Black women activists in the last two decades of the nineteenth century articulated the
position that racial uplift for women would result from improved homes and improved
working conditions outside the home. They placed black women among the chief agents in
achieving these improvements. They argued, then, for the uplift of women's work and the
work of racial uplift.
I have tried to display the broad range of rhetorical strategies black women employed in their public discourse throughout the nineteenth century. Much like the two-headed Janus, looking in opposite directions, these women occupied unenviable positions as ambassadors for and lecturers to their own people. Their discursive constructions negotiated the similarities and differences between themselves and other women and between their needs and the needs of black men. They looked to Africa for pride in origin and to America as a model of progress. This multiple positioning brings to mind Mae Henderson's comments on the heteroglossic nature of black women's discourse, enabling them to speak in multiple public languages. Henderson, drawing on the Bakhtinian notion of dialogism, observes that black women "enter into a competitive discourse with black men as women, with white women as blacks, and with white men as black women" (20). Claudia Tate describes this dilemma at the close of her volume on turn-of-the-century black texts: "Black expressive culture...seems to oscillate between two extremes: embracing or repudiating assimilation; redefining black identity or imitating white America; celebrating folk wisdom or bourgeois accomplishment" (230). But what ultimately distinguished these women speakers was not their verbal skills nor their ability to select appropriate discursive strategies. True eloquence does not subside in the words and phrases; it must exist in the speaker. The eloquence of these nineteenth-century women came from an earnest commitment to ensuring for their people a future with hope.