Rebecca Fraser is associate professor of American History and Culture in the School of Art, Media and American Studies at the University of East Anglia. She very kindly found time her diary to talk to us about her new book – Black Female Intellectuals in Nineteenth Century America: Born to Bloom Unseen? https://www.routledge.com/Black-Female-Intellectuals-in-Nineteenth-Century-America-Born-to-Bloom/Fraser/p/book/9781032210094 The book has just been published by Routledge
Q Rebecca, many congratulations indeed on the publication of your new book, and thanks for agreeing to speak to us! Could you begin by introducing our readers to the premise of the work?
Typically, Black women are not understood as central to the intellectual cultures of the United States. Even if they are included, this has been seen as something that historically occurred in the 20th century. This book therefore re-conceptualizes for readers the idea of what is meant by the term "intellectual" bringing those who have previously been excluded from the scholarship of Black intellectualism more generally, and Black female intellectuals specifically, into the center of the debate. The book focuses on eight women in all, with each chapter structured thematically on aspects of their intellectual labours. The Black women who feature in Born to Bloom Unseen? Are drawn from varying backgrounds. Some were born free, into what might be understood as the Black middle classes, although several still undertook paid work in roles in domestic service or teaching . Others were enslaved, and several were illiterate because of this, it being illegal to teach slaves to read and write in various southern states. These enslaved women either emancipated themselves (legally or otherwise) or remained enslaved until slavery was abolished in the United States, at the end of the Civil War in 1865. These women’s intellectual labours varied massively, and often took on multiple roles that were grounded in intellectual work including activism, writing for or to the Black press, editing newspapers, artistry, and education.
Q That’s really helpful – thank you! What convinced you that now was the right time for this book on Black female intellectuals in nineteenth century America?
I have been working on this book project for a decade! Yet, what convinced me originally, and has been part of my intellectual journey since my doctorate years in the early 2000s, is the need to recover marginalised voices, no matter the supposed extent of the archive. All but one of the women I focus on have no archives of their own. Hidden in plain sight – the historian is still largely left to reconstruct their lives and their intellectual work from scattered references in the papers of others – usually more prominent members of the circles in which they lived and laboured. Also central to my intellectual journey are questions of how people resisted their oppressions in the context of nineteenth century America, particularly Black people. In addition, questions of power and privilege, and talking truth to power have become a key driver for my research and teaching over the years.
Q Your book encourages us to think more carefully about black women as intellectuals. Why is this important? And why hadn’t it been done before?
As eluded to above, Black women’s intellectual labours have been imperative to the fight for justice in the United States and beyond since the early years of the transatlantic slave trade in the sixteenth century. Yet, their presence in these histories and their contributions to Black intellectualism has largely been ignored. This is largely because most of these women did their thinking outside of the academy. This was especially so in the early and mid-nineteenth century when Black women were prohibited, usually by law via patriarchal and racial privileges, from entering spaces which we might think of as where the intellectual resides – universities, lecture halls, or the offices of newspapers for example. Yet, if we think beyond the static definition of what we mean by the hallowed term of the “intellectual” and begin to look, instead, in the private and domestic spaces of parlours and kitchens for example, or the correspondence between friends, or Black newspapers and “letters to the Editor”, we can begin to build up a highly engaging and fascinating insight into the intellectual labours of Black women.
Q Thank you! This is all sounds fantastically interesting, and clearly at the cutting edge of American history. Could you tell us a little about how you became interested in this area in the first place?
My work has always been focussed on marginalised voices and the histories of power and resistance that are central to this. My previous two books focussed on the cultural lives of both the enslaved and enslaver respectively. During the research for these I noticed that there were several black women who featured in the archives as “glimpses,” passing through the archival records of others, whether that be white or black men, or white women. Working in American Studies for the past 17 years, I was well-equipped in a methodological sense, to begin unearthing sources about these women in unexpected places – through novels, poems, and artistry, for example. While some women were perhaps a little more well known in the archives as abolitionists or women’s right’s campaigners – others were hardly acknowledged outside of their own family and personal networks. It was truly fascinating to begin thinking about them as intellectuals and consider how much more impactful their work might have been if they had have been considered as doing intellectual labour at the time or even since.
Q Presumably your thinking evolved as you were working on the book: did any of your findings surprise you?
I learnt so much more about these women than I ever thought possible. Their courage and tenacity were just awe-inspiring. Yet, I also learned the cost of such labours for these women and perhaps I had never really considered them as fallible. As popular culture weaves myths about the elevation of public figures who fight for social justice we tend to think about them as super-human heroes. Yet, these women too were susceptible, as all of us are, to stresses caused by aspects of their lives such as poverty and the impact of this on their physical and mental health. This was in addition to the mental and physical exhaustion of their work, leaving them perhaps less able to fight off both minor and more serious illnesses.
Q That’s very interesting – thank you! Looking to the future, then, what is the next project on your research agenda? Will you be building on this work going forward?
My next research project concerns enslaved girlhood, specifically the subjective experiences of enslaved girls as they entered their teenage years. This will focus on not what was done to them (by enslavers) but their networks of support (female kin and friendships) and their experiences of “coming of age” , so focussing on aspects of growing up “girl”, with the onset of menstruation, body changes, and sexual awakenings. It will focus on some of the women featured in this book in their earlier years but also others that I did not have the opportunity to write about.
Q One final question, if we might? Now that Black Female Intellectuals in Nineteenth Century America: Born to Bloom Unseen? has been published, what are your hopes for the book? What would you like readers to take away from it, and what impact would you like it to have on the world?
I hope people enjoy reading about these women and that they also consider them and the work they did as part of the intellectual labour that typically men have gained credit for in the histories of intellectualism, especially in nineteenth century America. In terms of the impact I would like this book to have on the world, I hope that readers see these women’s lives as lessons in courage and tenacity, in which they might themselves be a little bolder or pursue an ambition (no matter how seemingly small). In addition, I hope it opens up new research into the lives of women of colour, and their intellectual labours, both in the United States and beyond.
Rebecca Fraser, thank you very much indeed for your time. Black Female Intellectuals in Nineteenth Century America: Born to Bloom Unseen? https://www.routledge.com/Black-Female-Intellectuals-in-Nineteenth-Century-America-Born-to-Bloom/Fraser/p/book/9781032210094 is out now and available to buy from Routledge.