Black and White Women’s Travel Narratives

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Black and White Women’s Travel Narratives theorizes nineteenth-century African American travel literature in a comparative perspective.

Cheryl J. Fish

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

The now-standard introduction to the African American literary tradition is the slave narrative. That tradition is far richer than the slave narrative alone, although this observation by no means diminishes the centrality of this narrative corpus. Poetry, religious rhetoric, political prose, journalism, and letters provide genre complexity to eighteenth and early nineteenth-century African American literature, but it is a complexity that too seldom reaches literature syllabi. African American travel accounts of this period are almost never read, although that often says more about a need to re-conceptualize the narratives that are more frequently read. Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography is read in classrooms near-entirely as a slave narrative, for example, although the majority of his travels were as a free man. African peoples have been as mobile as any since arriving on the American continents, if not more so than most, but frequently unreflective critical prejudice has meant that their travel narratives have been given the shortest shrift.

Cheryl Fish’s Black and White Women’s Travel Narratives (2004) adds to her previous work in this area, A Stranger in the Village: Two Centuries of African American Travel Writing (with Farrah Griffin, 1999). In this latest work Fish undertakes critical examinations of the travel literature produced by two black women – Nancy Prince and Mary Seacole – and a re-consideration of Margaret Fuller’s Summer on the Lakes (1844) as a text of engagement with Native Americans and racial conflict. All three women stepped outside the ‘women’s sphere’ of domesticity and created public reputations for themselves, in part by employing travel accounts to help shape transgressive role models for women contending against enforced domesticity. Fuller does not need a public introduction, but Fish makes clear that her goal is to ensure that Prince and Seacole receive similar centrality in global cultural studies. This work is part of a shift away from a white-dominated paradigm of travel literature studies, one that in recent years has included Malini Johar Schueller’s 1999 re-edition of David Dorr’s A Colored Man Round the World (1858), the Women at Sea: Travel and the Margins of Caribbean Discourse (2001) volume edited by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert and Ivette Romero-Cesareo, and writing by Susan Roberson, Frances Bartkowski, Joceyln Moody and others. Such multiple re-centering introduced by new travel criticism provides a vastly more accurate and representative depiction of travel as a common human experience.

Fish contextualizes Fuller, Prince and Seacole within the development of their ‘mobile subjectivity,’ this being “the process one undergoes and chooses in moving from place to place, where subject position or context changes in relation to persons, institutions, and locations, and those relationships are based on knowledge formed through resistance.” The journey accounts of each of the three women, Fish argues, instances a case of intellectual and political resistance to racial and gender inequalities gained through the observations and experiences of travel. None of them were on a tour for tourism’s sake or had the financial ability to undertake a ‘grand tour’; rather, they were women of modest means who traveled with definite purposes of employment and social observation in mind. Their accounts evidenced the writers’ confrontations with an evolving transnational conflict between America and Europe, one where the construction of state power and capital formations subordinated the lives of women, peoples of color, and numerous disenfranchised classes.

Nancy Prince, still a little-known figure despite inclusion of A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince (1850, and two subsequent editions) in various anthologies over the past twenty years, was a free-born Salem woman who began working from an early age as a domestic servant. She left the United States in 1825 together with her new husband, who had employment as a member of the Czar’s bodyguard. Prince spent nine years in Russia, working mostly as a seamstress, and becoming friendly with the Czarina. That sympathetic friendship with an autocrat compromised Prince and colored her observations on Russian society, such that her narrative has little to say about the serfdom and poverty that characterized Russian society of the period. As Fish notes, Prince’s position in the Russian court compromises her political reports, such that the Decembrist revolt becomes a heroic exhibition by Czar Nicolas. After returning from Russia in 1833, Prince remained in the United States for seven years before traveling to post-emancipation Jamaica as a missionary and educator. She began a public speaking career in 1839 to support herself and raise monies for an orphans school in Kingston, merging her autobiography and travelogue into a larger cause.

Mary Seacole, a free-born Jamaican woman, was at the cutting-end of Anglo-American imperialism and imbibed many of its attitudes. Arriving as a forty-five year-old woman in Panama in 1850 when it provided a route to California for the Gold Rush, she settled into its business milieu and established a hotel. As she relates in Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857), Seacole acquired a medical reputation and practiced as a caregiver “doctress” in social environments that the medical profession had all but abandoned. She was largely successful in transferring that reputation to Crimea and increasing it through her efforts in behalf of British soldiers, despite the later assessment of Florence Nightingale in one letter that “She kept -- I will not call it a ‘bad house’ but something not very unlike it…Anyone who employs Mrs. Seacole will introduce much kindness – also much drunkenness and improper conduct…” Seacole conducted her nursing work in Crimea out of another hotel she established, and was known for operating a well-run establishment. Her nursing reputation was such that one poet referred to Nightingale as Sister of the Brave and Seacole as La Mère Noir, and Nightingale’s private insinuations may well have been an out-of-sight settling of scores. Seacole was significantly more popular among the British troops, with whom she had great rapport, than the mythologized Florence Nightingale. Although ready to participate with her nursing skills in other campaigns, Seacole never again joined the British imperial front-line service and spent the rest of her life between London and Jamaica, eventually dying a wealthy woman in London in 1881. Seacole remains far more familiar in the United Kingdom, where she has become a rallying figure from history for black nurses in the National Health Service, than she is known in the United States. In this sense, Fish might have pointed out to readers, Seacole represents an alternative, individualistic tradition of care as opposed to the top-down nursing management tradition that Nightingale embodied.

The final chapter explores Fuller’s Summer on the Lakes, one of her lesser-read texts. While Fuller is read primarily today for Woman in the Nineteenth Century, this does a profound disservice towards understanding the range of her intellectual labor. The hyper-activity that characterizes that labor emerges in the impressionistic, sometimes disjointed quality of Summer on the Lakes. Fuller, as much or more than any major figure in the Transcendentalist circle, ignored Thoreau’s advice – delivered with more than a hint of crotched intellectualism – to seek out the world inside a town’s immediate horizon. While Thoreau directed his dislike towards the class pretense of young men acquiring educational finish through a Grand Tour of the continent, for Fuller travel represented a liberation from the strictures of domesticity and an opportunity to engage the world-at-large. The results of travel observation in Summer on the Lakes are not always fortuitous, as Fish points out concerning Fuller’s comments on mixed-blood Indians: “Those of mixed blood fade early, and are not generally a fine race. They lose what is best in either type, rather than enhance the value of each, by mingling.” Fuller’s attitudes towards the Indians she encounters vary between endorsement of then-prevalent ‘dying race’ rhetoric and liberal advocacy to government intervention to protect Indians against cultural injury. The typology that Fuller applies to gender in Woman in the Nineteenth Century emerges once again in the racial typology of Summer on the Lakes, this time facially different but at root of the same origin within false hierarchies of attributes. The contrast that Fish creates between Fuller, Seacole and Prince – all narrators with identifiable strengths and failings – works to elaborate their commonalities and differences.

Black and White Women’s Travel Narratives does important work by engaging with and theorizing nineteenth-century African American travel literature in a comparative perspective. Early African American studies have been confined by their conceptualization within a genre strait-jacket, the slave narrative, and by the identification of ‘firsts’ within a genre (first novel, first drama, etc.). African American literature has a vastly greater range of expression – it includes 19th-century encyclopedias, for instance – than gains common credit outside scholarship. This genre variety represents expressive continuity rather than new arrival, and the work of African American literature scholarship lies in revealing that historical continuity. There has been a decades-long shift of literary consciousness in the United States, one to which African American studies have contributed profoundly. That shift opposes the monopoly claims of white-authored, English-speaking literature as ‘American literature.’ Translating and integrating that shifting consciousness into terms that can explicate the meanings of an expanded, trans-national, interracial sense of American literature is a project that Cheryl Fish accomplishes well in this book.

Published by University Press of Florida

Also see:

Nancy Prince’s Black Woman's Odyssey Through Russia and Jamaica: The Narrative of Nancy Prince is available in an edition from Markus Wiener Pub. (1990) or in an electronic edition from the New York Public Library.

Mary Seacole’s Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands is available in an edition from the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth Century Black Women Writers (Oxford University Press, 1990).

Margaret Fuller’s Summer on the Lakes in 1843 is available in an edition from the Prarie State Book Series (University of Illinois Press, 1991) or in an electronic edition from American Memory.

Copyright © 2004 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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