restricted access From Black Lit to Black Print: The Return to the Archive in African American Literary Studies
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From Black Lit to Black Print:
The Return to the Archive in African American Literary Studies
Black Print Unbound: The “Christian Recorder,” African American Literature, and Periodical Culture. By Eric Gardner. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 346pages. $99.00 (cloth). $29.95 (paper).
Early African American Print Culture. Edited by Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. $55.00 (cloth). 432pages. $24.95 (paper).
Publishing Blackness: Textual Constructions of Race Since 1850. Edited by George Hutchinson and John K. Young. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013. 248pages. $70.00 (cloth).
Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing. By Christopher Hager. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. 328pages. $39.95 (cloth). $19.95 (paper).

In his much-discussed 2011 monograph, What Was African American Literature?, Kenneth Warren argues for a new periodization of African American literature, bookended by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Warren argues that African American literature only existed as a coherent literature in the age of legalized segregation, when a group of black writers consciously set out to produce a literature that made a distinct political intervention: the toppling of Jim Crow. While Warren’s study has garnered several responses, reopening timely debates about historicization, canons, and class, along with meditations about the status of post–civil rights literary production in the field, the book’s dismissal of the pre-1896 period has received less attention by scholars. According to Warren, it is not evident that “black writing before the Civil War was understood by its practitioners and readers as something like a distinct literature.”1 While one could debate [End Page 993] this argument (Warren himself invites evidence that would challenge such a claim), the book’s separation of the early national and antebellum eras from later periods might instead be taken as an opportunity to both elaborate on the relative autonomy of early African American literature and reflect on the status of early black texts in African American literary studies today. Indeed, black literature of the pre–New Negro Renaissance period is, in many regards, strikingly different from the tradition that follows it. For example, antebellum black literature was deeply connected to the origins and growth of black periodicals: serialized novels, short stories, and poetry published in periodicals were much more common than stand-alone novels or other book-length publications. Early African American literature was often mediated by the propaganda machine of abolitionism, privileged anonymous, pseudonymous, and collective authorship as much as the single author, and routinely culled from and incorporated text drawn from already published works. Across the nineteenth century, African American literature became increasingly embedded in an industrial print sphere that helped disseminate but also circumscribed black writing in historically contingent ways.

While the archival turn, or more properly, return, has significantly shaped the study of African American literature in recent years, as it has shaped conversations and methodologies across American studies, that return is arguably producing a certain fissure between approaches to “earlier” and “later” periods of black literary and cultural production. While in twentieth- and twenty-first-century contexts “the archive” has become a key term for studies of US and diasporic literatures as well as black music, performance, and visual culture, “the archive” in pre-1900 contexts has increasingly come to signify book history and print culture studies, approaches that consider books and other printed texts as material artifacts embedded in particular economic relations and circuits. In his 2010 essay, “The Talking Book and the Talking Book Historian,” a state-of-the-field essay that appeared in the journal Book History, Leon Jackson observes that scholars of African American literature and book historians have rarely “shared interests” or concerns.2 His essay elaborates some of the historical and methodological reasons for that fact while calling for more dialogue between these fields. Given the number of recent conferences, special issues, monographs, and edited collections devoted to situating black literature within the material conditions of its production, distribution, circulation, and readership, one might say that at least one-half of Jackson’s call has been fulfilled. It is less...


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