- Black Atlas: Geography and Flow in Nineteenth-Century African American Literature by Judith Madera
Simply put: Black Atlas flows.
It is not narratively or conceptually simplistic—far from it. Rather, the flow of Black Atlas surfaces by way of a consistent unmooring of static meanings of geography. Adroitly, Madera conducts readers through fluid valences of locale, terrain at once domestic, international, human, and economic. Indeed, by volume’s end, one grasps that territory is discursive and ideological, yet material and felt. In Black Atlas, milieu defies scale, while at the same time directly mediating architecture and aesthetics. Setting is productive and participatory.
Further, land articulates a set of relationships in the nineteenth century: between the United States, Mexico, and Central America; in and between Caribbean sites such as Cuba and Haiti; and between West Africa, the Niger Valley, and Canada. Problematizing dominant space versus place binaries as well as exclusionary, temporal attributes of space, Madera traces the ways black authors have troubled normative topographic distinctions embedded in North/South and industry/agriculture, as well as in legal domains such as that created by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Even the boundaries of relatively invariable entities such as antique maps exist in flux. Black Atlas flows.
Foregrounding novels, travelogues, black serials, and national maps published in the period from 1849 to 1900, Madera engages process geography and close reading methodologies to interrogate “spaces of dissension” (following Michel Foucault) and “nonrepresentational geographies” (following Bruno Latour) as they traverse broad cultural debates on diaspora and hemispheric expansionism. Pinpointing how African American intellectual production maps ways of knowing slavery and Native American removal, for instance, Madera exposes cartographic imagining as a mode of complicity and resistance. Ultimately, Black Atlas situates an agile worldview not on the outskirts but as a hallmark of early black literature and performance.
Chapter one, “National Geographic: The Writings of William Wells Brown,” emphasizes Brown’s attentiveness to the relationship between travel and subjectivity in Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853). To do so, Madera showcases moments of literary “counter-transit” in Brown’s representation of Quaker homesteads and the Ohio River, as well as in “panic cartographies” such as Vicksburg, Virginia. “Panic cartographies are spaces of dissimilitude, straining against their containing form,” Madera writes: “they are alternately sites of eruption and sites of quietude. But in their form they house the potential to undo not only what is close or proximate, but the broader collective” (26). Nineteenth-century black authors such as Brown mobilize spatial representation—often regional in scope and riddled with conflict—to contest the jurisdiction of North American law and nation. By juxtaposing midcentury Mississippi and Connecticut, the slave pens of Washington, DC, and labor discord in Richmond, VA, and Brown’s striking emblems of place including iron collars, Madera captures the stakes of black self-making-as-world-making in the context of slavery and its aftermath.
“Indigenes of Territory: Martin Delany and James Beckwourth,” the second chapter, pairs a text by an African American writer as eminent as Brown, Martin Delany’s Blake: or, the Huts of America (1859–62), with one comparatively less well known, James Beckwourth’s The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth [End Page 390] (1856). Both Delany’s novel and Beckwourth’s dictated autobiography reveal distinctively territorial implications of place as they are determined in and by narrative. In depicting the ways Blake leverages navigational technologies such as that of the steamboat, as well as local knowledge of geological and astrological space transmitted orally within plantation culture, Delany counters routine marginalization with place-based possibilities for black agency. Overlooking slavery in his account altogether, Beckwourth “expounds an iconic map of Anglo expansionism in the Western Territories” (74), rendering his black body as a Manifestly Destined mountaineer, and as a supreme arbiter of fluctuating boundaries of civilization and development, that he could, in fact, never become. Madera also observes that Delany presupposes an inborn affinity between diverse...