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Dissertation Project (Defended November 2014)

Niobe Repeating:

Black New Women Rewrite Ovid’s Metamorphoses



Hortense J. Spillers (Chair)
Colin Dayan
Lynn Enterline
Ifeoma Nwankwo
Patrice D. Rankine

For Black New Women authors, H. Cordelia Ray, Pauline A. Hopkins, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Ovid’s Metamorphoses provided a literary palette from which their stories could be redrawn as a part of the American intellectual and artistic landscape. From 1880 until 1910, Black New Women wrote explicitly gendered stories of belonging—stories that explored what it meant to be women, to be newly “free” as a class of people, and to intervene in traditions as longstanding as Roman literature. In Niobe Repeating, I traced a black feminine classicist tradition that began with Phillis Wheatley and that rewrote Ovidian stories of feminine rebellion and transformation as “women’s” genres, including fairy tale, romance, and American gothic, often combined into single works. I reveal how these new methods of literary production redirect the gendered implications of these genres and redefine black female identity in America. By recasting Ovid’s text onto American soil and through the black feminine experience, Black New Women undermined the very definition of “the classical” and simultaneously challenged assumptions that marginalized them as authors and scholars.

At its core, Niobe Repeating examines the difference between classicists, scholars and writers deliberately engaged in the elaboration of the classical tradition, and those who had been educated in select classical texts as a part of their liberal educations. The majority of extant research on black classicism concentrates on works and authors from the mid- to late-twentieth century. My project, instead, focuses on the roots of black classicism and the Black New Women who repurposed ancient Greek and Roman works to gain social capital and legibility within a standard of American citizenship grounded in liberal arts education. Furthermore, the project extends Tracey L. Walters’s inaugural and solitary study of black women classicists and her claim that for nineteenth-century black women writers, the classics created “a liberating space to engage readers in a feminist critique of the misrepresentation, silencing, and subjugation of Black women both in literature and society” (51). By writing directly into the classical tradition, Black New Women writers intentionally met standards of citizenship and simultaneously exposed the inevitable failures of any dehumanization projects pitted against them. They wrote stories that claimed black persons’ American heritage, reclaimed their humanity, and proved their worth within the mainstream American value system that expressed core values of class, education, piety, and patriotism—and they used Ovid as a model for this literary and feminine rebellion.

Ovid rewrote Vergil, amongst others, in his collection of tales explaining the origins of the world through the founding and history of Rome. However, Metamorphoses is more than a simple rewriting of previously written or oral-tradition stories; instead, it demonstrates the evolutions of the mythologies, themes, and concerns of Ovid as a Roman citizen, one generation after Vergil. As perhaps a primitive version of male-written feminism, and at least a demonstration of new Roman poetics, many of Ovid’s women characters narrate their own stories and verbally challenge the men who wronged them. In Ovid’s poetry, the women get to speak and they say things that women are not supposed to say: that they sexually desire their father, that they value themselves because of their sexuality, that they resent the men who have undervalued them, that they have stories that are their own and can serve as warning to the women to whom they are relaying their stories. Black women wrote in this Ovidian tradition—bringing voice and, therefore, subjectivity to types of women characters that had previously been silent and unable to talk back to those who did them wrong.

Different than other turn-of-the-century feminists or “New Women,” Black New Women raised issues particularly of gender as raced and doubly marginal. More, their writing challenged American literary and cultural narratives that gave rise to racial and gender violence: violence that began during the era of the chattel slave system, reinforced through Reconstruction, and then reached an all time high as the twentieth century loomed. They encouraged whites to see racial threat as white aggression against black families, rather than the prevalent stereotyping of black men as sexual predators whom whites should fear and destroy. Creating characters that butted against mainstream expectations of blackness and femininity, black women authors promoted racial solidarity and activism amongst their black readership. In particular, fiction written by black American women suggests the cultural identity crisis felt throughout the country, as the country’s new black citizens disrupted previous answers to the questions: Who is American? What does an American look like?