Everyone loves a good train story. Not only do they merge the limitless feeling of traveling by locomotive with the very real anxieties that can pervade a closed cabin, but they also challenge our notions of public and private spaces, packed as bodies can become within a train’s walls and a story’s narratives. In the United States, where such communal spaces are otherwise dismally lacking, there are perhaps few junctions of history as collective as the train story, representing a shared mastery over the continent’s vast landscape and the time that would otherwise be required to traverse it. Yet for a history that is so often presented as one of national progress, the actual historical archive of the train story paints a much different picture, and one in which a particular American voice is conspicuously absent—the voice of the American Black woman.
This is the historical contradiction that lies at the heart of Miriam Thaggert’s captivating new book, Riding Jane Crow. In the archive as in the racially-charged space of the train car, Thaggert argues, where Black women appear, they are often present in terms of their displacement or loss of agency. In the opening of the book, the author begins with an account of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge, a Black women’s reading group from Antioch, California, which was forcibly ejected from the Napa Valley Wine Train as recently as 2015. The offense cited at the time was that the women had been too loud. When the train line later posted a statement online, it added the charge that the women had been verbally abusive. And while the train line eventually admitted these claims to be false, the ensuing lawsuit exemplified the displacement that runs as a constant through the history of both Black women and American train travel. It’s a displacement that not only makes the stories of Black women often difficult to locate in the archive of train history but one that makes them that much more important as the truest measure of American freedom and progress.
One of the remarkable things about Riding Jane Crow is the finely-tuned degree to which it engages intersectionality. Much like a body within a train station, the book’s many subjects are tasked with locating themselves using the often-competing identifiers forced upon them—the identifiers, in this case, of race, gender, and class. In an effort to demonstrate these categories’ effects on Black women through time, Thaggert highlights the perspectives of four distinct groups of women riding Jane Crow: Black intellectuals who give written accounts of their own travel experiences; middle-class women of some means who enact their legacies through legal recourse; waiter-carriers who work serving food on the tracks of the Gordonsville, Virginia rail station; and the maids employed by the Pullman Company on their luxury cars, so often circumscribed by the better-documented porters of the Company. By reading each of these Black women through the joint spaces of the train compartment and the archive, “[their] neglected narrative comes into view, showing yet another aspect of African American women and American railroad history.” As Thaggert shows, each of these perspectives fundamentally contributes to the historical train-riding experience in some way, and yet unearthing each woman’s story yields details about that experience that go largely unvoiced.
Appropriately enough, Riding Jane Crow cannot be easily characterized as a text. Insofar as it is a work of intellectual history, it’s also a careful treatment of historical aesthetics. It’s an imaginative book to the extent that it’s a work about the movement of ideas; but highly aware of the ethical nature of its subject matter, it never veers into the world of abstraction, staying grounded in the material reality of its primary sources. Luckily for the reader, this also means that no resource is too obscure or eccentric. Alongside letters and stories, Thaggert collects blueprints, schematics, and advertisements, constructing a door-to-door picture of the course that a train ride may have taken. She compares the celebratory train songs popularized by Black women to the lonesome masculine counterparts so deeply ingrained in the American musical tradition. In a particularly memorable part of the second chapter, the author draws directly from court documents and newspapers, detailing one of Jane Brown’s legal experiences with the Memphis and Charleston Railroad after her violent removal. The sheer breadth of sources surrounds the reader like the instructive placards of a railway station, allowing each historical moment to take on a life of its own as something visual, spatial, and representational so that to read this book is to have a bodied experience.
Miriam Thaggert’s Riding Jane Crow is a must-read for anyone interested in the life of the train in American history, and especially the racial underpinnings that are less frequently the topic of its story. But the book also represents the undertaking of an astonishing scholar, furnishing hundreds of primary sources by which the reader can and should continue to educate themselves on the topic. While Thaggert expertly toes the line between her voice and those that are not her own, she takes care to present those voices with grace, genuine curiosity, and above all, historical import.
- Riding Jane Crow by Miriam Thaggert is published by University of Illinois Press ($22.95). To order a copy go to University of Illinois Press for US and www.combinedacademic.co.uk for UK customers (£17.99)
Lake Markham is a writer and musician who lives and works in Nashville, TN. Deeply rooted in continental aesthetic theory, his work focuses on the relationship of the artist with their art, postmodern alienation, and the hermeneutic continuity of existence.