IS STEAMFUNK JUST ‘BLACK’ STEAMPUNK? – The Illusion of Genre & Subgenre
Recently, while discussing the business of writing, a fellow writer took a jab at Steamfunk and the writers of it, saying “I’m not really into the whole making my own version of it bit. IF I see one more black Steampunk story that is nothing more than black Victoriana, I’ll scream.”
Mind you, this is from a person who doesn’t write Steampunk and who probably does not read much of it either, based on her comment. While she is an excellent writer, her excellence does not make her qualified to give an intelligent analysis of something she does not do. She was incorrect in her assessment of Steamfunk, thus her ‘screams’ – which are sure to come, as more “black Steampunk” will, indeed, be written – will make her look silly, like a man running around shouting “The world is gonna end December 21st!”…on December 22nd.
And this is the danger of genre and subgenre. A person reads the definitions of the genre and thinks he or she knows what it is. I would argue that if you do not do a thing – and, in the case of a literary subgenre, that would be faithfully reading and / or writing it – you cannot really know it.
“No participation, no right to observation”, as we say in the ‘hood (I don’t know if the affluent area of Hyde Park in Chicago – where I picked up these words of wisdom – qualifies as the hood, but you get the point).
Another saying, I learned in that Hyde Park ‘hood was “Each one, teach one”, thus I will now define genre and subgenre for those who may not know what they are.
A genre is a classification of artistic works into descriptive categories. A subgenre is a sub-category of a specific genre, and can apply to literature, music, film, theater, video games, or other forms of art. Subgenres break down genres into more specific subjects.
The concept of genre emerged around 300 B.C.E., when Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato organized various written works into three categories. Numerous genres have been added since, and the list of subject matter continues to grow.
Due to the amount of artistic material in the world today, subcategories of major topics make searching material easier. Genres and subgenres are also powerful marketing tools for publishers and distributors of artistic works. When singer Anthony Hamilton first came on the scene in 1996 with his album XTC, he was hailed as a neo-soul artist, because that was the rage at the time, as people sought a return to the days of “real” music. The XTC album found moderate success, however, as people were not too keen on taking a risk on buying neo-soul at the time, nor were record companies keen on putting their marketing dollars behind neo-soul, because it was just that – neo…new.
Literature became one of the first topics to be listed into separate genres and subgenres. Before the subgenre was introduced there were only a select number of categories to choose from, including romance, horror, thriller, science fiction, and mystery.
As writers put their unique spin on the stories within these categories, publishers closely observed what types of stories sold the most and decided they would sell more books if they created a niche that would attract a specific type of reader within those broad genres. Thus, the subgenre was born. Romance stories are now broken down into the subgenres of contemporary, erotic, historical, regency, gothic, paranormal and young adult. Horror fiction adopted categories such as psychological, supernatural, and Lovecraftian. Science fiction is now broken into such subgenres as hard, soft, space opera and, of course, Steampunk (which is also often categorized as a subgenre of Fantasy or as ‘Science Fantasy’).
Film and theater often have similar types of categories as literature because they are both based on written works.
Modern technology has assisted in the growing popularity of subgenres – check out Netflix and you will find several subcategories of film under each of the twenty categories. The subgenre feature is the primary search format that Netflix customers use in order to find movies.
Another problem with genres and subgenres is that they lead to bullying from self proclaimed ‘genre experts’.
Recently, I posted a short story, Lazarus Graves: The Scythe of Death, which was my experimentation with Dieselpunk. A reader told me he loved the story, but I should not say what I wrote is Dieselpunk because it is definitely Pulp Fiction. I answered him the same way I answer anyone who has taken the time to read one of my stories – “Thanks.”
If he says the story is Pulp – which is actually a style, not a genre or subgenre – and he likes it, then the story is Pulp. If a reader tells me he or she likes my Dieselpunk story, then it’s Dieselpunk. I just write what I like to read and let the readers and publishers decide what it is. When I began writing Steamfunk, I just wanted to write a story similar to one of my favorite television shows – Wild, Wild West – with Harriet Tubman as the protagonist. When my publisher said Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman is a great Steampunk story.” I shrugged and responded “Thanks.” Then, I turned to my wife and said “I guess I finally have a name for what I have been writing.”
I have since accepted that I primarily write what is called Steampunk / Steamfunk and Sword & Soul, but I mash-up these genres and others, because I continue to write what I want to read and what I feel others will also enjoy. And I remain bully-proof, by agreeing with all who read my work that the genre is whatever they want, or need, it to be.
Others are not so bully-proof, however. Recently, author Gail Carriger suffered at the e-hands of e-bullies when she dared to call her bestselling series, The Parasol Protectorate, Steampunk. The genre-police felt her work did not qualify as Steampunk and should be classified as “Bustlepunk” – a term used to describe a softer, “girlier” version of Steampunk.
My advice for writers is – write first; worry later. Do not fixate on what genre or subgenre you are writing. Just tell the story you want to tell to the best of your ability. And while you should not argue with those who try to define your work as this or that subgenre, because they happen to enjoy this or that subgenre and also enjoy your work, you should not allow the genre-police to bully you, either.
Should you adopt a genre or subgenre as your own, then learn all you can about it; practice it; master it…so that you can turn it inside-out, upside-down and sideways if you so desire. I write Steamfunk and Sword & Soul because, for one, there is a deficit of stories told from an African / Black perspective in Steampunk and Sword & Sorcery and secondly, because I like to write without the restrictions of genre. Both of these sub-subgenres are malleable and alive, thus they are being defined as we write stories within their categories. If I want to mash-up Steamfunk and horror, it’s fine. If I want to have my Sword & Soul hero use an arsenal of Steamfunk gadgets, it’s okay.
As we say in the ‘hood – “It’s cooler than a Polar bear in an igloo, with air conditioning during a snowstorm, baby.”
My advice for readers is – READ! Oh yeah, and stay humble. Do not perceive yourself as the defender of some genre, attacking those whose writing within that genre is not what you view as ‘authentic’. Heed my words – they can save you from a ton of embarrassment and a world of hurt.
Now, in regard to “Black” Steampunk – Steamfunk is not a gimmick – we do not use “Blackness” as a selling point, we just tell great stories, with heroes that we want, and need, to see; heroes that everyone can relate to. It is not “Victoriana” – an outlook and design style from the Victorian era (1837–1901) – and neither is Steampunk (more on that in a future post). Furthermore, Blackness is not homogenous. There is not just one way of being “Black”.
As we say in the ‘hood – “Miss me with that shit.”
THEY MAKE MURDER…FUN? The Greatest Detectives in Television, Fiction & Film
With the Steamfunk Mystery Dinner Party coming up in February, I have been reading and watching more murder mysteries as of late, which is really saying something because, after speculative fiction, mysteries are my favorite.
I like puzzles. I enjoy solving problems. Whenever I am bored, I like to read a good detective novel, or watch a murder mystery on television or the big screen. I always try to unmask the culprit before the end.
Sometimes I am right; sometimes, I am (happily) way off.
Over the decades, I have developed a list of my favorite detectives. The list is ever-growing and – at present – is as follows:
The world’s first “consulting detective”. While Edgar Allen Poe’s C. August Dupin was the first police detective, working diligently to solve the Murders in the Rue Morgue – the first modern murder mystery story – he was not nearly as brilliant as the flawed Victorian, nor as renown.
Recently gaining even greater popularity with the Sherlock Holmes movie and its sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the world’s most famous detective continues to show up Scotland Yard in the BBC’s acclaimed Sherlock and solves mysteries in America in the CBS series, Elementary.
Holmes has even seen a revival in graphic form, with the digital comic book, Watson and Holmes, in which a Black Sherlock Holmes and John Watson solve cases in urban America and with the interactive novel, Steampunk Holmes, in which Holmes and Watson are born again Steampunks.
Agatha Christie’s idiosyncratic Belgian police inspector turned London private investigator. With his signature mustache carefully trimmed and waxed, Poirot uses his “little gray cells” to solve the most baffling of crimes, such as the one in Murder on the Orient Express, considered one of the greatest detective novels of all time.
Upon Agatha Christie’s death, in 1976, the New York Times published a painting of the famous, dandy detective on the front page along with his obituary…the only fictional person to receive such an honor. The headline reads: “Hercule Poirot Is Dead: Famed Belgian Detective, Hercule Poirot, the Detective, Dies”.
The article starts thus: “Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective who became internationally famous, has died in England. His age was unknown.” Regarding his health, the reporter, Thomas Lask, said: “The news of his death, given by Dame Agatha, was not unexpected. Word that he was near death reached here last May.”
The last novel starring Poirot was Curtain, released to the public on October 15, 1976, two months after Agatha Christie’s death. The novel was written – along with Christie’s other famed detective, Ms. Jane Marple’s last story Sleeping Murder – in the mid-1940′s, to be published at a later date.
Batman was never just a costumed crime-fighter. From the beginning, he was “The World’s Greatest Detective”, who combined the inductive reasoning of Sherlock Holmes (not deductive reasoning–we will explore the differences in the next post) with extraordinary prestidigitation, stealth, martial and technological skills.
In fact, Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 (1939) and did not get his own title for a year.
The first Batman story, The Case of the Chemical Syndicate, was originally written in the style of the pulps, and Batman showed little remorse over killing or maiming criminals. Batman proved a hit character, and he received his own solo title in 1940, while continuing to star in Detective Comics (D.C.). By that time, Batman and the company’s other major hero, Superman, quickly became the cornerstones of the company’s success.
Since then, Batman’s huge popularity has continued to grow in several films, graphic novels, animated television series and films, comic strips and in a campy 1960s live-action television show.
Columbo, was a Los Angeles police lieutenant working in Homicide. He solved his cases through extremely dogged and careful pursuit of all clues. Columbo’s razor-sharp analysis would always be hidden by a seemingly shambling, disorganized nature that always made the criminal underestimate him and make mistakes.
Unlike most detective shows, Columbo was never a whodunnit. At the beginning of each episode, we saw the murderer carefully execute his plan. Already knowing who was responsible, we were left to derive our enjoyment from the battle of wits that would follow: Columbo vs. the murderer.
In each episode, Columbo’s would also make vague comments about his wife and his past and would whistle the song, This old man came rolling home – clues to unravel the mystery of the Lieutenant himself.
From author Alexander McCall Smith comes Mma Precious Ramotswe, protagonist of the spectacular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series of novels and HBO series, with actress / singer Jill Scott starring as Precious Ramotswe.
Mma Ramotswe is Botswana’s first woman detective. Unlike other “traditionally-built” (i.e. voluptuous) beauties of Botswana, Ramotswe has been interested in solving puzzles and mysteries since childhood.
She retaining many traditional values, is suspicious of technology and holds quite old-fashioned ideas about decency. As a detective, Mma Ramotswe is primarily intuitive and quite maverick in her methods. Less concerned with the law and more so with moral values, she does not often get involved with the police and prefers the traditional laws and customs of her people.
Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins
Author Walter Mosley’s African-American WWII veteran, turned private investigator, Easy Rawlins is refreshingly human, even in sometimes disappointing ways. He’s a proud man trying to cope with the social injustices of his time, as well as his own personal demons and he doesn’t always do a great job of it. He can, at times, be cruel or petty and sometimes a bit too easily led astray by temptations of the flesh. His obsessions with acquiring wealth and privacy sometimes lead him into making poor decisions. His faults, however, are tempered by his passion to rise above what has been pegged as his station in life and by an innate sense of what is right and especially what is wrong.
In 1995, the novel Devil in a Blue Dress was made into a Hollywood movie, starring Denzel Washington as Easy Rawlins. The movie also featured a chilling performance by Don Cheadle as Easy’s best friend and sometimes sidekick, the stone-cold killer, Mouse.
Beginning in 1990 with Devil in a Blue Dress, the eleventh novel in the Easy Rawlins series, Little Green, releases in 2013.
Dr. Alex Cross
Dr. Cross is a forensic psychologist who first works for the Washington D.C. police Homicide Division and later joins the F.B.I.
Dr. Cross is the protagonist of twenty novels and has been played extraordinarily well by Morgan Freeman in film adaptations of the novels Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls. Dr. Cross was also portrayed by Tyler Perry in the film, Alex Cross…umm…no comment.
After receiving a doctorate in psychology from Johns Hopkins Univesity, Dr. Cross started a private practice and worked as a psychologist for two years. He eventually decided to become a policeman after he became disillusioned with the politics of the medical community and because the people in his neighborhood could not afford his psychological services, while white people would not see a “black shrink”.
Dr. Cross never expected to like police work, however, he became obsessed with solving crimes and soon became one of the best – and most sought after (for consultations and assistance with solving crimes) – detectives in the country.
Dr. Cross lives with his grandmother (Nana Mama) and three children, Damon, Janelle (Jannie), and Alex Jr. (Ali). His wife, Maria Simpson Cross, a social worker, was murdered.
Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden is the protagonist of fifteen novels, several graphic novel adaptations and a television series.
The Dresden Files is a series of “urban fantasy” novels, by author Jim Butcher, about Chicago’s first – and only – hardboiled, wizard private investigator.
Harry’s arsenal includes: a leather duster enchanted with protective magics; a rune-carved staff; a blasting rod (a wooden stick used to give him finer control over his evocation magic), a shield bracelet; a silver ring, used to channel blasts of kinetic energy; and his mother’s silver pentacle amulet. He also carries a variety of pistols and revolvers for those times when “magic just doesn’t cut it.”
The Navajo woman detective, created by married writing team, David and Aimee Thurlo, Ellah Clah works to solve crimes while struggling to heal the rift that has grown between traditional and non-traditional beliefs in the Navajo community, in her family and within herself.
Ella works as an FBI agent out of Los Angeles. Her father, a Christian minister and her mother, a woman who kept to the traditional Navajo ways, allowed both of their children – Clifford, Ella’s older brother and Ella – to choose their own paths.
Clifford chose the more traditional way and studied to become a hataalii – a Navajo holy man, who protects the nation and community by performing rituals, rites and blessings. Ella left the reservation, went to college in California and became an FBI agent.
Ella returns to the reservation when her father is murdered, discovering that her father had been engaged in building a new church on the reservation. The project had split the community between traditional and non-traditional Navajos. A primary suspect in the murder is Ella’s brother, Clifford.
Ella, forbidden by her supervisor to get involved with the investigations, works behind the scenes, trying to solve her father’s murder.
Detective Chief Inspector John Luther begins the BBC psychological crime drama series, Luther, working for the British Serious Crime Unit and goes on to become a key member of the Serious and Serial Crime Unit.
While Luther is obsessive, possessed, fixated and sometimes violent, he is also a genius and a dedicated police officer.
Luther has paid a heavy price for his dedication and has never been able to prevent himself from being consumed by the darkness of the crimes with which he deals. For Luther, the job always comes first. His dedication to solving cases and bringing criminals to justice is a blessing and a curse – for him and for those close to him.
Brilliantly portrayed by actor Idris Elba, Luther is my favorite detective and Luther is my favorite television series.
Based one of the most celebrated officials of the Tang and Zhou Dynasties of China, Di Renjie, also known as Detective Dee, is the protagonist of several mystery novels, two television series and the popular martial arts mystery film, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, an action-packed, visually breathtaking mystery starring some of China’s top acting talent, including singer / actor Andy Lau in the titular role.
Breathtakingly choreographed by martial arts master and fight choreographer / actor, Sammo Hung and directed by master filmmaker Tsui Hark, this intricately plotted whodunit is set in an exquisitely realized version of ancient China.
On the eve of her coronation as Empress, China’s most powerful woman is haunted by a chilling murder mystery: seven men under her command have burst into flames, leaving behind only black ash and skeletal bones. Recognizing this as a threat to her power, she turns to the infamous Di (Dee) Renjie, a man whose unparalleled wisdom is matched only by his martial arts skills. As Di battles a series of bizarre dangers, he unveils a chilling truth that places his life, and the future of an entire dynasty, in peril.
Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown is a ten-year old boy genius who puts his talents to work fighting crime in the small town of Idaville. Idaville is so famously tough on crime that “Hardened criminals had passed the word: ‘Stay clear of Idaville.’” This came as a result of the work of Encyclopedia – eternal fifth-grader, voracious reader (hence the nickname), and ace private eye. During the school year, Encyclopedia’s father, the police chief of Idaville, recounts his toughest cases over dinner. Without fail, Encyclopedia solves those cases before dessert. In the summer, Encyclopedia hangs out his friends and foils the nefarious plans of countless child criminals – young Moriarties to his young Holmes.
Encyclopedia’s major nemesis, however, is Bugs Meany, ringleader of a gang called The Tigers and as tough and thuggish as they come.
Encyclopedia’s sidekick is the tomboyish Sally Kimball, who is Encyclopedia’s version of Mouse – “She was the only one, boy or girl, under twelve who could punch out Bugs Meany.”
Accompanied by a large supporting cast – notorious poachers, motorcycle-riding teenage troublemakers, glamorous movie stars in town for the weekend – Encyclopedia, Sally, and Bugs star in twenty nine books and an HBO cable series.
Those are my favorites. Which detectives do you most admire? Which novel, series, or movie detective is your favorite and why?
STEAMFUNK REFORMERS: Black Activists in the Age of Steam
Every month, in The League of Extraordinary Black People Series, we feature members of the League of Extraordinary Black People who fit specific Steampunk Archetypes. This month, we examine Reformers – the suffragettes; the revolutionaries; the protesters and abolitionists.
As always, your feedback is welcomed and encouraged.
Although Nat Turner led his rebellion a bit before the beginning of the Steampunk / Victorian Era (1837 – 1901), it did happen during the Age of Steam, the period of industrialization, which actually takes place between roughly 1797 and 1914. Besides, Nat Turner’s rebellion fueled the abolitionist movement, thus he certainly deserves a place within ‘The League’.
By far the most notorious and successful slave rebellion was led by Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831.
Born in Southampton County on October 2, 1800, Turner, who was the slave of Joseph Travis, was a preacher who had visions and felt divinely inspired to lead his people to freedom. He plotted his revolt for six months, sharing his plan with only four others.
On the day the revolt took place, Turner and his men gathered in the woods and then began what is known by many as the “Turner Insurrection” by attacking the Travis plantation and killing the entire family. Turner’s group, which had grown to 60, then stormed the county, killing at least 57 whites. As the revolt progressed, the ranks of Turner’s army continued to swell, rising to the hundreds within hours.
Finally, on their way to Jerusalem, Virginia, the county seat, where they had hoped to gain additional support and replenish their ammunition, most of Turner’s forces were caught and subdued. Thirteen slaves and three free Blacks were hanged, but Turner was not captured until two months later, after returning from hiding to free more of slaves.
Turner was hanged on November 11, 1831.
After escaping enslavement in 1849, Tubman dedicated her life to fighting for freedom, equality, and justice.
Born Araminta (“Minty”) Ross in early 1822 on the plantation of Anthony Thompson, south of Madison in Dorchester County, Maryland, Tubman was the fifth of nine children of Harriet “Rit” Green and Benjamin Ross, both slaves.
From early childhood, Tubman was often hired out to temporary masters, many who were cruel and negligent.
One day, while working as a field hand, Tubman was nearly killed by a blow to her head from an iron weight, thrown by an angry overseer. The severe injury left her suffering from headaches, seizures and sleeping spells that plagued her for the rest of her life. They also left her with powerful and accurate visions.
In the late fall of 1849, Tubman took her own liberty. She tapped into the Underground Railroad, which was already functioning well on the Eastern Shore. Traveling by night, using the North Star as her guide, Tubman found her way to Philadelphia, where she sought work as a domestic, saving her money to help the rest of her family escape.
From 1850 to 1860, Tubman conducted approximately thirteen escape missions, freeing – by her own account – “thousands of slaves”. Among those she freed were her brothers, parents, and other family and friends.
Tubman brought many of her charges to St. Catharines, Ontario, where they settled into a growing community. Her dangerous missions won the admiration of abolitionists throughout the North who provided her with funds to continue her activities.
In early 1862, Tubman joined Northern abolitionists in support of Union activities at Port Royal, South Carolina. Throughout the Civil War she provided badly needed nursing care to black soldiers and hundreds of newly liberated slaves who crowded Union camps. Tubman’s military service expanded to include spying and scouting behind Confederate lines and she went on to become the most famous among the revered and feared Black Dispatches.
In early June 1863, Tubman became the first woman to command an armed military raid when she guided Col. James Montgomery and his 2nd South Carolina black regiment up the Combahee River, routing out Confederate outposts, destroying stockpiles of cotton, food and weapons, and liberating over 700 slaves.
After the war, Tubman returned to Auburn, New York. There she rose even higher as a community activist, humanitarian, and suffragist, her humanitarian work triumphing with the opening of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, located on her own property in Auburn, New York, which she eventually transferred to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1903.
Tubman remained active in the suffrage movement, appearing at local and national suffrage conventions, until the early 1900s. She died at the age of 91 on March 10, 1913 in Auburn, New York.
Born a slave, Douglass escaped at the age of twenty and went on to become a world-renowned anti-slavery activist.
Douglass’ work as a reformer ranged from his abolitionist activities in the early 1840s to his attacks on Jim Crow and lynching in the 1890s. For sixteen years, he edited an influential black newspaper and achieved international fame as an inspiring and persuasive speaker and writer. In thousands of speeches and editorials, he levied a powerful indictment against slavery and racism, providing an indomitable voice of hope for his people and preacheing his own brand of American ideals.
Douglass welcomed the Civil War in 1861 and portrayed it as a moral crusade against slavery.
During the war, he labored as a propagandist of the Union cause, a recruiter of black troops, and an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln.
After the war, he continued to travel widely and lecture on racial issues, national politics, and women’s rights. In the 1870s Douglass moved to Washington, D.C., where he edited a newspaper and became president of Freedman’s Bank. As a stalwart Republican, Douglass was appointed marshal and recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia, chargé d’affaires for Santo Domingo and minister to Haiti.
Douglass died in 1895 after half a century of activism.
Truth spoke only Dutch until around the age of nine when she was forced to speak English by John Neely, a cruel and brutal slave master, but she spoke with a Dutch accent for the rest of her life.
In 1799, the state of New York began to legislate the gradual abolition of slaves, which was to be put into full effect on July 4, 1827. Truth’s slave master had promised her freedom a year before the state emancipation, “if she would do well and be faithful.” However, he reneged on his promise, claiming an injury to her hand had made her less productive.
Infuriated, Truth escaped with her infant daughter, Sophia, later saying “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.”
Truth then immediately set to work freeing her five year old son Peter. With the assistance of Quakers, Truth made an official complaint in court. After months of legal proceedings, Peter returned to her, scarred and abused.
During this time, Truth had a life-changing religious experience, becoming “overwhelmed with the greatness of the Divine presence” and inspired to preach. She quickly became known as a remarkable preacher and soon changed her name from Isabella Baumfree to Sojourner Truth, telling friends, “The Spirit calls me East, and I must go.” She wandered in relative obscurity, depending on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter. She eventually met and worked with abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and David Ruggles, giving her most famous speech at the Ohio Woman’s Rights Covention in Akron, Ohio, the legendary “Ain’t I a Woman?”
During the Civil War, Truth spoke on the Union’s behalf and helped enlist Black troops for the freeing of slaves. After the Civil War ended, she continued working to help the newly freed slaves through the Freedman’s Relief Association and the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.
In 1870, Truth began campaigning for the federal government to provide former slaves with land in the “new West.” She spent a year in Kansas, helping Black refugees and speaking in white and Black churches to gain support for the “Exodusters” as they tried to build new lives for themselves.
On November 26, 1883, Sojourner Truth died in Battle Creek, Michigan at the age of 86.
Maria W. Stewart
Stewart was born in Hartford, Connecticut, as Maria Miller.
Orphaned by age five, she became an indentured servant, serving a clergyman. Using the clergyman’s extensive library, she taught herself how to read and comprehend. When she was fifteen, left the clergyman and went on to work for herself as a servant.
In 1826 she married James W. Stewart, taking not only his last name but also his middle initial. With her marriage to a shipping agent, she became part of Boston’s small free Black middle class. Stewart became involved in some of the institutions founded by that Black community, including the Massachusetts General Colored Association, which worked for immediate abolition of slavery.
Upon the death of her husband in 1829, she became convinced that God was calling her to become a “warrior” “for God and for freedom and “for the cause of oppressed Africa.”
In 1831, abolitionist publisher, William Lloyd Garrison published Stewart’s first essay, Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, as a pamphlet. She also began public speaking, at a time when religious bans against women teaching prohibited women from speaking in public, especially to mixed audiences that included men.
In her first address, in 1832, Stewart spoke before an audience of only women at the African American Female Intelligence Society, an institution founded by the free Black community of Boston. She used the Bible to defend her right to speak, and spoke on both religion and justice, advocating activism for equality. The text of the talk was published in Garrison’s newspaper on April 28, 1832.
On September 21, 1832, Stewart delivered a second lecture, this time to an audience that also included men. She spoke at Franklin Hall, the site of the New England Anti-Slavery Society meetings. In her speech, she questioned whether free Blacks were much more free than slaves, given the lack of opportunity and equality. She also questioned the move to send free blacks back to Africa. Garrison published more of her writings in The Liberator and, in 1832, published a second pamphlet of her writings as Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart.
Stewart eventually made a move to New York, New York, where she remained an activist, supporting herself by teaching in public schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn, eventually becoming an assistant to the principle of the Williamsburg School. She was also active in a Black women’s literary group and supported Frederick Douglass’ newspaper, The North Star, but did not write for it. Stewart moved to Baltimore in 1853, where she taught privately.
In 1861, she moved to Washington, DC, where she taught school again during the Civil War. During that time Stewart was appointed to head housekeeping at the Freedman’s Hospital and Asylum in the 1870s. A predecessor in this position was Sojourner Truth. On December 17, 1879, Stewart died in the hospital in which she worked. She is buried in Graceland Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
I hope you enjoyed the latest in the League of Extraordinary Black People Series. Be sure to join us next month when we examine Aviators…yep…Aviators!