CHESTER, Pa.– Dr. Sarah Roth, associate professor and chair of history at Widener University, has published “Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture” with Cambridge University Press. In the book, Roth examines how white women played a critical role in shifting how African American men were perceived in the decades leading to the Civil War through their contributions to popular culture media.
Roth examines a range of literature from antebellum America, including some obscure selections, to show that as the reading and writing of popular narratives emerged as largely feminine enterprises, a radical reshaping of black masculinity in American culture occurred. She shows that narratives created by white female authors often made white women appear superior to male slaves, leading to the demasculinization of black men and consequently impacting the political landscape of antebellum and Civil War-era America.
“I began this book because I was looking for a way to understand how ordinary white people in the 19th Century thought about race,” Roth said. “There were studies focusing on the theories intellectuals had about race, and a lot had been written on both the abolitionist movement and on political arguments in favor of slavery. But I wanted to know how middle-class people not directly involved in either the slave system or in antislavery efforts viewed African Americans in the decades leading up to the Civil War.”
Roth explains that when scholars have written about race, middle-class whites, particularly white northern women, have been left out of historical literature with the exception of the tiny minority who were active in the abolitionist cause. However, middle-class northerners were the people who in the 1860s would either go off to fight and die for the Union themselves or would stand by as their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers did so. Therefore, to understand what the Civil War meant to this middle-class white majority within northern society, Roth found it important to understand the evolution of their racial views in the decades preceding the war.
In “Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture,” Roth uses short stories and novels to uncover those racial attitudes. “This seemed an effective means of getting at popular perceptions about race, since the reading of fiction expanded monumentally among the middle class during the antebellum period, and much of the most widely read fiction dealt explicitly with race and slavery,” she said.
Roth sees the audience for her book as students, academics and members of the general public who have an interest in the history of race in America, the causes of the Civil War and the impact white women had on both.
“Gender and Race in Antebellum Popular Culture” is available through Amazon beginning in July 2014. Roth earned her bachelor’s in history from Southwestern University and her master’s and doctorate in American history from the University of Virginia. In addition to her role at Widener as associate professor and chair of history, she also serves as coordinator for the university’s African and African American Studies Program. She is a resident of Wallingford, Pa.