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A Lost World

The Colored Reading Society may have been absorbed into the Philadelphia Library Company of Colored Persons, begun in 1833 along the lines of the first public library, organized by Benjamin Franklin a century earlier. The Library Company made books available to its members at minimal cost, and sponsored a weekly lecture series. “Our Library Association is gaining strength every day,” James Forten Jr., a rich black sail-maker, reported in 1837.

Early reading societies provided education for a population that did not always have easy access to schools. New York’s Phoenix Society, founded in 1833, tried to be inclusive by opening its membership to the poorest blacks, setting its quarterly dues at “any sum” a person thought proper. Its schemes were ambitious: to establish a Manual Labour School and to make a register of every black in the city according to whether they could read, write, and “cipher.” McHenry quotes a letter from Samuel Cornish on the Phoenix Society’s progress to the Colonizationist and Journal of Freedom, explaining that in addition to lectures on “morals, economy, and the arts and sciences,” the Phoenix Society also had three reading classes of twenty-five to thirty people, with someone appointed “to read for one hour,” after which the classes discussed the subjects covered, “together with occurrences of the day, calculated to cultivate the mind and improve the heart.”

After the Phoenix Society went out of existence, there was a Phoenixonian Society in 1839 that sponsored public lectures on “Astronomy,” “Duty of Young Men,” “Patriots of the American Revolution,” and “Music—Its Practical Influence on Society.” There were members of such groups who couldn’t read.

But during the 1830s, mutual aid societies for black women in Philadelphia outnumbered those for men. Because their work was less well paid than that of black men, McHenry notes, their need for the “safety net” of such societies was greater. Whereas black men organized themselves formally, with the apparatus of constitutions and bylaws, women tended to meet in small groups in one another’s houses. These groups left little in the way of documents, apart from paid announcements of their meetings in black newspapers. Yet the Female Literary Association, founded in 1831, with an initial membership of about thirty, marked a departure in that it had its own constitution and appealed to abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison for support. A member likened their organization to Demosthenes’ vault, adding that “his eloquence was more dreaded…than all the fleets and armies of Athens.”

Like the reading societies of black men, the Female Literary Associa-tion had programs aimed at self-improvement. The group also kept a box to which members submitted papers anonymously. McHenry makes the point that the mask of anonymity, a common antebellum device, helped to free black women from socially imposed constraints. Among the examples of the radical political convictions that could be voiced anonymously or under a pseudonym, McHenry offers the writings of Sarah Forten, James Forten’s daughter. Writing as “Ada” and “Magawisca,” Forten also regularly contributed poetry to Garrison’s Liberator.

However, the case of the evangelist Maria Stewart, whose work—like many of the black women writers McHenry discusses—is known through the admirable series the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, shows the strong disapproval black women exposed themselves to, even from other black women, when they dropped the mask of anonymity and trespassed on ground reserved for men. Stewart, a friend and admirer of David Walker, made a public profession of her faith in Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, after Walker’s death and that of her husband. She regarded her social activism as a preacher as an expression of her religious devotion, though women preachers were not entirely welcome at the time. When Stewart addressed the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society of Boston in 1832, founded in 1831 with the stated purpose of disseminating knowledge, suppressing vice and immorality, and cherishing the virtues that would make black women happy and useful to society, not all its members appreciated her bold criticism of the black community for what she saw as its lax morals, dancing included.

Periodicals such as Freedom’s Journal, The Colored American, and Frederick Douglass’ Paper, like the literary associations, came into existence at a time of urban growth in the North in the Thirties. Like the societies, they helped to develop a black reading public. Black editors such as Cornish and Russwurm sought to counter the increasing influence of the ideology of white supremacy by arguing that blacks were being misrepresented in white newspapers.

The miscellaneous material of black newspapers that McHenry draws attention to—articles on spectacular accidents, English royalty, the proper burial of corpses, the egg trade in Ireland, Chinese fashions, and the consumption of grains in the United Kingdom—was meant to appeal to readers of all ages and abilities. One of New York’s Free African schools used Freedom’s Journal as a textbook. In its pages were announcements of educational opportunities for blacks and the promotion of literary study as an alternative to “idleness and moral decay.” Freedom’s Journal carried stories and satires meant to instill lessons of proper behavior. Moreover, it devoted many of its pages to biographical sketches of important blacks, like Toussaint L’Ouverture, and to articles about late-eighteenth-century black writers such as Ignatius Sancho, Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cuagono, and Phillis Wheatley, “our poetess.” Violence and oppression, David Walker wrote in Freedom’s Journal, ought to stimulate the study of literature among black people.

Freedom’s Journal closed down in 1829, but the Colored American eventually took its place in 1837, publicizing the meetings, debates, and lectures of literary societies to an even greater degree than had Freedom’s Journal. Literary societies in turn supported the political work of the Colored American. The New York Ladies Literary Society, for instance, held fairs and festivals for the benefit of the Amistad captives. By contrast, Frederick Douglass’s three antebellum newspapers, the North Star (1847–1851), Frederick Douglass’ Paper (1851–1858), and Douglass’ Monthly (1858– 1860), weren’t much interested in instructing readers, McHenry tells us. Instead, they catered to more sophisticated readers. McHenry concentrates on Douglass’s “literary objectives,” his attempts to make his pages “a forum for black writers” and “to advance the unprecedented idea of creative parity between black and white writers,” all of whom Douglass, inspired by Emerson, saw as forming what he called an “emerging national literature.” Reviews of slave narratives by Henry Box Brown, William Wells Brown, and Josiah Henson, for example, appeared in the North Star as well as a selection from Melville’s Typee, and a Hawthorne short story, “The Pine Tree Shilling.” Douglass printed Coleridge and Whittier alongside Frances Ellen Watkins, a black poet. Harper’s Monthly had an agreement to run Bleak House. Douglass had no such agreement, but ran Dickens’s novel as a serial in Frederick Douglass’ Paper anyway, in issues where the main feature was a discussion of Stowe’s sensation, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.2

There wasn’t much literary activity among blacks during the Civil War and Reconstruction, which is hard for historians to account for. McHenry herself picks up her study in the 1880s, with the founding of the Bethel Historical and Literary Association by Bishop Daniel Payne of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., in 1881, and the Boston Literary and Historical Society, begun in 1901, which included among its founders William Monroe Trotter, editor of the militant Boston Guardian. The Boston group had been founded to attack the influence of Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee machine. The question of Negro education was one of their main concerns as the advances of Reconstruction were being dismantled.

As racial violence toward blacks in the South spread and the nationwide campaign to make segregation legal gained momentum, blacks in the North found themselves under greater pressure. While the Washington group was interested in black history as a means of instilling race pride, the Boston society was strongly critical of the kind of American history being written at the time, whether by blacks or whites. McHenry quotes one member as complaining that the history of blacks in the US was being written by “persons afflicted with colorphobia.” It was “time for the colored people to form their own opinion of Abraham Lincoln,” the Boston group’s president, Archibald Grimké, argued in a controversial paper in 1901. Its members were also interested in international topics—“Is the Attitude of the Christian Nations toward the Chinese Justifiable?”—and other ethnic groups in the US: “Fact and Fiction Concerning the Jew.”

The Boston Literary Society mounted strenuous, sustained protests against D.W. Griffith’s racist film, The Birth of a Nation, when it had its première in 1915, a reflection, perhaps, of the influence of the Boston Guardian‘s editor. Class distinctions played a part with the Washington and Boston groups; the less well educated and articulate could be intimidated, but the common problems faced by blacks generally made these groups democratic in character. Both Booker T. Washington, the leading advocate of industrial training, and W.E.B. Du Bois, the champion of higher education, addressed these societies, which were by this time large institutions; their meetings were being attended by hundreds.

American culture was full of degrading images of black women, and mulattoes and educated blacks of both sexes were especially targeted in the national literature. McHenry discusses the contradiction in black women’s accepting literature by whites as “real” literature while viewing African-American literature as somehow outside that, but being interested in it all the same. They took to Paul Laurence Dunbar after William Dean Howells “discovered” him, but black women in black literary societies were pioneering relativists, and encouraged one another to form their own critical values.


Victoria Earle Matthews, author of Aunt Lindy (1893; a novel not in the Schomburg series), delivered an address at the First Congress of Colored Women in Boston in 1895. In “The Value of Race Literature,” Matthews argued that blacks would benefit from the prestige of literary culture, that they could defeat the degrading stereotypes of blacks in US culture through literature, and that literature by blacks would foster greater race consciousness and race pride.

Matthews herself was educated in part by the lectures she attended in New York while working as a domestic. The “rich literary” heritage Matthews cited included Wheatley, Cornish, Russwurm, Douglass, Grimké, Trotter, as well as contemporary women, such as Ida B. Wells, the famous anti-lynching journalist. One of the things Forgotten Readers shows is that the African-American literary past that we tend to think of as recently rediscovered has been lost and found more than once.

Black women’s service and literary clubs spread throughout the country as an educated and middle-class black population rose in various cities. There is a touching moment in which McHenry describes a “Kipling Evening” down in Tuskegee, Alabama, with each member offering a quote from the chronicler of empire.

McHenry points out that one motive in the founding of some of these black women’s literary groups was that black women were expressly excluded not only from white feminist societies but also from the American Negro Academy, a learned society founded in Washington, D.C., in 1897. Indeed, McHenry’s book extends or answers two important studies, The American Negro Academy: Voice of the Talented Tenth, by Alfred A. Moss Jr. (1981) and The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850–1925, by Wilson J. Moses (1978), that don’t have much about black women. Literacy was important to the black women’s club movement, as Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham demonstrates in Righteous Discontent: Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920 (1993). In fact it is black women’s history that McHenry mostly addresses in the end. She sympathizes with the clubwoman Mary Church Terrell’s frank disappointment expressed in her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World (1940), that she never became a short-story writer, because of the demands of public service on her time; and with the poet Georgia Douglas Johnson, the host of a literary salon, the Saturday Nighters, in Washington, D.C., in the 1920s, during the Harlem Renaissance, who became melancholy in her old age that her slight gift for lyric poetry did not amount to a larger career for her, she who knew and helped everybody back when, from Du Bois to Jean Toomer.

There is such a thing as the mystery of talent. McHenry mentions Charlotte Forten Grimké, James Forten’s granddaughter, only once, because the writing that claims our attention, her Journals, was not published until 1953, and then not all of it. Women’s groups in her time would have known her as an essayist and poet. In The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké,3 Forten talks about her sewing circle in Salem, Massachusetts, in the 1850s that read Adam Bede as it came out. Forten, who was often ill and suffered from her poor relations with her father, went south during the Civil War to teach the freedmen in South Carolina in 1862—one hundred blacks of different ages in one room. She left an unforgettable description of the celebrations when the Emancipation Proclamation was read out.

Forten became friendly with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, met Colonel Robert Shaw and Harriet Tubman, and seems to have fallen in love with a visiting Boston friend, Dr. Seth Rogers. She went riding with him in the moonlight. Around there her journal breaks off. She perhaps suffered a nervous breakdown, because of what was not possible. Dr. Rogers was married, not to mention white, and did not return her feelings. When her last known journal begins years later, she is the tight-laced wife of Francis Grimké, a Presbyterian minister. In Patriotic Gore (1962), Edmund Wilson, after praising Mary Chesnut for her bravery because she spit on a Union officer, dismisses Forten as a yearning Boston girl who wanted culture but couldn’t understand it, she who translated Corinne, worshiped Emerson and Whittier, thought herself ugly, spent her days in sewing, attending lectures, looking at paintings, reading widely, “thinking very sadly,” and finally sent herself to a battle zone to teach.

Forgotten Readers makes the point that so much emphasis has been placed on the importance of oral culture in black life that we forget how much learning to read and write meant to black people, how they longed to appear as themselves in American literature. Sutton Griggs, the turn-of-the-century black novelist, who wrote deliberately for a black, rather than a white, audience, warned that in order to succeed as a race, black people had to “move up out of the age of voice.”

  1. 2

    For a recent discussion of Douglass as an editor, see John Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Harvard University Press, 2002).

  2. 3

    Oxford University Press, 1988.

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