Maria W. Stewart (1803–1879), a Black American abolitionist, was the first woman of any race in the US to speak in public and write down her political views. Yes! That helped not only the movement to abolish slavery (many abolitionists were women, particularly Black women), but opened the way for the women’s rights movement – Susan B. Anthony and all that.
She kept having to make excuses for offering her opinions. She would have kept quiet if it were not for her strong Christian faith, the terrible state of Blacks in the US, both North and South – and the comparative silence of free Black men in the North, who she says were too busy gambling and dancing!
Even so, people gave her so much grief that after speaking and writing for a few years in the early 1830s, she left Boston and became a schoolteacher in Brooklyn instead.
She wrote for The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper. He had been looking for Black women writers. She was a servant with no schooling except for Sunday school, but she had learned to read and was working for a Christian minister with a library! Later David Walker became her mentor, he who wrote “An Appeal to the Coloured People of the World” (1829).
She spoke out against the South’s slavery and the North’s racism. She spoke out against sending Blacks to Liberia against their will (ethnic cleansing).
She spoke for women’s rights, Black unity and Black uplift. She is the first person on record in the US to favour buying Black.
She was a big believer in Black uplift through education and Christian faith, things she did not have growing up.
She said that free Blacks in the North were not much better off than slaves. Instead of chains of iron, they had chains of ignorance, which were if anything worse: chains of iron could only chain the body; chains of ignorance chained the soul itself. Thus the need for education.
Northern White racism: Blacks in the North had little hope of rising above the condition of a servant. Blacks did not lack talent, drive or intelligence, but they did lack education and wealth. And, regardless of how much education or experience or talent Blacks had, Whites would only hire them for dead-end jobs where they had little hope of rising or saving money. Blacks were worn out by work with little to show for it.
“Owing to the disadvantages under which we labor, there are many flowers among us that are
‘ – born to bloom unseen,
and waste their fragrance in the desert air.'”
The racism of Whites was crystal clear to her. Yet she believed enough Whites had a moral conscience that respectability politics would work:
“Yet, after all, methinks were the American free people of color to turn their attention more assiduously to moral worth and intellectual improvement, this would be the result: prejudice would gradually diminish, and the whites would be compelled to say, unloose those fetters!”
Thanks to Solitaire for requesting this post, her prize for making the 200,000th comment on this blog.
– Abagond, 2016.
- American abolitionists
- David Walker’s “Appeal”
- free Blacks in the North
- Back to Africa
- respectability politics
- Black counter-frame – she had an early form of it.