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American Literary History 17.4 (2005) 714-740
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A Narrative of the Interesting Origins and (Somewhat) Surprising Developments of African-American Print Culture
Frances Smith Foster
I titled my essay "A Narrative . . . " because I do not propose to offer a definitive or comprehensive survey of origins or of development. I am contributing a story designed to complement others that are often unacknowledged as incomplete but are, nonetheless, merely versions or portions of a much larger and longer story, one that may not ever be entirely recounted. As a matter of principle, I am leery of claims to "comprehensive" or "definitive" narratives. Stories—especially, histories—require facts or observations and conclusions that are then selected, organized, and emphasized. If, as is generally the case, two participants in the same event have differing details and interpretations of something which transpired less than a day or even an hour before, why should we think that one narrative is "the truth" and the other is not? In print culture studies, the problem of constructing a definitive history is compounded, for, with newspapers, magazines, and other ephemeral literature, complete data sets are rarely extant. With African-American texts, as with other cultural materials produced by and for other devalued groups, so much has already been lost, gone astray, or been stolen that complete restoration is impossible. Even the seemingly simple task of creating an inventory of extant nineteenth-century newspapers and periodicals seems an existential endeavor. Nonetheless, recent research has built upon earlier attempts to identify an unprecedented number of titles and the locations of far more extant copies than many would have suspected possible.1 One result is that it is increasingly clear that popular notions of the origins of African-American print culture generally and of the African-American press in particular are incomplete, inaccurate, and, in some cases, misleading and [End Page 714] mistaken. My narrative is an attempt to complement, complicate, and challenge popular concepts about the ways in which African-American literary production began and developed by highlighting roles of language, religion, and organization in defining and developing an African-American press.2
This is a précis of my "Narrative of . . . Origins." Once upon a time long ago in North America, a literate people of African descent lived and promulgated their own print culture. They did this primarily to speak to and for themselves about matters they considered worthy of written words. They did this also in response to their own felt needs to record and to refine their own organizational activities and community developments. These groups (and individuals in these groups) wrote and published organizational documents: constitutions and bylaws, minutes of meetings, convention resolutions, lectures, and commemorations. They wrote and published poems, songs, eulogies, and essays in broadside, pamphlet, periodical, and book forms. These people of African descent were concerned about slavery and the slave trade, but these were not their only, nor always their primary, issues. They also worked to communicate physical and metaphysical realities and to develop their moral, spiritual, intellectual, and artistic selves. They wrote about civil rights, economic enhancement, love, and marriage. The most consistent and influential element in the first century of African-American literary production was Afro-Protestantism, an organic synthesis of African, European, and new-world theologies, traditions, and exigencies that was as much political as personal. Early African-American print culture, which is virtually synonymous with the Afro-Protestant press, informed and influenced not only those who were literate but also those to whom its publications were read or reported. In fact, many of those who participated—sometimes centrally—in the promulgation of print culture were not themselves able to read or able to write. They could, however, think and speak, listen and learn. And this was all that was necessary.
The people of African descent used their print culture to help reinvent themselves as African Americans and to construct African America. As scholars such as Michael A. Gomez, in Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and...