Review: Press, Platform, Pulpit
Teresa Zackodnik. Press, Platform, Pulpit: Black Feminist Publics in the Era of Reform. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011. xxv, 339 pp. ISBN 978-1-57233-826-5.
Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Amanda Berry Smith are some of the better-known African American women activists of the nineteenth century. Yet while their names, their causes, and even their stories are familiar to many scholars, these women are frequently mentioned as marginal to the main political and social movements of their periods. In Press, Platform, Pulpit: Black Feminist Publics in the Era of Reform, Teresa Zackodnik encourages her readers to think beyond this interpretation, and look instead to the ways that these women stood in the center of the politics of their day. Additionally, Zackodnik argues that nineteenth-century African American feminists not only appealed to specific audiences but that they created their own “publics” (xxxv).
In order to examine these twin arguments, Zackodnik studies a variety of women who were in the public eye over the course of the nineteenth century. The first chapter examines a number of black preaching women over the course of the century and the audiences they encountered. Zackodnik argues that these preachers were not on the edges of society during the nineteenth century. Rather, “nineteen-century African American preaching women took their ministries to the center of American and African American religious life” (46).
The following chapters are similarly bold in proclaiming the centrality of female African American speakers in the nineteenth century political realm. Chapter two moves outside the American sphere, showing how African American speakers were received as they addressed issues of American slavery in Great Britain. Sojourner Truth’s place in the United States, and her status as “‘the’ black feminist of the nineteenth century” is the subject of Zackodnik’s third chapter (94). Here, the author tries to show how important the locations of Truth’s speeches and audiences were in creating her enduring status. In contrast to Sojourner Truth’s status as the prototypical nineteenth century black feminist, Ida B. Wells-Barnett provides a different image for many scholars—that of a “marginalized militant.” Zackodnik attempts to challenge this standard interpretation in chapter four, arguing that on her British speaking tour Wells (she had not yet remarried) was far from being marginalized; rather, she was “in the thick of British reform and a figure of note in British newspapers” (164). The author presses the idea that Wells was “adept at appealing to and managing an existing public in order to gain a hearing, interest in her cause, and material support for her politics”; no simple task considering that most of the British public were concerned instead with “white slavery” when Wells first arrived there (165).
The last two chapters turn to the challenges of black feminism. Chapter five examines African American nationalism, a tradition that Zackodnik traces to the “journalism of black women as early as the 1830s,” arguing, “early black feminists actively created a public for their politics in this media [the press]” (168). Zackodnik’s concluding chapter focuses on Frances Harper and Anna Julia Cooper’s diverging responses to the links white American women made between African Americans and other “dependent races” (225).
Throughout the book, Zackodnik stresses the importance of place and the ways that the remarkable women she studied crafted their speeches, letters, articles, and other forms of communication to the audiences they addressed. These women spoke in specific ways in order to best communicate to their audiences. Yet, far too often, Zackodnik argues, scholars forget this point as they examine their historical subjects. Instead, human beings are turned into automatons that merely spit out, albeit eloquently, a single message despite the audience in front of them. Zackodnik’s work is a wonderful reminder to combat this tendency in interpretation.
Yet, even with this important insight, there are problems with Press, Platform, Pulpit. Though Zackodnik consistently talks about the multiple publics that these nineteenth century feminists engaged, there is no sustained investigation of who made up the audiences and very little done to define these separate publics (though there is a discussion of public sphere theory). The reader is left only with the assertion that these women really did confront multiple publics, rather than appearing before similar types of people from different parts of the English-speaking world. Without a clear investigation into this problem, or a working definition of exactly what was meant by the term “publics,” it was unclear to this reader whether African American feminists actually created their own audiences as the book argues.
Additionally, this reviewer found it troubling that Press, Platform, Pulpit rarely takes into account the differences in historical context in which these women lived. For example, when talking about Jarena Lee, Zackodnik notes, “In 1824 Lee’s itinerant ministry saw her deciding to travel to the slaves states to preach” (8). On the following page, the author continues with some surprise, “Remarkably, Lee’s opposition to slavery seems not to have endangered her in the south and yet her preaching did not tempter her antislavery politics: Lee joined the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1840” (9). The differences in the political climate of the slave states between these years is remarkable, yet there seems to be no difference presented in the book. In another example, the final chapter presents a dichotomy between two women’s views on how African Americans were included in speeches on “dependent races.” However, the comparison is between the perspective of one black woman in the 1860s and another’s from the 1890s. Again, there were vast differences in the political climate between the years immediately following emancipation and those in the nadir. These differences, though, are not discussed; and, strangely for a study examining black feminists in the nineteenth century, nowhere in the volume is there a sustained discussion of the impact of the American Civil War or emancipation.
Yet, while there are potentially significant problems in Press, Platform, Pulpit, the book offers important insights, and reminds scholars of the importance of examining not merely the words that our subjects say, but also to whom they were speaking.