“Reparative Purity” in Incidents in the Life, Iola Leroy, and Contending Forces
Procope Bell, Danielle Mertina
The theory of “reparative purity” is employed by nineteenth century black women writers to reinstate black women’s respectability in spite of the real conditions of sexual violence under slavery and Reconstruction Era politics. Nineteenth century black women faced the pervasive threat of sexual violence. Due to this, despite their best intentions, physical sexual purity was not always a possibility—but black women writers did not want this fact to condemn black women to being “fallen whores.” Sexual purity, from birth to marriage, is oftentimes an impossibility for an enslaved black woman so the intention and desire to remain pure becomes the important indicator of her value. Her intentions are measured through her religious dedication, fervor for purity, and her moral closeness to the True Woman model. Furthermore, her actions needed to align with purity as soon as she was able to escape the grasps of slavery and its inflicted sexual violence. “Reparative purity,” then, reifies her position within “respectable” womanhood although originally excluded due to the sexual circumstances of slavery and general racial discrimination.