Johns Hopkins University Press
Reviewed by:
  • The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States by Derrick R. Spires
Derrick R. Spires. The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019. Pp. 352. $49.95 cloth.

The Practice of Citizenship corrects an omission. Scholars "have yet to describe the degree to which black writers themselves conceptualized and transformed the meaning of citizenship in the early republic" (2), the opening pages contend, and it is this work of historical description that fills the monograph's five chapters. Across them, dilating on examples from nineteenth-century black publication and the social worlds that come together around them, citizenship emerges as a central point of concern, "a key term and vexed concept" (1). [End Page 153]

The vexed-ness is central to the story. Nineteenth-century black writers and thinkers concerned themselves with citizenship as a category, Spires argues, not because it was available to them or sanctioned by law—often it wasn't—but because this category became a way for free African Americans to imagine political, cultural, and sometimes economic participation in antebellum public life. As its title suggests, however, The Practice of Citizenship emphasizes not just that imagining but also the instantiations and enactments that follow from it. or, as Spires puts it elegantly, "black theorizing insisted on and created black citizens in the act of insisting" (6).

These animated actions are grounded in an archive of print publications. Such an archive may seem counter-intuitive, as print tends to be fixed and static while performance tends to be active and dynamic. Yet, Spires shows, printed texts don't just sit there, and instead circulate, move, and incite. The Practice of Citizenship emphasizes print publications as kinds of "performative speech acts" (82), many of which provoke debate and response—many of which, in other words, provoke further performances. Conceptualized in this way, the monograph focuses less on "whether and when" African Americans were legal citizens and more on "how" they "theorize and enact citizenship through print culture" and how, in turn, this work shaped "early black print" (246). Authored by a literature professor, The Practice of Citizenship is interested in discourses and representations of citizenship, to be sure, but it does not analyze these in isolation, seeking instead to restore them to the social and historical worlds that were the scenes of their creation. The version of literature that we read about, accordingly, is historically attuned to its time and place, yet also impacting and shifting the discourses that occur there.

Individual chapters span a number of genres—pamphlets, published proceedings, sketches, periodical literature, and poetry—and consider a number of touchstones in black public life in the antebellum U.S.: Richard Allen and Absalom Jones's writings on Philadelphia's yellow fever epidemic, the proceedings of the Colored Conventions of the 1840s, James McCune Smith's and William J. Wilson's writings in Douglas's Paper in the 1850s, Wilson's Afric-American Picture Gallery in the Anglo-African Magazine, and Frances Harper's speeches and writings up to the Civil War. All of these texts have been studied before, a fact revealed in footnotes that display a thorough engagement with the work of prior scholars. At the same time, all these texts are very much understudied and, more to the point, rarely linked to one another in the kind of genealogy that The Practice of Citizenship offers. The real story of black citizenship theorizing, Spires persuasively insists, "is less in the individual theories themselves and more the processes through which black writers generated citizenship in a nation whose definition of 'citizen' was often deferred, improvised, and increasingly premised on turning assumptions [End Page 154] about black exclusion into legal fact" (246). To further emphasize the genealogy and latent conversation that operates across the monograph's archive, figures and texts that have typically been overrepresented in recent scholarly study of African American literature, including Frederick Douglass and slave narratives, are rendered deliberately marginal to its story.

The strength of this study is in this ability to breathe life into the past and to recover the dynamic worlds that black Americans were able to create, by carefully examining the records they left behind. At moments, however, Spires takes what might be a methodological point further, naming the historiographic stakes in other terms, for example: "Beyond taking my cue from black print, my interest in citizenship comes from a determination to not cede key political concepts—citizenship, civility, deliberation, and so on—to those who would use them to restrict freedom, access, and reparative justice" (14). Such moments bespeak a political ethos that, I think, exceeds a strictly methodological orientation. Instead, they bring forward a justification for scholarly work that feels urgent and yet is rarely made: that a story needs to be told simply because it hasn't been, because its historical actors proceeded with intention and art and dignity that deserves notice for its own sake and on its own terms. Described at one point as "reparative" (12), this aspect of the argument strikes extremely powerfully, in part because it is so often presumed to be beneath scholarly concern.

An elaboration of the same concern emerges in the study's conclusion, which eschews summary for anecdote, telling a story in which its author, "interested in how the black state conventions 'fit' into conversations" around Jürgen Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962) and Michael Warner's Letters of the Republic (1990), presented his research at a conference in 2010 where he was queried by a senior scholar about his use of "European theoretical models to frame early African American texts" (251). Did such framing perhaps obscure "the work these texts were doing?" (251). After a decade of reflection, The Practice of Citizenship answers with a resounding yes, and both this anecdote and the monograph's explicit rethinking of Spires's earlier position do a succinct job of restating the study's reparative ethos as a methodological provocation for the field.

There's a lot to like here, and little that raises objection. My dissatisfactions with The Practice of Citizenship stemmed generally from my desires for more of what it does. For example, the jump between chapters one and two, from 1790s to 1840s, left me wanting another chapter or two that might stop and dwell over materials from the period in between, including some of the least studied and most fragmentary early black publications in the US that still exist. This lacuna may be partly excused by the level of detail to which all the chapters attend, as it would likely not have been possible to do the same degree of archival and reconstructive work in, say, the 1820s. [End Page 155] For better or for worse, however, the resulting effect of the monograph's historical trajectory is to cover ground at once understudied—making this book hugely valuable to scholarship—and also familiar—making each chapter clearly in conversation with existing scholars and scholarship, however meagerly the field has examined some of these texts. We might understand the achievement of The Practice of Citizenship as one of synthesis, bringing together a number of disparate strands and authors and topics for the study of antebellum black public life, and out of this gathering offering its reader both compact summary and detailed through-lines and connections. Such a synthesis reflects the maturity of the field of early US black print culture and reveals a strong foundation for subsequent investigations. It will be exciting to see what gets built on top of that foundation.

Jordan Alexander Stein
Fordham University
Jordan Alexander Stein

Jordan Alexander Stein teaches in the English Department and Comparative Literature Program at Fordham University, where he is also affiliated with the Department of African and African American Studies. His most recent monograph is When Novels Were Books (Harvard University Press, 2020).