Black Women Intellectuals and the Politics of Dislocation

In light of the recent tragic stories of family separation occurring on the Mexico-United States border, what instantly came to my mind was America’s history of dislocation through American slavery. From the United States’s conception, the place of the country’s Black population, enslaved and free, was centered in debates on who this country was ultimately built for. There were factions that saw slavery as antithetical to the founding principles of “freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” During the Revolutionary War, even British orators like Samuel Johnson, clearly saw this dichotomy. In his 1775 pamphlet Taxation No Tyranny: An Answer To The Resolutions And Address Of The American Congress, Johnson juxtaposed the colonist’s “Declaration of Rights,” and equivocated “If [s]lavery be thus fatally contagious, how is it that we hear the loudest yelps of for liberty among the drivers of negroes.”[1] Not all factions of the founding generation decidedly occupied one camp of pro-slavery or anti-slavery though. America’s first and third presidents denoted this friction. Washington and Jefferson’s stories denoted both held surface level anti-slavery positions, yet also owned hundreds of bondswomen and men; very similar to what Johnson characterized. This complication stemmed from the generation’s refusal to resolve the “slavery question” that plagued the new nation. Political compromises, like the counting of enslaved peoples as three-fifths a person, prolonged America’s reckoning, but only temporarily. However, a middle ground emerged by the early 19th century: colonization.

Colonization, or the sending of free or newly emancipated blacks to territories in Africa or other non-U.S. states, emerged as the largest early antebellum movement of emancipation. In 1817, a group of influential politicians and statesmen like Kentucky’s Henry Clay, artist Francis Scott Key, and future President James Madison, assembled in the U.S. Capital building, to form the American Colonization Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States (ACS). Their aim, according to Article Two of the ACS’s Constitution’s was to “execute a plan for colonizing (with their consent) the free people of color, residing in our country, in Africa, or such other as Congress shall deem most expedient.”[2] Though the organization seemed benevolent, the constitution’s use of “our country” clearly demarcated blackness as un-American. Thus, the “progressive” colonizationist position still harbored regressive ideological sentiments.

Largely, black communities rebuked colonization in the name of an American homeland whose government did not want them there. Despite that, Black women abolitionists of the period like Maria Stewart sought opportunities to voice their displeasure with their nation’s issues. Stewart, as the first American-born woman to publicly speak before a “promiscuous audience, that is, one composed of both men and women,” was not only important for simply being a Black first.[3] In her 1832 speech before Boston’s Franklin Hall, she warned colonizationists who “endeavor to drive us from these shores,” that black communities who would “cling to you the more firmly; nor will we attempt to rise above you; we will presume to be called your equals only.”[4] She was an ardent espouser of what I term performative citizenship, or the internal sense of political worth Black persons had, which directly contributed to their belief that their political advocacy could change the nation. Stewart’s statement displayed an understanding of white fears of enslaved and free Black persons, while cementing black aspirations to, by law, acquiring equal American status.

Stewart saw her role in the struggle for Black citizenship as sacrificial. Maria’s understanding of her positionality represented how tenuous black bodily relationships were to America. Stewart  “would willingly sacrifice my life for the cause of God and my brethren.[5] Her potential martyrdom predicated on how dangerous she perceived her mission was. Sacrificing black bodies on the altar of American capitalism underpinned American prosperity. Stewart saw black sacrificial blood spilled like those of revolutionary patriots when she said “it is the blood of our fathers, and the tears of our brethren that have enriched your soils.” Stewart emphatically wrote of why her race should “CLAIM OUR RIGHTS.” Showing militant leanings as well, she told her reading audience of her lack of fear “of them that kill the body, and after that can do no more; but we will tell you whom we do fear. We fear Him who is able, after He hath killed, to destroy both soul and body in hell forever.[6]” Stewart was not afraid of what white men could do, because she saw her salvation in Heaven. Sarah Forten thought similarly.

Sarah Forten forged space in abolitionist discourse through her weapon: her pen. Through Boston’s Liberator newspaper and under the pseudonym Ada, she assumed the role of writer-activist.  Forten garnered publishing opportunities due to her organizing work with the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and her family’s early advocation for William Lloyd Garrison’s Boston-based abolitionist newspaper the Liberator. Though not the most vocal public speaker like Maria Stewart, Forten included herself in abolitionist discourses through her literature, especially in discussions of the colonization question.

In a 1837 letter to one of the most known abolitionists of the time period, Charleston’s Angelina Grimke, Forten conveyed the righteous indignation at her race’s treatment in Philadelphia that underpinned her anti-colonization sentiment. After a previous question in a letter by Grimké about the ““effect of Prejudice” on myself white prejudice in the city,” Forten replied “I must acknowledge that it has often embittered my feelings, particularly when I recollect that we are the innocent victims of it.[7]” Forten believed that, even among fairly progressive Philadelphians “originates from dislike to the color of the skin, as much as from the degradation of Slavery.” Forten rightfully intersected arguments around Northern anti-black sentiments and Southern slavery as in a dialectic relationship. Both colluded to dispossess African-Americans of their humanity, amongst their particular stations in life. Forten did not despair, and chose to “avoid as much as possible from mingling with those who exist under its influence.”[8] Her choice to detangle herself from those “under its [color prejudice] influence” was within the context of lingering in America.

Forten highlighting past problems might seem innocuous in a section on black women as educators of public opinion, but consider who she was speaking to. Forten’s response to Grimké’s question educated Grimké on how she can not only become a better abolitionist, but how to better interact with her black abolitionist comrades. This education was important for Angelina Grimké because she could become a better ally for their mutual struggle for slavery’s end. Considering the question Grimké asks Forten to answer, white abolitionists were not without condescension towards their fellow black abolitionists that mirrored the same anti-black views held by enemies of their anti-slavery cause.

Anti-blackness was rooted in the American body politic. Sarah Forten declared “colonization is—as you well now [sic] the offspring of Prejudice.” She saw the movement “doubtless had a baneful influence on our People.” She repudiated “the aim of that Institution most heartily” and further stated, “—and have never yet met one man or woman of Color who thought better of it than I do.[9]” Though black men like New England’s Paul Cuffe and others led factions of the colonization movement, Forten’s disgust of the movement came from her view that the movement meant to dislocate black people from the prosperity their bodies produced for the nation. She did not believe the movement came from philanthropy. She saw their sentiments as believing “‘This is not your Country’” as evidentiary of the lack of “advancement—mentally and morally” of Black people.[10] Forten interpreted America as a land for African-Americans too, despite whites not acknowledging them as privy to American economic prosperity.

The United States’ economic success was predicated on Native American land dislocation and enslaved black labor. What this post aimed to answer, was why Sarah Forten and Maria Stewart, two of the most prominent Black women abolitionists of the 1830s, did not estrange themselves from their American homes that did not affirm their existences within it. They disregarded and rhetorically assailed colonization movements that sought to dispossess their people of what they believed they were owed for their race’s free labor. Despite the disregard of their humanity by white Americans, they still spoke affectionately about America because they saw the potential of what the country could become. But that potential never could be realized without purifying America of its original sin of slavery. The United States, for better or worse,  was where Sarah Forten and Maria Stewart called home. Due to this connection, they yearned for the nation’s rebirth, and continuously sought for the United States to live up to its lofty goals, just not to the detriment of those whose bodies were most affected by America’s growing material wealth. Unfortunately, based on recent events, our society has not heeded such advice.

[1] Samuel Johnson, Taxation No Tyranny: An Answer To The Resolutions And Address Of The American Congress (London: T. Cadell, 1775) 89.

[2] The First Annual Report Of The American Colonization Society For Colonizing The Free People of Color Of The United States; And The Proceedings Of the Society At Their Annual Meeting In The City of Washington, On the First Day January, (D. Rapine, Capital Hill, 1818).

[3] Maria W. Stewart, Maria W. Stewart, America’s First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches, ed. Marilyn Richardson (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987) xiii.

[4] Ibid, 63.

[5] Ibid, 29.

[6] Ibid, 40.

[7] Sarah L. Forten, “Sarah L. Forten to Angelina E. Grimké, 15 April 1837,” Black Abolitionist Papers Volume III: The United States, 1830-1846, ed. C. Peter Ripley (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 221.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

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