Posts tagged literature
Recovering Black Women in the Archive

My name is Monet Timmons and I am a first-year PhD English student at the University of Delaware. My research interests include 19th- and 20th-century African American literature and historical memory. More specifically, I focus on Black women in the archive, investigating their erasure while simultaneously using an ethics of care to honor the fragments of their lives and voices.

My identity as a Black woman is what brings me to my current research. Recovering  and honoring the lives of Black women lost in the archive aligns with my personal journey to understand myself. Currently I am expanding two projects from the first semester of my program. Utilizing the special collections at the University of Delaware, I perused the papers of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, a late 19th/early 20th-century Creole Black woman activist, writer, teacher, and poet. Before entering the archive, my main objective was to highlight Dunbar-Nelson’s life and work outside of her marriage to Paul Laurence Dunbar. In doing so, I found Dunbar-Nelson was doing this same work when she wrote about her close friend, colleague, and romantic partner, Edwina Kruse, in the unpublished manuscript titled This Lofty Oak. After migrating from Puerto Rico in the late 19th century, Kruse became principal of Howard High School in Wilmington, Delaware in 1881, the only school for children of color in the state. In this research I think about what it means for a Black woman to honor the life and legacy of another Black woman through literature. I also think about the complexities of Black women’s relationships, whether these relationships are romantic, working, or both, and how these Black women educators’ relationships serve Black communities. Lastly, I consider This Lofty Oak as an archive; although unpublished and fictional, we understand Kruse’s career and impact.

The other project I am working on brings me back to my alma mater, Emory University, to a site inhabited by an enslaved Black woman, Kitty’s Cottage. Kitty’s Cottage was “gifted” to Catherine “Miss Kitty” Boyd by her enslaver, Bishop James Osgood Andrew, the first president of the board of trustees at Emory University. Due to pressure from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844, Bishop Andrew had to free his enslaved laborers. Bishop Andrew interviewed Catherine offering her freedom in Liberia or the option to remain in Georgia to continue to serve the Andrew family; Catherine “chose” to remain in Georgia. One of my findings for this project includes the movement of the Kitty’s Cottage to a white nationalist site, Salem Campground, in 1939 where it served as a Confederate site of memory until 1993. I am interested in how the white collective memory continues to portray Catherine as a loyal Black woman in pursuit of preserving white supremacist culture and ideology. Moreover, the lack of conversation about the site at Emory today reveals the need to address this history in order to understand our national dialogue of race and memory.

Through both of these projects, I aim to create a public dialogue that reframes how we remember Black women. One of my largest concerns with these projects is remembering to uncover and highlight these stories with care and not perpetuate their erasure or the white supremacist culture that has contained them for so long. I am excited for what this work means for us currently, and what this work means for other Black women in and outside of academia.

Looking Back, Reading Black: Popular Fiction and the Essence Bestsellers List

In honor of Black History Month and in conjunction with the daily book features BWSA is posting on Twitter, we are sharing the most popular works of fiction written for, about, and by Black people from ten and twenty years ago. Reflect with us on the many ways contemporary authors have taken up pen and paper to creatively detail the Black experience (Follow us @blkwomenstudies and see all of this month's book features using #28daysofBWS.)

Pulling from The Reading Blackness Project, I derived this by disaggregating Essence Magazine’s Bestseller’s List for Fiction, which was published monthly and was based on sells information culled from independently owned Black bookstores across the United States. The list and Essence Magazine, more generally, has been committed to centering the needs, thoughts, and desires of Black Women for nearly 50 years. Essence and its Bestsellers’ List are rich data sources for Black Women Studies researchers by providing depth and nuance to the ordinary lives of Black people while also celebrating the best of who we are and what we do.

2009 Hardcover

Midnight by Sister Souljah (appeared 9 times)

Dying for Revenge by Eric Jerome Dickey (appeared 5 times)

Up to No Good by Carl Weber (appeared 5 times)

She Had it Coming by Mary Monroe (appeared 3 times)

2009 Paperback

Queen Bitch (Part 4) by Deja King (appeared 7 times)

The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah (appeared 5 times)

True to the Game III by Teri Woods (appeared 4 times)

The Someday List by Stacy Hawkins Adams (appeared 4 times)

1999 Hardcover

Milk in My Coffee by Eric Jerome Dickey (appeared 8 times)

Abide With Me by E. Lynn Harris (appeared 5 times)

Blue Collar Blues by Rosalyn McMillan (appeared 6 times)

Something’s Wrong with Your Scale! By Van Whitfield (appeared 4 times)

1999 Paperback

One Better by Rosalyn McMillan (appeared 7 times)

A Do Right Man by Omar Tyree (appeared 6 times)

Sister, Sister by Eric Jerome Dickey (appeared 4 times)

When All Hell Breaks Loose by Camika Spencer (appeared 4 times)

- Dr. Jacinta R. Saffold, @concretestories

Decidedly Black and Decidedly for Women: The Reading Blackness Project

As a researcher of contemporary African American urban and popular literature, there are few archives to support my work. This dearth has required a reimagining of traditional humanities research sources and a bit of technology. The “Reading Blackness Project” takes a digital humanities approach to understanding the culture that created and supported Street Lit* at the turn of the twenty-first century. After discovering a considerable discrepancy between best-selling African American literature from 1990-2010 and the most celebrated literature of the same period, I digitized the fiction bestsellers list published in Essence magazine from 1994 through 2010. I chose Essence magazine for its commitment to Black women and its best sellers list because it was generated from sales information reported from independently owned Black book stores across the United States. The list was decidedly Black and decidedly for women.

I used the Essence Best Sellers list to help validate the following argument: Street Lit, despite controversy of appropriateness, was the economic backbone of African American literature at the turn of the new millennium. The purpose was to put authors like Sister Souljah and her debut novel, The Coldest Winter Ever in conversation with widely lauded authors like Toni Morrison as a personal act of resistance to the boundaries that keep “canonical” African American literature separate from the inconvenient stories of urban peril in Street Lit. 

The method of data collection Essence magazine employed was paramount to my interrogation of Street Lit texts because most genre texts were initially independently published and sold, which would preclude them from mainstream sales records taken from major clearing houses, big box retailers, and other sales record keepers (like the New York Times Bestsellers List). Essence magazine was able to preserve the story of contemporary Black independent print culture through quantitative data reports. 

Using software that allowed me to disaggregate the list data helped guide what kinds of questions sit at the intersection of Blackness, womanhood, and reading. Specifically, the dataset revealed interesting narratives about how Street Lit books have been packaged and sold. Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, for example, was the longest running title on the fiction paperback chart—appearing a total of thirty-six times or the equivalent of three years and was consecutively listed for twenty-nine months. The book retailed at 35% lower than the average fiction paperback on the list in 2000 (the year of its publication). The Coldest Winter Ever demonstrated that hardcover books with sticker prices of $20 and up were extremely hard to sell to a Street Lit and Hip-Hop demographic. Portable and cheap pulp books that averaged between $5 and $12 flew off the shelves of independent bookstores alternatively. 

Sister Souljah’s success in Hip Hop music and dominance on the Essence list helped to rebuff then emerging notions of the female MCs needing to be oversexualized in lyrics and appearance or Black women authors needing to write solely about friendship, marriage, and God to be successful. She also helped push the boundaries and modes of cultural production Black women could enter after being successful in Hip Hop music by turning to books rather than acting or launching a fashion label. Furthermore, The Coldest Winter Ever helped to establish Hip Hop in print in a way that presented multifaceted Black women characters striving to navigate the Hip Hop cultural terrain.  

As African American literature production progresses through the twenty-first century and technology improves, how African American literature and culture is preserved and interrogated will require innovative avenues to ensure that scholars are able to answer the questions that give credence to the fullness of Black women’s literature. 

- Jacinta R. Saffold, PhD

* Street Lit is a contemporary popular African American literature genre that began in the early 1990s with the technological advances in home computing and personal printing as a creative response to the harsh realities of urban living in America and is a cultural cousin to Hip Hop.