Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Although Charlotte Lottie Forten Grimké was a teacher as well as a minor essayist, poet, and translator, it was her personal journal, which she started keeping at the age of sixteen, that proved to be her most lasting contribution to African American letters. She began her journal in May, 1854, beginning with a preface that explains her intention to use this journal to chart her own intellectual growth. The first dated entry, from May 24, is typical of her early diary in that it begins with her expressing disapproval that by awakening at 5:00 a.m., she let the sun rise several hours before she did; this, she declares, is an advantage she will not let the sun have over her again any time soon. She goes on to note that she has just begun reading Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854) and is certain that she will enjoy it. Her first entry, like many of the entries to follow, reveals her absolute drive that she must work incessantly to improve herself. Growing up at a time when slavery was still an active institution in southern states, and when inferiority of African Americans was assumed by many white Americans, including many of Charlotte’s fellow Northerners living in and around Philadelphia and Salem, Charlotte was driven not only by the need to develop her own talents and abilities but also by the need to prove, through her example, the talents and abilities of black Americans.

Born in Philadelphia on August 17, 1837, as the daughter of Robert Bridges Forten and Mary Virginia Woods Forten, Charlotte Lottie Forten grew up in one of the most active black antislavery families in Philadelphia at the time. In November of 1853, she was sent to Salem to continue her schooling. While there, she stayed with Charles Lenox Remond and his wife Amy Matilda, both black abolitionists and friends of the Forten family. They were well connected to the abolitionist movement in and around Salem. It was the intellectually and emotionally stimulating environment of being part of a movement dedicated to eliminating slavery and improving conditions for Northern free blacks that excited the intellectually thirsty Charlotte during her teenage years and that infuses the early entries of her diary.

The second dated entry in Charlotte’s diary, from May 25, 1854, concerns the arrest of Anthony Burns, an escaped slave who was arrested off the streets of Boston for return to slavery in the South. In the days that followed, his case became celebrated as antislavery activists demanded his release. On June 2, Charlotte reports in her diary that he had been sent back to slavery. As disheartening as this news was to Charlotte, it was to have a more personal implication. Her father, tired of striving against the ever-present racism in Philadelphia and looking to relocate, decided because of this case that moving his family to Massachusetts, where his daughter already was, would be no improvement. Instead they moved to Canada in the autumn of 1855.

A desire for her father’s approval was certainly one of Charlotte’s motivations for working so hard on the program of self-improvement recorded in her journal. In her early entries, there are repeated references to her hopes that her father and the rest of her family will join her eventually, and it was quite a disappointment for her when they did not. Her father’s financial support of her ceased during her final year as a student at the Salem Normal School, quite probably because of financial hardships of his own. She found herself forced to go into debt to her hostess, Amy Remond, to support herself. Upon graduation, Charlotte was offered a position at the Epes Grammar School in Salem. She accepted in the hope that this would ensure her ability both to support herself and to live among the active abolitionists of Massachusetts whom she found so stimulating. In her first term as a teacher, though, the health problems that were to hound Charlotte for the rest of her life forced her to miss several days of teaching. In June, 1857, again suffering ill-health, she retreated to Philadelphia for six weeks to...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Billington, Ray Allen. Introduction to The Journal of Charlotte L. Forten. Edited, with an introduction, by Ray Allen Billington. New York: Dryden Press, 1953. Reprint. New York: Norton, 1981. Billington’s introduction to his heavily edited edition of Forten’s journals remains an essential source for those interested in placing Forten’s work with the Port Royal Experiment in its historical context. This edition also contains helpful maps.

Braxton, Joanne M. “Charlotte Forten Grimké and the Search for a Public Voice.” In The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writings, edited by Shari Benstock. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. An analysis of Grimké’s complete journals, based on Braxton’s archival research and personal appreciation of the journals. This article maintains that Charlotte, as a young woman, used her journal to try out different poetic voices.

Brown, William Wells. “Charlotte L. Forten.” In The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. New York: Thomas Hamilton, 1863. An attempt by a leading abolitionist to publicly recognize Forten’s talents while she was still a young woman.

Sherman, Joan R. “Charlotte L. Forten Grimké.” In Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974. A consideration of Grimké’s poetry. Concludes that although she was a minor poet, her skills and sensitivity were above the ordinary.

Stevenson, Brenda, ed. Introduction and notes to The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. A thorough introduction to Grimké’s life and work. Includes a chronology of events in Grimké’s life as well as a key to persons mentioned in her journals. The complete journals themselves, as reprinted in this volume, have become the definitive text.