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LIT 4386 British and American Literature
by Women


Class 6


Reading Assignment:

    Wheatley, "On Being Brought from Africa to America" (247); Truth, "Ain't I a Woman?" (370)
    POST #2 Group B


    Class Objectives:

  • To introduce Wheatley and Truth
  • To discuss the impact of slavery on women's writing
  • To discuss issues of gender and race in Wheatley and Truth


Notes and Discussion Questions:

Don't forget to start reading Jane Eyre

1. Overview: Nineteenth century and slavery

What sorts of historical changes come with the entry into the nineteenth century, particularly with respect to slavery? Discuss the possibilities for slave writings/speeches, questions of literacy and questions of identity.

These authors, like Rowlandson, do not appear in Woolf’s tradition of women writers. Why?

Compare VW’s comment about genius among the working people: “For genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, service people. It was not born in England among the Saxons and the Britons. It is not born today among the working classes” (48). Why does she say this? To what extent is this true?

How much moreso, then, do the conditions of slavery legislate against the productions of genius?

Time – when is there time to write? Education – how does one acquire the tools?

What are some the unique conditions faced by writing women who are or have been slaves?

2. Phyllis Wheatley c. 1753-1784

Why c.? What do we know about Phyllis Wheatley?

Sold off a slave ship in Boston in 1761 – est. at 7 years of age, probably from Senegal or Gambia. Treated “beneficiently” by standards of the day by the Wheatley family – became personal maid servant to the mistress. She learned to read and write English, even studied Latin, and learned poetry and the Bible. Began writing religious verse at 13 – became something of a prodigy. Had her volume of poems: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral published in London in 1773 and in Boston 1786. When was Rowlandson’s narrative published? Compare the two as printed works.

What is the significance of Wheatley's accomplishment?

Henry Louis Gates says she initiated simultaneously two aesthetic lineages: the black American literary tradition and the black female literary tradition. Comment.

Read the poem: “On Being Brought from Africa to America” p. 247. What form is it?

What is the style? Observations?

What is the setting?

What is the speaker’s attitude toward Africa? Toward America? How does she feel about Africans?

What is the point of the poem?

What role does the Bible play in Wheatley’s point? How does this compare with Rowlandson’s use?

Are there any conflicts in this poem? Are there any conflicts around this poem?

3. Sojourner Truth c. 1797-1883

Again we encounter the problem of historical knowledge about our writer/speaker. This remarkable woman was illiterate all of her life (although clearly she depended on print forms for both her learning and her speeches – the newspapers, the Bible).

Born into slavery in New York, her original language was Dutch. Her name was Isabella; after she fled to freedom she adopted the name of the family who protected her – Van Wagenen. She was eventually freed by law, but had already lost her children and experienced much of the trauma of slavery.

She experienced a mystical conversion in 1843 after which she renamed herself Sojourner Truth and began traveling the country giving speeches on religion, abolition and women’s rights.

We discussed the power and importance of naming our women writers. How do these two writers complicate this problematic further? What is the name of the woman who wrote “On Being Brought from Africa to America”? What is the significance of Sojourner Truth’s self-naming?

Examine the piece for today – Ain’t I a Woman? Page 370.

What form is it?

What style is it?

What are the characteristics of the speaker?

What is the point of her speech?

What attitudes does she try to change? How does she try to change them?

How does the figure of the black slave woman disrupt the concept of womanhood in the nineteenth-century communities she visits?

4. Contrasts and similarities

What are the similarities and differences between Phyllis Wheatley and Sojourner Truth?

How do these writers compare with the other writers we have read: Rowlandson? Burney?

(Imagine that Burney and Wheatley met in London in 1773. What would the two have to say to one another? What might they have in common? What might keep them from talking?)


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