- To Make an Old Century New
A decade has passed since Elizabeth McHenry declared in this journal’s pages that “the more we know about the range of activities and strategies of resistance used by early black Americans as they worked toward a society that was both multiracial and equal increases the accuracy and sophistication of American cultural history.”1 McHenry’s 2002 book, Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies, elaborates upon her earlier claim and now five new studies of nineteenth-century African American literature and history continue to broaden our knowledge of early black Americans and African American culture through the recovery of forgotten or neglected writings.2 All five, in different yet compatible ways, document and supplement the turn away from vernacular and oral forms of African American expression that were once central to the formation and study of African American culture. [End Page 1001]
It was after all the “discovery” of black spirituals in the mid-nineteenth century, as Jon Cruz explains in Culture on the Margins (1999), “that helped to install the modern hermeneutical orientation toward cultural practices” (3). Although it was Frederick Douglass who first noted the importance of the spirituals to the formation of the black community, it was not until the twentieth century that they became the focus of cultural study. Renaming the form “sorrow songs” in his 1903 study The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B Du Bois situated them at the center of American history and culture. That claim would be echoed by the unnamed protagonist of James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, who devotes himself to recovering and transcribing the songs of rural southern blacks in his attempt to “catch the spirit of the Negro in his relatively primitive state.”3 Though developed during the nineteenth century as a response to the social and economic conditions of slavery, black religious music as an authentic form of African American culture was largely a twentieth-century phenomenon.
Most notable is the work of Houston Baker and Henry Louis Gates, which has illuminated both the meaning and significance of the black vernacular to African American literature and cultural production. Partially influenced by the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Baker and Gates’s theories of African American literature rely on oral forms, particularly music, to understand not only the meaning of what Gates calls “the black text,” but also the relationship between white and black forms of American culture. While relying on written texts, these critics helped to broaden the idea of literature to include vernacular forms of cultural expression rooted in slave experience. Hence, the formation of an African American literary canon that begins with spirituals, slave narratives, sermons, and folktales.
That twentieth-century idea of the black vernacular has been slowly eclipsed in the twenty-first century by an emphasis on print culture, or what Wilson J. Moses calls “a literate tradition.”4 Focusing instead on a wide variety of forms of print culture that include not just novels, poems, and plays but also periodicals and legal cases, all five authors reviewed here share McHenry’s desire to dispel “the myth of the monolithic black community” by expanding our knowledge of early forms of black print culture (15). Recovering and...