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  • The Suffrage Centennial and Reading Black Feminisms
  • Teresa Zackodnik

Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century African Americans had a capacious understanding of literature, which included writings on art, science, politics, and society. I focus on Black women’s letters to the editor as part of this broad sense of literature and as an index of how, to quote Joanna Brooks, “Blacks . . . entered the public sphere, not with the negative identity of the disinterested individual citizen, but through positive collective incorporation” (73; emphasis added). I do so in order to ask what might shift in our understandings of both Black feminisms and the suffrage movement in the United States if we were to read letters to the editor as counter-public practices and politics. What shifts when we read them for what Ashon Crawley calls practices of making not taking—“making space against the settler logic of taking and claiming and owning space through displacement” (14)?1

Data visualization as one protocol of reading Black women’s letters to the editor can help us to see the “circulation of discourse” through the periodical press as a primary organizing feature of Black feminisms (Warner 119), which then also enables us to map the national reach of Black feminist politics well before the emergence of the Black women’s club movement, which is typically mistaken as the inauguration of organized feminist politics among Black women. I see letters to the editor as a key form of what Judith Madera calls “black flow,” which “does as it makes” by “feeling out the normative organizational codes that cohere in oppressive power systems, and then finding disruptions in, contradictions to, and corridors through these codes” (5). Making place in print is a doing and making of Black flow that contests or disrupts who can speak publicly of what and where, as well as who can be, and who can move, where. As scholarship on Black politics has long argued, any understanding of the political must be recalibrated from a focus on formally organized and national politics to a focus on on-the-ground, informal, and infrapolitical forms and political practices.2 The circulation of politics can be difficult to document beyond known networks of political leaders, organizations, and political gatherings or associations, yet data visualization may offer us further insight into politics on the ground. Mapping a “circulating [End Page 315] commons” also makes it difficult to generalize about, or to delimit, Black feminisms at the level of the local or the regional once we see how politics are moving across scales (Madera 6). A paper’s circulation coupled with African American communal reading practices further complicate and magnify the mobility of politics registered in Black women’s letters to the editor.

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Fig. 1.

African American women’s letters focused on women’s rights, 1827 to mid-1870s.

Based on visualization produced with QGis by Bamdad Aghilidehkordi and used with permission.

The static data visualizations in figures 1 and 2 are based on letters that Black women wrote between 1827 and the mid-1870s to all fifteen Black-edited newspapers in publication at the time,3 as well as to William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, whose subscription base was 80 percent African American.4 These papers were based in the Northeast (New York, Rochester, Boston, Philadelphia);5 the South (Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina, New Orleans);6 the Midwest (Cleveland);7 and the West (California).8

The visualization in figure 1 is based on keywords that reflect the recognized white feminist script of rights for women—women in abolition, woman’s place, women’s rights, woman suffrage, and education for women. This visualization [End Page 316] appears to show that feminism, so defined, was nascent in African American communities from the late 1820s through the mid-1870s. That such a focus on the pursuit of democratic liberal individualism and women’s access to it misconceives of nineteenth-century Black feminisms’ scope, intent, and constituencies becomes abundantly clear when we look at the data visualization in figure 2. Broadening keywords to political concerns such as education and education reform; Black civil rights; temperance; Black suffrage; racial progress and unity; Colored...


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pp. 315-320
Launched on MUSE
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