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Echoes of voices long silent - black women writers rediscovered

BLACK American women were writing long before a large general audience took interest. These early writers, who date back to the late 18th century, have been virtually unknown to modern readers, silenced by years of neglect and reliance on black male writers for Afro-American texts. Now some of these voices, quite distinct in tone, style, and subject matter from those of male writers, may be heard.

Last month, in collaboration with the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Oxford University Press published 30 volumes of literature by early black American women writers. The volumes, edited by Henry Louis (Skip) Gates Jr., represent an enormous collection of ``rediscovered'' fiction, autobiographies, biographies, poetry, essays, and journalism that spans the 19th century.

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Although most 19th-century blacks were thought to be illiterate, scores were writing and being published - mostly by abolitionist presses. Most of these texts, especially those by women writers, were never reprinted, and some are now so rare, says Richard Yarborough, associate professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles, that ``they are hard to find even if you look in special collections.'' One of the books included in the Schomburg Library volumes was available only on microfiche in the Library of Congress.

The rediscovery of some of these early texts is what gave root to the Schomburg project. While preparing an index to letters to the editor in antislavery periodicals (some of which blacks published), John W. Blassinghame Sr., a professor of history and Afro-American studies at Yale, found numerous previously unknown examples of poetry and fiction by 19th-century blacks.

Dr. Blassinghame encouraged colleagues Skip Gates, now a professor of English, comparative literature, and Africana studies at Cornell University, and the late Prof. Charles T. Davis, to investigate the texts, and the three founded the Black Periodical Fiction Project. Led by Dr. Gates since 1981, the fiction project has uncovered more than 12,500 works of fiction (including 150 serialized novels), 28,200 poems, and 45,000 book reviews and notices; almost 40 percent of which are by black women.

Realizing the impact such resources would have on the American literary scene, Gates and Oxford University Press began organizing what would become the Schomburg Library.

With the exception of a few texts from Howard University's archives and the Library of Congress, Gates found the volumes through the Schomburg center. Many of them, such as Amanda Smith's ``An Autobiography'' (1893), Emma D. Kelley-Hawkins's novel ``Four Girls at Cottage City'' (1898), and Ann Plato's ``Essays'' (1841), had long been out of print.

For scholars in the field, the amount of rediscovered material is staggering. ``It's like a whole curtain being pulled back ... and that will have to change how people think about American, black, and women's writing,'' says Dr. Yarborough, who wrote the introduction to Pauline Hopkin's ``Contending Forces'' (1900).

The Schomburg series not only challenges the body of texts recognized as essentially American - the American literary canon - but also ``presents a whole new set of questions for women's cultural and literary traditions,'' says Mary Helen Washington. Ms. Washington, author of ``Black-eyed Susans,'' ``Midnight Birds,'' and ``Invented Lives,'' wrote the introduction to a volume containing Anna Julia Cooper's essays, ``A Voice From the South.''

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While such a monumental project as the Schomburg Library has few critics, there are a few questions. One issue that has raised eyebrows is having a male general editor for a series on women.

That noted women scholars such as Valerie Smith, Mary Helen Washington, Deborah McDowell, and Hazel Carby were chosen to write the introductions for all but nine volumes seems hardly coincidental. Besides, Ms. Smith, an English professor at Princeton, says, ``Gates has done a lot of very important archaeological work in recovering black literature.''

A well-known literary critic and editor, Gates was chosen by Random House to edit the republication of Harriet E. Wilson's ``Our Nig'' (originally published in 1859), the first novel by a black person published in the United States. Gates is also general editor of a Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature that is now in the making.

Another potentially troublesome issue is marketing. The volumes are expensive. The entire set is priced at just under $600, which puts it in the market for thriving college libraries and affluent individuals, but not for the average student.

Depending on demand, Oxford will issue selected titles in paperback, says chief publicist Jeffrey Seroy. But there are no plans at present for any sort of abridged edition of the library.

Nevertheless, the Schomburg Library will challenge traditional approaches to American literature and history. It will provide new balance and continuity in the Afro-American literary tradition. It will give women a new importance in that tradition while providing invaluable perspective into the history of blacks in America. And it should create, Smith says, ``a sense of complicated tradition out of which later texts arise.''

``Anybody who wants to do any kind of work with black women, as writers or cultural interpreters, will have to know these women and their writings,'' says Washington.

``The shape of writing will look different,'' Smith concludes, ``now that we've uncovered these voices that were silent.'' -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- One muffled strain in the Silent South, a jarring chord and a vague and uncomprehended cadenza has been and still is the Negro. And of that muffled chord, the one mute and voiceless note has been the sadly expectant Black Woman,... The ``other side'' has not been represented by one who ``lives there.'' And not many can more sensibly realize and more accurately tell the weight and the fret of the `long dull pain' than the open-eyed but hitherto voiceless Black Woman of America.... [Just] as our Caucasian barristers are not to blame if they cannot quite put themselves in the dark man's place, neither should the dark man be wholly expected fully and adequately to reproduce the exact Voice of the Black Woman.

Anna Julia Cooper, ``A Voice From the South'' (1892) ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------30-{et

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