Former first lady Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming has taken the top spot on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list since its release. In fact, the memoir’s sales have beaten that of any other book printed in the United States this year. As the first black first lady, Obama has been viewed as a pioneer since she first entered the White House.
Another pioneer wrote a book that set the precedent for Obama’s memoir, but her name has since faded from history. Jarena Lee—also recorded as Gerenia, Terania, Gerania, and Geranna—was the first female preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. In 1836, she published The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee, a Coloured Lady, Giving an account of her call to preach the gospel. She published an extended version in 1849. In “The Many Names for Jarena Lee,” scholar Frederick Knight describes her important role in the black literary tradition: “Jarena Lee’s accomplishments have drawn the attention of modern scholars, who have examined her autobiography as a window into the role of literacy, religion, gender, kinship, and work in early African American women’s history.”
Lee’s work was religious in nature, which was common at the time for female autobiographers. In her article “Jarena Lee (1783-18??),” Phebe Davidson touches on this truth when she writes, “As an autobiographer, Lee inherited the tradition of spiritual autobiography as it was practiced in the Puritan conversion narratives of early New England.”
Although it has a different focus, Lee’s work shares underlying similarities with Obama’s—noticeably the argument for gender equality. Lee felt called to preach much earlier than she was allowed to do so. Knight writes of Lee’s first attempt: “African Methodism’s founder, Richard Allen … rejected her request by pointing to the church bylaws that made no provision for women preachers.” But Lee didn’t see why she should be treated any differently from a man.
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Source: JSTOR Daily