16-17 that partly inspires the Black spiritual “No Hidin’ Place,” which Cooper concludes, “conjures up the same image that I believe Stewart intends here: when judgment finally comes, none of the guilty will be able [to] escape it” (81).

The intricate ways that Maria Stewart interwove these themes into her writing means that her works provide excellent material for undergraduate study. Not only would her writing introduce undergraduates to a multitude of important topics within African American literature and history, but the analytical skills required to interpret her richly complex texts would challenge the students to develop as scholars. Seminars on Stewart could ask students to consider how she uses American themes in her rhetoric around Black Americanness and self-making, how her words might be interpreted differently by Black and white American audiences, and what her rhetoric says about how the experiences of Black people in the US relate to America’s national mythology of freedom, liberty, and self-making. In discussing Christianity and the jeremiad, students would need to engage with religion in a way that is uncommon outside of Theology courses, challenging them to expand their thinking around a subject that they will encounter in their day-to-day lives. Moreover, drawing up teaching material for classes on Stewart has been made infinitely easier due to the existence of Cooper’s Word, Like Fire, which provides a wonderfully enlightening secondary text that analyses Stewart’s writing and maps it onto the larger context of nineteenth century African American women’s lives.

Selected Bibliography

Cooper, Valerie C. Word, Like Fire: Maria Stewart, the Bible, and the Rights of African Americans. University of Virginia Press, 2012.

Gardner, Eric, and Maria Stewart. “Two Texts on Children and Christian Education.” PMLA, vol. 123, no. 1, 2008, pp. 156-165. JStor, url: www.jstor.org/stable/25501833. Accessed 8 June 2020.

Holy Bible. King James Version. Bible Gateway, url: https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/King-James-Version-KJV-Bible/#booklist. Accessed 29 June 2020.

Moses, Wilson Jeremiah. Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982.

Richardson, Marilyn. Maria Stewart, Americas First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches. Indiana University Press, 1987.

Stewart, Maria. Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart. Friends of Freedom and Virtue, 1835, in Sue E. Houchins, ed. Spiritual Narratives, Oxford University Press, 1988. Internet Archive, url: https://archive.org/details/spiritualnarrati00mari/. Accessed 11 April 2023.

Waters, Kristin. Maria W. Stewart and the Roots of Black Political Thought. University Press of Mississippi, 2021.

Wyllie, Irvin G. The Self-Made Man in America: The Myth of Rags to Riches. Rutgers University Press, 1954.

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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