History/GWS 249 Reading Guide

Slave Women:  A Radically Different Degree of Unfreedom

  • Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” Signs (Winter 1992), 251-274.  JSTOR.  Also available from Periodicals Archive Online through the Bowdoin College Library, Journal Titles A-Z tab.
  • Jean Fagan Yellin, “Preface,” “Introduction,” “Chronology,” and “Correspondence,” in Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861; edited and with an introduction by Jean Fagan Yellin, 2000; enlarged edition 2009), vii-xli, 245-273.  (e-reserve)


  • Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?” (1851), in Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, eds., The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, 252-3, or LINK .pdf


  • Where did Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s discussion compel or intrigue you?  Where did it stump you?
  • While Higginbotham acknowledges the progress in feminist theory and the value of gender as a category of analysis, she argues that, ironically, current theorists “find little to say about race” (251).  Why, according to Higginbotham, is that omission ironic?  What opportunities are feminist theorists missing?
  • Higginbotham recommends three strategies for making race more integral in feminist analyses of power.
    • How have scholars defined “the construction and ‘technologies’ of race”?  What is significant for feminist theory about these definitions?
    • What is a “metalanguage”?  What is the role of race as a metalanguage?  How does she describe racial constructions of gender, class, and sexuality?
    • What does she mean when she describes race as a “double-voiced discourse”?  What have been the consequences of that discourse for African-American women?
  • Focus on the literary and historiographical framework that Jean Fagan Yellin provides as a guide for reading this text.
  • According to Yellin, why did such controversy surround the text?  What so troubled readers about this text?  Was it the content or the gender of the author that led critics to question Jacobs’s authorship?
  • What evidence does Yellin present (and what arguments does she make) to prove Jacobs’s authorship?
  • In any text, what is the relationship between “the facts” and an author’s rendition of an experience or circumstance?

Further reading: