- Early Black American Writing and the Making of a Literature
In the first and apparently only article for an exploratory series in Frederick Douglass’ Paper (FDP) that promised to carry out “glances at our condition,” a contributor writing under the penname Dion took up the state of African American literature as his subject. Although he commended the work of slave poets Phillis Wheatley and George Moses Horton and praised “the eloquent breathings” of black orators, Dion ultimately concluded, “Still, colored American literature exists only, to too great an extent, in the vast realm of probability” (4). Writing for the September 23, 1853, issue of FDP, thus anticipating the publication of William Wells Brown’s so-called novel Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter in London by only a few weeks, he based this judgment on the interrelated encumbrances of slavery and its socio-cultural aftereffects, the lack of financial and technological wherewithal within black communities, and the shortage of institutions that trained African Americans in the virtues of belletrism. [End Page 553]
Despite these impediments, Dion maintained hope that the “coming literary glory of colored Americans” would arrive, but only if black writers, critics, and readers endeavored concertedly, as “a great number of co-workers,” to eradicate the racism of both the state and civil society as well as to facilitate the emergence of a sort of widespread black American “literary excellence” that would “remind the world of the days when dark-browed Egypt gave letters to Greece, and when the songs of Ethiopia—‘black skinned and wooly-haired’—[were] … at once the originators and conservators of science” (4). In other words, Dion called on African Americans “to produce and to consider their literature as a corporate enterprise” that was at once “instrumental” and “indexical,” as Kenneth Warren would describe it (What Was 18, 10–11). “Corporate enterprise” is the key phrase, here, because it suggests that the “literature” Dion sought could only materialize from the efforts of a collective both conscious of their collectivity and dedicated to their particular aims and sensibilities above those of everyone else. Thus, following Dion’s logic, a Wheatley or a Horton was too isolated to initiate a “literature” and too easily dismissed as exceptional, while texts such as slave narratives—which are notably absent from his essay—were too overdetermined by the affective and ideological demands of white readers to constitute a “colored American literature” (Dion 4).
Of course, it would be analytically and pedagogically faulty to dismiss the whole of black writing from before the 1850s as somehow unrelated or inconsequential to the production of an African American literature. Dion himself made sure to cite these efforts as evidence that the “lamp” of black literary genius that once “burned so brilliantly, had not yet entirely died out,” despite the “baleful maps of oppression [that] have sought to extinguish its flame” (4). Indeed, early black writers, both slave and free, modeled forms of authorial subjectivity that later African Americans would draw on to appeal to readers and audiences across racial difference. Within and from their works a “voice and a persona imbued with authority and standing” emerged, as historian Dickson D. Bruce argues, “taking a place in larger realms of discourse in American society” (ix). Bruce’s historicist study of black American writing before Emancipation is particularly suggestive vis-à-vis Dion’s “glance” at the same body of writing because both seem to be making a distinction, however unwittingly, between the origins of an enterprise (in this case, the making of a literature) and its beginnings. [End Page 554] (Bruce titles his book The Origins of African American Literature, 1680–1865.) An origin, as Edward Said has usefully conceptualized it, “is a latent state from which the beginnings of action move forward,” a “condition or state that permits beginning” (316...