This past Women’s History Month started out with me reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. I have been thinking through fugitive and escape narratives, as they relate to the historical trajectory of Abolition from the past, into the present, and towards the future. The Parable series explores the life of Lauren Oya Olamina, a teen-aged, practical, and future-preparedness-focused “hyperempath” who has to flee north from her Southern California community which falls prey to the consequences of capitalist disarray and ultimate destruction.
Similarly, my journey towards fugitive narratives lead me to Abolition Journal’s Making Abolitionist Worlds, a series of art, essays, and interventions seeking to build a contemporary Abolitionist narrative. I was struck by analyses of prison rebellions, political prisoners, and the idea that Abolition is a concept of “both creative growth and creative destruction, the duality and tension inherent in the creation of something new” (p. 3).
Reflecting on Women’s History Month (it may have passed but the discourse is always relevant), and thinking about the aforementioned coalescing of art, writing, and activism, I realized that for a little while I had been tracing the narratives of Friendship Albums which occurred from the 1830s – 1880s. These zine-like collaborative works were compiled by Black women who were a part of Abolitionist organizations in the 19th century, namely the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and Female Literacy Association. The work of these albums represents the discourse these women, white allies, and male activist counterparts were undertaking in the work to get rid of slavery. These were scrapbook-like journals that were physically passed around Abolitionist communities and stayed within these social networks. The original abolitionist zine AND listserv!
Mary Kelly writes that these albums were:
“collaborative forms of expression and communication, including oral performance in meetings of the Female Literary Association and scribal and visual composition and circulation in the albums belonging to Cassey, Forten, and the Dickersons, flourished in localized settings. It is there that we see the daily reality and the sustained impact of spoken and written media.”
I was struck by how zine-like they were, combining art, poetry, bits of literature, and commentary. They are a creative medium that allows us to peek into the interwoven social and political lives of those on the frontlines of historical Abolitionist work.
One work that stuck out to me in these friendship albums was “The Abolitionist Cause” by William Lloyd Garrison, a white Abolitionist journalist who produced the anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator.
It establishes the unpopular yet forthright position of the American Abolitionist, as someone who will face “slander” and “persecution” for their belief, yet: “Numberless as may be the enemies who surround them, they will not retreat from the field; for He who is mightier than legions of men and devils is the Captain of their salvation, and will give them the victory.” It establishes the position of the Abolitionist. Given it appears in these semi-private Friendship Albums, I can’t help but think about how these operated as a safe space for those in the cause to share their thoughts and feelings, worries and convictions.
Another piece that stood out to me was a short poem by Mary Anne Dickerson. Dickerson was a middle-class Black Abolitionist who was a part of the Female Anti-Slavery scene of Philadelphia:
When the grim lion urged his cruel chace,
When the stern panther, sought his midnight prey
What fate reserved me for this Christian race?
Grace more polished; more severe than they.
The image above the poem is a take on Mrs. R. Lee Bowdich’s “The Booroom Slave ,” which depicts an African woman caught as she tried to escape enslavers, yet ultimately succeeds in escaping. In this poem, Dickerson compares slaveholders to predatory animals. She questions how enslavers and the enslaved can coexist in Christianity. Dickerson takes part in the tradition that zines have carried into the present: mixing and remixing media, motifs, images, and symbols to create new meaning. Visual culture was and continues to be an important arm of movement work, providing points of reference that activate words and writing. This sustains the goals and messages of a movement, and is something I have been paying close attention to in my research.
So how do Octavia Butler’s Lauren character, fugitive narratives, and friendship albums come together in a reflection on Women’s History Month? The immediate similarity in these works is the reliance on first-person narrative structures (journals, albums, Parables’ diary structure), but here I will attempt to weave together the widespread Black feminist roots present in these works.
A review of other paramount feminist works and their parallels to the Friendship Albums can help us understand a foundation by which Abolitionist Feminism, and ultimately futurism as conveyed by Octavia Butler, can exist.
One example I turn to is the Combahee River Collective Statement. The Collective includes in its statement a quote by Michelle Wallce that brings me right back to the 19th century Friendship Albums :
“We exists as women who are Black who are feminists, each stranded for the moment, working independently because there is not yet an environment in this society remotely congenial to our struggle—because, being on the bottom, we would have to do what no one else has done: we would have to fight the world.”
Just as the Combahee River Collective was formed in an effort to create a space for Black women, the aforementioned Friendship Albums would bring Black women together in the struggle as well. An additional Combahee quote that lives and breathes with me is, “We cannot live without our lives.” This brings me to a discussion in “Talents Committed to Your Care”: Reading and Writing Radical Abolitionism in Antebellum America, where Mary Kelley lays out the relationship between relatively wealthy Black Abolitionist women and the enslaved. The former saw their own lives linked with enslaved women, and Sarah Mapps Douglass stated in 1832 that “we rise or fall together and . . . we can never be elevated to our proper standing while they are in bondage.” (source)
Similarly, Elise Krammerer, who discusses sentimentality and the albums, says “female antislavery activists based their antislavery work on a rhetoric that highlighted their ‘natural’ qualities as females – piety, morality and motherhood – to justify fighting the sinful, degraded, family-destroying nature of slavery; these qualities supported the antislavery mission and thus permitted them entry to the public sphere for this work.” (source) Just as the Combahee River Collective’s existence was necessary in light of exclusion from other movement formations, Abolitionists who were Black and female needed and created a space for themselves to fight for other women living “on the bottom.” (I admit I’m only scratching the surface here since lots more can be said about how traditional family values, religion, and gender roles influence Friendship Album work.)
As a hyperempath, Butler’s character Lauren feels through all the situations she goes through towards her idea of freedom in the oppressive world she treads. Abolitionists, those in Combahee, and the concepts laid out in Parable of the Sower can be attributed to Freedom Dreaming through writing, creating, and learning collectively.
I hope to explore the interconnectedness of these works further, and particularly build towards a larger understanding of contemporary Abolitionist Feminism (in work such as the INCITE! Statement of 2001(source), dreaming, and world-making.
To check out more from some of these friendship albums visit the LCP Album Project.