- Recovering Black Women Writers in Periodical Archives
In the past thirty years, periodicals have proven to be indispensable for studying African American women writers. Scholars turn to periodicals both to reclaim writers once considered “lost” and to expand the bibliographies and biographies of better-known authors. Projects like the forty-volume Schomburg Library reprint series in the 1990s—one significant touchstone in the recovery of African American women writers—compiled works by nineteenth-century authors such as Pauline Hopkins, Oliva Ward Bush-Banks, and Amelia Johnson from various periodicals, making these texts accessible in compact, bound editions with distinctive blue covers. But by harvesting individual texts from newspapers and magazines, such projects also divorce periodical content from what might be called “periodical culture” more broadly: the dynamics of a periodical’s physical form—“editorial policy, financing, production, readership, design, illustration and circulation”—that determine and reflect how periodicals function in American culture.1 In building on earlier literary recovery projects and initiating new ones, scholars need to focus more holistically on the periodical cultures that cultivated and thwarted black women’s access to print.
Periodicals reflect the social exchanges and publishing practices that often are biased against black women’s expression. Feminist approaches have shown how important it is to attend to silences, gaps, and absences and interrogate when and how African American women writers do—and do not—appear in print. Noting the case of Mary Church Terrell, who often faced rejection when she tried to place her writing with white publishers in the early twentieth century, Elizabeth McHenry proposes that we attend to both published texts and unpublished manuscripts intended for periodicals, recognizing “literary production, even when that literary production did not culminate in literary publication.”2 As McHenry explains, what ordinarily might look like a writer’s failure to publish reflects the discriminatory practices governing black women’s access to white and black print venues. In addition and in response to racist exclusion from white venues, black Americans served as editorial gatekeepers of their own publications, sometimes regulating other black writers on the basis of what Shirley Moody-Turner calls intraracial “in-group politics,” including sexism, class difference, and political leanings.3 To trace the influence of black women’s cultural production, we need to know more about how black women managed to intervene in periodicals as contributors, columnists, [End Page 25] editors, reviewers, illustrators, and, on the business side, as office managers and subscription agents, determining how black print was produced and circulated.
In studying African American women’s writing, the historical issues of absence and access have been lessened but not entirely overcome by advances in digitizing periodicals. Projects including the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America and subscription databases have made available a seemingly inexhaustible number of sources. The value of these initiatives cannot be underestimated. But online tools still need to be even more complete and more tailored to researchers’ focus on black subjects. The most expansive collections of digitized African American periodicals, such as Readex’s African American Newspapers and African American Periodicals Series, are available only through costly library subscriptions that, depending on one’s institutional affiliation, may remain beyond the reach of many researchers and students. Meanwhile, though the free Chronicling America database includes around fifty African American newspapers, the database lacks a function for searching those papers disaggregated from white ones.4 As a result, a targeted search for African American women is likely to return more bountiful, but also less relevant, results than expected. The issue of how to tag African American content in digital databases reproduces similar debates over where to locate texts by black writers in brick-and-mortar bookstores—whether in designated “African American” reading sections or in the more “general” categorization—and, in effect, this discrepancy can leave black women writers invisible in two categories, not just one.
While benefiting from the possibilities afforded by digitization, we still also need to consult periodical print editions when they are available, and to identify traces of periodicals in other forms of print and material culture. Some of the venues to which black women writers contributed regularly, including publishing organs of private institutions...