|Texts and Contexts|
I want to take you on a brief and highly selective tour of prosopography in the U.S., especially a tour of the popular canons of women and African Americans (see for example http://www.nwhp.org) and their annual History Months. The discourse of periodic compensation for historical omissions generally takes the form of groups of famous people, that is, of prosopography. Prosopography, a daunting polysyllable, was defined by Lawrence Stone in 1971 as “the investigation of the common background characteristics of a group of actors in history by means of a collective study of their lives.”1It was a method of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century positivist or eugenicist studies of the biographical background of elites.2 Prosopography is currently employed in ancient and medieval studies to make the most of traces of names and dates in a dearth of documentation.3It thus may be a scholarship of Romantic fragments, but it also continues to serve scientific plenitude, as in the statistical profiles in Bourdieu’s study of taste. Many branches of cultural studies and criticism today in effect practice group bio-historiography, stimulated by a turn to personal narrative across disciplines.
I favor prosopography, rather than collective biography or multibiography, as the term for the pervasive use of multiple life-narratives to construct imagined communities, because it announces its own rhetorical performance. I especially use it to evoke the trope of prosopopoeia—according to Paul de Man, “the fiction of an apostrophe to an absent, deceased, or voiceless entity,” based on “the etymology of the trope’s name, . . . to confer a mask or a face (prosopon).” The trope of lyric, of epitaphs, and of autobiography according to de Man,4 it in my view also shapes biography. Biography ascribes a name and animation to persons and things no longer among us. Similarly, canons of eminent people try to give face or voice to a tradition, whereas what they palpably signify are its melancholy losses.
Any pantheon seems glaringly lacking. Consider the geographical counterpart of our federal calendar of commemorative months, Washington, D.C., a vast museum of personified history, a kind of dispersed Mount Rushmore that is constantly being supplemented. The Rotunda in the U.S. Capitol, for example, is a prosopography on a grand neoclassical scale. After much debate, the Rotunda displayed European men “subjugat[ing] . . . indigenous peoples,” omitting those of African descent and marginalizing women (Fryd 1, 177). Until recently, Pocahontas was the only woman to have both name and animation in this arena: either rescuing John Smith or undergoing her conversion to Christianity. By 1996, women were so palpably missed in this assembly that Adelaide Johnson’s composite statue of Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony was raised by Congressional order from the Crypt a floor below, where it had loitered since its unveiling with feminist fanfare in 1921.5
This awkward triumvirate provokes some of the usual objections to a set of named figures displayed as representative of a history: Why these middle-class, Anglo-American women of 1848 and no others? If the Rotunda is improved with at least an afterthought of historic womanhood, the whole nevertheless may be an irredeemable project—the sort of “selective tradition,” in Raymond Williams’s term, that reshapes the national amnesia (49, quoted in Lanning, 19-20). It’s an old problem for feminists as well as advocates for any minority: objecting to disproportionate representation—as I do here—is like counting who has not been invited, only reinforcing the idea that the party is what’s happening. Maybe bag the Rotunda and build your own National Museum of Women in the Arts, a few blocks away. Yet the alternative still takes a prosopographical form. Indeed, marginal subjects often join the roster in limited assortments. Thus Mott, Stanton, and Anthony appear as a sisterhood inserted in a circle of individual male statuary.
For centuries, the causes of the marginal—of women, workers, people of color, the colonized or disenfranchised or disabled—have been promoted by representations of a set of exceptional lives from among them. As Erving Goffman long ago observed, the successful “person with a particular stigma” is compelled to “represent his category” (26). This representation is ironic, since the successful individual becomes atypical of the category through that success, and loses his or her individuality through representation. The story of triumph over social stigma gets pressed into service in a set of role models. Corporate advertisers know as well as compilers of lists of great books do that assortments simulate wholeness, universality.6 The category of diversity, like the “human family” as a whole, comes in clusters. These group representations foil their mimetic claim, as the few selected models must be different—more narratable, noteworthy—than the mass of their kind. Instead of wholeness or restitution, every honor roll performs a melodrama of dispossession, declaring Who Is Not Who. The receding horizons of oblivion give the illusion that somewhere there is global representation. In the words of a Black History Month website, “other cultures are made aware of their history . . . and we are not.”7 My ancestral pantheon is in ruins, yours clocks a million visitors a day.
National role-model groups often take spatial form, as in Halls of Fame 8, or they may mark themselves on a schedule of celebrations. Western calendars have long been personified allegories, and at least since the French Revolution a secularized Holy Year has been adapted for political programs. Only well into the twentieth century, however, did women and numerous ethnic groups claim a month on the calendar of the United States. The dedication of commemorative periods has become a standard of public relations, keyed to the public school year.9 The federal didactic calendar now includes Asian American/Pacific Islander Heritage Month (May); Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15) and Disability Awareness Month (October); and American Indian/Alaskan Native Heritage Month in November (does this allude to the Indians in the myth of Thanksgiving?). December—Christmas shopping and school pageantry aside—allows time for AIDS Awareness Day, perhaps a gesture toward sexual diversity.10Added to these federal phases of the year, there are innumerable other synchronous observances, Glaucoma Awareness Month, National Drunk and Drugged Driving Prevention Month, National Arts and Humanities Month. Note that some groups claim a “history,” some a “heritage,” and others “awareness,” on a spectrum from remembrance to prevention.
The story of the History Months seems to repeat the echo effect of the civil rights and feminist movements. Negro History Week, founded in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, became Black History Month (February because of Lincoln’s and Douglass’s birthdays) in 1976. A National Women’s History Week (in March to overlap with International Women’s Day) was initiated in 1978, gaining congressional approval in 1981, followed by Women’s History Month in 1987.
A History Month should be understood as a performative utterance; like other acts of Congress, these words make things happen. Educational and community organizations respond to the designation of February or March by a number of actions, including publishing their own calendars of speakers and celebrations and re-molding their syllabi—thus generating more prosopoetic acts. Web sites for the history months reproduce the forms of prosopography: face, name, brief parallel lives. The personae are metonymic: “As we highlight the achievements of six women, we also honor all women, both famous, and known only to a few” (“National Women’s History Month—Themes”).
The History-Month subjects are earmarked for honor by prior dishonor; a kind of essentialism pervades the calendar of causes: recognition as reparation for physical or all-but-innate handicap. (Thus, we may have Labor Day, but we don’t have Economic Disadvantage Month—the latter condition seen as alterable by one’s actions.) The rhetorical strategies may therefore backfire against those claiming recognition. Often promoters express misgivings about celebrating difference in the name of equity—about segregated supplements as means to integration. An online article, “Celebrating Black History Month,” claims, “In an ideal world, Black History Month would be obsolete, . . . because a man’s contributions to the world would not be distinguished based on the color of skin.” An online discussion asks, “Why showcase people of color for four weeks. . . .Why not push for the whole year?” (Glymin; “Ask Poynter” “How to Celebrate”). According to a National Women’s History Project copymaster, the achievements of all women should be “included as routinely as those of men,” in “a wide-angle . . . view of history.” The ultimate aim would be “celebrating women’s history all year ’round ” (“National Women’s History Project,” “Heritage,” “Story of Women’s History Month”).
Meanwhile in a purgatorial measure, representations of the History Months display models who must compete among themselves for space and time, while the exercise must be annually repeated. What happens to women of color in both months is especially telling. A typical Black History Month website reveals the prosopographical structure of the observances and of the history they narrate, with the inevitable disproportionality. Under the portrait of Carter G. Woodson appears a two-column list of images and links, “Notable African-Americans.” The named exemplars appear evenly divided between the sexes: six women on five links—Wilma Rudolph, Althea Gibson, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman (these two together, not unlike Mott, Anthony, and Stanton in the Rotunda sculpture), Mary McLeod Bethune, and Marian Anderson—, intermixed with six men on six links—George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, Paul Robeson, Benjamin Banneker, and W. E. B. Du Bois. The gender scales are tipped, however, by the founding-father, larger-scale image of Woodson, the icons of military achievement, and “the new Negro” protagonist of the “Harlem Renaissance.” The summary lives betray a certain typecasting as well. Marian Anderson, “as the bearer of grace and elegance,” remains securely feminine, even on her own linked page (the texts serve more as blurbs than developmental narratives). Mary McLeod Bethune, founding educator and New Deal official, “even sold sweet potato pies to raise money,” as though she were notable primarily as a clubwoman.
In this arena of popular pedagogy, it may be too much to ask that advocates critique the terms of difference that they labor to overcome. Perhaps because of a longer history of relative privilege and academic affiliation—and certainly in response to charges of racism—Women’s History Month generally rates better on the score of diversification and deconstruction of categories. A few texts of Black History Month are entirely male, and by definition unify one race. Celebrations of Women’s History Month invariably include a range of women of color, as though their aim were to typify race beyond the black/white axis as much as to insist on a range of achievements of one sex. Yet the aspiration of Women’s History Month to represent diversity necessarily reduces the number of any one ethnicity or race featured in any one list. Often the same handful of black women serve on the lists of both History Months.
Sometimes the prosopographies that give name and face to history work in unpredictable ways. For instance, the March 1995 Women’s History Month poster displays anachronistic doubling of roles, breaking typological sequence—the more recent exemplar may be in front or behind—in sometimes interracial pairs, while mixing the famous and the unknown, full-length or bust, round or rectangular frame, or unframed (the living are photographed, the dead are painted in color, their frames color-coordinated with the nearest dress). There is a surprisingly diachronic sisterhood in the fashion of a kerchief or triangular neck accessory, and the national sanction of the Capitol in the background echoes other posters in the series. (See detail) Does such multiplicity avoid exploiting the “other” woman as authenticating body in white women’s discourse? Does it suggest that these kinds of women’s agency could be represented by others, on other posters (as indeed occurs in the annual series of Women’s History Month posters)? Does the filiation within a range of careers adequately represent a history of women and their work?11 Motherhood and housework have no history, perhaps. The named women, in their comparative success, appear middle class, though Mary Anderson, the former factory worker, may trouble that norm. The layout coincidentally makes it possible to read individuals as models of more than one vocation and to give name and “life” to the wrong image. Willa Cather’s portrait appears over the name and “bio” of Toni Morrison, and just to the left of “Community” (in place of “Literature”), while her Southwestern costume allies her with the Native American Annie Dodge Wauneka. If knowing viewers see Cather as a representative of the lesbian, the “bio” won’t ask, won’t tell. While such multiversal representation serves many instructive purposes, I rather doubt that it achieves an intact representation of women in history.
I would no more call for an end to the History Months than I would advocate demolishing the Rotunda. I do warn against a curriculum of multicultural personality parades, with the simplifications and short memory of the celebrity industry. It is too brief an equation: Know the person, connect with history. Clustered diversity becomes a kind of univocal marginalia on the national agenda. Exposure should not be equated with civil rights, nor should all causes be deemed alike, as Charles Taylor has warned (64, 72-3).
Back in 1975, Gerda Lerner deplored “compensatory” history of “worthies”12; recovery is embarrassing for addicts and for those who seem in need of role models. Yet the convention of biographical or “particular” history is by no means peculiar to advocates of the oppressed (Davis; Pomata). Prosopographies have been hard at work since before Plutarch and well past Carlyle—a fact that might temper the optimism of current supplemental projects. Yet such clustered models have, over time, helped to raise the civic waterline for women and minorities, as I have found in a current study of approximately eight hundred collective biographies of women published in English between 1830 and 1940 alone. Further, the renaming of ethnological parts has a ceremonial effect. All social locations need strategic selective traditions. Perpetuation is not futility. Calendars and halls may weather or become dated, but they are hardly exhausted over the years, as new biographies of historical figures continue to be issued without charges of redundancy. Yet in all forms, hegemonic or marginal, prosopographies offer a re-visiting of sites, not a return home. With the advent of February or March, the restorative work is to do over again.
1. Stone (46-49), quoted in Winslow (75). Laura Marcus is among the few critics to trace the “genre of collective biography or ‘prosopography’” in its turn-of-century empiricist forms, including Galton’s and Havelock Ellis’s studies of genius (58-64). See also Lanning. This essay is an excerpt of a longer article in progress, and forms part of my book, How to Make It as a Woman. Earlier versions have been presented at the Twentieth-Century Literature Conference and George Mason University in 1999, as well as the Texts and Contexts Conference at Virginia in 2001, and I appreciate the contributions of those audiences. W. J. T. Mitchell, Deborah McDowell, and Jay Clayton have guided me at different the stages of the article, and I thank Alan Howard for collegial contributions concerning the Capitol.
2. See Sturges, 319-22. Cattell’s “A Statistical Study of Eminent Men” measured “eminence” by the length of entries in a set of biographical encyclopedias; Castle’s A Statistical Study of Eminent Women also relied on this speciously quantitative tool.
3. The journal Medieval Prosopography has appeared in Kalamazoo since 1980. Research centers in Athens, Paris, Rome, Leiden, Bonn, and elsewhere continue to issue such works as John D. Grainger, Aitolian Prosopographical Studies (Leiden, 2000); A. B. Tataki, Macedonian Edessa: Prosopography and Onomasticon (Athens, 1994); K.S.B. Keats-Rohan, ed., Family Trees and the Roots of Politics: The Prosopography of Britain and France from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK, 1997); Ségolène Demougin, Prosopographie des chevaliers romains julio-claudiens [43 BCE-70CE] (Rome, 1992). Some recent French studies encompass elites in modern centuries.
4. de Man, “Hypogram and Inscription,” 30, 33-4; “Autobiography as De-facement,” 926. Riffaterre, in dialogue with de Man, insists that prosopopoeia “must not be confused with personification,” and has little tie to “referentiality,” but is a “figure of figurality” (113, 108, 123). A related trope is “apostrophe”: “the direct address of an absent, dead, or inanimate being by a first-person speaker” (Johnson, 694).
5. Johnson presented individual busts of these three at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, an occasion so notably exclusive of women of color that it motivated the foundation of the National Association of Colored Women three years later (Carby, 3-6, 96), the publication of Ida B. Wells’s The Reason Why (1893), and, I would argue, several collective biographies of African American women published in 1893-1894: Majors, Scruggs, Mossell. A powerful bronze bust of Martin Luther King, Jr., confronts the eight-ton block of partially unpolished marble with three ladies jutting out of it; other statues in the Rotunda are of white men. In the Hall of Statuary (begun in 1864), each state is represented by a statue, of which five represent women (Mother Joseph/Esther Pariseau, Esther Morris, Jeannette Rankin, Florence Sabin, and Frances E. Willard), and two are non-European: King Kamehameha of Hawaii, and Sequoyah, the Cherokee linguist and leader.
6. Diversity in advertising can serve separatist nationalism, as in the campaign in Québec of “Benetton-poster children” (Barlow, 26-29).
7. Sekou Molefi Baako, as quoted in Owens. One of two epigraphs on the webpage summarizes the imperative, aimed at parents, to teach the biographical heritage: “If a race has no history, . . . [it] stands in danger of being exterminated,” Carter G. Woodson.
8. In 1901, to compete with Pantheons in Rome and Paris, Munich’s Temple of Fame, and Westminster Abbey, the Hall of Fame was dedicated at New York University. On the cover of a commemorative volume for the Hall of Fame (Banks), an allegorical Fame sits on her throne, but no woman was among “the elect” (and only three of 100 judges were women); of 234 nominees, only nine were women. “A list of America’s most eligible women” supplements the volume (398-409). In 1969, the National Women’s Hall of Fame was founded in Seneca Falls. The organization’s homepage, entitled “Come Stand Among Great Women,” leads to six pages, double columns, of alphabetical prosopography, and “The Wall of Fame,” where for $100 “your wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, or colleague” may be registered in a “permanent, enduring record.” I have not found Halls of Fame for racial, ethnic, or religious groups, or disabilities or diseases; the countless Halls of Fame on the Web tend to honor various sports, musical genres, regions, and professions.
9. Douglas in The American Book of Days provides 365 standards and variations upon national observance: Frances E. Willard Day, Child Health Day, American Indian Day, etc. People of color are designated in groups, not as named individuals.
10. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management webpage of Federal Holidays sports eleven masculine or neuter icons: a diapered baby (wearing a blue sash), Martin Luther King, George Washington, a flag, a canon that enacts firing for Independence Day, balloons for Labor Day, Columbus, a male uniformed trumpeter for Veteran’s Day, a man carving a turkey, a chuckling Santa Claus, and the New Year’s baby again.
11. The 1995 Women’s History Month poster displays the following professions and women: Journalism: Nelly Bly and Katharine Graham; Medicine and Science: Dr. Alice Hamilton, Dr. Gertrude Elion; Government: Carol Moseley Braun and Mary Anderson; Community: Alicia Montemayor and Annie Dodge Wauneka; Literature: Willa Cather and Toni Morrison; Law: Belva Lockwood and Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Women’s Rights: Lucy Stone and Anita Hill; Advocacy: Ethel Andrus and Tsuyako “Sox” Kitashima.
12. Lerner objected that “notable women” were “exceptional,” therefore non-representative (357). From another angle, Uma Narayan warns against the homogenization of “other” peoples.
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