Note: This is the first of 9 Response Papers students in ENG 647 (African-American Literature) are required to submit. Each week, I will post my submission. More about my experience at Ball State University can be found here.
Shared Oppression: Harper’s “The Two Offers” and Wells’s “from A Red Record”
The literature authored by African-American women in the second half of the nineteenth century generated a new platform of discourse to a undeterred, growing and audience of slaves, former slaves, and abolitionists. Two selections from that era share one penetrating theme: that women have an obligation–one that is arguably stronger than that of men–to lift one another up from oppression. In Frances E. W. Harper’s “The Two Offers” (1859), the advice given from one character was not heeded and was ultimately regretted by the other character, though this fictitious scenario is obviously presented as a warning to young female readers. Secondly, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, in Part One of A Red Record (1895), highlights the white women of the post-Emancipation era who offered educational services for former slaves. Both selections expose this natural bond and instinctive desire to assist those who are clearly at a social- or educational disadvantage. Of course, writers highlighting benevolent actions was nothing new; however, women being on both ends of this benevolence emerged as a new trope in literature and social commentary. Both of these writers address this in a forward-looking fashion and do not dwell on past generations where men held all of the power among the land and within the home.
“The Two Offers” presents a moral dilemma for a potential bride who has two suitors that, after the first few paragraphs, feels ordinary. However, Harper’s exquisite narrative style siphons into the past and explores how each woman in the opening scene has developed and secured her stance on this dilemma. By presenting a deep, detailed backstory to both Laura (the “bride”) and her cousin Janette, the reader is alloted enough background to grasp the two distinguishable perspectives on the immediate conflict of having two men offer marriage. By relinquishing key pieces of information about each of these two characters, Harper directly points to their opposing views and expresses how one’s moral compass is a direct result of her upbringing. Again, while a child’s rearing resulting in his actions of adulthood had long been a common technique in literature, focusing on a woman’s girlhood had yet to become mainstream.
Because Janette’s mother was uneducated about her deceased husband’s business dealings, Janette’s family status plummeted after her father’s unexpected death. Here, Harper is cleverly exhibiting the backlash of ignorance in the sudden event of a husband’s absence. After her mother passed as well, this now poverty-stricken young woman lacked anything resembling a support system and was motivated to work harder than ever to emerge in adulthood as someone whose challenges in childhood led to her “position in the literary world”. It should also be noted that skin tone was not at all the focal point within this story. Thus, Harper’s focus is not that of just black women lifting up and advising others about love and marriage; rather, her focus seems to be for all women to see their options clearly. As opposed to Laura, who is described as being her husband’s “prize” and “title-deed”, Janette’s bold independence becomes the pummeling, inspirational theme for female readers and an obvious stance against standard gender roles for male readers.
As one of the foremost post-Civil War black female journalists, Ida B. Wells-Barnett fully understood that presenting inspirational material to an audience was far more beneficial than focusing solely on the horrible negatives of the era. A Red Record includes a short passage in Part One concerning the “divine sentiment” of white Northern women to go to the South and educate ex-slaves. This motherly gesture was, to Wells, an act of “heroism” which was essentially ignored, or at least not worthy of being “cheered”, by southern white men. Embedded within a series of supported facts and perspectives on how America has adjusted since The Emancipation, Wells applies the three tenets of effective rhetoric: ethos, pathos, and logos. Sharing the bravery of white women traveling to the South for the sole purpose of helping raise the educational levels of ex-slaves is presented as honorable (though she notes these women were identified by Southern whites often with unkind terms). Asserting that anyone’s advancement in life is the direct result of one’s education–especially one’s literacy–continues and supports that sympathetic- or empathetic bond. Lastly, laying out the raw truth that the long-standing fear and subsequent false accusations of rape by black men handicapped an entire group’s progress logically results in the ongoing disparity among the races and the genders.
Prior to this era, women’s voices and roles in society were extremely limited in the home and in print. Each author, in her own manner, clearly desired to instill in her readers a fresh perspective of opportunity. No longer should any woman believe that her place in life is second to that of a man. By exhibiting a character who enjoyed opportunities and a report of how no woman should believe she is literally on her own, Harper and Wells-Barnett helped solidify a new era in woman readership: the independent female.