English 248 12 December 2009 Elizabeth Keckley: Is She a Pioneer of Womanism? Keckley was born a slave in Virginia. She was an excellent seamstress and dressmaker. Using her skill and contacts she bought her freedom in 1855. After she was freed, she made her way to Washington, D. C. Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907), seamstress and dressmaker to the wives of many political movers and shakers of that day. Her client list included Varina Davis, of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Mary Todd Lincoln, of President Abraham Lincoln.
She sewed and tailored dresses for the daughters and ladies of the most prominent families. As her reputation mounted, she came to the attention of Mary Todd Lincoln, and soon became her dressmaker. Keckley’s soon became a companion to Mary Todd. When Mary Todd fell under financial strain after the assassination of her husband, Keckley helped Mary Todd auction off her clothing in New York. This effort proved to be futile and only served to bring negative attention to Mary Todd.
In another attempt to generate funds for Todd as well as her, Keckley published her diaries in 1868: Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. [pic] Mary Todd hated her portrayal in the book, to the point where her oldest son had it removed from publication. Because of the controversy, Keckley was treated like an outcast and her business declined. Throughout her experiences Keckley maintained an air of dignity and self respected. When Keckley and Mary Todd went their separate ways, Keckley did not deign to speak ill of Mary Todd.
This was indicative of the strength of character that Keckley possessed. According to the African American Registry, “From 1892 to 1893, she left Washington to teach domestic science at Wilberforce University in Ohio. She returned soon after to spend the rest of her days at the Home for Destitute Women and Children in Washington, which she had helped to establish. She died there from a stroke May 26, 1907. ”(1) There is a body of thought that subscribes to the idea that African American women have developed mindset to cope and prosper in American society.
This mindset has been named Womanism. Womanism should in no way be confused with Feminism. Feminism is the belief that women are equal to and some ways superior to men. Because of this feminist proscribe to the notion the women station in American society should be equalized by any means short of violence. In her book Sisters in the Wilderness, Delores Williams defines womanism in the following way: “Womanist theology is a prophetic voice concerned about the well-being of the entire African American community, male and female, adults and children.
Womanist theology attempts to help black women see, affirm, and have confidence in the importance of their experience and faith for determining the character of the Christian religion in the African American community. Womanist theology challenges all oppressive forces impeding black women’s struggle for survival and for the development of a positive, productive quality of life conducive to women’s and the family’s freedom and well-being. Womanist theology opposes all oppression based on race, sex, class, sexual preference, physical ability, and caste” (67). 2) Throughout her life Keckley was a subscriber of Womanism. Keckley opposed three aspects of oppression-sexual, race and caste. Keckley proved to be an advocate for her family life as well as others. Keckley at all times strived to be a productive member of American and African American society. Born a slave and female, it was inevitable that Keckley would face sexual oppression at some time. It can be argued that perhaps the Keck ley’s mistress sensed her husband’s interest in Keckley. Because of this Keckley received undeserved beatings. “My words seem to exasperate him.
He seized the rope, caught me roughly, and tried to tie me. I resisted with all my strength, but he was the stronger of the two and, after a hard struggle, succeeded in binding my hands and tearing my dress from my back. Then he picked up a rawhide, and began to ply it freely over my shoulder. With steady hand and practiced eye he would raise the instrument of torture and nerve himself for a blow and with fearful force the rawhide descended upon the quivering flesh. It cut the skin, raised great welts, and the blood trickled down my back” (20-21). This particular beating was requesting by the mistress.
Keckley was never given a reason for it. The tearing off the dress is a form of sexual humiliation. Even slave women had a sense of self-respect about nudity “Oh God! I can feel the torture-now the terrible, excruciating agony of those moments. I did not scream; I was too proud to let my tormentor know what I was suffering. I closed my lips firmly, that not even a groan might escape from them, and I stood like a statute while the keen lash cut into my flesh” (20-21). This may have also been the first time that Keckley shows some type of resistance to her oppressor.
Not allowing her tormentors to know how much she was suffering could only cause more suffering. Knowing that a lifetime of slavery would lead to only more unjustified persecution served as an impetus for Keckley to escape slavery. It is amazing that Keckley persevered to leave slavery considering that even her parents thought that only death would set them free. Her father wrote “…In glory there weel meet to part no more forever. So dear wife I hope to meet you In paradase to prase god forever”(15). Casting off her bonds of slavery and sexual repression was the first big step in Keckley becoming a paradigm of womanism.
While Keckley was still in slavery she married a man whom she thought was a freeman. She found out later that was not the case. ”Mr. Keckley-let me speak kindly of his faults-proved dissipated, and a burden instead of a helpmate. More than all, I learned that he was a slave instead of a free man, as he represented himself to be. With the simple explanation that I lived with him for eight years, I will charity draw around him a mantle of silence” (32). It is rumored that Mr. Keckley was an alcoholic. Keckley refused to have a child of her free will while still a slave. …for I could not bear the thought of bringing children into slavery” (29). (3) In explaining how Keckley believed in the development of a positive, productive quality of life conducive to women Xiomara Santamarina writes “The author was a popular dressmaker, and according to her, work was not simply about the material conditions of production but, more importantly, about the emotions of respect and attachment the production process entailed”(4). Keckleys ability as a dressmaker turned out to be not only an economic tool but indeed the means by which she achieved status as a socialite on the D.
C. scene. The respect afforded Keckley by Washingtonians was seldom given any African Americans at the time. Keckley was well known in religious circles as well as the social scene. She was a devout member of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. . Alice Walker wrote about womanism as “challenging inherited traditions for their collusion with androcentric patriarchy as well as a catalyst in overcoming oppressive situations through revolutionary acts of rebellion”(5). It is fitting that a new concept of thought has been attributed to African American women.
After all what other segment of American society has dealt with the drawbacks of enslavement, racism, sexual abuse, classism and sexism? The African American woman’s journey to find their place in America has taken them through waters uncharted and untraveled by anyone else. There should be no surprise when their rudder is lifted from the turbulent water for inspection it is of a unique design. Strong, true, dependable, righteous without being self-righteous and always challenging what is to progress to what can be. This rudder may be defined as womanism.
Elizabeth Keckley was indeed a pioneer of womanism. Works Cited (1)Reference: Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave. Jennifer Fleischner, New York: Broadway Books. 2003 (2)Sisters in the Wilderness: Delores S. Williams. Orbis, 287 pp (3)Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Elizabeth Keckley, New York: G. W. Carleton. 268 pp. 1868 (4)Xiomara Santamarina Feminist Studies 28, no. 3 (fall 2002) In Search of Our (5)Mother’s Garden: Womanist Prose, Alice Walker
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