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The five chapters that comprise Part II of this volume take up literary imagination and experimentation, as well as textual circulation, as explorations of political possibility. Centered on texts published in the 1850s and early 1860s, Chapters 5 and 6 focus on the novel and poetry to consider how African Americans wrote in these genres by exploiting their capacities for distinctive ends. In Chapter 5, Hollis Robbins and Mark Sussman consider Bahktin’s theories of the novel as not only heteroglossic, but also a “literature of private life … of snooping about, of overhearing” private content in a public form. The early African American novel and slave narratives “politicized” this defining generic characteristic, they argue, exposing the “compromised privacy and surveilled speech” endemic to slavery as preconditions of “insurgent listening.” Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl, Frederick Douglass’s The Heroic Slave, Frank Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends, Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig, and Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative are read through an attention to the sonic and overhearing that reveals the novel as both a “contested literary form” and a way of “representing contested space and power.”
Part III is structured by what Katherine McKittrick has called “Black geographies,” which she defines as movements through and imaginings of space that expose the ways in which it has become racialized through the placing and displacement of Black people and the rendering of Black geographic space as “uninhabitable.”1 Countering that “spatial project of domination,” she argues, “innovative Black diaspora practices … in fact, spatialize acts of survival”2 and alter what Black geographies are and can be. Physical mobility has been strongly correlated to the exercise of autonomous personhood over and against attempts to deny both to African Americans. But as McKittrick reminds us, “innovative Black diaspora practices,” even as they “spatialize,” are far from limited to movements in and through space. Rather, she argues that Black geographies are as much philosophical and imaginative as they are material. Chapter 10, “Freedom to Move,” pursues just this expansive notion of mobility and movement as Janaka Bowman Lewis argues that African American women’s multiple practices of “education, individual progress, marriage and family, labor, and intellectual commitment” should be read, effectively, as “Black geographies.” With Charlotte Forten as a case study, Bowman Lewis considers the ways in which Black women exercised their autonomous personhood through quotidian practices, in place, as well as through physical mobility through space. For her, Forten’s participation in the Port Royal project is no more significant a practice than those she watches Sea Island women undertake, and in fact it is through her acts of observation – not necessarily through her movement – that Forten is led to a self-realization or actualization of freedom.
This part not only examines African American articulations of personhood and citizenship in the transition from slavery to freedom, but also asks us to revise our understanding of their location as primarily the slave narrative genre. Stephen Knadler, Erica Ball, and Michael Chaney consider what we might call exercises of disruptive citizenship in male-authored African American autobiographical narratives, arguably because it was through the figure and status of the Black male that contests over so-called civilized manliness, indebtedness, and productivity as racialized white were being waged at mid-century.1 Antislavery rhetoric was also deliberately gendered, using popular notions of manhood and womanhood to claim humanity and thereby freedom for African Americans. Abolitionists such as David Root argued in the mid-1830s that slavery disrupted gender relations, “outraging all decency and justice.” Others, like Charles Burleigh, maintained that slavery threatened or “plundered [the] rights” of white “manhood.”
Contributors to this volume suggest that we read not for event but for multiple conditions productive of and for Black literature. Such a protocol of reading yields understandings closer to the complexity of an African American mid-century. Those conditions include how Black literature was being produced and circulated; how and why it marked its relation to other literary and expressive traditions; what geopolitical imaginaries it facilitated through representation, how, and why it did so; and what technologies, including but not limited to print, enabled African Americans to both represent and pursue such a complex and ongoing aesthetic and political project.
From their initial explosion, African American women’s literary societies would go on to outnumber men’s organizations from the 1830s through the 1850s. Literary societies were also sites for the imbrication of oratory and print, since they included not only reading but also listening to texts read aloud, so that members of literary societies need not have been textually literate. Taking Maria Stewart’s first letters to the editor, in Freedom’s Journal in 1827 and The Liberator in 1832, this chapter will argue that the social gospel that would go on to define her career includes a prototypical Black feminist politics that we see emerging in the interconnected female-dominated Black literary societies and fledgling Black press around this time and reaching into the decades that follow. Stewart saw reading newspapers as essential to responsible citizenship for Black women, and understood both literary societies and newspapers as ways to forward her radical politics.
The period of 1850-1865 consisted of violent struggle and crisis as the United States underwent the prodigious transition from slaveholding to ostensibly 'free' nation. This volume reframes mid-century African American literature and challenges our current understandings of both African American and American literature. It presents a fluid tradition that includes history, science, politics, economics, space and movement, the visual, and the sonic. Black writing was highly conscious of transnational and international politics, textual circulation, and revolutionary imaginaries. Chapters explore how Black literature was being produced and circulated; how and why it marked its relation to other literary and expressive traditions; what geopolitical imaginaries it facilitated through representation; and what technologies, including print, enabled African Americans to pursue such a complex and ongoing aesthetic and political project.
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