- The Strangers Book: The Human of African American Literature by Lloyd Pratt
Lloyd Pratt’s The Strangers Book: The Human of African American Literature opens with the jarring image of a woman stranded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina crying, “Help us, please!” Her cry positions her as a powerless figure in need of aid from others with access to power. Pratt connects this contemporary woman with the historical figure of the petitioning slave. An important part of the discourse of white antebellum abolitionists, the slave’s petition was a rousing plea for succor from good-hearted white saviors. According to Pratt, this brand of petition was, and is, contingent on a dehumanizing request for recognition as a human.
In contrast, Pratt offers a way of reading African American texts that challenges the notion that nineteenth-century African American literature was no more than an appeal for humanity. He troubles white abolitionists’ rhetorical strategies through an amalgamation of texts, including reproductions of Andrew Jackson’s addresses “To the Free Colored Inhabitants of Louisiana” (1814), Armand Lanusses’s Les Cenelles (1845), Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), and Edward P. Jones’s The Known World (2003). As he notes, black writers always assumed their humanity and their right to speak for themselves and to each other and with others. Imagining black writing as little more than petition “amounts to a cultivated practice of erasure” (21). Pratt cites Kwame Anthony Appiah’s statement that “thoroughgoing ignorance about the ways of others is largely a privilege of the powerful” (qtd. in Pratt 21), arguing that “It is also one of the practices by way of which the powerful retain their power” (21). To demonstrate, Pratt examines how African American writers in the nineteenth century were opening spaces in the public (and semiprivate) sphere in ways that did not include dutifully petitioning white audiences for their humanity. The Les Cenelles poets, for example, produced the first anthology of African American literature in the same year that Frederick Douglass’s Narrative was published; yet the collection’s poems such as Pierre Dalcour’s “Chant d’amour” and Valcour B’s apostrophe “A Hermina,” which are rooted in French romanticism, pay little attention to the plight of the enslaved. Joining recent scholarship such as Frances Smith Foster’s Love and Marriage in Early African America (2008) and Jeannine DeLombard’s In the Shadow of the Gallows: Race, Crime, And American Civic Identity (2012), Pratt underscores that antebellum black writers [End Page 231] “had other things on their minds than simply proving to white people that they were human” (5).
To make his case, Pratt relies heavily on the “extraliterary archive.” In chapter 5, for example, he tells the tale of two documents: one is a register of free blacks in the city of New Orleans from 1840 to 1864 while the other “is the Strangers Book kept by the Nantucket Atheneum, where [Frederick] Douglass gave a pivotal speech in 1841, in which entrants who are not shareholders were registered” (18). These two registers, one in the North and one in the South, were methods of racial surveillance, ways to keep tabs on “strangers” (in this case, “strange negroes”). In a sense, the registers turn registrants into suspects while granting them permission to be where they are (in the city or the Atheneum). Pratt connects these books to documents and prefaces that gave permission, as it were, to the authors of slave narratives—for example, William Lloyd Garrison’s Preface to Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845). As he shows, these registers represent a “legally mandated racism.” Yet, he goes on to note that the details of these registers reveal the “strange negro’s” relationships to other people and institutions, depicting the registrants as friends, brothers, lovers, and “freedom sponsors” (126). Pratt’s reading of these documents reveals that people of color were not “strange” or “strangers” but in fact deeply connected to their world and...