- Visions of the Future in Nineteenth-Century Black Periodicals
In the introduction to a 2015 special issue of American Periodicals devoted to "Black Periodical Studies," guest editors Eric Gardner and Joycelyn Moody insist that while recognizing that additional work in the field is "both possible and necessary," scholars meanwhile can "celebrate both the increasing quantity and the wondrous quality" of scholarship exploring black periodicals.1 Like the AP special issue, other recent developments have given both reason and occasion to celebrate black periodical studies. The Black Press Research Collective, a blog curated by scholars from several institutions, and a conference on "The Arts in the Black Press during the Age of Jim Crow," organized by Lucy Caplan and Kristen M. Turner at Yale in March 2017, both reflect growing institutional support for analyzing black periodicals, beyond the related but not identical work of recovering and preserving them. With numerous black periodical artifacts available, whether in traditional repositories or through online fee-based and open access databases, scholars can intensively examine newspapers, magazines, and other serials as print objects, market commodities, and cultural records.
Two new books join this work not only as models for future black periodical scholarship, but also as useful studies of how nineteenth-century black Americans envisioned and shaped their futures through periodicals. Benjamin Fagan's The Black Newspaper and the Chosen Nation surveys five antebellum newspapers to trace their often prophetic religious and political expressions on black advancement. Nazera Sadiq Wright's Black Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century shows how periodicals [End Page 206] reveal black Americans' concerns over training and protecting girls, representing them as embodying the future of black Americans because of their youth and reproductive capacities. The two books complement each other by sometimes using the same archives, including issues of two of the earliest known black newspapers, Freedom's Journal and Colored American. Taken together, they point to several fruitful directions for black periodical studies, such as lending greater attention to black editors' social and business networks, young periodical readers, and visual content in the black press. They will appeal to interdisciplinary audiences, showing how research in black periodicals can enhance developments in religious history, childhood studies, women's and gender studies, and diverse other fields.
Fagan reads newspapers as a central vehicle for nineteenth-century black Americans' religious and political self-expression. He associates the rise of the black press with black Americans' desire to disseminate a core empowering belief: that black people were divinely "chosen" to pursue and embody freedom. Comparing themselves to the Israelites of the Old Testament, black Americans identified themselves as modern-day Moses figures, overcoming the recalcitrant pharaohs and Red Seas of slavery, racial discrimination, and civic alienation to achieve the promised land of freedom. Fagan's preferred term "chosenness" is somewhat cumbersome, and readers may wish for a stronger explanation of how "chosenness" relates to black nationalism and liberation theology, concepts African American studies scholars have more readily used to address nineteenth-century black Americans' sense of their spiritual and racial destiny. But in focusing on the ideological and religious values that propel the early black press, Fagan usefully builds on the work of scholars such as Frances Smith Foster, Carla Peterson, John Ernest, and Eric Gardner, who have emphasized the Afro-Protestant press's central role in nineteenth-century black print culture. Fagan directly cites Foster as an inspiration for his "decision to write a book focused on the reciprocal relationship between early black newspapers and certain strains of American Christianity" (10). Yet Fagan also departs from Foster's model by expressly making nonreligious black papers his focus. As he notes, the "impossibility of clearly separating the religious and worldly in early black print culture" makes it unnecessary to read the trope of the chosen nation exclusively or even primarily in the religious press (18). Rather, he turns to Freedom...