For Black New Women authors, H. Cordelia Ray, Pauline A. Hopkins, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Ovid’s Metamorphoses provided a literary palette from which their stories could be redrawn as a part of the American intellectual and artistic landscape. From 1880 until 1910, Black New Women wrote explicitly gendered stories of belonging—stories that explored what it meant to be women, to be newly “free” as a class of people, and to intervene in traditions as longstanding as Roman literature. In Niobe Repeating, I argue that Black New Women classicists utilized classical forms and plots to reconsider the process of black feminine identity formation as intellectual and creative production. At its core, Niobe Repeating examines the difference between classicists, scholars and writers deliberately engaged in the elaboration of the classical tradition, and those who had been educated in select classical texts as a part of their liberal educations. Furthermore, the project extends Tracey L. Walters’s inaugural and solitary study of black women classicists and her claim that for nineteenth century black women writers, the classics created “a liberating space to engage readers in a feminist critique of the misrepresentation, silencing, and subjugation of Black women both in literature and society” (51).
I trace a black feminine classicist tradition that begins with Phillis Wheatley, challenges the confines of gendered creative production, and recasts Ovid’s stories of feminine rebellion and transformation as “women’s” genres including fairy tale, romance, and American gothic, often combined into single works. These new methods of literary production gave rise to speculative poetry, short stories, and novels that presented a reimagined American society, redefined black origins, and redirected expectations of black women’s intellectual and creative production. By writing directly into the classical tradition, these writers intentionally met the standards of citizenship and simultaneously exposed the inevitable failures of any dehumanization projects pitted against them. They wrote stories that claimed Black persons’ American heritage, reclaimed their humanity, and proved their worth within the mainstream American value system that expressed core values of class, education, piety, and patriotism.