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  • Beyond Recovery:A Process Approach to Research on Women in Early African American Print Cultures
  • Barbara McCaskill

At the end of a busy fall semester at my university, one of my undergraduates, a biracial student descended from enslaved Africans, asked me to evaluate a photograph from the early African American archives. Like many of us, her extended family in the deep South stays in touch through postings on a group Facebook page. One of her aunts had generated considerable excitement among these Facebook devotees after sharing a capture of an antebellum photograph. The black-and-white image presented a hatless, lightly tanned man in a dark suit, seated beside a dark-skinned woman in a plaid frock, with a toddler who looked all of two or three years old clinging shyly to her knee.

More than the image, it was the image’s backstory that inspired family members to drench this post with emoticons like the cheers cascading from celebrants at an sec football game. The aunt had claimed to be in possession of a photograph of one of the family’s earliest known ancestors: an enslaved African American woman, Ella Webb, whose lifelong object of affection had been her white owner’s son Edward. According to the story, in order to attain the happiness and bliss that follow marriage to the desire of one’s heart, Edward had willingly accepted the fates of disinheritance by his family and rejection by the scions of the bayou country’s planter classes.1 With my student’s permission, I shared the photograph with three colleagues at my institution: a Civil War historian, a historian of southern cultures, and an expert in textiles and fashion design who specializes in African and African American clothing. Based on the couple’s attire and the quality of the image, we quickly debunked my student’s claims of Civil War–era attribution, even though the romantic companion story may eventually prove true. It was also unlikely, we concluded, that a deep South, pre–Civil War pair of intimates, where one person was black and the other white, would risk bodily harm to themselves and their families by sitting together for the shoot, unless they were a black mammy and the white child she was raising. Images of mixed-race couples were so taboo that even after the Civil War, for example, Ellen Craft, a black woman who had passed [End Page 12] as a southern white man in order to escape slavery, and her darker-skinned husband, William Craft, left behind no known images of themselves posed together as man and wife.2

What seemed at first disappointing, however, led to a spirited discussion of how the “tangled skeins” that “are the genealogies of slavery,” as Harriet Jacobs described them in her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861),3 have informed narratives of community, legacy, loss, survival, passing, and social mobility in the oral histories of African American families. Similarly, they have informed such nineteenth-century American literary productions as Julia C. Collins’s Curse of Caste; or, The Slave Bride (1865) and Frederick Douglass’s best-selling Narrative (1845), as well as twenty-first-century works like Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece’s Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery (2009) and Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall: Poems (2012). This conversation left me with a renewed sense of pride and exhilaration for the work that scholars do and have done to think about early African American print cultures, particularly what this record tells us about the lives and loves of African American women like Ella. Our scholarship on early African American women has been enriched by our analysis of their appearances in visual as well as textual productions: engravings, photographs, books, pamphlets, broadsides and circulars, newspapers, serial publications, and unpublished manuscripts from diaries to journals to scrapbooks. We have also closed gaps in our knowledge of what these women thought and did by studying printers, their presses and publishing houses, and the editors, subscription agents, and readers who consumed and circulated what they printed. Notwithstanding Daniel Murray’s bibliographical research for the American Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition,4 and early educational attempts by periodicals...


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