Remembered (Black) Readers: Subscribers to the Christian Recorder, 1864–1865
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Remembered (Black) Readers:
Subscribers to the Christian Recorder, 1864–1865

The title of Elizabeth McHenry's landmark study of early black literary societies, Forgotten Readers (2002), aptly describes many nineteenth-century African Americans; "celebrations of the black oral tradition and black vernacular" have sometimes "unwittingly undermined historical evidence that points to a long and complex history of African Americans' literary interaction," not only "as readers of the 'canon' of European and European American authors but as creators and readers of their own literature as well" (6). Yet reducing early black literature to the oral and vernacular—a limiting, often unacknowledged critical synecdoche—only partly explains our inattention to black print culture. For Leon Jackson, "scholars of African American literature" and scholars "who study books as economic or material artifacts" have often not "listened to, or understood" each other ("Talking Book" 252). With few exceptions, historians of black literature have especially ignored the rich, complex periodical culture that nineteenth-century free blacks built.1

Literary historians have rarely asked how our canons, approaches, and assumptions might change if we considered black texts, including and beyond those bound between book covers, as material, circulating objects that reached actual black readers. McHenry rightly recognizes that "the paucity of extant records" has deeply limited such study, and most scholars of nineteenth-century American print culture face similar limitations (5). Ronald [End Page 229] Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray, for example, describe the general "scarcity of direct evidence about … historical readers" and the difficulty of asking "questions of 'dead informants'" (58, 60). Exacerbating these difficulties for students of black print is the implicit and explicit racism that aimed to essentialize or silence blackness. Thus we have failed to discuss, in general, how black authors, editors, and publishers interacted with readers both directly and indirectly—much less to explore just who those readers were. We have also failed to consider black readers and black texts within their "horizons of expectations," to use Hans Jauss's famous formation (23), or, in Janice Radway's more recent phrasing, as, "complex and contradictory social subjects buffeted by all manner of cultural discourses, historical traditions, and social trends" (336).

The few critics who consider African-American texts from composition through reception often focus on "hypothetical readers" or presumptive readers who "are conjectures based upon careful scrutiny of texts" (Zboray and Zboray 58).2 Some hypothetical creations have turned into later critics' operative assumptions. For example, we have long assumed that slave narratives were read by largely white audiences; though we have said little about the black press, we have similarly assumed it had black readers.3 Right or not, these assumptions lack verification, nuance, and context. As McHenry forcefully argues, nineteenth-century black "readers existed, and their trails are important—and possible—to establish" (8); the same can be said of the trails of various readerships of black-authored texts, trails we need to follow if we are to have a fuller sense of how African-American print fits into American literary landscapes.

While my essay began as an attempt to trace the readers of black texts—specifically through using published acknowledgments of subscriptions in the flagship periodical of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Christian Recorder, at the end of the Civil War—it eventually became clear that the result would also be a study of black readers, insofar as almost every subscriber located in this study was African American. To contextualize this finding—and the even more surprising evidence of geographic and class diversity—the project ultimately considered how the Recorder conceived of subscription, dissemination, readers, and reading. So I begin by examining what the Recorder said about its subscribers and about the acts of subscribing and gathering subscriptions; I then turn to the demographics of more than 400 of the subscribers from 1864 and especially 1865. Beyond sharing this material for its evidentiary value, I hope to advance the projects of refiguring reception studies, book history, African-American [End Page 230] literary history, and American literary history to include early black readers and to consider more fully the complications of producing and consuming black texts. To this end, I conclude by briefly reflecting on...