The metaphor of fragmentation encapsulates not only that periodicals turn into simple rubbish to be disposed of when their time-sensitive content no longer has a practical purpose. It also reveals the productive aspect of being fragmented because remnants of periodicals help us picture “periodic/al” life before and after their initial breakage. “Fragmentation” refers to a breaking or separation into fragments and the loss of an original wholeness. The word “fragment” comes from Latin fragmentum, which signifies “to break.” It came into common use in sixteenth-century France, referring to “a broken piece” or “a detached, isolated, or incomplete part,” a residual “when the whole is lost or destroyed,” or “a part of any unfinished whole or uncompleted design.”1 Yet the periodical fragment, the piece “broken off” from a periodical, which itself was simply a collection of fragments, could realize a more coherent vision than a single issue or even an entire run of a publication. The metaphor of fragmentation leads us to imagine the fragment’s “unfinished” or “lost” quality, as it appears conducive to creating a wholeness of a never-finished narrative. This metaphor is especially relevant in the case of the black press and African American literary history.
Periodicals are defined by fragmentation rather than wholeness. Even if a physical sheet holds multiple articles together, the fragmentary nature of periodicals remains apparent. In a footnote of Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson acknowledges this incongruence by comparing a newspaper to “a novel whose author has abandoned any thought of a coherent plot.”2 In addition to their contents, the distribution and consumption of periodicals can also be read through the metaphor of fragmentation. Upon publication, periodicals, like any printed matter, are immediately scattered to readers. The fragmentation of periodicals, however, occurs more rapidly than that of other forms of print, such as a novel with a solid narrative structure controlled by one authorial voice. Since periodicals are loosely congregated to serve various interests at once,3 readers are encouraged to value periodicals in fragments, according to their own interests. And when one issue is superseded by a subsequent issue, it turns into mere wastepaper, something Anderson calls the “ephemeral popularity” of periodicals.4 Because of the complex process of distribution and disposition, fragmental remnants of periodicals may quickly disappear after a brief state of being “broken” and “scattered.” As a result, comprehensive collections of many historic periodicals are difficult to locate. Further, as Benjamin Fagan has noted, “the racially discriminatory nature of the archives and databases” has precipitated the fragmentation and eventual loss of ethnic periodicals because institutions failed to see the value of preserving them.5 For example, in 1937, only nine institutions reported holding copies of the ante-bellum [End Page 15] African American periodical Freedom’s Journal, while thousands of other titles known to have been published have not been located.6 In addition to the haphazard preservation of physical copies, the lack of attention to ethnic periodicals generally has resulted in a significant disparity between white and ethnic digital archives, as Fagan has shown in his examination of the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America Project.7
If any part of an issue survives, it is cut out from a periodical’s locality and temporality and creates an independent narrative, different from the original—a fragment’s fragment. John Ernest defines the “fragmented text” as “not simply a puzzle waiting to be pieced together” but “a series of overlapping pieces that together form no single picture but indicate pictures that must be envisioned.”8 Fragmented texts are visionary because broken periodicals can tell stories that may not be printed on sheets. For example, fragmented parts can demonstrate periodicals’ germinal mobility through reports, subscriptions, distributions, and circulations, while these movements after periodicals’ initial publication barely appear apparent in print. Black editors and journalists in nineteenth-century America undertook a perilous journey in determining their subject matter and audience. The fragments of their issues reveal that they were on the move in the slave South and in the West, seemingly unstoppable when “such mobility was specifically denied not only to many of their free brethren (through economic as well as legal barriers, including various states’ and localities’ formal and informal ‘Black laws’) but also, of course, to enslaved African Americans.”9 For this reason, fragments of these periodicals that remain do not simply indicate their obscurity but also reveal tenacious and triumphant efforts to reach audiences beyond geographical limits circumscribed by systemic oppression.
In spite of the inherently fragmented nature of periodicals, readers frequently re-member fragmented texts that were once dis-membered. Periodical readers clipped and saved useful information out of newspapers and kept scrapbooks organized by topic. Frederick Douglass admonished his readers to cut out and save an article so that they could “use it at the proper time”; in this way, periodical readers often “create meaning out of disparate materials.”10 A collection of fragments itself constructs a narrative of a subject whose voice is constantly mediated and obstructed in print by others with the power of literacy and publication. This subject/reader deliberately breaks periodicals in order to fit a textual shard in her own narrative. Sojourner Truth published her (auto)biography, Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850, 1875, and 1884), from a scrapbook of periodical articles about her without providing any coherent order or additional explanation. By curating fragmented texts separated from their original locations in various periodicals, she created her own life story, which William Andrews calls “a complex of linguistic acts in a discursive field.”11 Truth understood the significance of fragmented periodicals in publishing the narrative; referring to her relationship with contemporary periodicals and their editors, she often insisted, “I cannot read but [End Page 16] can hear.”12 Despite her illiteracy, Truth compels readers to witness her powerful presence in the collage of fragments—the pieces purposefully broken by her scissors. This kind of deliberate fragmentation for the creation of personhood shows us that remnants of periodicals productively contribute to a wholeness of what can become an unexpected narrative.
JEWON WOO is an associate professor of English at Lorain County Community College. She teaches African American and Early American Literature among many other courses. Her research focuses on Black print culture, performance, early newspapers, pedagogy for underrepresented students, and digital humanities. Her essays have appeared in the American Studies (South Korea), and a chapter, “Deleted Name, but Indelible Body: Black Women at the Colored Conventions in Antebellum Ohio,” is forthcoming in The Colored Conventions Movement: Black Organizing in the Nineteenth Century (2020). As a Mellon/ACLS fellow, she currently works on the Black press in 19th-century Ohio to observe early African American communities by utilizing digital tools. She can be reached at email@example.com.
2. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006), 33n54.
3. Benjamin Fagan explains this collage of fragments: “the nineteenth-century newspaper page confronts readers with a chaotic mix of shipping tables, political speeches, local reporting, editorials, letters, fiction, and poetry, to say nothing of the various and sundry pieces relegated to a paper’s ‘miscellaneous’ column.” The Black Newspaper and the Chosen Nation (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016), 9.
4. Anderson, Imagined Communities, 34.
5. Benjamin Fagan, “Chronicling White America,” American Periodicals 26, no. 1 (2016): 12.
6. Todd Vogel ed., The Black Press: New Literary and Historical Essays (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 5.
7. Fagan, “Chronicling White America,” 10–13.
8. John Ernest, Resistance and Reformation in Nineteenth-Century African-American Literature (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995), 106.
9. Eric Gardner, Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009), 18. His study of the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Christian Recorder in the nineteenth century redefines black mobility even to the “unexpected” West through its editors’ effort to represent their physical and conceptual places.
10. Ellen Gruber Garvey, Writing with Scissors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 131.
11. William Andrews, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography 1760– 1865 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 3.
12. Erlene Stetson and Linda David, Glorifying in Tribulation: The Lifework of Sojourner Truth (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1994), 6.