Dr. Brewer-Strayer Book Adds to Discourse on Sally Hemings
Serendipity and a lifetime of preparation have paved the way for Dr. Kathryn Brewer-Strayer, Associate Professor of English and Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) Director at Stillman College, to make an enormous contribution to the field of African American Studies.
Dr. Brewer-Strayer recently signed a contract with Edwin Mellen Press to publish The Language of the Body and the Cult of Domesticity in Three African American Novels.
“The idea first came to me when I was teaching Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriot Jacobs,” says Dr. Brewer-Strayer. “Free white women were told they must adhere to the “cult of domesticity” and they were rewarded for piety, purity, domesticity and obedience to their father, husband or brother. I wondered how slaves could be pure and pious when they had no control over their bodies.”
Dr. Brewer-Strayer wrote a paper on this topic titled The Language of the Body and Domesticity in William Wells Brown’s Clotel. Brown was an escaped slave who penned Clotel, the first novel ever written about Thomas Jefferson’s “mistress,” Sally Hemings, in 1853.
When Dr. Brewer-Strayer presented her paper at the National Association of African American Studies Conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the response was powerful. Repeatedly, she was told that she should write a book on this topic. She realized that she had a unique opportunity to generate discourse on the role of women in slavery and dispel romanticized myths about the relationship between President Jefferson and Sally Hemings. She decided to expand her research to include two novels by Barbara Chase-Riboud—Sally Hemings and The President’s Daughter. “Each novel uses the relationship of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings as a powerful critique of the 19th century cult of domesticity that justified the dehumanization and sexual abuse of slave women by the white masters and mistresses,” she states.
Dr. Brewer-Strayer was concerned about the depiction of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings as an affair. “I hesitate to call it an affair because slaves were property. Thomas Jefferson was the President of the United States and he wrote the Declaration of Independence, so it is difficult for people to critique him fairly. But master-slave relationships were not consensual,” she states. “My research deals with how Sally Hemings was treated as a slave. The issue is that in the cult of domesticity, while white women were expected to obey their husbands, they were not considered property. Black women were considered property and chattel. White women had no power outside of the home, but black women had no power at all.”
Geography and family heritage have been extremely influential factors in Dr. Brewer-Strayer’s life. She identifies strongly with the literature of oppression because she was born into a relatively humble family in “a small town in Maine where class was extremely important.” Having less than others was a lesson on economic oppression. In addition, she is of English-Canadian descent and witnessed first hand “the prejudices against French speakers in the northern states.” This helped her to identify with cultural oppression at a very early age. She also had the serendipity to be the descendent of ministers involved in the Underground Railroad in Maine, so she was imbued with a keen sense of the importance of defending just causes. Ironically, she once lived within walking distance of Chamberlain Freedom Park, which marks the site of one of the last stops on the Underground Railroad that led slaves to freedom in Canada.
She holds a Bachelor of Science from the University of Maine, a Master of Arts from Pittsburg State University and a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University. Because there was no doctoral program in African American Literature at Northern Illinois University when she began her studies there in 1994, she was required to compile a 100-page bibliography of writings relevant to this field. She essentially laid the foundation for the specialization in African American Literature that the English Department now offers at the University.
Although her academic background provided her with the intellectual foundation needed to conduct research for her book, she believes that “being a woman” is sufficient reason to contemplate the treatment of black and white women throughout history.
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