Margaret Garner: Putting the History Back in Historical Fiction

By Madison Filzer

(Image courtesy of https://www.loc.gov/item/99614263/)

An engraving of the story of Margaret Garner, from Harper’s Weekly in 1867.

Well for starters, Happy Black History Month! May this month, and every other month, remind us of where we come from and what we can do in order to honor the stories of those who are often forgotten. History comes from many different places and is rendered in many different forms. The different ways in which history is communicated is what ultimately inspired this piece. You’re all familiar with Toni Morrison’s Beloved, correct? If not, go read it (duh) but the focus of this article is not to encourage you to read the novel. The purpose of this article is to get back to the roots of historical fiction. At face value, the genre of historical fiction is a bit of an oxymoron. To be fictional, in any way, eludes to the idea of falsehood; alternatively, history is rooted in factual evidence, all of which can be proven. So where does a story stop relying upon history in order for the imagination to take over? 

Beloved focuses on the story of Sethe, a runaway slave woman and mother from Kentucky who seeks refuge in Cincinnati, Ohio prior to the Civil War. While the novel is historical fiction, there is an element of history that warrants deeper analysis: the story of Margaret Garner.[1] It is important to say her name because historically, it matters as the slave narrative portrayed throughout history is rarely from a mother’s perspective. Furthermore, women are often erased from this narrative entirely. In this instance, the story of Sethe, the runaway slave woman, is based upon the factual story of what Margaret Garner endured at the hands of her white slave owners. After escaping the plantation of Archibald Gaines in Kentucky, Margaret and her family traveled about 16 miles crossing over the Ohio River into Cincinnati. Days after escaping Federal Marshalls surrounded the house of Joseph Kite, Margaret’s cousin, in pursuit of the Garner family. As the marshalls approached her, the mother of four made the decision to attempt to take the life of her children rather than allowing them to return to slavery. [2]  Margaret attempted to kill all four of her children and herself, however, only her two-year-old daughter succumbed to her injuries.[3] [4]

It is easy to read Beloved and be captured by Morrison’s ability to bring history to life, but Margaret Garner had a life too. One can simply read the book and appreciate it for what it is, but I encourage readers to be thoughtful enough to dig deeper. Margaret Garner attempted to kill her four children rather than allowing them to be subjected to life on a plantation, and that should tell us something. Now, I don’t have children yet, but can you imagine the pain that Margaret must have endured throughout her life as a slave that made death seem like a better option for her children? This is the “historical” in historical fiction, and it is imperative to remember that these renderings are based on the truth of someone else’s story. 

(Image courtesy of http://library.cincymuseum.org/aag/bio/garner.html)

Margaret Garner’s story did not stop after the death of her two-year-old child. Garner’s case went on to trial, not for killing her child, but for being a fugitive slave. [5] [6] To be tried for murder would establish Garner as a free woman, something that her attorney, John Jolliffe, fought for. However, in the eyes of the court, Margaret was the property of Archibald Gaines. As such, Margaret, her husband, and her remaining children were detained, and charged as fugitive slaves and were transported to a plantation owned by the Gaines family in New Orleans, Louisiana. En route to New Orleans, it is thought that the steamboat carrying the Garner’s, the Henry Lewis collided with the E.H. Howard, sending Margaret and her infant child overboard.[7]  Although Margaret survived, she again suffered the loss of a child at the hands of slavery. Margaret Garner never obtained her freedom. She died on a Mississippi plantation in 1858 from typhoid fever but one could argue that her story, in part, led to the Civil War that broke out only a few years later. The trial of Margaret Garner went on for two weeks, which was longer than most and due to the circumstances, the trial drew large amounts of newspaper attention. [8] During a time when abolition was at the forefront of people’s minds, a case like that of Margaret Garner only added to the escalating conflict between the North and the South. 

Margaret Garner’s story is important, not just in the context of Beloved, but also in the context of American history. Historical fiction is rooted in history, and in order to fully understand the text at hand, readers must think beyond the fictional component of the story. In an article written about Richard Danielpour’s theatrical rendition of Margaret Garner’s story Toni Morrison says the following, “The interest is not the fact of slavery, but of what happens internally, emotionally, psychologically, when you are in fact enslaved and what you do you do to try to transcend that circumstance. And that really is what Margaret Garner reveals,”[9] Morrison was inspired by the story of Margaret Garner, but from the above quote we know that her focus was not on the historical component but rather the emotional toll that slavery took on one woman and her family. However, Morrison’s focus  does not negate the history embedded in her writing. Going back to the historical roots of Beloved forces one to think about what it would be like to choose between enslavement and “freedom” by death. For every slave story, choices were made that were contingent upon the time in which one lived. One could never judge the actions of Sethe without knowing the reality of what Margaret Garner lived through. During Black History Month, at a time where racism is still alive and well, put yourself in the shoes of Margaret Garner. Ask yourself what you would do when stuck between two evils. As you read Beloved, or any other historical fiction novel, always remember there is in fact history in Historical Fiction. 

Endnotes: 

[1] Margaret Garner | African American Resources 

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4]  If you have read the book, then you know that her husband witnessed all of this. 

[5] Margaret Garner Incident (1856) •

[6] Article from the Cincinnati Gazette, January 29, 1856

Cincinnati History Library and Archives, Cincinnati Museum Center

[7]  Black Abolitionist Archive | The Slave Margaret. :: UDM Libraries / Instructional Design Studio

[8] Margaret Garner | African American Resources 

[9] A Mother’s Desperate Act: ‘Margaret Garner’ 

Madison is a second year Master’s Candidate in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her research interests include Civil Rights activism in Cleveland, Ohio, and Black women’s activism in the United States.

Black History Happening Now

The following list was compiled by the current editors of the Re/Visionist to provide a glimpse at Black history being made today. While this list is certainly not exhaustive, we hope it will showcase the variety of achievements in Black history’s recent past.

Ava DuVernay: An American filmmaker and film distributor, DuVernay was the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Director for Selma (2014). Her 2016 film 13th was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Most recently she created, co-wrote, and directed the critically acclaimed Netflix series When They See Us (2019) which follows the 1989 Central Park five. Lucy Mangan of The Guardian notes that the show “is a dense, fast-moving series that examines not just the effects of systemic racism but the effects of all sorts of disenfranchisement” [1]

Billy Porter: Porter is the first openly gay Black man to win an Emmy in any lead acting category. He won for Outstanding Leading Actor in a Drama Series for his work on the television series Pose. Acceptance speech. Previously, he originated the role of Lola in the Broadway production of Kinky Boots, winning the Tony for Best Actor.

Indya Moore: Transgender and using non-binary pronouns, Indya is a model and actress who played a role in television series Pose. They are known for trans activism as Time magazine named them in the top 100 most influential people in the world in 2019.

Jeremy O. Harris: At only 30, Harris became the youngest black, queer man to be produced on Broadway with Slave Play in 2019. He recently graduated from Yale’s MFA in Playwriting program. The 17-week run worked actively to make theater more accessible by providing affordable tickets and special programming such as Blackout nights, in which audiences were entirely African-American. Harris and his efforts were recently featured in this Re/Visionist blog post.

Jordan Peele: In 2017, Peele’s horror film Get Out won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and nomination for Best Director. He describes the film as a social thriller, explaining that “one of the best ways to enter the conversation about race is through art. If we can have a shared experience in a movie theatre, it gives us more of a basis for conversation.” [2] Before turning to horror, he was known for co-creating the popular Comedy Central show Key & Peele. His most recent film, Us, was released in 2019.

Jalaiah Harmon: 14-year-old Harmon is responsible for creating the viral Tik Tok “Renegade” dance. Teenage girls’ accomplishments, particularly those of girls of color, are not always highlighted or taken seriously. Thousands of internet users posted their own content using her choreography, including several prominent celebrity renditions. When other teenage creators, particularly white girls, began to get benefits from the dance (notably an invite to perform at an NBA All Stars game) without crediting her, there was a push on various online platforms to give Harmon the credit she deserved. Most recently, she had the opportunity to perform her dance at Chicago’s United Center.

Jocelyn Bioh: A Ghanian-American actor and playwright in New York City, her play School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play was the 2018 winner of several awards: the Lortel Award, a Drama Desk Nomination, Drama League Nomination, and Off Broadway Alliance Nomination to name a few. She is currently a resident playwright at Lincoln Center. Bioh has also been seen on several prominent stages, including Signature Theater, The Public Theater, and with the 2015 Tony Award Winning production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Kenan Thompson: Now in his 17th season on the sketch comedy show, Saturday Night Live, Thompson is the longest-tenured cast member in its almost 45 year history. While SNL alums have used the show as a stepping stone to solo endeavors, Thompson says that he isn’t planning on leaving. Looking to the future, Thompson is considering the role of representation in media, noting a lack of black-owned production companies producing comedy. [3] He will both work on and produce his own comedies, a new step in his decades long career. “The Kenan Show,” his newest effort, has been picked up by NBC and will air during the 2020-21 season.

Lena Waithe: A Black, queer woman Lena Waithe is an American screenwriter, producer and actress. Screenwriter and producer of Queen and Slim, released in 2019, the film is breaking ground in “making urgent art about the Black experience.” [4]  Lena Waithe also received an Emmy award in 2017 for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, making her the first Black woman to win the award.

Lil Nas X (Montero Lamar Hill): An openly gay Black musician, Lil Nas X has made history by breaking barriers between music genres of country and rap. His 2019 hit song, “Old Town Road” was remixed with Billy Ray Cyrus and performed at the 2020 Grammy Awards. Lil Nas X’s awards include (but not limited to): BET Awards Best Single of the year (2019), Country Music Association Award for Musical Event of the Year (2019), and Grammy award for Best Pop Duo/ Group Performance (2020).

Lizzo (Melissa Vivian Jefferson): As a Black woman who refuses to be shamed for her body size and weight, Lizzo has been making history as a rap and R&B musician who can play the flute while dancing like nobody else. She won three Grammy awards in 2020 for Best Pop Solo Performance, Best Urban Contemporary Album, and Best Traditional R&B Performance. At the 2019 Video Music Awards she performed “Truth Hurts” and “Good as Hell,” a piece centering Black women and their empowerment.

Morgan Parker: As a powerful poet, Morgan Parker is a Black woman who won the Pushcart Award in 2017. She centers Black womanhood in her poetry as her 2019 published collection, Magical Negro, “challenges white ideas of Blackness.” [5] She has also published There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce (2017),  Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night (2015), and more.

Saeed Jones: Queer and Black, Saeed Jones is a poet and the author of his memoir, How We Fight For Our Lives (2019). He is breaking ground as a writer who confronts the hardships of growing up and living as a gay Black man in the South.

Virgil Abloh: In 2018 Virgil Abloh made history as the first African American man to be named Louis Vuitton’s Artistic Director. Prior to 2018, Virgil was mostly known in association with the streetwear brand Off-White, which he founded in 2013. Virgil also produced the artwork for Jay-Z and Kanye’s joint album titled “Watch the Throne” which was later nominated for a grammy. 

Endnotes:

[1] Mangan, Lucy. “When They See Us Review – Netflix’s Gut-Wrenching Tale of the Central Park Five.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, May 31, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/may/31/when-they-see-us-review-netflix-ava-duvernay-central-park-five.

[2] Kettler, Sara. “Jordan Peele.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, August 24, 2019. https://www.biography.com/actor/jordan-peele.

[3] Izadi, Elahe. “The Quiet Brilliance of Kenan Thompson, SNL’s Longest-Tenured Cast Member.” The Washington Post. WP Company, August 28, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2019/08/28/quiet-brilliance-kenan-thompson-snls-longest-tenured-cast-member/?arc404=true.

[4] Comedy Central. “Lena Waithe – Making Urgent Art About the Black Experience with ‘Queen & Slim’ – Extended Interview – The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (Video Clip).” Comedy Central. Accessed February 18, 2020. http://www.cc.com/video-clips/9gyvow/the-daily-show-with-trevor-noah-lena-waithe—making-urgent-art-about-the-black-experience-with–queen—slim—-extended-interview.

[5] Phillips, Emilia. “In ‘Magical Negro,’ Morgan Parker’s Poems Challenge White Ideas of Blackness.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 12, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/12/books/review/morgan-parker-magical-negro-poems.html.

Afropunk and Tamar-Kali Brown: The Issue of Universalizing the Riot Grrrl Experience

By Marian Phillips

The film The Punk Singer (2013), directed by Sini Anderson (a white woman), took the world by storm in the 21st century when it exposed the importance of punk music to women as a way to express feminist ideologies. Anderson’s documentary focuses on frontwoman Kathleen Hanna of the band Bikini Kill and noted founder of the “Riot Grrrl” movement. The trailer to the documentary introduces its potential viewer to the difficulties women had faced in finding a place in feminism, and achieving one through punk music and performance. Bikini Kill’s live concerts in the 1990s are featured throughout the trailer, showing women such as Hanna questioning patriarchal structures in society and performing partially nude as a political statement. The film ultimately emphasizes how women navigated the world of punk with a feminist lens, but its most notable aspect is the lack of representation of Black women that participated in punk and made statements of their own in the popular subculture. 

One would find, after a quick search of “Black women in punk music” on Google, that Tamar-Kali Brown, a Black woman, is a pioneer of feminist punk movements; so why does Anderson’s trailer not mention or feature Brown’s experience amongst Hanna’s in the 90s Riot Grrrl movement? Yes, the trailer makes it explicitly clear that the film is about Kathleen Hanna, but Anderson includes other feminist punk women such as Carrie Brownstein, Johanna Fateman, and Kim Gordon, therefore featuring Tamar-Kali Brown wouldn’t have detracted from its primary character. Brown is known for speaking publicly on the movement, as she is featured in the documentary Afropunk (2004) [1] about Black punk musicians and made nine years prior to The Punk Singer (2013). As the trailer does not include her, nor any mention of Black women or the Afropunk movement that was born out of frustrations towards white-centric punk, the difference in women’s experiences in the movement are ignored. 

(Tamar-Kali Brown, photo courtesy of https://www.tamar-kali.com/)

The Riot Grrrl punk movement contributed to the ability for feminism and feminist ideas to grow in a community that felt left out, using shock to prompt society to pay attention to the frustration women felt socially, culturally, and politically through music. What the trailer and interviewees speak to is a white punk feminist movement despite the assertion of providing voice to the voiceless. The white-centric approach of the trailer further silences the voices of Black women when differences in experience and representation are lacking.  

Historically, white men dominate the conversation of punk music. Anderson’s focus on women in the punk movement is justifiable in this regard, but the whitewashing of the feminist punk movement is unfounded when women such as Brown are present. Regarded as an Afropunk today, Brown founded the Sista Grrrl Riot movement during the 1990s when she found that Riot Grrrl was resistant to, and excluded women of color that participated in punk music in a similar fashion as white women. In Anderson’s trailer, Black women’s efforts to find a punk movement for themselves goes unnoticed, and constructs Riot Grrrl to be the only one that women participated in. Furthermore, it provides the viewer with an image of universal experiences within the movement. The women interviewed mention the sense of community and collective agreement on the issues they faced as riot grrrls but not every woman, especially not Black and Brown women, felt that they faced similar issues or sense of community.

(Afropunk Music Festival Attendees, photo courtesy of https://www.manrepeller.com/2018/08/afropunk-festival-street-style-2018.html)

Anderson’s trailer for the film does not mention the Afropunk movement let alone Sista Grrrl Riot. The Afropunk movement, while never given a specific date as to when it was initially created, was largely popularized when the documentary premiered in 2004; detailing the lives of Black punks, and prompting an annual festival of the same name to begin. One would assume that Anderson’s research on the histories of the punk movement of the 1990s would take note of this documentary that historicizes a subculture within it and features Black women . As The Punk Singer (2013) was released almost ten years after Afropunk (2004), it poses the question of Anderson choosing to ignore these histories, or if it felt of no use to her own work.  Anderson, consciously or unconsciously, produces a piece that aims at historicizing a woman led feminist punk movement, but excludes the differences Black women experienced in it. Black women, such as Tamar-Kali Brown, provide ample evidence of difference in the feminist punk movement of Riot Grrrl. Anderson does not project this in the film’s trailer, and ultimately creates an image of the movement as experienced and created by white women, and that white women’s experience in Riot Grrrl are universal to all women in it. 

If we are to continue to craft histories on groups of women in moments such as these, recognizing differences is intrinsic to understanding the social, cultural, and political landscape that persists in mapping them out. By not including intersections of identity in these conversations, historians risk creating and upholding an ahistorical framework that universalizes women and their experiences, such as Sini Anderson has conclusively done through the trailer of her documentary. Afropunk, Sista Grrrl Riot, and Tamar-Kali Brown speak to the importance of punk to Black women. When Riot Grrrl disregarded the intersections of race and punk, Black women created a movement of their own that resists the notion that all punk is white and male, and that all Riot Grrrls are white. 

Please find here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fanQHFAxXH0&t=2496s) a link to watch the Afropunk (2004) film in full for free. 

Notes

[1] Spooner, James, “AFROPUNK: The Movie – Trailer,” Youtube, Posted by James Spooner, January 30, 2013, Accessed November 13, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJQRJZU0Zhc.

[2]  Bess, Gabby, (2015), Alternatives to Alternatives: The Black Grrrls Riot Ignored. [online] Broadly, Available at: https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/9k99a7/alternatives-to-alternatives-the-black-grrrls-riot-ignored (Accessed 14 Nov. 2018).

Sources

Anderson, Sini, “The Punk Singer Official Trailer 1 (2013) – Documentary HD,” YouTube, Posted by Movieclips Indie, October 31, 2013, Accessed November 13, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMbLzaVkn2s.

Bess, Gabby, (2015), Alternatives to Alternatives: The Black Grrrls Riot Ignored. [online] Broadly, Available at: https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/9k99a7/alternatives-to alternatives-the-black-grrrls-riot-ignored (Accessed 14 Nov. 2018).

Joan Scott, “Introduction” in Feminism and History, (Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 1996,) 1-13.  

Spooner, James, “AFROPUNK: The Movie – Trailer,” YouTube, Posted by James Spooner, January 30, 2013, Accessed November 13, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJQRJZU0Zhc.

Marian Phillips is a second year Master’s Candidate at Sarah Lawrence College studying Women’s and Gender History. Her research interests include LGBTQIA+ history, the history of punk movements/music, social movements, 1950s Cold War America, and Horror film studies.

A Radical Moment in Theater: "Slave Play," Accessibility, and Discomfort on Broadway

By Rachael Nuckles

“At the MacGregor Plantation, nothing is as it seems, and yet everything is as it seems. It’s an antebellum fever-dream as three interracial couples converge to rip open history at the intersection of race, love, sex, and sexuality in 21st-century America.” (Slave Play Official Website)

(Promotional shot of actress Joaquina Kalukango. Photo courtesy of Slave Play Instagram account @slaveplaybway)

Theater has a long history of issues with accessibility, whether that means the exclusion of women actors, the physical separation of “high-brow” and “low-brow” [1] production on New York’s Broadway and Bowery, or the rising costs of a single ticket to a Broadway production. Black History Month is the perfect time to consider issues of accessibility, particularly through the lens of the recent Broadway production Slave Play written by Jeremy O. Harris. A recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama’s MFA in playwriting, Harris made history with his Broadway debut; at only 30, he became the youngest black, queer man produced on Broadway. [2] This isn’t the only history surrounding the play’s 17-week run. Directed by another black and queer man, Robert O’Hara, Slave Play “reimagines the possibilities of what theater can give us,” challenging accessibility norms and the topics represented onstage. [3] It marks a shift in what future Broadway productions could (and should) look like.

(Harris and O’Hara, playwright and director. Photo Courtesy of Ike Edeani for The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/11/theater/slave-play-broadway-jeremy-harris.html)

For Harris, his passion for accessibility “was about Black work begetting Black work and Black audiences.” [4] He not only wanted Slave Play to attract black audiences, but he wanted the work to inspire additional black art. In a report by the Broadway League, for the 2018-2019 Broadway season, 75% of audiences were white and the average ticket price was $145.60 per ticket. [5] These numbers show an ongoing issue in Broadway demographics, limiting who can afford to view this type of theater and who can feel comfortable in audiences. At such a steep per-ticket price, only those with money (and leisure time) will be able to access these shows. If mostly white people make up these audiences, it can result in an exclusive environment and theatergoing experience. Harris worked with his producers to change this for the run of Slave Play. First, Harris hosted Blackout Nights in which audiences were 100% black. These events were often made possible by word-of-mouth and free tickets to students. Further, Harris and his producers made 10,000 tickets available at only $39 per ticket, a price much more affordable than the 2018-19 average. On top of these efforts, to achieve Harris’s goal to inspire additional black work, a portion of profits from Slave Play went to support other black theater artists specifically at the National Black Theater in Harlem. Founded in 1968, the National Black Theater’s mission is as follows:

1. To produce transformational theater that helps to shift the inaccuracy around African Americans’ cultural identity by telling authentic stories of Black lifestyle;

2. To use theater arts as a means to educate, enrich, entertain, empower & inform the national conscience around current social issues impacting our communities;

3. To provide a safe space for artists of color to articulate the complexity, beauty & artistic excellence intrinsic in how we experience the world in the domain of acting, directing, producing, designing, play writing and entrepreneurial autonomy.

(National Black Theater Official Site)

The play is not only challenging accessibility on the producing side, but also in its themes. Slave Play is dictating who gets to be in the room and who gets to have their voice heard onstage. It’s of note that this production came in the same year as the 1619 Project by the New York Times, both examining the long-lasting effects of slavery in America 400 years after the fact. Both provoked social media conversation and occasional outrage. As the playwright has suggested, part of the success of the play is in the mystery of not knowing exactly what it is about. The element of surprise makes the events of the play all the more powerful as the story unfolds. Therefore, without revealing exactly what goes on, I want to acknowledge that Slave Play specifically addresses the generational trauma present in black America by observing its effects in intimate relationships. At its core, this is a play about race and sexuality; eight different people, all involved in interracial relationships, who approach their lives and relationships based on their individual intersections. Each character lives passionately in their truth, sometimes needing to step back and acknowledge that other truths might exist.

This point has made itself clear both within the script itself and within reactions to the script. In a viral tweet by the playwright, an angry white woman dubbed “Talkback Tammy” is visibly upset, suggesting that the playwright is “racist against white people” and ignoring her own marginalization. This woman’s value of her own truth over the truths of others is exactly the point that a production like Slave Play is making. In the recording, Harris notes that his play is meant to serve as a metaphor, and that eight people cannot accurately represent the whole of a country. Perhaps before becoming offended or hostile towards art, we should listen to what that art is saying and consider why it is we are feeling that way. Through “Talkback Tammy” we can see not only the need for work such as the 1619 Project or Slave Play, but also the power of theater in sparking discussion. Because the video was taken from a talkback, a discussion held after a production to address questions and themes within the work, we can see the efforts of the production team to facilitate an environment productive to discussion. At the same time, because the video was published on social media site Twitter, we can also see the more informal ways that Slave Play has sparked conversation. Often, the goal of a play is not to entertain but to educate through the shared experience of live storytelling. It can provide relevant social and historical commentary; rather than providing an escape from reality, Slave Play forces the viewer to look it in the eyes.

(Photo Courtesy of Sara Krulwich, The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/11/theater/slave-play-broadway-jeremy-harris.html)

(Jeremy O. Harris speaking on set during a Blackout Talkback. Image courtesy of https://www.americantheatre.org/2019/09/23/how-slave-play-got-800-black-people-to-the-theatre/ )

I had the privilege of seeing Slave Play in December, a seat at the back row of the mezzanine with a view of a stage like nothing I’d seen before. Early on in my academic theater career, a mentor always said that as artists and theater practitioners, our responsibility was to hold the mirror up to society. Walking into the Golden Theater, it was clear that this production would do just that. If it wasn’t abundantly clear by the conversations being sparked online and within the dozens of reviews, the set design seemed to make this point unignorable. A floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall mirror made it impossible for the audience not to see themselves among the action of the play. While watching the characters, you’re also watching the audience; the reactions of certain attendees to events of the play can be just as informative as the play itself. Why are they reacting in such a way? How can the play be interpreted differently based on identity? What is the effect of the mirror not only in the performances of the actors, but in those observing? All are questions I am still processing as I revisit the script and consider the various opinions surrounding its message.

Theater is not always comfortable. In a space dominated by white audiences, designed to prevent access to marginalized groups, these discussions are long overdue. For Slave Play to approach accessibility so unapologetically is a piece of revolutionary history, specifically within American performing arts culture. I am lucky to have experienced it firsthand. Though the production closed in January, the script is now available for purchase. I would recommend giving it a read whether you’re an avid theatergoer or interested in the ways race, gender, and sexuality are historicized through media. For the theater historian or independent researcher, a recording was taken for New York Public Library’s Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at Lincoln Center. In future theater histories, this play is a necessity to include, analyse, and process.

Notes

[1] Typically, “high-brow” refers to consumption of the upper classes while “low-brow” is associated with working-class or popular/mass culture. In the history of New York theater, these types of entertainment were physically separated by street, Broadway housing the “high-brow” and Bowery housing the “low-brow,” though the types of entertainment encompassed by each have varied with changing social norms.

[2] Gilchrist, Tracy E. “Out Playwright Jeremy O. Harris Makes Broadway History With Slave Play.” ADVOCATE. Advocate.com, July 11, 2019. https://www.advocate.com/theater/2019/7/11/out-playwright-jeremy-o-harris-makes-broadway-history-slave-play.

[3]  Morris, Wesley. “A Radical Moment in American Theater and Beyond.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 25, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/25/theater/african-american-playwrights.html.

[4] Tran, Diep. “How ‘Slave Play’ Got 800 Black People to the Theatre.” AMERICAN THEATRE, September 24, 2019. https://www.americantheatre.org/2019/09/23/how-slave-play-got-800-black-people-to-the-theatre/.

[5]  The Broadway League. “The Demographics of the Broadway Audience NYC 2018-19.” New York, November 2019. https://www.broadwayleague.com/research/research-reports/

Recommended video link, “‘Slave Play’ is a performance filled with ‘intrigue and surprise’.”

Rachael is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her current research interests include girls’ cultural production and participation in subcultures, activist media technologies, and performance studies.

Black History Month: Education and Identity

The interviewee of this piece has requested to remain anonymous. Out of respect for their wishes, I will refrain from any mention of their name, schools they attended, and any reference to inherently personal information. I find it incredibly important to thank my partner and recognize the time and intellectual labor that she dedicated to the interview as well as her willingness to review the writing process of this article until it reached her approval.

It’s Black History Month, and I find myself torn between what to write about. Audre Lorde? The epidemic of violence committed against Black trans women? The prison industrial system which stands as the continuation of slavery? While I love Audre Lorde, loathe the thirty-five-year-old life expectancy for trans women of color in the United States, and long to bring down the prison industrial system, I stand outside of it all. So, I decided to ask my partner if she would be comfortable with an interview about her own thoughts on Black history. It was important, as a white lesbian interviewing a Black, queer woman, to focus on questions which did not solicit emotional labor often asked of Black women when telling white people about their experiences. For brief context: her roots trace back to the Deep South where her great-grandparents lived before moving west. Raised mostly by her Black mother while her Black father served in the Navy in San Diego, California, she grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. [1]

I started by asking her “What sort of Black history did you learn in school?” She recalled teachers talking about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. When slavery was taught in class, her white teacher would make direct eye concact with her and she remembered thinking “look anywhere else, please.” She learned about Black history that wasn’t written by white men from her older family members who were educated on Black history as their culture and not a chapter out of a textbook. My partner recalled how her aunt’s house had Black art and styles of paintings on the walls, which she didn’t see anywhere else. As a young child, she looked up to Martin Luther King Jr. with a particular appreciation for his pursuit of education, noting how she wanted to skip grades in high school like he did. What further caught her interest was that King collaborated with white people, something my partner could relate to, “because, you know, my best friend was white.” When speaking about the history of the Civil Rights movement, she said, “people forget that it happened,” she says, “but there’s so much more to Black history, like redlining which is just continued systemic discrimination against Black people by stopping them from living in certain areas.” [2] My partner noted how many Black people who became well-known in the Civil Rights movement or in academia were light or fair skinned. She spoke about how many women faced violent discrimation on city buses, especially in the Deep South, before Rosa Parks was finally selected to be the face of the bus boycott.

When I asked her, “What is Black history to you?” she replied, “I feel like Black history, just like other histories, should be celebrated every month. There’s a month for it now because a lot of our history was taken away due to slavery. Almost like it makes up for the suffering.” Learning and reading were early passions of hers; therefore, school inevitably became a part of her identity. As a Black, queer woman with college degrees in Biology and Religious Studies, she considers the Brown v. Board of Education ruling against desegregation in 1954 a huge “milestone” in Black history. At her commencement ceremony for the College of Biological Sciences at the university we attended, she recalled being “one of between five to ten Black students I saw walk across the stage, out of at least five hundred students”. In science classes, other students thought that she was in the wrong room or assumed that she was a student-athlete. She sarcastically quoted statements such as, “it’s 2019, we are way past discrimination,” from fellow students. The same week someone would see her in a lecture hall and find themselves confused, convinced they must have accidentally walked into a sociology class. Again, with pointed sarcasm, she said, “God forbid there are Black people in STEM classes at this university.” [3]

 The final question posed was, “What do you think the importance of teaching Black history is?” After a long pause, she responded, “Specifically in the states, it’s important to teach every part of history that the U.S. has had and Black history is a huge part of that.” After the genocide committed by Anglo colonizers against Native Americans, the land was abused by the United States and the “history in this country was built on the backs of slaves and immigrants.” It is not a Black person or the Black community’s responsibility to educate others (primarily white people) on their experiences and/or ways of moving through a white supremacist nation. Therefore, if you are not Black and if you have the means to do so, take the time to educate yourself on Black history this month and beyond. Books, movies, poems, artwork and more created by Black people are one place to start, but remember that Black history is infinitely larger than a single month out of the year and found in every aspect of American culture.

Below are some recommendations for reading and viewing.


Notes:

[1] San Diego, California, is roughly five percent Black by population. She was raised primarily in North Park.

[2] On redling, she recommends The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Written by Richard Rothstein, published in 2017.

[3] STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and medicine.

Featured photo courtesy of, https://www.instagram.com/p/zte8Rcjf6x/


Sidney is a first year Master’s Candidate studying Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. Their academic interests include lesbianism and lesbian history in American from the 1920s to the 1930s. They are currently pursuing many different avenues for research in U.S. history pertaining to women’s and queer studies and looking forward to working on a thesis related to the linguistic and social evolution of female sexuality.

Iron-Jawed Angels: Circus Suffragists and the Fight for the Vote

By Rebecca Hopman

On Sunday, March 31, 1912, a group of women gathered in the animal menagerie at Madison Square Garden to inaugurate a new group: Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society. These circus suffragists – among them aerialists, equestriennes, strongwomen, and tightrope walkers – had joined the fight for the vote. At the meeting, well-known bareback rider Josephine DeMott Robinson reminded attendees, “You earn salaries. Some of you have property. You have a right to say what shall be done with it. You want to establish clearly in the mind of your husband that you are his equal. You are not above him, but his equal.” [1]

She and her fellow performers – most of whom were white – were uniquely positioned to spread the message of suffrage as they traveled throughout the United States engaging with audiences. [2] They joined petition drives, handed out suffrage literature, and Robinson was even known to ride her horse at rallies.

photograph of Josephine DeMott Robinson riding her horse

Josephine DeMott Robinson at her riding school, showing some of her pupils how to vault a horse while in motion. Source: Narratively (Thomas Y. Crowell Company Publishers)

Suffragists celebrated women circus performers. Movement leader Inez Milholland stated that they “exemplify one phase of the ability of women to earn their own living.” Elizabeth Cook agreed: “There is no class of women who show better that they have a right to vote than the circus women, who twice a day prove that they have the courage and endurance of men.” [3] But when it came to supporting the new society, Milholland was a little more hesitant. She had promised to attend the event, but did not show up. Instead, Beatrice Jones from the Woman’s Political Equality Union joined the group as they celebrated by christening a baby giraffe at the menagerie “Miss Suffrage.”

The press got wind of the event and were gleefully condescending in their coverage. Jones, according to a New York Times reporter, was surrounded by “women and girls, modishly and sedately gowned, so that you would never dream it was their daily lot to bound about, blithe and bespangled.” And Miss Suffrage? By the end of the evening, the giraffe – not “previously being consulted” about its new name – “couldn’t abide even the sight of a suffragette.” [4] The New York Tribune joked that the lions “moved uneasily about their cages” and the hyenas “grinned and grinned.” [5] A writer for the Sacramento Union reported that “Alexander Sebert, husband of Lillian Sebert, a bareback rider, projected himself into the meeting, took his wife and her sister, Jennie Byram, and hustled them out of the menagerie room … Sebert shouted that he didn’t intend to let his wife take part in such nonsense.” [6]

lithograph of women trapeze artists performing at circus

Female acrobats on trapezes at circus, 1890. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Library of Congress [Public domain])

But women circus performers were not daunted by this commentary. They were used to it: their profession put them in a radical position, and they had to strike a delicate balance between their roles as showwomen and the public’s demand for respectable entertainment. Although they wore leotards and demonstrated acts of strength and power in the ring, performers and promoters portrayed them as proper, domestic women, more concerned about cooking their husbands dinners than their acts. The fact that the majority of women circus performers were white (at least those under the big top) also helped to shape their image as respectable, middle-class citizens.

Rossa Matilda Richter, who performed as Zazel, the first human cannonball, was an expert at the tightrope, trapeze, and high dive. But off the stage, Richter spoke to reporters about her fellow showwomen and their commitment to traditional gender roles, “complete with tales of women commandeering the railroad dining car to bake a cake.” [7] Richter stated, “The domestic instinct is very strong among circus women, for the reason that they are deprived of home life a great part of every year.” [8] Circuses had strict rules for women performers and emphasized the presence of male family members, which helped assuage any suspicions of the public. However, writes historian Janet M. Davis, “they also unintentionally eclipsed the larger historical significance of the female big top performer as a durable champion of women’s rights.” [9] They hid their radical performances behind high-necked dresses and fresh-baked cookies.

Photograph of Zazel the human cannonball

Rossa Matilda Richter, also known as Zazel, the first human cannonball performer when she was 14, 1887. Source: Wikimedia Commons (London Stereoscopic Co. [Public domain])

While Richter put forward her domestic ideals, English acrobat Josephine Mathews advanced a different narrative. She performed as “Evetta, the Lady Clown” and embraced “all of the new woman’s fads,” including bicycling and swinging Indian clubs.” Mathews boldly stated, “I believe that a woman can do anything for a living that a man can do, and I do it just as well as a man.” [10] Both Richter and Mathews’ public personas were likely shaped by circus press agents, showing the contradictory ways women in the circus were depicted.

poster of Evetta lady clown

The Strobridge Lithographing Company Barnum & Bailey: Evetta the Only Lady Clown, 1895. Source: Circus Now

Katherine Brumbach, a strongwoman who performed under the name Katie Sandwina, was at Madison Square Garden as an inaugural member of the Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society. At five feet nine inches tall and 210 pounds with a muscular frame, she did not fit the physical standards for feminine beauty at the time. But doctors declared her the “perfect female specimen” and others described her as “beautiful and feminine.” [11] She earned up to $1,500 a week, which amounts to roughly $40,000 in today’s money. As part of her routine, she regularly lifted her husband, Max Heymann, above her head. Brumbach’s appearance, abilities, and the fact that she earned a wage were at odds with the ideal woman.

photograph of circus strongwoman Katie Sandwina holding three men in the air

Katie Sandwina, “The Lady Hercules”. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Bain News Service [Public domain])

Reporter Marguerite Martyn emphasized Brumbach’s divergent qualities in a 1911 article for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, writing, “At the moment she was twirling her husband about in dizzy circles above her head … Carelessly, laughingly, she tosses her husband about as though he were not flesh and bone, but merely an effigy of inflated rubber. And he is no insignificant husband, either.” No “normal” woman would be able to lift and twirl her husband, especially with such ease. (Although some might like to, including the woman Martyn overheard exclaiming, “Gee! Wouldn’t I love to be able to bat a man around like that!”) [12]

In an accompanying illustration, Brumbach appears as large as a giant, holding the very properly-dressed and diminutive Martyn in one hand while preening for the crowd in a form-fitting leotard. In the next panel she has returned to more normal womanly activities, standing over a stove cooking dinner for her husband and son. “There are enough duties in her own home for any woman if she would make her family healthy and strong and wise,” Brumbach told Martyn. “I think I should be content to devote all my strength to my household.” [13]

black and white line drawing of Katie Sandwina

Imaginative sketch by Marguerite Martyn of strongwoman Katie Sandwina, 1911. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Marguerite Martyn [Public domain])

Whatever her feelings about housework and home life (or those she expressed as a part of her public persona), Brumbach was an eager participant in the fight for the vote. She became the vice president of the Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society, joining Robinson, equestrienne May Wirth, wire-walker Victoria Codona, bareback rider Victoria Davenport, and many others in committing herself to the cause.

While it is unclear how long the society lasted or how much of an impact their actions had on the suffrage movement, Robinson, Brumbach, and their fellow performers arguably made their most convincing case under the big top. Their costumes, skills, and ability to outearn many male circus performers proved to those who watched their shows that women were capable of being more than just angels at home; they were iron-jawed Amazons worthy of the vote.


Resources


Notes

[1] “Enlist Suffragists for a Circus Holiday,” New York Times, April 1, 1912.
[2] Most women employed by circuses were white, with the exception of women in sideshow acts. This seems to extend to the membership of the Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society, although there isn’t a full list of members included in accounts. One reporter mentions several Japanese women in the group, but all the performers mentioned by name were white.
[3] Kat Vecchio, “Barnum & Bailey’s Forgotten High-Flying Suffragists,” Narratively, December 27, 2017.
[4] “Enlist Suffragists for a Circus Holiday.”
[5] “Suffragettes in Circus,” New-York Tribune. April 1, 1912.
[6] Afton Woodward, “Suffragette Circus,” The Virtuoso, March 1, 2016.
[7] Janet M. Davis, “Ladies of the Ring,” Circus Now, January 6, 2015.
[8] Janet M. Davis, “Bearded Ladies, Dainty Amazons, Hindoo Fakers, and Lady Savages: Circus Representations of Gender and Race in Victorian America,” in Kristin Spangenberg and Deborah Walk, editors, The Amazing American Circus Poster: The Strobridge Lithographing Company (Cincinnati and Sarasota: Cincinnati Art Museum and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, February 2011): 79.
[9] Davis, “Ladies of the Ring.”
[10] Ibid.
[11] Debbie Foulkes, “Katie Sandwina (1884 – 1952) Circus Strongwoman,” Forgotten Newsmakers, December 14, 2010.
[12] Marguerite Martyn, “The ‘Lady Hercules’ Tells Marguerite Martyn,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 4, 1911.
[13] Ibid.


Rebecca Hopman is a first-year student in the Women’s History graduate program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the Project Archivist at the Sarah Lawrence College Archives and works as an editor for the Re/Visionist. Her research interests include the history of itinerant performers, gender dynamics in artistic communities, women’s life writing, and women’s collegiate experiences.

Roaring Lesbian Subcultures in New York City

New York City has long been known for its liberalism and borough-specific socioeconomic demographics; however, one community during the 1920s often overlooked by historians is the lesbian subculture in Greenwich Village. In this article, “lesbian” will be used very loosely to describe women-loving-women. Due to the term’s limited use until the mid-twentieth century, retroactively labeling women of the early 1900s as lesbians would not be accurate. However, there were a handful of known Greenwich Village women who lived openly lesbians lives and others who married gay men in order to preserve a heterosexual identity in public life. 

Frequently noted for bohemianism and the free love movement during the 1920s, Greenwich Village was home to many middle-class, white liberals who were seeking careers as artists, writers, and activists. Beneath the white liberal populous, gay and lesbian cultures flourished. Lesbianism began to gain visibility, bolstered by the free love movement and feminist collectives. One such example was The Heterodoxy Club, which was active in Greenwich Village from 1912 through the 1940s. This collective is a unique example of a feminist organization, due to the fact that they were generally more accepting of other women regardless of sexuality. While members were almost entirely white and most came from a middle-upper class, educated background, the sense of comradery they held for one another meant openly lesbian women, such as Katharine Anthony, were able to be active members in the feminist community. Aside from Judith Schwarz’s 1986 publication, Feminists of the Heterodoxy: Greenwich Village 1912-1940, very little information is available about The Heterodoxy Club. Nevertheless, this group of approximately one hundred women provides a small but important window through which through which it is possible to examine the emergence of lesbianism in the 1920s.

It is important to acknowledge that Greenwich Village was not the only community in New York City with an underground gay and lesbian culture coming to life during the early twentieth century. While the lesbian subculture in Greenwich Village was rooted in privileges such as whiteness, middle-class status, and a college education, Harlem’s working-class residents – mostly people of color – fostered a different world of queer culture. Due to Harlem’s socioeconomic status, underground gay and lesbian communities were often exploited by affluent white folks from other boroughs. Still, night scenes in both Harlem and Greenwich Village funcitoned as social spaces for lesbians to meet and became part of the foundation of homosexual subcultures.  

Establishments in Greenwich Village, like Polly Halliday’s restaurant on MacDougal Street where The Heterodoxy Club gathered, often served as meeting places for activists, gays, and lesbians. While lesbian subculture became an integral part of Greenwich Village’s reputation and the free love movement, they still faced discrimination and dangerous circumstances such as incarceration in women’s prisons. Establishing economic independence and stability as a lesbian during the 1920s was no easy feat and many were eventually forced to marry men due to societal and financial pressures. Economic independence was a common topic of discussion among straight and queer women of The Heterodoxy Club. For example, Katharine Anthony and Elisabeth Irwin, lesbian partners and members of The Heterodoxy Club, struggled to support themselves and their adopted daughters. Financial strife should not come as a surprise due to the prominence of misogyny and homophobia during the 1920s, which imposed intense experiences of oppression among lesbians. Although many lesbians in Greenwich Village during the 1920s were middle-upper class and white, they still experienced difficulty affording housing as well as job security. Such obstacles to sustainable and accessible living sometimes resulted in sham weddings to gay men which were safer than open partnerships with women.

Ultimately, lesbian and gay subcultures which took root during the early twentieth century grew into social revolutions decades later. During the 1920s, lesbianism began to emerge as a tangible and visible aspect of women’s sexuality and gender expression in New York City boroughs like Greenwich Village and Harlem. Today, we may look to icons from the mid-to-late 1900s, such as Audre Lorde, who made history as queer women. However, we cannot forget those who were blazing the raging lesbian trail during the roaring twenties.

Sources

Audre Lorde biographical information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audre_Lorde

Elisabeth Irwin biographical information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisabeth_Irwin

Katharine Anthony biographical information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katharine_Anthony

Sidney is a first year Master’s Candidate studying Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. Their academic interests include lesbianism and lesbian history in American from the 1920s to the 1930s. They are currently pursuing many different avenues for research in U.S. history pertaining to women’s and queer studies and looking forward to working on a thesis related to the linguistic and social evolution of female sexuality.