Adapting a verse from the Epistle of James--"doers of the word"--nineteenth century black women activists Sojourner Truth, Jarena Lee, and Charlotte Forten, among others, travelled throughout the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest. There they ...
preached, lectured, and wrote about religious evangelicism, abolition, moral reform, temperance, and women's rights. Doers of the Word is built on two premises: first that "Civil Rights movements" are not a modern phenomenon, and second that a balanced perspective of black/white power relations requires knowledge of Northern African-American culture. Following these, Peterson attempts to understand the cultural work of these women in terms of the role gender, class, and religion played in shaping black cultural nationalism. Peterson begins her study in the 1830s, when a substantial body of writing by black women first emerged, and traces the development and reactions of this writing through the shifting political climate up to the 1880s. She builds upon Foucault's interdisciplinary model of discourse with an explicitly feminist approach, drawing her sources from sociological texts, literature, journalism, history, religious studies, and spiritual autobiographies. From these, Peterson is able to answer four key questions. First, "what empowered [these women] to act, to speak out, and to write?" Where did they act speak write from, and how were they marginalized? In what ways were the power relations of sexism and racism negotiated in their work? And, lastly, "how might one distinguish between their social action and its literary representation?" Thus Peterson demonstrates how the cultural production of Northern African-American women embodies both power and pain, radical subversion and a desire for legitimation.