More Archive Adventures: More Context for “The Black Fortune-Teller”

Elizabeth Oakes Smith is my longest-running research interest and my most recent foray into her work is a study of her first piece of fiction, a short story titled “The Black Fortune-Teller” (1831). I first encountered this story back in 2013 when I was working my way through the Maine Historical Society’s archives of 1820-30s newspapers. I remember being puzzled by its departure from her usual style but brushed it aside at the time as a project for another day. I would not return to it in earnest until earlier this year, when I was asked to join a panel Tim Scherman organized for the ALA conference last spring.

“Fortune-Teller” does not lose its intrigue upon closer scrutiny. Although numbering little more than a thousand words, it packs a punch. To briefly summarize, the titular fortune teller is an escaped slave named Cleopatra who makes her living in the north who is visited one night by a mysterious woman in a cloak. In a not-unexpected twist, we discover that the woman is Cleopatra’s old mistress, now fallen upon hard times. Ultimately, Oakes Smith capitulates to popular narratives of the time and closes her tale with Cleopatra returning to a life of service, but not without Cleopatra’s insistence that she be paid for her labor.

There are several things I find fascinating about this story: a black female subject, said subject’s demand to be paid for her labor, and the inclusion of a flashback to Cleopatra’s kidnapping by slavers that is blatantly sympathetic to the captured rather than their white captors. The common thread weaving through these points of interest is the opportunity to analyze not just Oakes Smith’s attitudes towards race, but those of 19th century Portland as well.

As part of my efforts to contextualize “Fortune-Teller,” I needed to understand its immediate context in the newspapers of the time. I submitted a request to the Maine Historical Society (MHS) for any newspaper articles on the subject of abolition for the period of 1829-1831. The abolition movement was still very much a fringe movement at this point in time, but It was my hope that their findings would shed some light on what the people of Portland were publishing. Their findings did not arrive in time for the conference, but they were worth the wait.

The MHS archive did not contain any newspapers dating earlier than March 31, 1831, but they were able to find three articles from that year on the subject of black Americans: “African Ideals of Beauty,” “Ethiopian Variety,” and “A Noble Action.” As their titles suggest, they represent different genres, which I expected, but I was surprised to find that their contents were also in sharp contrast.

“African Ideals of Beauty” is a throwaway snippet maybe an inch high about how white skin and upturned noses are considered unattractive to African women, and seems to have been inserted purely to use up empty space. “Ethiopian Variety,” on the other hand, is the lengthiest of the three and sprawls over several columns. Clearly written by a person under the influence of phrenology, it implies that Africans are a different species altogether and at one point references how a monkey can be mistaken for an Inuit. The tone of the piece is vaguely amused and certainly dismissive, and seems to exist to catalogue perceived differences between African people and Europeans in order to reinforce a sense of Euro-supremacy. In short, it was what I was expecting to find.

Occupying the other end of the spectrum is a sentimental story titled “A Noble Action,” which proves to be a likely source of inspiration for “Fortune-Teller.” It describes a wealthy woman who rewards her slave’s years of labor by emancipating him and gifting him a large sum of money, which he uses to start a new life. Later, when she loses her fortune and place in high society, he insists that she live with him and his family, where she is treated with “respect” and waited on hand and foot. American literary history of full of tales of loyal slaves and kind masters, a narrative that runs directly counter to the actual lived horrors of the time. Nowhere in this story is there any hint of the peculiar institution’s inhumanity. Instead, it paints a sappy picture of the virtue of servility and reinforces the myth that slavery is a natural state of affairs. Its message is clear: emancipation is a nice gesture, but it cannot change the fact that there are those who were born to serve.  

On the surface, “Fortune-Teller” seems to follow the same logic. Cleopatra was also a self-sufficient person of color in antebellum America who decides to return to a life of service with her old mistress after years of freedom. However, there are some key differences. Firstly, Cleopatra was not emancipated; she escaped from slavery on her own strength. Second, she does not provide her labor pro bono but demands what every working person deserves: payment for services rendered. The third and most compelling difference is the sympathies of its author. Rather than glide over how people are made into slaves or presenting it as an eternal, natural state of affairs, Oakes Smith describes how Cleopatra and her sister were stolen from their home and forcibly brought to America. There is nothing natural about this process, and Cleopatra’s reluctance to leave her independence shows that no person in their right mind would brush aside their freedom to return to service, regardless of whatever kindnesses their old master showed. 

These widely diverging texts, published over the course of a year in Portland’s newspapers, serve as evidence that there are no straightforward answers or simple binaries in the history of race and America. It is easy to see white Americans of the 19th century as clearly on the side of abolition or slavery, to ascribe to them the clear thinking that hindsight provides, but those positions were not yet defined as we know them today. It is important to create distance between what we know today and the history of our ideals, to preserve complexity rather than washing it away. This short story was published in the year of Nat Turner’s rebellion, a time of tremendous tension and great anger on the part of whites against black Americans, and yet Oakes Smith gives her heroine the name of a famous queen and showed her readers that it is a struggle to choose between freedom and service. In “Fortune-Teller,” unlike its cousin in the pages of the Courier, “Ethiopian Variety,” there is no natural order tied to the color of one’s skin.  

Abigail Harris-Culver