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Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societiesby Elizabeth McHenry
Recovers the history of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century African American reading societies.See more details below
Recovers the history of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century African American reading societies.
The News and Observer
Women's Review of Books
The Independent Weekly (Durham, NC)
“Forgotten Readers focuses upon an aspect of African American culture that was extraordinarily significant in the development of its literary tradition and in its political and social development as well, but one that, as Elizabeth McHenry notes, has been ignored or simplistically described. This book will be instrumental in challenging and changing some erroneous notions about African American history and literature specifically, and American culture in general.”—Frances Smith Foster, Emory University
“Elizabeth McHenry’s Forgotten Readers is a seminal study of the pivotal role that literary societies played in the shaping of African American culture in the nineteenth century. While many scholars knew of the existence of these societies, most of us had presumed their records to be lost or nonexistent. Through meticulous research, McHenry has managed to reconstruct the nature and function of these curious arenas of literary culture in splendid detail. The study is a major contribution to the history of literacy in the African American community. No scholar or student can understand nineteenth-century African American literary history without reading this book.”—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University
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Forgotten ReadersRecovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies
By ELIZABETH McHENRY
Duke University PressCopyright © 2002 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Dreaded Eloquence"
THE ORIGINS AND RISE OF AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERARY SOCIETIES
In the late 1820s and early 1830s, free blacks in the urban North formed literary societies as a place in which to read and experiment with rhetorical strategies. Embracing the Enlightenment stress on the importance of the life of the mind, they turned to reading as an invaluable method of acquiring knowledge, and to writing as a means of asserting identity, recording information, and communicating with a black public that ranged from the literate to the semiliterate to the illiterate. These individuals were vividly aware of the general perception, especially among white slaveholders in the South, that black literacy and education posed a significant threat to the future of the slave system and to maintaining black subordination generally. They were aware also of the centrality of written texts of national construction to both the legitimacy of the new nation and to their status in it. Through their own reading and writing, they sought effective avenues of public access as well as ways to voice their demands for full citizenship and equal participation in the life of the republic. Theirorganized literary activities were a means of educating individuals who would be prepared to perform as and would consider themselves capable, respected citizens.
How did early African Americans in northern cities come to see reading and writing as a means of forming durable communities and asserting their right to American citizenship? How did marginal literary coalitions serve to support efforts to build black communities and strengthen the resolve of their members to be recognized in the national public sphere? In what way were African American literary societies both agents for and products of an empowered black community? What, if anything, limited the effectiveness of those who believed the black condition could be ameliorated by means of increased literacy and organized literary activities?
The African American literary societies that developed from black fraternal and mutual aid societies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are a virtually unknown chapter in African American social and literary history. The stories of free, northern blacks who used reading and writing to voice an American optimism provide a crucial counterweight to the history of southern slaves and the literary tradition of the slave narrative. The rise of African American literary societies in northern, urban black communities in the late 1820s and throughout the 1830s suggests that they became important institutions precisely because they encouraged discussion and created a forum for debate on issues of racial and American identity. Their evolution records the developing understanding and shifting uses of literary discourse by northern, free blacks for expression, interaction, and social protest in antebellum America.
The point of departure for this chapter is the case of David Walker, a black man, who in 1829 published and distributed a document that arrested the attention of white Americans. This case illustrates the extent to which free blacks living in the urban North in the first decades of the nineteenth century understood text, identity, and public access to be linked. It also serves to contextualize the belief held by many free blacks that literary texts and the ability to gain access to them could galvanize the black community and help them to give public voice to the injustice of their position and to their pursuit of civil rights.
WRITING, IDENTITY, AND PUBLIC ACCESS
The Case of David Walker's EDI[Appeal]EDI
On 27 March 1830, police in Charleston, South Carolina, arrested Edward Smith, a white steward on the brig Columbo of Boston, for distributing "some pamphlets of a very seditious & inflammatory character among the Slaves and persons of color of said City." Housed in the South Carolina archives, the original transcript of Smith's sworn confession before the Guard Committee recounts how he came to possess and distribute the pamphlets. The "day before he left Boston," Smith reported, "a colored man of decent appearance & very genteely dressed called on board of the vessel and asked him if he would do a favor for him." Smith was asked "to bring a package of pamphlets to Charleston for him and to give them to any negroes he had a mind to, or that he met." Smith claimed in his confession to have been ignorant of the content of the pamphlets when he "consented & promised the man that he would do as directed"; during the voyage from Boston to Charleston he "opened one of them & read a few lines" but was called away before reading all of the pamphlet. "From what he read," Smith reported, "he found out that [the subject of the pamphlets] was something in regard to the imposition upon negroes." "When he arrived in Charleston he would not on this account have delivered the Books," he claimed, "if he had not pledged his words to the Boston man to do so."
In his testimony to South Carolina authorities Smith emphasized that the man from whom he received the pamphlets was a "decent looking black man whom he believed to be a Bookseller." His stress on the man's description underscores Smith's apparent determination to faithfully complete the errand in part because he was confident that a man of such genteel appearance and respectable profession would ask nothing of him that might "bring him in trouble." Although Smith was indicted and found guilty of seditious libel, the jury seemed affected by his claims of ignorance and innocence and recommended clemency; his sentence was a fine of $1,000 and a prison term of one year. But, as historian Peter P. Hinks asserts, Smith's protestations are not entirely convincing. In the South, anxiety over the threat of slave insurrection had been mounting since the exposure of Denmark Vesey's organized rebellion in Charleston in 1822, the plot of which had illustrated the extent to which black literacy and the printed material that supported it could provide inspiration for revolt. Southerners were well aware of the rise of abolitionist sentiment both abroad and in the North and had already taken preliminary steps to prevent the circulation of abolitionist literature in their communities. Smith's own confession that he was instructed to "give [the pamphlets] secretly to the Black people" suggests that he was aware of both the subversive nature and the danger of his mission; he also relayed to authorities that he was specifically told to distribute the pamphlets "privately and not let any white person know any thing about it." In this Edward Smith succeeded: although arrested with at least one copy of the pamphlet in his possession, he had already managed to distribute several copies of it to black longshoremen, thus putting it into circulation in Charleston's black community.
Although it is impossible to positively identify the "decent looking black man" from whom Edward Smith received the pamphlets in Boston, what Smith carried to Charleston aboard the Columbo were copies of the Appeal, in Four Articles, Together with a Preamble, to the Colored Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly to Those of the United States of America. Published privately in Boston in 1829 by its author, David Walker, the Appeal delivered a furious indictment of American slavery and racism. That the Appeal called for a series of violent uprisings by blacks against their white oppressors was in part responsible for its tremendous impact. Its arrival in Savannah, Georgia, as early as December 1829 was met with concern by authorities already sensitive to the pervasiveness of insurrectionary activities. Memories of the Denmark Vesey Conspiracy, a meticulously planned slave rebellion exposed by an unnamed slave in 1822 just days before the intended uprising, were still fresh in the minds of area residents. More recent unrest had given authorities good reason to be concerned as well. In Georgetown, South Carolina, a plot of insurrection had recently been exposed. Throughout 1829 the cities of Augusta and Savannah, Georgia, had experienced repeated incidents of arson; slaves were widely suspected of having set the fires. The arrival of the Appeal both reinforced and augmented authorities' fears that rebellious activities led by blacks-free or slave-presented a significant threat not only to the economic stability of the system of slavery but to the personal safety of whites in the region as well. As the governor of Georgia noted in a response to the Appeal the threat of conspiracy and insurrection was increasingly understood as especially acute in urban areas: "The plots devised some years ago in Charleston, and very lately in Georgetown, South Carolina," he wrote, "the late fires in Augusta and Savannah, have shewn us the danger to be apprehended in the cities from the negroes." His closing made direct reference to Walker's Appeal: "The information communicated [in the Appeal], presents this danger in a new shape."
Indeed, on a number of levels the Appeal did present danger "in a new shape." Although Walker's Appeal has traditionally been seen as a document that embodies an early model of black nationalism and critically considered for Walker's defense of violent resistance, these angles of analysis have been overemphasized. In fact, as its southern white audience suspected, the Appeal carried with it far greater and more complicated threats as well. In it, Walker did not shy away from articulating the necessity of resisting unlawful and immoral authority by any means necessary; he exposed his own moral outrage at slavery as a crime, not only against fellow men but also against God. But the significance of the Appeal is not limited to this ideological message. It is crucial to consider, for instance, the extent to which Walker was influenced by America's recent revolution and the birth of the United States as a democratic republic. Walker believed that the disparity between the condition of people of African descent in the United States and the "inalienable rights" and republican principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence could be a rallying point for black Americans seeking to be recognized and treated as citizens. That he turned to strategies similar to those used by colonists such as Thomas Paine, whose own pamphlet Common Sense, published in 1776, had helped propel the colonies toward independence from England cannot be underestimated. Like Paine, Walker recognized the importance of claiming public voice through which to communicate with both black and white Americans, and the utility of using printed documents to do so.
In the third of the three editions of the Appeal printed in 1829, Walker drew explicit attention to the hypocrisy inherent in the founding documents of the United States. He recognized that this was one of the features of the Appeal that made it both audacious and unforgivable for its early nineteenth-century white audience. In an amendment to the fourth article of the text, Walker posed this rhetorical question: "Why do the Slave-holders or Tyrants of America and their advocates fight so hard to keep my brethren from receiving and reading my Book of Appeal? Why are the Americans so very fearfully terrified respecting my book?" Walker answers his own question later in the same amendment, referring to the very end of the Appeal where he quotes extensively from the Declaration of Independence: "Perhaps the Americans do their very best to keep my brethren from receiving and reading my `Appeal' for fear they will find in it an extract which I made from their Declaration of Independence, which says, `we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,' etc., etc., etc."
This direct reference to the Declaration of Independence is indeed one of the most aggressive aspects of Walker's document. Although the framers focused the Declaration of Independence around the words "All Men are Created Equal," they failed to include all men in their distinction. In fact, nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution do the authors refer to the people of African descent living in the new republic; the words "slave" and "slavery" are conspicuously absent from these documents. Instead, the issue of slavery-by all measures incompatible with the ideals of freedom and human equality expressed by the documents' framers-was cleverly disguised by what John Quincy Adams came to call "circumlocutions." What is ironic about the Appeal is that while Walker condemns the hypocrisy of America and considers white Americans responsible for corrupting the principles on which the nation was founded, his most bitter passages repudiate neither his native land, the United States, nor the republican principles on which the country was formed. Although he blames white Americans entirely for their racist attitudes and hypocritical failure to recognize those of African descent as their equals, he simultaneously heralds the words and principles laid out by the Declaration of Independence, wondering why white Americans do not seem to "understand [their] own language" (75). The extended argument on the issue of colonization, which forms the fourth article of the Appeal emphasizes the extent to which, however alienated he felt from the workings of the United States, Walker saw himself and sought to be considered by others as a citizen. His response to the "scheme" of "drain [ing] ... off" (46) the black population via African colonization underscores the fact that Walker considered Americans of African descent more deserving of recognition and full citizenship than white Americans. Quoting one of Philadelphia's oldest black religious leaders, Richard Allen, Walker asserts that blacks were "the first tillers of the land" (57): "This land which we have watered with our tears and with our blood, is now our mother country, and we are well satisfied to stay" (58).
Throughout the Appeal, Walker contrasts the sense of allegiance black Americans feel toward their "mother country" with their perceived distance or separation from it: rather than deserving citizens they are treated by white Americans as "brutes," "talking apes" (62), and "orang outangs" (10) who "ought to be SLAVES to the American people and their children forever" (7). The terms identified rhetorically by David Walker in his 1829 Appeal are analogous to those defined by the Supreme Court almost three decades later in the case of Scott v. Sanford more commonly known as Dred Scott. Were black people, the court would ask in 1857, "citizens or persons," or were they nonpersons, pieces of property no different from mules or horses? In contrast to the Court's finding that, free or slave, blacks could not be citizens of the United States within the meaning of the Constitution and were therefore entitled to "no rights which a white man was bound to respect," Walker observed in his Appeal that Americans of African descent were in fact the true "Americans" and more deserving of citizenship than their white countrymen. Given this status, albeit unacknowledged, Walker reminded blacks that they should be guided by the principles of civic responsibility: according to the Declaration of Independence, it was their "right" and "duty" to oppose unjust treatment and to stand as "new guards for their future security" (75). Although deprived as a group of the rights of citizenship, Walker's call for uprising is a call for blacks to nevertheless uphold the responsibilities of citizenship by protecting the republican principles on which the country was founded.
In particular, Walker's Appeal suggests the extent to which free blacks in the late 1820s maintained faith in the nation's founding documents; they were intent on asserting their right to citizenship according to these texts. Black Americans did not wait for legislative rulings to confirm their American identities. Increasingly, they claimed what they understood as their birthright in much the same way David Walker did: they adopted the language and habits of citizens. By illustrating their respect for the responsibilities of citizenship, free black Americans hoped to convince the white population that they were also deserving of its rights. They held up the revolutionary ideals of freedom, equality, and social justice to illustrate that their treatment was "in direct violation of the letter and spirit of [the] Constitution." Walker had hope for the future: "What a happy country this will be," he advised his readers toward the end of the Appeal, "if the whites will listen" (70).
Excerpted from Forgotten Readers by ELIZABETH McHENRY Copyright © 2002 by Duke University Press
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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