The Life and Times of Black Victorians

RELENTLESS  is on stage now through May 8! 
By Khalid Y. Long 

During the late 19th century, Black Americans began to adopt traditions and values associated with Victorian culture. It is no secret that these traditions and values were steeped in white American culture, which, subsequently, was the conduit to respectability politics for Black Americans. What may not be as evident is that Victorian culture in America was heavily influenced by Queen Victoria’s reign of Great Britain (1837-1901).

In addition to mirroring white, upper-class culture, Black Americans were also introduced to Victorian culture by Blacks born in England who traveled to North America with white settlers. Even more, as slavery decreased (noting that slavery still existed even after the Emancipation Proclamation designated enslaved people as free), free Black people “maintained aristocratic appearances, based on their white employers or local culture.”

Alden Whitman—a New York Times journalist who also wrote on American Victorian culture—notes that although it was imported from England, “Victorianism was nonetheless distinctively American in its manifestations here. For one thing, it was more intense, and for another, it was more diverse. Even so, although there were various subcultures and countercultures, the official culture was stoutly Victorian. It expressed itself in religion, art, literature science, public morality, the theater, and in public opinion.”

Gender distinction, too, was a significant trope to emerge during the Victorian era, particularly as it pertained to Black women. Shirley J. Carlson, in her article “Black Ideals of Womanhood in the Late Victorian Era,” published in The Journal of Negro History in 1992, contends that much of the ideals of Victorian culture for Black folk can be observed through the experiences of Black women—notably referred to as Black Victoria.

“The ideal Black woman embodied the genteel behavior of the ‘cult of true womanhood,’ as espoused by the larger society,” Carlson wrote. As such, Black Victoria, “like her white counterpart,” was devoted to her role as a dutiful wife and mother, thus upholding a “virtuous and modest” home.

Carlson continues: “In addition, as an African American, her thoughts and actions exemplified the attributes valued by her own race and community… This ideal woman spent her leisure time in a variety of social activities, including attendance at teas and luncheons, parties and church activities, among others. Morally unassailable, she was virtuous and modest. Her personality was amiable—or ‘sweet’ to use Black parlance—she was also altruistic and pious. In appearance she was well groomed and presentable at all times. Her hair was carefully arranged and her costume was immaculate and appropriate for the occasion. In public she wore the traditional Victorian attire: A floor-length dress, with fitted bodice, a full skirt, and long sleeves often trimmed with a ruffle or lace… She was a ‘lady.’”

Notwithstanding, race played a significant factor in how Black Victorian women navigated the social world. Make no mistake about it: Black American women who embodied Victorian ideals and beliefs did not simply aim to emulate white women.

Carlson again: “Black Victoria had other qualities: Qualities which were emphasized by her own Black community. First and foremost, she was intelligent and well-educated. She displayed a strong community and racial consciousness, often revealed in her work-whether paid or unpaid … Self-confident and out-spoken, she was highly esteemed by her community which frequently applauded her as a ‘race woman’ and role model for young people. In these areas, the Black community’s expectations of the ideal woman differed from those of the larger society.”

Thus, many Black Victorian women were enlightened activists committed to uplifting the Black race. Notable Black Victorian women include Black suffragists, anti-lynching activists Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, and opera singer Marie Selika Williams.

Khalid Y. Long is the Dramaturg for Relentless.

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