Poster from Diary of a Lost Girl (G.W. Pabst, 1929)
ONCE UPON A TIME, women's lives might have been fodder for fairy tales, but they weren't considered the stuff of serious scholarship. That changed when affirmative action made higher education accessible to unprecedented numbers of students of color and white women. The newly arrived students clamored for content that reflected their experiences, and the experiences of the communities from which they came. Not finding what they sought, these newcomers dedicated themselves to doing the work necessary to broaden canon and curriculum. Today, that project has largely been forgotten, the struggle subsumed by the abundance of books about women's lives. But in a not-so-happily-ever-after twist, historical fiction about women has come to stand in for feminist history — a phenomenon that as a feminist scholar and an author of historical fiction I find especially troubling.
In 1985, Sherley Anne Williams wrote, "I loved history as a child, until some clear-eyed young Negro pointed out, quite rightly, that there was no place in the American past I could go and be free." The line appears in the "Author's Note" prefacing her novel Dessa Rose. The narrative begins with the eponymous protagonist enslaved, pregnant, and sentenced to execution for her part in a slave uprising. Williams took her inspiration from a real-life incident that occurred in Kentucky in 1829, in which a pregnant woman convicted of leading an attempted revolt was kept alive until her child was born; she was then hanged. The fictional Dessa, however, escapes from jail and evades capture, forging an unlikely bond with a white woman whose husband owns slaves. In giving voice to this imagined protagonist, Williams insisted, she used fiction to forge a place in history for herself as a black woman: "This novel, then, is fiction; all the characters, even the country they travel through, while based on fact, are inventions. And what is here is as true as if I myself had lived it."
Such blurred lines between fact and fiction run deep in African American women's writing. Fictionalized character and place names appear throughout what is probably the best-known female-authored slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. When Incidents was initially published in 1861, it was attributed to a pseudonymous author, Linda Brent. Despite the importance the imprimatur of truth gave to any account intended to convince readers of the horrors of slavery, the author of Incidents chose to alter details to protect herself from public judgment regarding "Linda's" choice — and it is clearly depicted as a choice, albeit one made within the stark limitations of enslavement — to bear children out of wedlock.
Well into the late twentieth-century, scholars presumed that Incidents was a fictional text, likely written by the white abolitionist Lydia Maria Child. In 1987, after six years of assiduous archival research by literary historian Jean Fagan Yellin, Harvard University Press reissued Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, substantiating the factual basis of the account and identifying the author-protagonist as Harriet Jacobs. The Harvard edition was groundbreaking, underscoring the vast potential of the field of women's history. The volume included a scholarly introduction by Yellin; footnotes providing historical documentatio...read more