Spring 2008: Of Note
‘Sweet real things’
English Professor Frances Smith Foster examines love, courtship, and marriage in early African America
By Mary J. Loftus
In gathering source material for an anthology of African American writings spanning the hundred years between the slave era and the Harlem Renaissance, Charles Howard Candler Professor Frances Smith Foster first had to get over her personal aversion to poetry that rhymes.
Many of the poems, folk sayings, and song lyrics collected by Foster, chair of the English department, for Love and Marriage in Early African America had a strong rhythm and rhyme scheme.
“A lot of the writing that I at first thought was trifling, upon reading it again, I realized, oh, that’s good,” she says. “These writings help us understand what it means to be in love, to dare to love, when you’re not expected to or are actually forbidden to.”
Taken as a whole, says Foster, the writings are a testament to those who came before, to the strength of African American families, and to the many ways in which love lives in them.
“Love and marriage were serious investments in the eighteenth century, and are so in our own contemporary experiences,” she writes in the book’s introduction, which takes the form of an open letter to her sister, Cle. “I now see how the rhymes and sayings, the folk stories we absorbed, were our heritage being passed down, particular values being enforced or espoused.”
by Alice Dunbar-Nelson, 1920
I had not thought of violets of late,
The wild, shy kind that spring beneath your feet
In wistful April days, when lovers mate
And wander through the fields in raptures sweet,
And thought of violets meant florists’ shops,
And bows and pins, and perfumed paper fine;
And garish lights, and mincing little fops
And cabarets and songs, and deadening wine.
So far from sweet real things my thoughts had strayed,
I had forgot wide fields, and clear brown streams;
The perfect loveliness that God has made—
Wild violets shy and heaven-mounting dreams.
And now—unwittingly, you’ve made me dream
Of violets, and my soul’s forgotten gleam.
The anthology’s five sections represent the ideals and models for love and marriage Foster saw reflected in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African American print culture: “In Love with Love,” “Whether to Marry—and Who?,” “Proposals and Vows,” “Married Life,” and “Family Trees Rooted—in Love.” Each section includes lyrics, letters, memoirs, stories, and newspaper articles and personals.
Reflections on love and marriage cannot truly be placed into orderly categories, Foster admits—but what sweet chaos and racing hearts reign within.
Selections embody longing, loyalty, romance, intimacy, trust, betrayal, lost loves, broken hearts, cuckolded husbands, shrewish wives, newlyweds, first loves, lifelong loves, the loss of love, and marital issues from the common to the transcendent.
“Most of the selections I liked best are funny—affirmative, but not pretentious,” she says.
And by no means do all of the selections idealize love and marriage. In fact, many offer keen insights into how small slights and careless ways can seal a couple’s fate.
In the short, humorous fiction “A Dialogue between a Newly Married Couple” or “Matrimonial Quarrels,” the first breakfast between a new husband and wife spells out their disastrous destiny: When the husband broke open his egg, his new wife exclaimed that he was breaking the shell at the wrong end. “No one else does so; and it looks so odd!” He retorted that her habit of “dipping strips of bread and butter into an egg certainly is not tidy,” but she could do as she pleases if she will allow him the same. Future arguments ensue, “equally trifling in their origin . . . until the silly couple made themselves so disagreeable to each other that their home became unendurable and they separated.”
Many of the writings are taken from publications and newspapers written by African Americans for African Americans, dating back to slave times.
“African Americans were writing and publishing sermons and minutes of meetings, poems, essays, and autobiographies,” Foster says. “At least by 1817, when the African Methodist Episcopal Book Concern was chartered, we had black editors and publishers, printers and marketing agents, journalists and correspondents, and enough people who could read and had money to buy books, newspapers, and magazines.”
Some of the “Information Wanted” notices from the Christian Record, 1864 to 1893, are as poignant as the poetry. One reads: “Information wanted of the whereabouts of my husband, Richard Jones, and our two sons, John and Thomas. We were separated in the woods near a place called alley white, in November, 1862. I was carried back to Suffolk by the Union troops. I have heard nothing of them since. We were owned by Virven Jones, of Smithfield, Suffolk County, Virginia. I am the grand daughter of Old Tom Pete Wilson. I am much in want at this time. Ministers will please read this notice in the churches. Matilda Jones, Washington D.C.”
This early print culture was often bound up with the Afro-Protestant Church, says Foster, who was a fellow at Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion while she was editing the book. African American ministers often were writers and activists as well as spiritual leaders.
The idea for the anthology came about nearly twenty years ago when Foster, with her sister, was researching a different, more academic work on the writings of Frances E. W. Harper near their parents’ home in Ohio. “Cle is a retired deputy sheriff and has little patience with fluffy stuff,” Foster says, “but she kept finding these writings about marriage and relationships in the archives and saying, ‘Hey, this is interesting! You ought to make a book of it.’ ”
Foster was up for the challenge. “I was tired of writing only for academics,” she says. “If what I’m doing is important, it should have some purchase—the stories we tell each other shape how we behave toward each other. These writings weren’t secret, but they weren’t written for outsiders either. They were written for people like themselves, by themselves, so were more candid and honest. This is about love that is much bigger, serious stuff. The kind of love that sometimes meant you had to give up somebody, but had to keep going anyway. You couldn’t break down just because that person wasn’t there.”