Tuesday, November 27, 2012

See How They Strutted: Philadelphia's Fancy Blacks

Silk Stockings plate  from Edward Clay's Life in Philadelphia series
Edward Clay illustration
Courtesy, Library of Congress

Ask me about black attire in the 1830s - in Philadelphia or anywhere else - and I'd have shaken my head. I mean really, what could they have worn? Simple smocks? Plain shirts and trousers?

I hadn't really thought about African-American attire as a signifier - that is, a finger pointing up  in somebody's face - until Erica Armstrong Dunbar mentioned satirist Edward Williams Clay's series "Life in Philadelphia."


Armstrong Dunbar, who directs the program in African American history at the Library Company of Philadelphia, helped "unpack" the 1830s during a panel on the historical and social milieu for "If She Stood" and the Place Philadelphia project. She referenced Edward Clay’s illustrations as indicative of the racial attitudes towards the city’s blacks.

“For any of you who may have heard of (the series), or seen them, they’re these sort of reproductions marking black freedom: wildly dressed women as well as black men, suggesting that this new generation was … completely incapable of handling the responsibilities that came with freedom,“ she said.

Although the drawings are undeniably racist, they reveal much about Clay and his subjects. They opened my eyes to a possibility I'd never considered: even in oppression, black folks had style. And money, if Clay's illustrations are taken at face value. Look at the woman he drew in the print above. Clay mocks her request for "flesh colored" - read white - stockings, by having a clerk show hose that's black as pitch. The subtext is clear: she thinks she's as good as a white person.

And maybe she did. Because style wasn't just about looking good. Rather, these folks strutted because they could. They wielded agency.

When social scientists use the word "agency," they’re talking about the power to control one’s life. Here’s an explanation from Yahoo Answers:

“Obviously, when someone is being held in slavery, there are many aspects of that person's life over which he or she does not have control. So the historical question is whether slaves were able to stake out any small areas within their lives in which they could have agency.”

Although Philadelphia’s black residents were free, they were still oppressed. Clothing became more than fashion; it was a statement. Really a shout. Folks like Clay got the message; so did another Philadephian, John Fanning Watson. Here's what he wrote about "negroes and slaves" in 1845:
 
"In the olden days, dressy blacks and dandy coloured beaux and belles, as we see them issuing from their proper churches, were quite unknown. Their aspirings and little vanities have been rapidly growing since they got those separate churches and received their entire exemption from slavery. Once they submitted to the appellation of servants blacks and negroes, but now they require to be called coloured people, and, among themselves... gentlemen and ladies. Twenty to thirty years ago, they were humbler, more esteemed in their place and more useful to themselves and others."(emphasis mine) from "Annals of Philadelphia"
But Black folks just don't dress and stand around; they move. These dandies and the dandy-ettes dance. While looking at Clay's illustrations - and overlooking his condescension - I wondered how that 1830 strut would have sounded if set to a contemporary beat.  Keep listening...


This blog explores issues raised by If She Stood, a play by Ain Gordon and Nadine Patterson for the Place Philadelphia project. Please subscribe to receive posts in your email.

 If She Stood will run for six performances - Friday, April 26, 2013 at 8pm, Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 8pm, and Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 3pm, followed by Friday, May 3, 2013 at 8pm, Saturday, May, 2013 at 8pm and Sunday May 5, 2013 at 3pm. Tickets are on sale for the first weekend - BUY HERE.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

When Mrs. Jarena Lee Stood Her Ground


"Between four and five years after my sanctification, on a
certain time, an impressive silence fell upon me,— But to my utter surprise there seemed to sound a voice, which said to me, "Go preach the Gospel!" I immediately replied aloud, "No one will believe me." Again I listened, and again the same voice seemed to say — "Preach the Gospel ;  I will put words in your mouth, and will turn your enemies to become your friends." - from Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, Giving an Account Her Call to Preach the Gospel"


A call from God must be a terrible call to hear, for God is not an easy taskmaster. He (yes, I use the male pronoun to refer to the deity; it's my conditioning) will send you to folks you despise – just ask Jonah. He will insist you spread a message no one wants to hear – just ask Jeremiah. When you follow God, you will find yourself in places where society says you don't belong – just ask Mary, who abandoned her place with the women to hear Jesus preach to the men.

Is it any wonder then, that Mrs. Jarena Lee, the first woman to preach in the AME church, said "No!" to God?

 I'm struck by the other half of her response: "No one will believe me." Her objection wasn't unique - even Moses stepped away from becoming God's mouthpiece. Both Moses and Mrs. Jarena Lee had reason to suggest God had made a huge mistake. Moses had a speech impediment. Jarena Lee was a woman. Throughout the New Testament, women are reminded they are better seen than heard.

Mrs. Lee struggled with her faith. Her journey wasn't a straight path, but meandered through spiritual hills and valleys.
"From the day on which I first went to the Methodist Church, until the hour of my deliverance, I was strangely buffetted by that enemy of all righteousness — the devil. I was naturally of a lively turn of disposition ; and during the space of time from my first awakening until I knew my peace was made with God, I rejoiced in the vanities of this life, and then again sunk back into sorrow. For four years I had continued in this way, frequently laboring under the awful apprehension, that I could never be happy in this life. " - from Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee


Yet she recognized she'd been blessed with the power of exhortation - we'd call it preaching now. Her worry wasn't just acknowledging her gift; it was getting a hard-headed public to accept a woman who had something meaningful to say.

No less a revolutionary than Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church,  turned her away. When she told him of her conviction, his response was curt:

He then replied, that a Mrs. Cook, a Methodist lady, had also some time before requested the same privilege ; who, it was believed, had done much good in the war of exhortation, and holding prayer meetings; and who had been permitted to do so by the verbal license of the preacher in charge at the time. But as to women preaching, he said that our Discipline knew nothing at all about it — that it did not call for women preachers.
At first, Mrs. Lee was relieved; she didn't have to carry out the burdensome task she'd been given. But she quickly fought back and resolved to speak her piece:

O how careful ought we to be, lest through our by-laws of church government and discipline, we bring into disrepute even the word of life. For as unseemly as it may appear now-a-days for a woman to preach, it should be remembered that nothing is impossible with God. And why should it be thought impossible, heterodox, or improper for a woman to preach t seeing the Saviour died for the woman as well as for the man... " from - Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee
Allen relented when she heard Mrs. Jarena Lee preach, but others didn't As she walked throughout the countryside, preaching and saving souls, she repeatedly ran into male preachers who barred her from their buildings.

Yet she stood her ground and walked her path.

The more I ponder these three words - if she stood - the more I'm guided to women who are all but forgotten like Mrs. Jarena Lee. (I included her title because, during that time, it denoted a respectable woman. I like the idea of a respectable woman acting in a powerful, challenging manner.) I wonder at the way these women raised their voices, but Mrs. Jarena Lee also used another strategy. She wrote a book.  And to ensure the reader understood who was speaking, she added a notation: "Revised and corrected from the Original Manuscript, written by herself."

What a marvel. A woman who was admittedly self-taught dared to believe her experiences were so inspirational and important that others should know of them.

"But for the satisfaction of such as may follow after me, when I am no more, I have recorded how the Lord called me to his work, and how he has kept me from falling from grace, as I feared I should...I have now only to say, May the blessing of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, accompany the reading of this poor effort to speak well of his name, wherever it may be read. AMEN."

This blog explores issues raised by If She Stood, a play by Ain Gordon and Nadine Patterson for the Place Philadelphia project. Please subscribe to receive posts in your email.
 If She Stood will run for six performances - Friday, April 26, 2013 at 8pm, Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 8pm, and Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 3pm, followed by Friday, May 3, 2013 at 8pm, Saturday, May, 2013 at 8pm and Sunday May 5, 2013 at 3pm. Tickets are on sale for the first weekend - BUY HERE.