Virtuosity and the Freedom of Black Women

by Elisabeth Graham

A common thread that weaves through slave narratives in the 19th century is the idea of exceptionalism. It is not enough for an enslaved person to be freed because they are a person, apparently. No, it would seem that it is more incredulous that a free person has ever been enslaved because they are a person of exceptional wit or grace. White authors are time and time again relaying their shock and bewilderment at the eloquence and resilience of slaves in  their narratives.

For black women in this time period, there is a similar story. Within the narratives written by or about freed black women, there is a common theme: an emphasis on virtue. The stories in this collection emphasize black women’s piety as a key component in asserting their right to freedom.

In exploring the biographies of freed black women, I found dozens of narratives written by white women. In these narratives, these religious white women time and time again highlight the inherent virtue of black women. Abigail Mott — a white, Quaker woman — wrote and published a book entitled Narratives of Colored Americans. The introduction to this collection insists that the stories will, “prove acceptable reading to our Colored Americans” (Mott verso). Mott’s book is arranged by narratives — small, bite-sized parables — that “Colored Americans” can learn from and enjoy. Each of the narratives emphasizes the goodness and virtue of freed black Americans so that others might learn by example. Choosing to underscore the piety and goodness of these black Americans reveals Mott’s true desire as an abolitionist. 

The first story Mott writes showcases the exceptional good will and virtue of Phillis Wheatley — a young slave woman who became one of the most celebrated poets in early America. Mott writes, “ Phillis never departed from [being] humble and unassuming . . .  She respected the prejudice against her color, and, when invited to the tables of the great or wealthy, she chose a place apart for herself, that none might be offended at a thing so unusual as sitting at table with a woman of color” (6). This excerpt highlights Wheatley’s meekness — a virtue reserved typically for white women. In displaying a deeper understanding and “respect for her prejudice,” Wheatley proves that black women are more than capable of knowing their place. Following this description of Wheatley, Mott chooses to highlight a few of Wheatley’s poems. Mott writes this of Wheatley’s poetry: “Most of her poetry has a religious or moral bearing; all breathes a soft and sentimental feeling” (7). By focusing on Wheatley’s piety in her poetry and then calling it “soft and sentimental,” Mott wants the reader to believe in Wheatley’s inherent virtue and capability for delicacy.

When I say, “inherent virtue,” I am calling upon a common theme during this time period. This is the idea that black Americans are naturals when it comes to being good Christians. In “Blackface and Blackness: The Minstrel Show in American Culture,” Eric Lott discusses this phenomenon. Lott writes, “Slavery was evil . . . because it destroyed the great good nature, the blithe innocence, and above all the family structure of, in Methodist Bishop Gilbert Haven’s words, “the choice blood of America.” Blacks, it came to be argued, were not only exemplars of virtue but natural Christians” (33). In this argument, Mott’s description of Wheatley gains clarity. Slavery is not becoming for a woman of Wheatley’s character. Wheatley is allowed to be free because her status as a slave tarnishes her innate innocence and talent compared to her white masters.

Religion and virtue are also impressed upon the autobiographical narratives of freed black women like Amanda Smith. As a freed black missionary, Smith relays her first religious experience in the church. In this story, she highlights Miss Mary Bloser, a white woman of the Church. Smith writes, “One night as [Miss Bloser] was speaking to persons in the congregation, she came to me, a poor colored girl sitting away back by the door, and with entreaties and tears, which I really felt, she asked me to go forward. I was the only colored girl there, but I went. She knelt beside me with her arm around me and prayed for me . . . I seemed to be so light. In my heart was peace, but I did not know how to exercise faith as I should” (28). First, Smith’s presence as the “only colored girl” in attendance shows how this group of religious white people believed that she belonged to the group of “natural Christians.” Smith had never attended a church service before, and her presence at this church service is just the beginning of a young woman who was born into slavery coming into the light and being saved by God. By taking this innocent young black woman into the church, they can further protect that piety and innocence and nurture it to be their own.

Both Phillis Wheatley and Amanda Smith, born nearly 90 years apart, share a common part of their story: their freedom is qualified by white Americans who believe in their capability to be religious, black Americans. Supporting Wheatley and Smith is a safe bet, compared to other more radical black Americans. These black women represent a future America where the black population can be safely assimilated into the idea of what it means to be a white, Christian American. Without their dedication to lead pious lives, it is unclear whether or not we would ever know their stories.

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