Review: Word, Like Fire
Valerie C. Cooper. Word, Like Fire: Maria Stewart, the Bible, and the Rights of African Americans. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011. xiv + 210 pp. ISBN 978-0-8139-3188-3.
Invoke the name Maria W. Stewart and most people will proudly showcase their knowledge that Stewart was the first American woman of any race to give a public address before a “promiscuous audience.” Some may also note her deep connections to abolitionism and women’s rights. But beyond those rather basic facts, little biographical detail remains known about this force of a woman. For religious studies scholar, Valerie Cooper, however, Stewart’s personal and intellectual histories will not languish in the dustbin of history. Instead, it is Cooper’s mission in Word, Like Fire, to rescue Stewart from relative obscurity and draw attention to the fact that “Stewart may have had one of the most unrecognized and underappreciated African American theological voices of the nineteenth century” (1).
By providing close-readings of a representative sample of Stewart’s five published speeches from the years 1831 through 1833, Cooper demonstrates how Stewart’s meditations traversed multiple realms of thought. As such, the author deems it counterproductive to view Stewart, her words, and her world solely through the singular lens of race or gender. Though the metalanguage of race loomed large in Stewart’s life (as it did for all blacks in America at that time), Cooper insists that Stewart’s religiosity and her embrace of the scriptures mattered too. In many respects, the Bible truly governed her life and life’s work, and unquestionably, the scriptures helped shape Stewart’s complex worldview. Cooper cautions her readers never to divorce Stewart’s political ideology from her theological voice, as they are “at times, intertwined and indivisible” (43).
Furthermore, Cooper contends that when interpreting black women’s writings or their histories, ideas of race and gender do indeed work together “to produce a kind of double jeopardy for black women, but they also produce the possibility of multiple levels of discourse in their writings” (23). Accordingly, Cooper employs Mae Gwendolyn Henderson’s metaphor of tongues as “a useful heuristic for evaluating” Stewart and other “black women’s nineteenth-century biblical appropriation and hermeneutics” (26). Moreover, for Stewart and other black women writers and orators of the nineteenth century, their speeches oftentimes addressed a broad spectrum of topics—from the mundane circumstances of home life, to more substantial concerns in the political, philosophical, and spiritual spheres. And without fail, they regularly drew on the Bible as an unimpeachable source of inspiration and as a “mirror” to explain contemporary problems and offer meaningful solutions. In this regard, Stewart’s works were both fairly conventional yet still in the vanguard to some degree. For example, her evolving views on gender as informed by scripture and her own lived experiences as a black woman thrust her from her mentor’s (David Walker, the fiery Boston abolitionist) shadow.
Throughout four rather provocative chapters, Cooper brings sharp historical and sociological insight to not only contextualize Stewart’s life as a free black woman in the North, but she also thoroughly explicates the numerous theological motifs that permeate Stewart’s public speeches. Perhaps the adjective “thoroughly” does not adequately capture the depth of Cooper’s analysis, since each page in chapter one contains rich scriptural, theoretical, and historical interpretation of Stewart’s words. Here, Cooper shines as a biblical scholar and student of African American history especially. In a short second chapter, Cooper unpacks Stewart’s skillful use of the Bible to launch multiple indictments on America’s poor treatment of blacks and women. Cooper highlights the webs of meaning found in Stewart’s careful selection of scriptural quotations and allegories. And again, she explains how Stewart’s fiery speeches allowed for multivalent interpretations among the audience.
Stewart’s gender concerns and her views on race and nation are the focus of the third and fourth chapters. Here Cooper successfully demonstrates how Stewart deployed familiar biblical stories and even political treatises to justify her role as a preaching woman. For Stewart, vexing gender conventions should not hinder any prophetic woman doing God’s work. And on matters of race, Stewart often invokes the Exodus motif to explain the troublesome condition of blacks in America, while simultaneously writing blacks “into positions of privilege, envisioning for them a bright future and a special relationship with God” by embracing Ethiopianism (174).
Ultimately, by the end of the Word, Like Fire, Stewart emerges as an unimpeachable theological voice who acted not only as the foremother of other African American luminaries like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and a coterie of black political and theological spokespersons, but she was also a trailblazer. She was one of the first public figures to preach the equality of the sexes and the races. Similarly, she advocated a nascent form of Black Nationalism, long before Marcus Garvey and others made it a part of the black liberation struggle.
Perhaps more people know of the well-documented conversion and exhorting experiences of Jarena Lee or Sojourner Truth, but again, Cooper’s treatment of Stewart rightfully establishes her place as a coequal of these two early black women and their theological minds. Altogether, Cooper’s work stuns as a refreshing take on Stewart’s contributions to America’s long enduring conversations on matters of race and gender. Here, Stewart enters these heavily interconnected discussions as a sharply honed theological voice who has finally been showcased and smartly examined in Word, Like Fire. What dogged this monograph and others that focus on Stewart is a lack of source materials to further unearth those missing details of her life, especially concerning her relationship with her husband and David Walker. Still, this book will certainly be of great use to scholars of religious studies and those interested in women’s and African American history.