Guest Editors’ Introduction: African American Print Cultures
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Guest Editors’ Introduction:
African American Print Cultures

I loved doing the book [The Black Book]. And, like the race, it drove me to distraction. But it was a true labor of love. Black people from all over helped with it, called about things to put in it. And, as of this writing, nobody has seen all of it together but me, the designer, the production man (who is Black) and the printer (who is Black).

[We have] to reconsider how we have tended to define “African-American literature” or “African-American print culture” and whether these definitions provide the appropriate depth and complexity. Much of the archival work and reprints upon which we rely in African-American literary studies today came during the Black Aesthetic period of the late 1960s and ’70s.

Toni Morrison’s words in the epigraph above delineate some of the multiple people and practices associated with the production and promotion of a single publication. Her words speak to various and imbricated cultures employed by an author interested in producing and promoting a book, a black book, THE Black Book, directing herself to the majority black readership of Black World magazine. When she wrote “Behind the Making of The Black Book” in 1974, Morrison was working as an editor at Random House, a white-owned publishing house; her metanarrative, then, assures readers that she was mindful about employing the services of a black “production man” and a black printer. Although her exclusion of a racial signifier for the book’s designer could suggest that this person was not black, there is no disputing that she had deliberately involved black professionals in the production of The Black Book and was now reassuring the readers of Black World of that deliberate choice. Morrison’s essay ran under a byline noting that she was a former teacher at Howard University [End Page 1] (a notably black space) and author of the novels The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1973). Her essay, the byline concluded, “gives the perspective from which this unusual pictorial history of Black America evolved” (86). That perspective was indisputably rooted in a black consciousness. Morrison’s affiliations—Howard University professor; published novelist; Random House editor professionally aligned with a designer, black production man, and black printer; and contributor to an African American pictorial history—signal the many cultural dynamics concerning the production of a single black book.

Following Morrison’s lead of promoting the involvement of African Americans in various aspects of textual and book production, we use this space to advocate for black print culture studies as, at minimum, a component of all black literary and culture studies. We define black print culture and African American print culture as descriptors of a broad, diverse range of transactions and products concerning the contributions of black people across the range of proficiencies and expertise needed for the composition, illustration, publishing, printing, binding, typesetting, pricing, distribution, circulation, promotion, consumption, and reception of texts—and black print culture studies refers to primarily academic scholarship devoted to these matters. We are interested in such matters as textual copyrights and authorial property ownership, especially given diasporic black people’s embodied experience as involuntary chattel property. This special issue is invested in black print and other materialities and in black people’s involvement in the realization of those material cultures. Along with P. Gabrielle Foreman, we know that “African American expression is increasingly essential to our developing narratives about, and productions of, print and digital cultures.”

The diverse essays in this special issue demonstrate that black print and material cultures have been around an extraordinarily long time and that black people’s self-determined involvement in black liberatory practices is as old as the African practice of deconstructing and reconstructing slavery sale and fugitive slave ads. The essays here present compelling reasons for increased scholarship on black print cultures as primary subjects of research and teaching, to sustain and expand an epistemological tradition that includes James McCune Smith’s “Report of the Committee on a National Press,” appended to the minutes of the 1847 National Convention of Colored...