Annotation: Paul Baepler’s “Introduction” to White Slaves, African Masters (1999)

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Baepler, Paul. “Introduction.” White Slaves, African Masters: An Anthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.

In his introduction to White Slaves, African Masters Baepler directs our attention to the largely neglected genre of Barbary captivity narratives. While many today may be familiar with Mary Rowlandson’s tale of captivity among the “savage” Indians or Frederick Douglass’ famous slave narrative, stories about the seizure of American sailors, merchants, and women along the Barbary Coast have somehow been forgotten, relegated to distant memory. Baepler contends, however, that Barbary captivity played a significant role in shaping the early political policies of the new republic. For instance, it “forced the government to pay humiliating tributes in cash and military arms to African rulers, stimulated the drive to create the U.S. navy, and brought about the first postrevolutionary war” (2). These narratives also deeply influenced public imagination, providing many Americans with their first glimpses of the distant land of Africa, its culture and its people. Consequently, Baepler argues that by examining these once familiar stories, recognizing where they overlap and borrow from the tradition of Indian captivity and slave narratives, allows us to develop a more nuanced understanding of how racial categorization and perceptions of “otherness” developed in America. Perhaps one of the most fascinating qualities of these Barbary captivity narratives is their incredible diversity. The authors present a wide range of oftentimes-contradictory attitudes and perspectives, for example, using their experiences to critique as well as justify chattel slavery in America. But what I found most interesting and perhaps most relevant to my own interests, is the absence of any verifiable female accounts of barbary captivity. Baepler reveals that the two stories in the anthology purportedly written by women are most likely false. Yet, he asserts that the “existence of these ersatz accounts suggests that the demand for ‘true’ African captivity tales, particularly accounts of women in peril, outstripped their availability” (11). I would like to further explore the public fascination with “women in peril,” and particularly the differences between male and female accounts of barbary captivity. Whereas men often pictured themselves as laboring in a “communal space,” the few accounts we receive from females emphasize isolation and confinement (16). How do these disparities provide insight into attitudes towards women’s rights in early America and how are slavery and womanhood intertwined?

Annotation: Rosemarie Zagarri’s “Introduction” to Revolutionary Backlash (2007)

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This is an annotation for a paper I am currently writing on Martha Meredith Read’s Margaretta. See my prospectus here.

Zagarri, Rosemarie. “Introduction.” Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007. 1-10. Print.

In her “Introduction” to Revolutionary Backlash Zagarri discusses how the American Revolution transformed popular opinion about the role of women in politics and “initiated a widespread, ongoing debate over the meaning of women’s rights” (2). While females were unable to participate legally by “voting and holding public office,” she reveals that they nevertheless helped shaped the character of the young nation through informal channels, whether by organizing themselves or influencing their husbands and sons (2). Ultimately, the contributions females made during the Revolution appeared to herald a similar revolution for women in terms of political status and rights, a development often neglected by historians and scholars. Zagarri demonstrates how the formulation of “republican wife” or “republican mother” creates a space for women in the political life of the young republic, albeit one that remains consistent with the “gender status quo” (5). Those women who attempted to step beyond the confines of domesticity to actively pursue politics were denounced as “female politicians” and seen as a threat to the moral and social order of the new nation (5). Therefore, while the American Revolution did open up new possibilities for women and even brought debates about women’s rights into the public arena, the backlash was quick to come. New discourses emerged encouraging women to return to hearth and home, and serving the nation from within the domestic realm was once again seen as their most productive and practical use. Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash attempts to shed light on this period in history, to examine the “rapid shift in perceptions, and self perceptions, of women’s political role” (9). In my discussion of Martha Meredith Read’s Margaretta I hope to examine how the epistolary novel, though published in 1807, continues to explore the themes of women’s rights and reinforces the prominent role women played in shaping American national identity.