In a previous blog post I explored how two African-American slaves, Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon, (re)wrote their own ethnic histories, an act of resistance against the dominant culture’s narrative of African slaves in the American colonies. In this blog post I will extend the previous inquiry by exploring how other minority writers in early America, namely Elizabeth Ashbridge; Mary Ann Talbot; and William Apess, rewrote their own cultural narratives in early America, challenging eighteenth-century connotations for the words “Indian” and “woman.”
In her autobiography, Elizabeth Ashbridge grapples with the cultural assumption that women were always beholden to a higher, human power. She understood that, as a young woman living in eighteenth-century England, her parents made the decisions regarding her current and future state until she was married, at which point her husband would take over the roll of her parents. Thus, as a teenager, when Ashbridge married a man without her parents consent, she wrote that it was her parent’s “right” to have “disposed of [her] to their content,” remorseful that she went against their will in marrying a man without their consent. Here, in the beginning of her autobiography, Ashbridge brought together two often-coupled terms, woman and obedience. The consequences of being disobedient to her parent’s wishes was damaging; Ashbridge’s father never forgave her, and the next few years of her life are a series of tragic events that all could have been avoided if she would have been the obedient young woman she knew she was expected to be. This scene in the beginning of her narrative confirms her compliance (albeit through defiance) of the cultural norm that argues for her obedience to a higher, human power. A few years later, Ashbridge found herself remarried and turned Quaker, a religious association her husband did not like. He beats her severely and threatens her livelihood if she does not quit the Society of Friends. Again, Ashbridge found herself in a dilemma: as a married woman, she was obligated by cultural norms to be obedient to her husband; however, Ashbridge challenges this notion by choosing to be obedient to God. After being at the receiving end of several beatings from her husband for being a Quaker, he finally accepts her religious affiliation, at which point Ashbridge writes, “I was overcome with joy, and began already to reap the fruits of my obedience.” Here, Ashbridge acknowledges that she did not pass from the hands of her parents to the hands of her husband; rather, she choose to be obedient to God before man, even if that meant redefining the culturally acceptable relationship between the words “obedience” and “woman.” While by today’s standards Ashbridge’s act of defiance may seem minor, rewriting eighteenth-century hierarchical constructs was no small feat.
Similar to Ashbridge, Mary Ann Talbot is a late eighteenth/early nineteenth-century woman who redefines the word “woman” because of her lack of a human, higher power who would assure she fulfills her expected, feminine role in society. Talbot was orphaned upon the death of her mother at childbirth (her father was willingly absent). Upon reminiscing over this experience, Talbot wrote that she felt irreparable loss upon losing her “protector and guide through life.” And while Talbot claimed this loss “doomed” her, her narrative shows that women, in fact, function successfully in the dominant culture, albeit in an unacceptable manner. Talbot is forced to don male clothes and become the footboy to Captain Bowen, the first in a series of male roles she excels in. With no “protector” to stop her, Talbot successfully becomes a ‘man,’ challenging gendered norms regarding the contribution of the sexes in eighteenth-century Anglo society. Talbot rewrites the cultural narrative regarding ‘women’s work’ and women’s socioeconomic contributions.
William Apess, a Pequot Native American, challenges the dominant culture’s use of the word “Indian,” with the hopes of addressing his reader’s misconceptions of Native Americans in his autobiography, Son of the Forest. Apess wrote, “I know nothing of so trying of a child as to be repeatedly called by the improper name. I thought it disgraceful to be called an Indian… The proper name which out to be applied to our nation… is that of ‘Natives’.” Here, Apess acknowledges that the connotations associated with the word Indian are “degrading.” If we construct Apess’ autobiography around said claim, then his narrative works to rewrite Native American history and (then) present day culture by showing how the connotations associated with the word Indian, which gave Natives a certain history and culture, were incorrect. Apess argues that his autobiography is “narrating the truth,” and one of his claims, among many, is that Natives are a “peaceful people” with a “spirit of kindness” who have suffered “injustice” at the hands of Anglo colonizers and frontiersman. By arguing for a new signifier, Native, as the appropriate sign for Native peoples, Apess rewrites Native American history, with the hopes of changing the cultural narrative of his kinsmen in the American landscape.
With these two blogs I hoped to have shown that rewriting the cultural narrative of minority groups in the eighteenth-century Western world was an act of resistance, even when the narratives, at times, confirm the dominant cultures ideologies and practices. As a means of control, when the dominant culture writes the lives and histories of minority people, they control the narrative; they are the producers of the knowledge from which meaning is made. In writing their own narratives, Jupiter Hammon, Phillis Wheatley, Elizabeth Ashbridge, Mary Ann Talbot and William Apess define the words African, Indian, and Woman in ways that both supported and countered the narratives written by the powers at be, allowing readers to see how minority groups in Early America helped make meaning and culture.