COBA Dancers: Passion through Performance, Education, and Research

COBA Dancers: Passion through Performance, Education, and Research

File 20190222 195873 8e8xh.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The Collective of Black Artists (COBA) has been supporting African and Caribbean dance in Canada for 25 years.
COBA/Yosseif Haddad

Skin symbolizes identity — its color, shade, and texture influences cultural currency and, by extension, self-identity. When we know who we are, we can honor where we come from and we can dance in our own skins with pride and passion.

The Collective of Black Artists (COBA) is a Toronto-based professional dance company that works to extend this pride and passion through performance, education, and research.

I was one of four Black dancers with roots in the Caribbean who birthed COBA in 1993 to perform our physical and social realities. We worked to create a platform for Black dancers who were underrepresented in mainstream professional dance companies in Canada at the time. My fellow co-founders and dancers were: Bakari I. Lindsay (formerly Eddison B. Lindsay), Charmaine Headley and Mosa Neshama (formerly Kim McNeilly).

COBA injected new artistic blood into the dance scene in Toronto. It was the ‘90s, during the time multiculturalism was actively promoted within the city; it was the city’s response to the federal government’s attempt to promote unity within diversity by encouraging people to learn about other cultures despite differences in ethnicity, religion, social class. This government mandate helped to create an audience for COBA both in schools and in theatres.

COBA positioned itself as a diasporic family within the Canadian dance establishment. As a cultural membrane, COBA embraced over 50 dancers, drummers, singers and artists from Africa, the Caribbean, Canada, and Europe in the rigor necessary to perform appropriate representations of African and Caribbean dance traditions.

With reviews in The Globe and Mail, which said it was “a company that makes you sit up and take notice for all the right reasons,” COBA was a hit.

I am a dancer and Ph.D. candidate in education and I am interested in artistic vulnerability. As part of my research, I conducted interviews with some of the COBA founders and members on the significance and history of COBA. On a personal level, I wanted to explore the idea of COBA as a cultural lifeline to African and Caribbean dance heritage in Canada. What does it mean to have been part of this dance company?

It means remembering, reclaiming and honoring my ancestry and working with peers who took ownership of their history with boundless energy.

COBA’s challenges

COBA faced challenges as an under-resourced collective.

Initial funding applications were denied because an appropriate funding category for COBA’s dance form was non-existent at that time. After years of petitioning and convincing arts councils of COBA’s artistic relevance, the arts councils eventually revised their funding categories. COBA was finally able to secure grants. Still, hiring dancers full-time, year-round was not an option. Dancers still had to earn a living outside the company.

However, working within a collective is not easy. The reality in collectives is that conflicts arise amongst members. Personalities clash. Egos bruise. Some performers anchor and stay a while. Others move on to different artistic ventures, and professional pursuits.

A 2003 poster for a COBA event, celebrating its first decade.
COBA Photography, David Hou. Graphic Design, Eric Parker, Author provided

However, despite personnel changes and professional challenges that surfaced within the group, COBA persisted and maintained its integrity and mission. The key principles we followed were: Knowledge, co-operation, authenticity and endurance.

Artistic director, Bakari Lindsay described the COBA process as challenging: “Robust work demands a certain amount of consistent authority — with flexibility — in order to sustain a vision.”

The repertoire, created by Lindsay and Headley, allowed dancers to work with contemporary dance vocabularies, strengthening dancer’s physicality and technical ability. International guest choreographers were invited to stage work allowing the company to expose dancers to new movement aesthetics and fuelling COBA’s artistic growth.

Honoring African History Month

Rehearsals began in a humble studio. We carted costumes, props, drums on buses and subways en route to perform at school assemblies, most notably throughout the month of February when teachers and principals needed to fulfill the national African History mandate.

Canada is a diverse country and breaking down social and cultural barriers between communities makes a difference in how we see each other and respond to each other’s differences.

COBA’s performances sparked students’ imagination and raised students’ social awareness.

Keeping stories alive

When the drummer’s rhythms split the air and heat of the spirit rises in the performers, dances take on a life of their own, as if driven by spiritual powers. The energy of warrior spirits in the West African dances, Doun doun ba and the healing shaman in the Kakilambe come alive and transport the dancers beyond the physical realm.

A dance performance of ‘Saraca’ by COBA.
David Hou

The social and historical significance of dances COBA performs demonstrates the importance of remaining flexible and adapting to new environments. Keeping stories alive through dance and drumming provides connection and memory for the things we leave behind either by choice or urgency.

While COBA’s current repertoire includes a wide variety of contemporary dance work, earlier dances were the foundation for the quality of COBA’s social and artistic exploration.

Saraca (1994), a thanksgiving ritual pays homage to the African nations who settled in the Caribbean and contributed their rites and dances to the cultural mosaic.

Non-traditional dance performance such as Portrait (1994), addresses themes of race and the human condition, underlines the problem of colourism. Griot’s Jive (2002) draws attention to gun violence which remains an acute social problem.

African perspectives for youth

The company established COBA Youth Ensemble (1994) for older/elite dancers in the children’s dance program. Together COBA and Ballet Creole created Nu-DanCe Training Program, a diverse professional dance training program grounded in an Africanist perspective.

Educating the younger generation in Africanist dance culture preserves the culture. That said, in a fast-moving dance-world social relevance is key. The invasion of hip hop and other urban dance styles commanding the global dance younger generation of dancers within the African diaspora and outside the community must know the origins of the dances they perform.

The Gwara Gwara dance, for example, performed in Childish Gambino’s video hit This is America, is originally from South Africa.

Classes in Hip Hop and Afro-beat COBA provides, ensures a new generation of dancers enjoy the dances that endorse their social relationships while promoting self-discipline and positive self-image. They will understand that the urban dances they learn and love stand on the shoulders of African dance traditions, allowing students to make connections between their past and present.

Skin imprints

Although all of the other original founders are no longer part of COBA, Bakari Lindsay and Charmaine Headley have led COBA for the past 25 years, blazing a trail from its humble beginnings to chart new ground within Canada’s dance milieu. Touring across Canada, the U.S. and the Caribbean, COBA touched, even transformed many people’s lives.

Currently COBA’s adult dance company is on hiatus. The younger generation is at the helm charting a new course for the youth. I feel privileged to have been a member of COBA. It was my diasporic family. It taught me when we dance in our own skins, we radiate our personal, spiritual and social currency.The Conversation

Junia Mason, PhD candidate, Department of Education, York University, Canada

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

General’s family: From segregation to command in 100 years

General’s family: From segregation to command in 100 years

In this Feb. 9, 2019 photo, Brig. Gen. Milford H. Beagle, Jr. commanding general of Fort Jackson, speaks to the president of the Sgt. Isaac Woodard Historical Marker Association following the dedication ceremony in Batesburg-Leesville, S.C. Beagle, Jr. who now leads the Army’s Fort Jackson in South Carolina is descended from a soldier who served there in a segregated military more than a century ago. (AP Photo/Christina Myers)

Pvt. Walter Beagles arrived at Camp Jackson, South Carolina, in 1918, an African American draftee in a segregated Army that relegated black soldiers to labor battalions out of a prejudiced notion that they couldn’t fight.

More than 100 years later, his great-grandson now serves as the base’s 51st commanding general.

Brig. Gen. Milford Beagle, Jr., a combat veteran who took command last June, admits that it gets to him, knowing he’s serving where his ancestor served but under vastly different circumstances.

“It does become pretty surreal to know that the gates my great-grandfather came through are the same gates I come through,” Beagle said. “You always reflect back to you’re standing on somebody’s shoulders. Somebody put that stair in place so you can move one more rung up.”

Beagle hails from the same town where his great-grandfather came from: Enoree, South Carolina. The family dropped the “s” from the end of its name during his grandfather’s lifetime.

He says he felt compelled to enter the infantry as a young man at least partly because African Americans once were largely shunted aside — considered inferior and unsuited to combat.

“That was one thing I did reflect on. Somebody at some point in time said your particular race can’t do that,” Beagle said. “At some point our ancestors fought so we could be in those front-line units and those combat units.”

Video Courtesy of University of South Carolina

Beagle has served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, among his many postings.

His great-grandfather, who died in 1985 at the age of 94, didn’t talk much about his Army service, Beagle said. But the general enlisted the help of Fort Jackson Basic Combat Training Museum director and curator Henry Howe who found more details about Pvt. Beagles’ military service during the Great War.

“Gen. Beagle gave me a copy of his draft card. He did give me a roster of Fort Jackson, but we were able to find out a little bit more information, specifically the days he came in and the units he was with and that he deployed to … France in late 1918,” Howe said.

At Camp Jackson, Beagles would have learned fundamental drills and how to behave as a soldier with the 156th Depot Brigade, but he didn’t get much training in combat arms. He moved into the 346th Labor Battalion where his jobs included loading and unloading ships, building roads and digging ditches — labor intensive work.

“The majority of the African Americans were pushed off into the support units,” Howe said. “Oftentimes, we in the military look at the combat arms as the glory, but it’s overwhelmingly the support people that give the opportunity for victories.”

The Army that Pvt. Beagles served in was highly segregated, as was the wider society, said American studies professor Andrew Myers at University of South Carolina Upstate.

“As Jim Crow became more instituted in the civilian society, you saw the same thing kind of take over the military,” he said.

Racial tensions were high in some towns surrounding U.S. military camps, leading sometimes to violence.

In Houston, Texas, 1917 a clash between police officers and soldiers led to court martials and the execution of 19 African American soldiers.

“The execution … of the colored soldiers implicated in the Houston riot was one of the dark spots on the escutcheon of the Army, but it did not dampen the ardor of the colored men who went to the front for the Stars and Stripes,” Emmett J. Scott noted in his book, “The American Negro in the World War.” Scott was Booker T. Washington’s secretary before becoming a special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of War, serving as a liaison between black soldiers and the War Department.

In October 1918, Beagles was deployed to France. The Armistice ending the fighting was signed the following month.

Following the war, Beagles was honorably discharged in January 1919 and returned to his farm. While many cities and towns, including Columbia, South Carolina, hosted parades welcoming back their soldiers, black veterans did not typically get a hero’s welcome.

“Especially in the South as they were discharged and went back to their homes, they encountered a lot of conflict with various people,” Myers said. Some fell victim to whites who objected to seeing black men in U.S. military uniforms. In 1920, the NAACP noted that nine African American retired soldiers had been lynched in 1919.

However, the mistreatment of African American soldiers during World War I was not a story Gen. Beagle heard from his great-grandfather. Instead, he spoke of hard work, courage, strength and integrity — values that his great-grandson says are woven into his family’s history.

“I remember flexing for Great-Grandpa,” Beagle said with a smile on his face. “He was just a great person, down to earth, hard working.” You could tell that by his hands, Beagle said.

Beagle said his great-grandfather and others contributed significantly to this country, without knowing what their contributions would mean to the future of the military — now a place where people of different races work side by side with the same mission, to protect their nation.

If given one more day with his great-grandfather, Beagle said he would show him today’s diverse soldiers in formation during a graduation ceremony.

“I would turn to him and say hey, was it worth it,” Beagle said. “And I’m pretty sure I’d get a big smile back and he’d say it was absolutely worth it.”

‘Bloody Sunday’ altered history of a horrified nation

‘Bloody Sunday’ altered history of a horrified nation

Participants, some carrying American flags, march in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress


The images of that day in 1965 were quickly seared into the American consciousness: helmeted Alabama state troopers and mounted sheriff’s possemen beating peaceful civil rights marchers in Selma, Ala., as clouds of tear gas wafted around the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

On March 7, 1965 — a day that would become known as “Bloody Sunday” — 600 marchers heading east out of Selma topped the graceful, arched span over the Alabama River, only to see a phalanx of state and local lawmen blocking their way on U.S. Highway 80.

The police stopped the marchers, led by Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and ordered them to disperse. Then they attacked. Lewis, one of 58 people injured, suffered a skull fracture. Amelia Boynton Robinson, then 53, was beaten unconscious and left for dead, her face doused with tear gas.

Photos of that terrible day were seen around the world. Historians credit the beatings, and the public outrage that followed, as a catalyst for the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

“The marchers thought they would only be arrested,” says Gary May , a history professor at the University of Delaware and author of “Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy.” “They thought there would be no major trouble. That night, the film of what happened reached New York, and ABC broke it at 9 p.m.

“People across the nation were shocked at what they saw. LBJ called it a turning point in American history. He compared Bloody Sunday to Gettysburg and Lexington and Concord.”

That day on the bridge was the culmination of a long chain of events, says Alston Fitts, a Selma resident and local historian. He chronicles the history of the city in his book “Selma: Queen City of the Black Belt.”

The Dallas County (Ala.) Voters League and the SNCC had been trying for a year to register blacks to vote. The focus of the struggle was the county courthouse, where protesters went in a vain effort to register. Confrontations occurred when Sheriff Jim Clark denied them entry to the building. It was his mounted possemen on the bridge that day in March 1965.

“A local judge had entered a ruling that outlawed any meeting of more than three people where voting rights were being discussed,” Fitts says. “Leaders in the Selma movement invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Selma to take part in the movement. They knew the involvement of Dr. King would bring national attention to Selma. And they knew he would bring expertise on how to stop the stifling tactics being brought to bear against the movement.”

Jimmie Lee Jackson, photo courtesy of Southern Poverty Law Center

Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by a state trooper during a nighttime civil rights march in Marion, Ala. Jackson died a few days later. Photo courtesy of Southern Poverty Law Center

But King was not part of the Bloody Sunday march. In February, King had become “discouraged” about the efforts in Selma, May says. “There hadn’t been the event that would capture the attention of the press and consciousness of the country.”

That changed on Feb. 16, May says, when C.T. Vivian, one of the movement’s leaders, had an altercation with Clark on the grounds of the courthouse. Then, on Feb. 18, Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by a state trooper during a nighttime civil rights march in Marion, a town in neighboring Perry County. Jackson died a few days later.

“That was the impetus of the first march, the Bloody Sunday march,” May says. “Several members of the movement in Selma wanted to carry Jimmie Lee Jackson’s body to Montgomery and deliver it to Gov. George Wallace,” a virulent civil rights foe.

Robinson, a Selma activist then known as Amelia Boynton, had helped SNCC protest against white registrars who kept blacks from voting. Her home was used as a headquarters to plan the march.

After the beatings, “the nation came to Selma,” Fitts says. “The suffering of those marchers crossing that bridge into ‘enemy territory’ captured the attention of the country.”

King led a “symbolic” march to the now-infamous bridge on March 9, then led a full-scale march on March 21 from Selma to Montgomery after U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. ordered protection for the demonstrators.

At the start, there were 3,200 marchers, according to the National Park Service. Marchers traveled 12 miles a day, sleeping in fields before reaching Alabama’s capital city on March 25. By then their ranks had swelled to 25,000.

In August, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.

“Of course, the Selma-to-Montgomery march was important, but Bloody Sunday was the critical mass,” May says. “Many people dropped what they were doing and came to Selma in the wake of the attacks and beatings that occurred that day.

“It put the voting rights bill at the top of the agenda in Washington. It accelerated everything.”

Biblical guide marks 400 years since enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia

Biblical guide marks 400 years since enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia

Evicted sharecroppers along Highway 60 in New Madrid County, Mo., in January 1939. Photo by Arthur Rothstein/LOC/Creative Commons


A Christian anti-hunger group has released a devotional guide to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in Jamestown, Va.

“Lament and Hope: A Pan-African Devotional Guide” was produced by Bread for the World and is set to be dedicated at a prayer service at a Washington church on Thursday (Feb. 28), the last day of Black History Month.

The free guide addresses past and current issues of unequal access to land, housing and education. It begins with verses from the Bible’s Book of Lamentations that speak of homelessness and affliction and conclude with a proclamation of the “steadfast love of the Lord.”

The Rev. Angelique Walker-Smith speaks at a Religious Freedom Center class for black theological students on Jan. 8, 2019, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

“We are saying that the history of people of African identity has been a legacy of spiritual resistance,” said the Rev. Angelique Walker-Smith, editor of the guide. “There’s been that resistance against the evils of enslavement and all the things that accompanied that.”

The devotional has been released at the start of a year in which many activities commemorating the arrival of the first African captives in Jamestown are planned, including some by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s 400 Years of African-American History Commission that was established by an act of Congress and signed into law by President Trump in early January.

Walker-Smith, senior associate for Pan-African and Orthodox Church relations at Bread for the World, said a delegation of young adults from across Africa plans to represent her organization in August at events planned in Jamestown, where people from the modern-day southwest African country of Angola were brought 400 years ago.

Bread for the World’s 2019 Pan-African Devotional Guide. Image courtesy of Bread for the World

Bread for the World’s guide was produced to help readers answer questions about how to move from lamentation to hope, drawing on the example of African people who were forced into slavery and protested it, she said.

“That spiritual resistance is actually a source of hope and still is a source of hope,” Walker-Smith said.

The guide will be promoted through partnerships with global, African and American networks of churches. It features monthly entries written by current and former leaders of the Angola Council of Churches, the United Theological College of the West Indies and the Ecumenical Poverty Initiative.

The dedication service and the guide itself will encourage participants to contemplate disparities that remain across the globe and determine ways to advocate to eliminate them, Walker-Smith said.

“At the end of the service, there will be a call to action to say you have a role in this narrative, you have an opportunity to be a part of this legacy,” she said. “What are you doing and how can you further this sense of hope?”

Lessons from an Anthem

Lessons from an Anthem

James Weldon Johnson, poet, essayist, and author of Lift Every Voice and Sing. Johnson’s magisterial work is often referred to as the “Negro National Anthem”. (Photo courtesy of

Around 1900, the legendary African-American author and composer James Weldon Johnson penned Lift Every Voice and Sing. He didn’t mean for it to become “The Negro National Anthem” but the song was so powerful and inspirational that it was informally adopted as such. People of all races and religions – from America to Angola to Japan – have been invigorated by it ever since.

Rabbi Stephen Wise, an NAACP member during the 1920s, once wrote that it is “the noblest anthem I have ever heard. It is a great upwelling of prayer from the soul of a race-long wronged but with a faith unbroken.”

One hundred and thirteen years later, I pray that African-Americans would once again be galvanized by the words of this song. In addition to being historic and spiritual, the words of Lift Every Voice and Sing could serve as a guidepost for us as we strive to “Return to Royalty” and be all God created us to be as individuals and as a people.

Let’s look at a few of the lyrics:

 “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us…”

Johnson wrote that the intense oppression we suffered during slavery made our faith in God strong. With nothing else to latch onto, with nothing else to put our hope in, we clung to God. This is biblical, as the children of Israel did the same thing whenever they were oppressed.

Even as individuals, we have a tendency to call on God when times are tough, yet to ignore Him when He prospers us. As a people, we must fight the urge and the temptation to forget God now that we have more money, more political clout, more opportunities, and more education. We have to remember that “every good and perfect gift comes from above” (James 1:17) and that God has not given us these gifts for us to leave Him out.

Keeping our faith in God cannot be mere lip service either, like thanking Him for an award we’ve won for a song with vulgar and ungodly lyrics, or like going to church every Sunday but living like a hellion the rest of the week. We must show our faith in God through our actions and our words – in the way we treat our spouses, in the way we raise our children, in the way we talk to and deal with others. The Lord Jesus Christ showed his love for us through His actions – dying on the cross – so we should show our love for Him through our actions as well.

Johnson also talked of singing about this faith. A song is something that’s recited repeatedly. So in other words, we should consistently remind ourselves of the journey God has brought our people through. Again, this was the case with the Israelites, who constantly taught generation after generation about how God brought them out of Egypt and showed Himself strong to them.

This appears to be something we have lost as a people as much of the younger generation seems cut off from, and oblivious to, our history. When the younger generation not only glosses over the idea that hearing the N-word upsets their elders (many of whom may have seen brutal treatment associated with that word), but actually fights adamantly to defend their usage of it, the importance of our history clearly is not being transferred from old to young.

When a platinum-selling artist who has the ears of millions of youth has no shame in saying, “Shout out to the slave masters. Without them, we’d still be in Africa. We wouldn’t be here to get all this ice and tattoos” – and an even bigger superstar rapper can compare having rough sex to “beat(ing) (it) up like Emmett Till” – we obviously have not adequately passed on a knowledge of, and respect for, our past or our people.

“Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us…”

At the turn of the 20th century, when there were far fewer reasons for Black folks to be optimistic, Johnson wrote about being full of hope. Today, even though we’ve got a Black president, even though we’ve got superstar entertainers and athletes, even though we have prolific individuals in practically every field of endeavor, too many Black children are afraid they’ll die at the hands of another Black person and won’t grow to see adulthood. And more and more young Black males are killing themselves. Throughout slavery and Jim Crow segregation, Blacks had astonishingly low rates of suicide, especially considering the racism and oppression they experienced on a daily basis. But since the 1980s, the suicide rate for Black men has been rising rapidly. Too many of our youth can’t sing a song full of hope.

Hope is a sign of our connection to God, for knowing God and how awesome, powerful and miracle-working He naturally gives us hope. That significant numbers of Black kids don’t think they’ll live past 18 years of age or feel compelled to take their own lives shows that we haven’t adequately shown them how to be connected to God through Jesus Christ.

How could a people less than 40 years out of slavery, who had all the gains of Reconstruction taken away, sing of hope, and yet today, with all the progress we’ve made, many of our children are hopeless? What’s the difference?

Jesus Christ and the church was the hub of the Black community back then. Not so anymore. Johnson sums it up in his final chorus:

“Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,

Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee…”

As a people, let’s restore the place the Lord Jesus Christ once had in our personal lives, in our families, and in our communities. He showed Himself strong to us. In much bleaker times than this, He enabled us to produce newspapers, mutual aid societies, insurance companies and more. He gave us the strength to “keep hope alive” and to endure slavery and to believe that “we shall overcome” against the most tremendous of odds.

Though the Black family had been decimated during slavery, when Christ was our center, roughly 90% of Black children were born into a home where the father was present in 1920. In 1960, that number was 80%. Today, it’s less than 30%. It seems that as our faith in Christ has gotten weaker, we as a people have gotten weaker as well. Let’s learn from the song and stay true to its closing lines:

 “Shadowed beneath Thy hand,

May we forever stand,

True to our God,

True to our native land”

This is not to belittle the systemic, institutional and racist obstacles that still work against us; it’s just to say let’s take responsibility for what we can control, first and foremost by having true and sincere faith in the God Johnson wrote about all those years ago.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Click here to read the full lyrics of Lift Every Voice and Sing.

After the rediscovery of a 19th-century novel, our view of black female writers is transformed

After the rediscovery of a 19th-century novel, our view of black female writers is transformed

Image 20160525 25218 1fa4dn4.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Victorian-era, middle-class black women who loved to read and write didn’t have many role models.
Jeffrey Green

In 2012, I was in the United Kingdom working on a follow-up project for my books “Black London” and “Black Victorians/Black Victoriana.” While looking through old British newspapers, I was astonished to read an 1893 announcement in The Daily Telegraph proclaiming Sarah E. Farro to be “the first negro novelist” with the publication of her novel “True Love.”

I wondered: who was this woman? And why didn’t we know about this reportedly groundbreaking novel?

The Daily Telegraph didn’t get it exactly right: We know now that Farro wasn’t the first African-American novelist. Nonetheless, she appears nowhere in the canon of African-American literature.

After doing more research, I soon realized that Farro had made her mark writing about white people, and that this may also be the reason her work was forgotten. Learning of a black woman whose race was documented, whose novel was published – but who disappeared in the historical record – can change how we think about African-American literature.

Farro joins a small club

Searches of American census records show that Sarah E. Farro was born in 1859 in Illinois to parents who moved to Chicago from the South. She had two younger sisters, and her race is given as “black” on the 1880 census.

The title page for ‘True Love.’
Author provided

Her novel, “True Love: A Story of English Domestic Life,” was published in 1891 by the Chicago publishing house Donohue & Henneberry. It was one of 58 books by Illinois women writers exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exhibition (World’s Fair) in 1893. Newspapers in the U.K. and the U.S. heralded the book. Toward the end of her life, in 1937, Farro was feted at a celebration of Chicago’s “outstanding race pioneers.” Apparently, she never wrote another novel.

“True Love” disappeared from the historical record, and for decades historians recognized only three other 19th-century novels written and published by African-Americans.

One other, “The Bondswoman’s Narrative,” was recently found in manuscript and published, even though the author, Hannah Crafts, is only circumstantially (although convincingly) identified. With my discovery, Farro becomes only the second known African-American woman novelist published in the 19th century. And she now joins William Wells Brown, Frances Harper, Harriet E. Wilson, and Frank J. Webb as the only African-American published novelists in the entire century.

When I returned to the U.S. from the U.K., I was able to track down only two copies of “True Love” in libraries – one at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago and the other at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – and headed to Chicago to read it. To briefly summarize: the novel tells the story of a man whose quest to marry his love, Janey, is thwarted by Janey’s selfish sister and mother. Generous and beloved Janey nurses her sister through a fever, only to catch it herself and die.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign later digitized it for me, and now it’s available online for anyone to read. I also found an original copy on eBay and immediately bought it for US$124.

The eBay listing makes no mention of her race; nowhere except in early newspaper pieces is she identified as a black woman, so this important piece of history has remained invisible until now.

Farro’s was one of 58 books by female writers featured at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Boston Public Library/flickr, CC BY

An unexpected subject matter?

The reason for “True Love’s” disappearance might be simple: It takes place in England, a place Farro probably never visited, and all of its characters are white.

British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.
Wikimedia Commons

As literary scholar Elizabeth McHenry has shown, 19th-century black women’s literary clubs, which catered to mostly middle-class members and aspirants, primarily read prominent white English and American authors, in addition to black political writers. It was natural, then, that when Farro took up her pen she emulated her stated favorite novelists: Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray and Oliver Wendell Holmes – writers of popular fiction admired by black and white readers alike.

Had Farro’s role models been black female authors who had written novels about black women, she may have crafted a different kind of novel.

Today we assume that early African-American writers inevitably wrote about race, that 19th-century writers necessarily referred to experiences of slavery and struggle and that their access to literacy – let alone the Victorian literary canon – must have been limited. Finding Farro’s novel changes that. Because we didn’t realize that authors like Farro existed, we had limited our perspective on their work.

As McHenry writes, “the danger of privileging [slave narratives] is that we risk overlooking the many other forms of literary production that coexisted alongside [them].”

We have much to learn about what black women read, what they wrote, and for whom. In this case, it seems that many of Farro’s readers must have been white women.

The significance of not writing about race

Ironically, though Farro was first celebrated and brought to public attention precisely because of her race, she doesn’t fit the mold of familiar early African-American writers. Nor is she similar to those who have been revived and “rediscovered.” Perhaps the aforementioned Brown, Webb and Wilson were noticed and celebrated not just because of their race, but because they all wrote about race.

Farro’s novel, on the other hand, is a domestic romance that tends toward melodrama. Although she explicitly sets it in England, she also betrays her unfamiliarity with that country. For instance, she gives British incomes in dollars and mentions that a character wants his wedding to take place before Thanksgiving. Nonetheless, a Chicago publisher saw fit to bring out her book.

Sarah E. Farro’s rediscovered novel tells us that black women of her time read, discussed and emulated the works of people who were not like them. Farro lived in the North through the end of slavery, preceded the Great Migration, published a novel as an American Victorian and lived through – and past – the Harlem Renaissance.

Surely those writers owe her a debt of gratitude, just as we have an obligation to bring her back into the fold of African-American and women novelists and to think about how these discoveries change our views of the African-American experience.The Conversation

Gretchen Gerzina, Professor of English, Paul Murray Kendall Chair in Biography, University of Massachusetts Amherst

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