- Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature
Eric Gardner's latest book continues the task he began in Jennie Carter: A Black Journalist of the Early West (2007) of documenting the presence of African American literature in Unexpected Places, whether those places be textual (periodicals) or geographic (the American frontier). That we don't expect to find African American literature in these places suggests the narrowness of our approaches, a privileging of the "bound book" in literary studies, an emphasis on northeastern and southeastern population [End Page 211] centers in African American studies, an inflexibility in Western American studies as to what constitutes "the West" and as to which groups' experiences count as representative of westernness (7).
Print culture was extraordinarily important to nineteenth-century African Americans. The press provided a means of political activism and served to connect disparate groups of black communities into a "metaphorical black nation within a nation" (18). Gardner's study focuses primarily on black-owned newspapers (and on articles, letters, poems, and fiction published in those periodicals) located in places such as St. Louis, Indianapolis, and San Francisco. The black periodical press in the nineteenth century was "the central publication outlet for many black writers," and ignoring this rich archive of material has led literary studies to "define the landscape of nineteenth-century black literature as much, much narrower than it really was" (10, 7).
Gardner also suggests that applying a contemporary understanding of the American West has prevented us from fully considering the western-ness of nineteenth-century texts. Black writers challenged antebellum "depictions of St. Louis as the gateway to the West (and thus to America's future)" via visions of St. Louis as "a 'gateway' to the heart of slavery" (25). Thus, the concept of St. Louis as a specifically western place was an important element of anti-slavery rhetoric. And whether or not we currently think of Indiana as part of the American West, writers for the Indianapolis-based Repository in the 1850s certainly thought of themselves as westerners. In an apostrophe to the newspaper itself, editor John Mifflin Brown writes, "Go thou, then, into every family, and soar not above the humble cabins of thy own native West; visit the frontier settler, and make his home the place of cheer" (63–64).
While Gardner may "unexpectedly" place St. Louis and Indianapolis in the West, he also visits more expected western places, including postbellum California newspapers such as the San Francisco Elevator and the Pacific Appeal, which together "articulated a sense of the West as a center of black citizenship" (94). The Elevator in particular brought together "writers spread throughout the state of California, and writers throughout the larger West—from Thomas Detter in the Idaho Territory to a group of correspondents in black British Columbia," joined by the shared task of creating a specifically black western identity, and guided by an editor, Philip Bell, who "placed a clear emphasis on the black West and specifically black California" (113, 114). This chapter alone makes Unexpected Places essential reading for scholars of the American West. [End Page 212]