- Accessing Early Black Print
My contribution to the 2014 mla roundtable from which this forum grew centered on the word “access,” treating it capaciously and moving from questions of digitization and the preparation of editions to broad questions of praxis. In this Legacy forum I reiterate some of my arguments, update others, and emphasize how those arguments apply especially to Black women’s histories, texts, and places in print culture studies. Now as then, much that I have to say expresses worry and sometimes anger, but, as I did at the roundtable, I want to open with a moment of joy. Drafting the original piece, I snuck time to read the Legacy tributes to Frances Smith Foster and was especially enriched by Elizabeth Engelhardt’s “Cultivate Your Look of Astonished Disdain: Seven Mentoring Lessons from Frances Smith Foster.” “Lesson #3” is “The stakes are too high for us to be bored or boring.” “At the end of … [Foster’s] classes,” Engel-hardt writes, “the lesson was becoming clear. This stuff matters too much to waste time. And we have to do it together” (233–34). This moment remains my primer on access—a broad and expansive “we,” a real sense of duty, and a recognition that with access comes immense responsibility.
Digitization has, of course, changed not only the approaches and some of the focal texts of African American literary study but also the very concept of “access.” The North American Slave Narratives project (nasn) on the Documenting the American South website (one of William L. Andrews’s greatest gifts to the field) remains a beacon. It is free, usable with even a slow Internet connection, carefully planned and executed, and rich in rare resources. It makes selective images available and provides some limited apparatus. Further, what might simply seem a massive collection is actually a powerful argument for the diversity of the genre.1
But “digital” does not mean accessible, and far too few of our resources are available even through venues like the nasn project. Try, for example, to find a single early issue of the Christian Recorder online without a subscription to Accessible Archives. If you are at a Research I institution, visit the database page of a regional comprehensive university or a small liberal arts college and imagine doing your work—our work—with the resources many academics actually have. Better yet, visit a handful of public libraries in diverse neighborhoods [End Page 25] and see how many make available the Black Abolitionist Papers, the Black Biographical Dictionaries project, or the Chadwyck-Healey African American poetry collection, to say nothing of the newer historical Black newspaper projects from vendors like ProQuest and ebsco. I submit that if we rediscover wonderful texts and only twenty or even two thousand individuals can access them, we have failed—especially if those twenty or two thousand are only at locations that still have significant library budgets.
These issues are particularly important to African American women’s literature. Even as we are beginning to understand that Black and/or abolitionist periodicals often provided the best and sometimes only venues for early Black writers, we have barely begun to confront the fact that such venues were all the more important for Black women, who were generally denied print participation even more than Black men were. Even the small number of Black women able to create and/or find opportunities for book publication often relied heavily on periodicals. Consider, for example, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s single novel originally published between boards and her three novels serialized in the African Methodist Episcopal Church newspaper. Or think of exciting rediscovered writers like Lizzie Hart and Edmonia Goodelle Highgate, who seem to have published only in periodicals. While select projects have allowed scholars to begin to consider such writers, their work will never be widely accessible until we honestly explore alternative recovery and distribution methods and learn the lessons that the nasn project has been teaching for years. Similarly, almost all of the ongoing “big data” projects tied to nineteenth-century American literature will continue to ignore or dismiss Black voices (especially Black women’s voices) until their data sets have wider and...