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A Lost World

1.

In 1829, in Boston, David Walker, a free black, published privately his impassioned Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and very Expressly to Those of the United States of America. Intended to prove that blacks were suffering a worse degradation under Christian Americans than the children of Jacob ever had under heathen Pharaoh, Walker’s pamphlet, reprinted three times before his sudden death in 1830, was regarded by whites in the North as well as in the South as the most incendiary denunciation of slavery yet to be found in the United States:

Have they not, after having reduced us to the deplorable condition of slaves under their feet, held us up as descending originally from the tribes of Monkeys or Orang-Outangs?… Has Mr. Jefferson declared to the world, that we are inferior to the whites, both in the endowments of our bodies and of minds?

Blacks must refute Jefferson’s charges themselves, and not depend on whites, however friendly to the cause of black freedom, because Jefferson’s words were “as great a barrier to our emancipation as any thing that has ever been advanced against us.”

In his introduction to a recent edition of Walker’s Appeal,1 Sean Wilentz tells us that Walker was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, maybe in 1796. His father was enslaved, but Walker’s status derived from his free mother. Walker could read and write by the time he left Wilmington, and during his wanderings around the Appalachian West and parts of the South he discovered how precarious a free black’s position could be. But in the early nineteenth century, Charleston, South Carolina, had a strong free black community and a powerfully organized independent denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was in Charleston that Denmark Vesey conceived his conspiracy, in which he tried to create a black army to take over the city, involving thousands of black people. The plot was uncovered in 1822 and thirty-nine of the plotters were executed.

Wilentz says that although it is impossible to be certain, Walker may have had a part in Vesey’s insurrectionary plans. Though he refers in his own pamphlet specifically to blacks in Northern cities who spy on other blacks and betray runaways, some knowledge of the perils of planning antislavery activities perhaps lay behind Walker’s remark that he wished “the coloured people” were more of Moses’ disposition, “instead of courting favor with, and telling news and lies to our natural enemies, against each other—aiding them to keep their hellish chains of slavery upon us.” He reminds his “brethren” that Hannibal could have stormed Rome had Carthage not been “dis-united.”

Walker was in Boston in 1825, working among small shopkeepers as a used clothes dealer, and by 1828 he was a member of the leading black institutions in the city—the May Street Methodist Church, the Prince Hall African Masonic Lodge, the Massachusetts General Colored Association—and became close to many other antislavery agitators. He was made the Boston agent for Freedom’s Journal, the first African-American newspaper in the country, founded in 1827 in New York City by John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish.

Freedom’s Journal often attacked the American Colonization Society, an organization founded by whites in 1816 to emancipate blacks and remove them to Africa. But however useful the paper was, Wilentz says, Walker wanted to give a more extended account of slavery’s consequences than could be found in a newspaper. Walker may have had insurrectionary plans in mind, but because he was never arrested the extent of his antislavery activities will remain unknowable. In any case, Walker was at least able to distribute in the South some kind of provocative incitement to the blacks there. He did it through his clothing business and his reliable customers—sailors, the international “deep-sea proletariat” of the nineteenth century. Dangerous ideas could travel the same channels as stolen goods, Wilentz observes. Sympathetic sailors could carry batches of printed material sewn into their clothing. In some Southern cities, black seamen were put under watch.

Secretly carried to Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans, and, from their wharves, up river, even, so Walker would have hoped, into the hinterland, went his hectoring, bold message of reason and defiance, a work unprecedented in abolitionist literature. Walker not only makes use of the Bible to condemn the “barbarous cruelties” of slavery and the white Christian churches that used the Bible to justify slavery, he says that he has for years been “troubling the pages of historians” to ascertain what his forebears could have done to white Americans to deserve their labor under the lash in the fields and down the mines in order to make them rich. He thinks of the Helots under Sparta, of the modern Greeks and the Irish newly come to America, laments the condition of blacks, but insists that black people must not allow oppression to hinder their development. After all, “learning” originated in Africa and was “carried thence” to Greece.

Walker’s rhetoric is heated, but his examples are concrete: relating what he saw during his years in the South; scorning those free blacks who claimed to be content in “low employments”; analyzing a speech by Henry Clay in favor of sending free blacks, but not enslaved blacks, to Liberia; or decrying articles in pro-colonization newspapers such as the African Repository and Colonial Journal, which presented black people as “throat-cutters in the world.”

Though Walker was remembered after Reconstruction as a hero by former black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and John Mercer Langston, his name is not in late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century works by blacks devoted to Negro achievement and the progress of the race. However, Benjamin Quarles and John Hope Franklin, black historians who came along around World War II, and Herbert Aptheker and Eric Foner, white historians of radicalism in the US, recognized Walker’s place in the change of the nineteenth-century abolition movement from gradualism to militancy. Walker also mattered to black militants of the 1960s, including the new generation of black historians. David Walker is Nat Turner’s herald and a founder of the protest tradition in Vincent Harding’s There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America (1981). Harding says that the advent of David Walker and Freedom’s Journal raised an important question: “What is the role of the word—the spoken word, the preached word, the whispered-in-the-nighttime word, the written word, the published word—in the fight for black freedom?”

In Harding’s history “the word” is the medium through which blacks confronted their captors. By “the word,” Walker challenged the slaveholders with a messianic call to resistance and holy crusade. Much of the anti-insurrection legislation then passed was either aimed at or took account of the dangers in Walker’s pamphlet. After it began to circulate in the South, Harding notes, four black men were arrested in New Orleans, as was a black preacher in Savannah, and a free black man in Richmond, Virginia, who was carrying thirty copies of the pamphlet. A group in Georgia offered a thousand dollars in reward for Walker’s death. The climate of revolt from Virginia to Louisiana had whites on edge, resulting in legislation in several slave states that made it illegal to teach free or enslaved blacks to read or write and that made it unlawful for free black peddlers to sell their wares outside the counties in which they resided. Ships were searched when they reached the South and in 1830 a white steward was found guilty of seditious libel for distributing copies of the Appeal, fined one thousand dollars, and sentenced to a year in prison.

But when Walker urges his “brethren” to read the laws of Virginia or North Carolina designed to obstruct blacks at every turn, when he urges them to buy Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia and to put it in the hands of their sons, so that they can see what the best of American minds thought of blacks and from that imagine what ordinary or inferior American minds must think of blacks—to whom is he speaking? “Men of colour, who are also of sense, for you particularly is my APPEAL designed.” He tells them to go to work and enlighten their brethren, which could be accomplished through the dissemination of education and religion.

The “fate of the word” is now spoken of as “History of the Book,” a social and intellectual history that has scholars shifting their attention from “writers and the texts they produce,” as Elizabeth McHenry puts it in Forgotten Readers, “to readers and the context in which literary texts are received and read.” Walker’s Appeal holds a place of honor in McHenry’s survey of the literary societies and reading practices of African-Americans between 1830 and 1940 because his sense of his audience informs her definition of literacy as she applies it to blacks in antebellum culture. She includes as readers those blacks whom Walker encouraged his brethren to enlighten, those whom Harding imagined being whispered to in the night.

2.

Early black literary societies, largely male, grew from “Free African Societies,” mutual aid groups, and relief organizations in the North, the earliest of which was founded in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1770. Another was formed in Philadelphia in 1787, and Boston had its own by 1796. These societies collected dues, provided for the needy and the sick, shared their experiences as outcasts, published letters and petitions about the concerns of free blacks, and campaigned for burial grounds for blacks. Their written constitutions reflected the language of the US Constitution.

These efforts at self-determination coincided with a deterioration of the conditions for free blacks. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 had led to an increase in kidnappings, and free blacks were beginning to lose the vote in those places where they had had the franchise. The number of mutual aid societies among black women as well as black men continued to grow in the 1820s and 1830s, and in the hardening racist reality of emerging Jacksonian capitalism, giving to blacks a “learned” public voice. They began to train future orators and leaders by sponsoring debates among themselves. Such activities, McHenry writes, took on an atmosphere of resistance, because the mental inferiority of blacks was a fundamental tenet of chattel slavery in the US. Mutual aid societies were anxious to show that blacks were respectable and capable citizens.

Members of the Colored Reading Society of Philadelphia, organized in 1828, met once a week to return and receive books from their librarian, and adopted a course of study that they hoped would not only enable them to amass knowledge but also to discipline their minds, form habits of accurate thinking, and acquire a facility for analysis. The cultivation of taste meant paying attention to belles-lettres, criticism, composition, pronunciation, style, and “everything included in the name of eloquence.” They studied the classics, “our best English writers,” the laws of Pennsylvania, and the subject of “Ancient Modern and Ecclesiastical History.” The society subscribed to two newspapers, Genius of Universal Emancipation and Freedom’s Journal.

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.

3.

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. 1

    Hill and Wang, 1995.

  2. 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).

  3. 3

    Oxford University Press, 1988.

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