- Misinformation and Fluidity in Print Culture; or, Searching for Sojourner Truth and Others
Let me note at the outset that I am limiting my comments to nineteenth-century print culture, although this forum extends beyond the period I usually study. One of the questions we entertained for this exchange was, “How might a renewed attention to the lived experiences of individuals enrich a focus on printed materials?” When I reviewed the questions to write these remarks, I realized that I really don’t care whether my focus on printed materials is enriched in any way. It seems plenty rich as it is. What matters more to me is what happens when you turn this question around and ask, “How might renewed attention to the whole of print materials, and not just the relative handful of texts generally studied, enrich our understanding of the lived experiences of individual African Americans?” The answer, of course, is that we need to get into the complexities of print culture if we are ever to make any real progress in recovering African American history and doing justice to the lived experiences of individual African Americans in the nineteenth century.
Of course, our studies will take us into a great deal of misinformation, which is why we need to attend to a broad range of printed materials. Sojourner Truth remains, ironically, a great example of the importance of print culture study, in part because she reminds us of the dangers of relying on a small sampling of texts in our search for the eloquence or the pure discursive power of the past. It is difficult, after all, to imagine an understanding of African American literary history that does not include Sojourner Truth—usually by way of a speech or two, sometimes by way of the Narrative—but Truth herself never wrote a word. One can note, of course, that the Narrative was written and edited by those close to her, which is largely how we have approached Truth, at least when we have dealt with mediating circumstances at all. More often, trusting the narrative, we have simply praised Truth for asking famously “Ar’n’t I a Woman?” and for asking Frederick Douglass, “Frederick, is God dead?” But a broader study of print culture reveals that Truth probably did not ask that particular feminist question, at least not in the speech for which she is famous for asking it. And as for her challenging question to Douglass, one source places that confrontation in 1847, another in 1850, another in 1852, another in 1859, and another in [End Page 22] 1863, and the locations for the confrontation range widely—from an antislavery meeting in Salem, Ohio, to the sidewalk in front of the White House just after Douglass met with President Lincoln. Do such complications matter? I think so. Both the feminist and the religious significance of Truth’s life and thought are more complicated but ultimately more powerful when we directly confront the challenge of recovering her presence from the past, for we are then forced to reflect on ourselves as we reflect on her—which is, by my account, a lesson Truth tried to teach throughout her career.
As Truth’s example suggests, even for those who claim to approach individual African American lives with care, it is apparently tough to get things right. Negotiating the labyrinths of print culture, in fact, is very much what a great deal of African American print culture is about. This was quite clear in the 1827 editorial that defined the mission of the first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal. “We wish to plead our own cause,” the editorial announced, for
too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly, though in the estimation of some mere trifles; for though there are many in society who exercise towards us benevolent feelings; still (with sorrow we confess it) there are others who make it their business to enlarge upon the least trifle, which tends to the discredit of any person of color; and pronounce anathemas and denounce our whole body for the misconduct of...