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This essay offers an overview of major themes, texts, and critical approaches to early African American print culture. It traces movements in early nineteenth-century African American print culture from the founding of Freedom’s Journal and publication of David Walker’s Appeal through the proliferation of pseudonymous writing in Frederick Douglass’s Paper and the work of the colored conventions movement. In addition, this essay examines the ethics animating the field itself with special attention to new digital humanities projects.
This essay sketches the field of African American literary history from the nineteenth century through two concepts I take from Henry Highland Garnet and David Walker: “faithful reflection” and the “spirit of inquiry.” It asks: What would it mean for American literature and American democracy to represent black citizens faithfully? What would faithful representation mean for racism as structure and ideology? How have black writers theorized, invoked, and used the literary as a form of critical inquiry? Garnet and others ground faithful reflection in a democratic ethos antithetical to the racial capitalism animating U.S. citizenship. The spirit of inquiry assumes the power to ask questions and seek answers, a power often denied the black citizens that literary history often treats as objects of study. It invokes the epistemological and methodological challenges black subjects and Black Studies have historically foregrounded. The history I offer here does not flow chronologically. Instead, I follow concepts that develop asynchronously across time as much as they were revised and revived over time. After grounding the essay’s framework through Garnet and Walker, I trace these complementary practices through Phillis Wheatley’s poetic imagination and literary critical responses that draw on her to visualize black literary history’s generative work.
Derrick Spires’s “Sketching Black Citizenship on Installment after the Fifteenth Amendment” asks how the literature of citizenship looked for African Americans who simultaneously celebrated a new relation to the state and recognized ongoing white supremacy, both North and South. Using the Fifteenth Amendment, Frances Harper’s period literary work, and practices of Black serial publication in Reconstruction as anchors, it theorizes “reconstruction on installment,” individual moments significant in their own right but also constituting a to-be-completed story. Recognizing that Black print called on Black citizens not only to read widely but also to produce African American literature – literature by Black people, about Black people, and for Black readers of all sorts – it reads, in addition to diverse work by Harper, texts by Mary Shadd Cary, William Steward, Cordelia Ray, and William Still. The chapter thus develops an interpretive theory of Black Reconstructions as process and practice, a way of thinking about and doing the work of citizenship rather than simply ranking it as achievement.