‘Woman thou art loosed’: Black Female Sexuality Unhinged in the Fiction of Frances Harper and Pauline Hopkins
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- Hagar; African American Print Culture; Racial Uplift; desire; black sexuality; black womanhood; African American Studies; American Literature; Literature in English, North America; Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority; Other Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Race-sex narratives that dominated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries permeated the political, scientific, and social fabric of the nation, but did not solely center on black bodies. These narratives demeaned and degraded a race of black citizens, characterizing them as sexually deviant social pariahs. Consequently, these same notions elevated whites to the highest rungs of society, marking them as moral and desirable. This crafting of racial identity acted as just one way to justify racial subordination through the creation of notions that proved detrimental to black life and worthiness. Writer-activists penning their tales of fiction after the Civil War understood that presenting challenges to prevailing racial ideologies in their literature would be essential to advancing the cause of black equality in the post-bellum period. Thus, the import of these subjects into African American fiction became central to dismantling stereotypes and refiguring notions of black personhood.The challenge of (re)presenting the race was all the more fraught for black women writers and is the analytical focus of this study. ‘Woman Thou Art Loosed’ explores Frances Harper’s and Pauline Hopkins’s literary undertaking of the subjects of black female sexuality and desire amidst a culture that simultaneously hyper-exposed black women’s sexuality and obscured black women’s sexual autonomy. This project’s explicit focus on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century literatures of African American women seeks to uncover how these literary artists rendered black women’s sexual selves (and the layered significance of such rendering) despite the pressure and stigma of already codified cultural narratives of the period. Furthermore, this project analyzes where works such as Minnie’s Sacrifice, Trial and Triumph, Hagar’s Daughter, and Contending Forces fit in the matrix of racial uplift, prompting a re-evaluation of current understandings that reflect more masculine influenced uplift ideologies of the time. I further the notion of Hopkins and Harper as writer-activists, examining their political agendas which were made radical by their, at times, non-conformist sexual politics buried within the nuances of literary expression.