Black Women and the Stakes of Respectability in the Early Americas

SEP 17, 2020 | 6:00 PM TO 7:30 PM



On Zoom


September 17, 2020: 6:00 PM-7:30 PM




Society for the Study of Women in the Renaissance and The Center for the Study of Women and Society


In this talk, Cassander L. Smith examines the extent to which the textual representations of Black Women in the early Americas were shaped by respectability politics. A term first theorized in the early 1990s by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, respectability politics is the self-policing that occurs when members of an oppressed group seek to model (and condemn those in the group who do not model) the cultural and social mores of a dominant group with the belief that doing so will eliminate the oppression and promote equality. Today, respectability politics is central in how those within and outside of Black communities discuss Black celebrities like BeyoncĂ© and Serena Williams or critique/praise protests movements like Black Lives Matter. When unarmed Black Americans are killed by police or community vigilantes, conversations typically center on the character of the victim. Most scholars argue that this politics of respectability emerged as early as the mid-19th century, with the rise of the black church and African American ‘race’ men like Frederick Douglass. In her talk, Smith argues that Black communities were engaging with respectability politics from the very beginning of the transatlantic slave trade. She illustrates the mechanics of respectability politics in three 17th century narratives focusing on the lives of three Black women in early America who endeavored (and in one case failed) to self-construct as civilized, assimilated – respectable – subjects. Their examples offer important perspectives on the role of respectability politics as a coping mechanism for Black Americans in early America.

Dr. Cassander L. Smith is an associate professor of English at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. Her teaching and research focus on representations of black Africans in early Atlantic literature, emphasizing the racial/cultural ideologies that helped shape English encounters with the early Americas and helped shape the literature produced about those encounters. She is the author of Black Africans in the British Imagination: English Narratives of the Early Atlantic World (LSU Press, December 2016), which examines the role of black Africans and race in England’s efforts to build its American empire in the 16th and 17th centuries. She also has co-edited two volumes of essays: Early Modern Black Diaspora Studies: A Critical Anthology (Palgrave MacMillan, 2018) and Teaching With Tension: Race, Reality, and Resistance in the Classroom (Northwestern University Press, 2019). Her essays have been published in several journals and edited collections, including Early American Literature and Studies in Travel Writing. In addition, she serves as the associate editor for Cambridge University Press’s 19-volume series African American Literature in Transition, which addresses transformations and continuities in African American literature from its origins to the present. Her current work in progress is a monograph, tentatively titled Emancipation and a Politics of Respectability in Early Black Atlantic Literature, under contract with Louisiana State University Press. The book examines the ways in which issues of race, class, and morality merge in the emancipation rhetoric of an early modern black Atlantic. Her research has been funded by grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Newberry Library, and the Huntington Library.

Co-sponsored with the Society for the Study of Women in the Renaissance (SSWR) and the CUNY Academy for Humanities and Sciences.