This is the first book ever published in the United States on the subject of black women. In a tribute to the unheard voices of black women, Josephine Carson explores, in the American South, the lives of black women among whom she lived and traveled and interprets the voices that have never before been heard. She paints a detailed picture of the teachers, middle-class housewives, young college girls, nurses, domestic servants, and workers who struggled with the juxtaposition between their own identities and those society created for them. Carson shows what a significant contribution these women made to the American scene through their religions, friends, jobs and cultures, but above all through their formerly silent voices.
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January 01, 2002
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Excerpt from Silent Voices by Josephine Carson
This work is an impression and the search for a silenced voice, a crucial part in the chorus of American voices.
Black woman, silent, almost invisible in America, has been speaking for three hundred years in pantomime or at best in a borrowed voice. She has moved silently through the mythological roles forced upon her -- from chattel to Mammy to Matriarch. She has solaced and fortified the entire South of the United States, black and white, male and female, a South which reveres and heeds her in secret, which confides in her and trusts her to rear its children, black and white, yet which -- like the rest of America -- has never asked her to speak, to reveal her private history, her knowledge, her imaginings, never asked her participation in anything but maintenance of humanity by way of the back door. The few rare cases of her rise to influence have been almost entirely in the fields of service, public, private, or domestic; she is teacher, nurse, social worker, sometimes lawyer, sometimes physician, even representative in state government, but this rise has occurred against great odds and in the face of a double restriction: she is woman and black.
A few have spoken as poets but -- woman, black, and poet? Americans do not heed them, only sometimes indulge them. Few of us today could name even one Negro woman poet; fewer could recite her lines or define her meaning.
Who has asked for more than her body's labor and succor? Who has sought her wisdom, her ideas, her advice?
And who is this Black Woman, now, today? How did she move through these three centuries out of slavery, labeled and known mainly as servant, chick, whore, blues singer, spoiler of sons, but transcending all names and myths? (It is still more or less impossible to find reference to Negro Woman in our standard American historical and sociological works; one must still seek her by such devious headings as "rape complex" or "White Southern Womanhood," that famous exalted role in a myth that made woman, white, and purity synonymous words, a myth now in decay but still influential in Southern mores.)
Who remembers that she came here naked, shorn sometimes of royalty, of maternity; a sister severed from siblings, a peasant, a poet? Who remembers or ever knew of her as Margaret Garner, a slave caught escaping in the night, who slashed her own daughter's throat to keep her from slavery and who begged the white judge to kill her for she would "go singing to the gallows" rather than be returned to slavery?
Who remembers her as Sojourner Truth, the suffragette who, baring her breast before a convention of white male politicians who had ridiculed her femininity, asked, "Ain't I a woman?"
Chattel... meaning to live and die as mere bone and muscle, meaning to survive as a good body, a breeder, a worker. Chattel is some thing, not some one. The soul took exile in secret inside the naked somethingness. In Black Woman, modesty was spiritual; to survive, the body succumbed to its conquerors.