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This chapter tracks the discourse around race, slavery, and racial Blackness in the Americas from the sixteenth century to the present day, with attention to the way the essay form has responded and contributed to the rise of new multiracial societies and struggles for emancipation and abolition. The author discusses how the work of abolitionist writers such as Lemuel Haynes, Ottabah Cugoano, David Walker, and Anna Julia Cooper has informed the subsequent tradition of Black essay writing in the United States and elsewhere.
Traditionally, white radical Republicans like Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens have been given the main credit for the work of Reconstruction that culminated with the ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments. This chapter shifts the focus to consider the work of Frederick Douglass and other Black activists in contesting the racist president Andrew Johnson and applying pressure to the Republicans to bring about the full citizenship and enfranchisement of African Americans. Douglass had a dramatic 1866 meeting with Andrew Johnson in the White House, and he continued to apply pressure to Johnson and the Republicans over the next several years. The chapter considers some of Douglass’s most important Reconstruction writings, including his essays in the Atlantic Monthly, his great 1867 lecture “Sources of Danger to the Republic,” and the 1881 version of his Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
While Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) is often described as a private poet and there is no firm evidence that she shared either her fascicle booklets or the great majority of her poems with anyone, there is good evidence that Dickinson drew public attention to herself as a poet from her early years. In this sense, Dickinson was not at all private about her poetry. As a young woman she shared her poems and thoughts about poetry with readers whose response mattered to her, and doing so may have given her the confidence she needed to become the “Emily Dickinson” we know. She also wrote occasional passages of metered prose in her letters of this period – from a few beats to multiple implied lines and rhyme. In the final years of her life, her use of metered prose became more prominent. This essay will focus primarily on the decade during which Dickinson shaped herself as a poet, roughly from the late 1840s to 1858. After a brief review of the years of her greatest productivity, I will pick up my story of Dickinson’s transitions with the 1880s, when she increasingly wrote at this border of poetry and prose. While some aspects of Dickinson’s themes and style changed over her lifetime, as early as 1853 she had settled into the rhythms of highly compressed, short-lined metrical verse she would maintain – with rare exceptions – for the rest of her life, including in her passages of metered prose.
In September 1862, readers of the short-lived Continental Monthly might have encountered the following prediction by prominent editor and sometime politician Horace Greeley: The United States of the future will be no constrained alliance of discordant and mutually repellant [sic] commonwealths, but a true exemplification of “many in one” – many stars blended in one common flag – many States combined in one homogeneous Nation. Our Union will be one of bodies not merely, but of souls.1
In a review of Graham’s Magazine published in the March 1, 1845 issue of The Broadway Journal, Edgar Allan Poe predicted of magazine literature, “[i]n a few years its importance will be found to have increased in geometrical ratio” because “[t]he whole tendency of the age is Magazine-ward.” Busy mid-century readers, speeding along in “the rush of the age,” required a medium that kept pace. “We now demand the light artillery of the intellect,” Poe insisted: “we need the curt, the condensed, the pointed, the readily diffused – in place of the verbose, the detailed, the voluminous, the inaccessible.”1 It can be difficult to pin down how seriously Poe took such declarations. Praise and ironic critique intertwine in his critical writings, as in subsequent paragraphs of this review, where he describes the engraving “Dacota Woman and the Assiniboin Girl” as “worthy of all commendation,” while another engraving in the same issue, “The Love Letter,” “has the air of having been carved by a very small child, with a dull knife, from a raw potato.”2 If Poe marks a genuine trend toward periodical forms of literature in the period, he also stages an ambiguous response to the trend, vacillating between praise and condemnation.
This essay recovers how David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829–30) likely played a significant role in Frederick Douglass’s frustrated introduction to literacy in Baltimore. By recognizing this important but overlooked intersection of two generations of Black antislavery activists at a turning point in the movement, the essay complicates our thinking about both the effects of Walker’s fiery Appeal and Douglass’s relationship to violent self-defense and resistance. More broadly, it examines the frequent linkage of print to violence and the politicization of print as a powerful and contested form of activism in the histories of US antislavery and antiracism.
This essay focuses on an archive of nineteenth-century visual images used to protest slavery and claim US citizenship for a group of Black individuals who previously had been denied it. One goal of picturing race in the nineteenth century in illustrated books, almanacs, print publications, paintings, pamphlets, and photography was not only to show the harms of slavery, but also to confer a type of symbolic citizenship onto African Americans, whether free or enslaved, that could be taken into the postbellum era. Yet especially before the war, illustrated works by white abolitionists often replicated binaries in which African Americans were continually in need of a white viewer’s assistance, whereas works by some African Americans undermined ideas of empathy and portrayed African Americans as exhibiting agency and self-determination. Black abolitionists such as Henry Bibb, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth used visual works to complicate flat portrayals of African American identity, and to play with the notion that such works created truth and captured their subjectivity. Their sophisticated manipulation of visual images exists as a contrast to the dominant culture’s practice of surveilling the bodies of the enslaved and configuring African Americans – whether enslaved or free – as passive and abject.
This chapter proposes that if scholars accepted the idea that authorship was but one form of creative contribution among many to the production of literary texts, our recognition of the breadth, impact, and influence of African Americans in all kinds of presumptive white literary production would allow us to expand the category “African American literature” considerably. Book history offers empirical and conceptual measures for conceiving “African American literature” as (1) texts read or consumed by African Americans, (2) texts that are about African Americans or that represent the experiences of African Americans, (3) texts to which African Americans deployed trades or skills (such as engraving, typesetting, bookkeeping, shipping) that may not bear the dignity of creative genius, or (4) texts that are edited by African Americans – in addition to and overlapping with (5) the more familiar conception of “African American literature” as texts authored by African Americans. Drawing examples from Phillis Wheatley’s Poems, Frederick Douglass’s Paper, and The Prodigal Daughter with illustrations by the enslaved Peter Fleet, this essay does not dispute the historical significance of African American literary and textual production so much as to think historically and theoretically about why authorship has been such a prominent part of that significance.
“Slavery and the Anthropocene” argues for putting US chattel slavery – including both the suffering of enslaved people and the role of the “master” – and not just the steam engine or measurements of spikes in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, at the center of how we understand the Anthropocene. It does so, in part, as a corrective to a tendency in contemporary theoretical work on the Anthropocene to stress the apocalyptic novelty of the problem, a focus on the immediate present and emerging future that, however understandable, nevertheless risks obscuring the profound historical embeddedness of our environmental crises in white supremacy and racial oppression. Drawing on examples from narratives of enslaved people, the chapter asserts that the racialized hierarchies of the plantation continue to shape the very different ways humans understand and experience the Anthropocene.
This chapter turns to the sorrow songs, beginning with the famous passage from Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies. It focuses on the ethnography of African American song traditions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period of professionalisation of folklore studies in the American academy. White folklorists claimed the songs were irrational, primitive, childlike, unmediated expressions of feeling; other qualities were discovered by African American ethnographers, including Zora Neale Hurston. The songs were also forms of exploitative labour. The chapter includes a reading of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem ‘A Corn Song’. Dunbar’s shifts between African American vernacular and ‘standard’ English illuminate the tendency of white folklorists to call attention to the failure of the printed and disembodied textual transcription to transmit the real power of the performed lyric. The chapter considers the attempt to secure an ‘authentic’ Black sound through recordings in prisons and labour camps. It also challenges the notion of authenticity through a reading of Olio by Tyehimba Jess, a work that seeks to recover – through a form of poetic ventriloquy – the thoughts and feelings of the artists whose work was appropriated by white critics, scholars and producers in this period.
The last chapter discusses the major contentions leading up the civil war, that is, state rights and slavery. The first part focuses once again on the disagreement over the proper definition of the people. On the one hand, excerpts from John Calhoun’s writings demonstrate the Southern emphasis on state rights and his idea of the concurrent majority. On the other hand, Henry Clay’s speech on the Compromise Tariff Bill reveals his dedication to the Union and embrace of compromise as the founding principle of the United States. Daniel Webster’s Constitution and Union Speech gives insight into his controversial support of the Fugitive Slave Act in the name of constitutional obligations. The second part presents the arguments of the moral abolitionists, with excerpts from the American Anti-Slavery Society, William Lloyd Garrison, and Frederick Douglass. In turn, the Southern reactionary defense of slavery is illustrated in selections from George Fitzhugh’s Sociology for the South and Hammond’s “mudsill theory.” The last section of the chapter offers excerpts of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, exhibiting his political pragmatism on the question of slavery and the maintenance of the Union.
Anthony Foy’s chapter asks how do we approach the overdetermined narrative of the African American celebrity as a modern variant of African American autobiography, rather than simply dismissing it for its lack or artistry, activism, or authenticity? Foy observes that (1) the Black celebrity narrative recounts the emergence, circulation, reception, and transformation of the star’s image while also registering the synedcochic function of the star’s racialized body; (2) it features the sites, activities, practices, and products of consumer culture in order to ratify the star’s status as exemplary consumer and alluring commodity; and (3) it commodifies authenticity by promising to reveal the putative real self beneath the racial persona. Ultimately, Foy calls for a fresh examination of the Black star’s autobiographical production that thoroughly attends to its historical contingency, political complexity, and theoretical possibility.
Often relegated to a parallel narrative in Frederick Douglass’s biography, family life played an integral role in his political life. He and his first wife, Anna Murray, formed a partnership defying their upbringing as a slave and as a free woman surrounded by slavery. They implicitly claimed citizenship by demanding the integrity and privacy of their free family, contradicting depictions of African Americans in popular culture and contemporary race science. By doing so, they politicized their household as much as when they provided a haven for militants, the self-emancipated, or extended kin in need. Anna and their daughter, Rosetta, navigated roles of domesticity and activism by serving the movement through support of Douglass, but Rosetta especially endured the conflicts between the patriarchal family and women’s rights ideology endorsed by her father. In his widowhood, Douglass further challenged racial definitions of family by marrying a white woman, Helen Pitts.
In 1851, Frederick Douglass publicly challenged the position of William Lloyd Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society that the U.S. Constitution was a proslavery document. As an enslaved child, the self-taught Douglass had identified literacy as “the pathway from slavery to freedom.” The same insight prompted the mature author and editor to part ways with Garrisonian moral suasionists in order to join “legal suasionists” like antislavery constitutionalist lawyers Lysander Spooner and William Goodell. From the 1840s through the 1890s, Douglass promoted the legal literacy of everyday African Americans (free and enslaved) while developing his own legal-critical analysis of American racism. Committed to wielding the “forms of law and . . . rules of hermeneutics” on behalf of freedom and equality, Douglass tirelessly challenged the increasingly biopolitical orientation of post-Reconstruction legislation and jurisprudence. From slavery to mass incarceration, Douglass insisted, racism is incompatible with the rule of law.
Haiti had a singular importance in the life of Frederick Douglass. Like countless other African Americans, Douglass upheld the Haitian Revolution as an unprecedented blow for human rights. He appreciated the symbolism of Haiti, a self-identified Black nation-state. As an abolitionist, Douglass used his platform to call on the United States to grant diplomatic recognition to Haiti and opine on the proposed mass emigration of African Americans from the United States to Haiti. He, after declining an opportunity to visit Haiti at the outset of the Civil War, eventually went there as a U.S. diplomat from 1889 to 1891. In Port-au-Prince, Douglass played a key role in a diplomatic conflict between the United States and Haiti. His experience in Haiti would not only lead to his appointment as one of Haiti’s representatives at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair but also have a significant impact on his political thought.
In his travel diary for his 1886-87 tour of Europe and Africa, Frederick Douglass reveals the racialized context of his travels abroad. Douglass’s comments on race, slavery, and the presence of his black body in various spaces disrupt the conventional capitalist and dominant narratives about tourism, travel, and leisure. Early in the trip, he notes that other passengers on the transatlantic voyage do not seem “disturbed” by his or his white wife Helen’s presence, and on board a steamer bound for Egypt, he expresses gratitude that, born a “slave marked for life under the lash,” he is “abroad free and privileged to see these distant lands so full of historical interest.” Douglass’s attention to his and others’ racialized relationship to various kinds of spaces, histories, and labor emphasizes the ways in which nineteenth-century black travelers reframe conventional ideas about mobility and leisure.
This chapter reviews the varied and creative ways people have taught Frederick Douglass’s four autobiographies and weighs methods for inspiring critical thought and performance skills through Douglass’s speeches. Douglass’s 1845 Narrative is used at multiple levels of education as a platform for reflecting on what literacy is and how Douglass – and students themselves – have become literate in their world. Other teachers consider how Douglass has constituted himself in relation to audiences he wished to move to political action, reflecting on his self-portraits and shaping of key incidents in his life. The chapter also advocates for offering students a choice of speech events to analyze and perform. This helps them to refine their thinking about contemporary issues and make performance decisions, imagining how Douglass – and they, too – wish to move an audience.
The chapter discusses Douglass’s three major autobiographical narratives – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892) – in multiple and sometimes competing contexts. Taken together, Douglass’s autobiographies, which are indebted to the American autobiographical tradition established by Benjamin Franklin, reveal a black leader who regularly revises himself and his ideas. The Narrative appears to advocate William Lloyd Garrison’s moral suasionism and to draw on the slave narrative tradition. But Douglass worked against that tradition when he revised the Narrative for publication in Ireland in 1845 and 1846. In the 1855 My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass emphasized his close connections to the black community and his support for revolutionary violence. His monumental Life and Times, written near the end of his career, linked the struggles and contingencies of his own life with that of the nation.
As reflected throughout his writing and oratory, the environment figured prominently in Frederick Douglass’s life. Notably, his engagement with the environment extended well beyond its personal impact to its broader place in the lives of all black people in the United States, enslaved and free alike. Drawing on life experience as well as leading eco-political discourse of his day, Douglass’s representation of the environment reveals an underexplored dimension of his calls for black liberation, which preceded and followed the abolition of slavery. Examining the extent to which the biophysical world and black life are entwined in Douglass’s work invites fresh insight into his thinking on a range of subjects, including the more consequential such as slavery and freedom.
Frederick Douglass’s correspondence emerges in the wake of his self-emancipation and occupies a singular place in nineteenth-century American letters. It is a body of work unprecedented in its scope and its capacity to provide an anchor to the networks of activism in which Douglass wielded such influence. It marks a turn in African American letters in which the epistolary is repurposed as a tool of emancipation and of radical archival practice. His correspondence mobilizes the letter as an instrument of emancipation, able to establish political community and map cartographies of freedom that challenged the limitations placed by the United States on African American autonomy. At the same time, his letters provide a glimpse behind the scenes of a life lived to a great extent in the public eye, confirming the importance of family and home as concrete realities, and of domains of intimacy normally kept out of historical sight.