- A Response to Elizabeth McHenry
The many lengthy anthologies of African-American literature currently available for classroom instruction in the US obscure the prejudicial exclusion of African-American writers from the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century history of American print culture that Elizabeth McHenry's essay makes poignantly clear. Her argument for scrutinizing the unpublished articles, correspondence, and short stories of Mary Church Terrell as a means of developing a broader understanding of the racial politics at the root of editorial decisions at major literary journals of the day, such as Harper's Magazine, achieves two things. First, it proves the significance of print culture controlled by African Americans during that time as an alternate venue for defying the dominant racial ideologies and literary paradigms. Second, it prompts us to consider why even the few African-American writers published by the white literary establishment at the time were not recognized for the full body of their work.
As to the significance of the print culture controlled by African Americans, journalists such as T. Thomas Fortune, Phillip A. Bell, and Victoria Earle Mathews all gained their reading audiences via this route. Ida B. Wells, an activist and contemporary of Terrell, edited her own newspaper, The Free Speech, out of Memphis, Tennessee from 1890 to 1892. Wells initiated her anti-lynching campaign in her editorials and printed the first of many investigative reports on various lynchings that took place. She invoked the ire of local whites, who eventually destroyed her press. Then Wells co-authored and published a pamphlet titled The Reason Why the Colored American is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition (1893) that she and her co-authors [End Page 402] distributed at the Chicago exposition themselves. Her long crusade against lynching included an 1895 self-published book, A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892–1893–1894, that was 100 pages long. Black creative writers such as Thomas Detter, author of Nellie Brown; or, The Jealous Wife (1891), serialized novels in black newspapers. Pauline Hopkins published novels, short fiction, and historical articles in The Colored American Magazine between 1900 and 1904. Hopkins's most famous novel, Contending Forces, was serialized in The Colored American Magazine in 1900. The archives of black newspapers and journals provide the best history of African-American print culture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These writings by Wells and Hopkins in particular are not only scrutinized in literary studies, but also routinely included in anthologies of African-American literature available to us today. Hence, they are part of the American and African-American canon while the short stories and articles by Terrell that McHenry so carefully discusses are languishing, unread and untaught, in an archive.1
Late in her essay McHenry quickly surveys black writers who had limited publishing success in the American mainstream during the early twentieth century. Writers such as Charles Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Oscar Micheaux contended with the same "political demands and literary disappointments" as did Terrell. McHenry asks why Dunbar, the most popular African-American writer at the time, is recognized primarily for his poetry and not for the four novels he also published during the early twentieth century. I suggest two reasons for this. The first is the fact that Dunbar was celebrated for his Negro dialect poetry, what he called his "jingle in a broken tongue," at the expense of his more numerous poems written in standard English (907). Dunbar's dialect poetry and short stories depicted an idealized black life in the ante- and postbellum south. African Americans, portrayed as both quaint and content, were shown gathered around the hearth at home with family or intoning the talents of folk singers and rural black preachers. He gave Americans at the time a black version of the regional or local color point of view that white writers such as Irvin Russell and Joel Chandler Harris had introduced in the 1870s and 1880s, and that everyone yet craved in the 1890s. The dialect he invented for his poetry and short stories provided what passed for southern black cultural authenticity, though Dunbar himself was...