Johns Hopkins University Press
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  • The Black Romantic Revolution: Abolitionist Poets at the End of Slavery by Matt Sandler
Matt Sandler. The Black Romantic Revolution: Abolitionist Poets at the End of Slavery. New York and London: verso, 2020. Pp. 272. $26.95 paperback.

Matt Sandler's The Black Romantic Revolution: Abolitionist Poets at the End of Slavery examines a Black literary tradition's engagement with Romantic discourse. Central to Sandler's project is his opening claim that "Black Romanticism is abolition-democracy in literature" (8). Reading the antislavery movement alongside other world revolutions, The Black Romantic Revolution claims that Black Romantics did not simply repeat white ideas but made Romanticism their own. Departing from the standard of white liberal abolitionism, Black poets took Romanticism's problems and contradictions and shaped them to their own needs and purposes, which could meet more radical ends. Sandler argues that "the lyric acted as the medium of the conspiracy" in the antebellum U.S. (12). Taking up this inherently revolutionary mode, Black writers employed lyric poetry to imagine and enact Black futures of and beyond emancipation.

Needless to say, the poets discussed here defied the racist notions of their contemporaries who worked to deny and suppress Black intellectual and aesthetic abilities. What Sandler recognizes as a "strategic sophistication" is an aesthetic movement's deft navigation to engage not only white literary forms but also Black nationalist, diasporic, interethnic, and transhistorical conversations—as well as a diverse Black community—in their antislavery aesthetic (11). Sprinkled throughout this study is evidence of the enduring resonance of the Black Romantics, as Sandler extends these poets' reach to [End Page 156] later Black writers as well as to our present moment of continuing anti-Black violence. Reading Black writers' particular uses of Romantic themes and forms, Sandler's project raises important questions for Romanticist scholars' historical and habitual inattention to Black writers and presents a way for treating this Black aesthetic movement on its own terms.

The opening chapter reads Black writers' engagements with the British poet Lord Byron as a complex "model of freedom" (25). Black writers cited Byron's call for "hereditary bondsman" to "strike the blow" for freedom as "a refrain of Black radical intellection," employing calls to violence for antislavery ends (27). Sandler here argues neither for Byron's foundational position nor his particular aesthetic genius and recognizes him as a "problematic ally" in the antislavery struggle (30). Nevertheless, Sanders shows how "Byron's model suited the cultural and political ends of Black liberation" (29). This is particularly the case, he shows, as Black Romantics coupled freedom and romantic love, highlighting sexual violence (and its disruption of Black love) as central to slavery. Taking up Byronic themes, writers such as George Moses Horton, George Boyer vashon, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Albery Allson Whitman situated Black self-emancipation amid other global struggles over the course of the century.

The following chapters treat more discrete chronological periods of Black Romantic poetic production and provide more extended discussions of individual poets. In chapter two, Sanders revisits George Moses Horton, reading the enslaved poet as an emblem of a "specifically Black Romanticism" (58). Following on the heels of Enlightenment-era imaginings of racialization alongside aesthetic and intellectual ability, Horton's Black genius presented "a point of departure for a reimagining of the world" (60). Horton's vision of Black modernity premised "aesthetic idealism as a form of fugitivity" (66). Sanders compares this vision to that of Horton's contemporaries Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire, the former of which was particularly unable to imagine a figure of aesthetic genius such as Horton even while later Black thinkers would depend upon the kinds of hopeful contemplations of freedom that Horton imagines.

Chapter three takes up sentimentalism, via free antislavery poets of the midcentury, returning to some poets discussed in the first chapter and others, including Joshua McCarter Simpson, James Monroe Whitfield, and James Madison Bell. Sandler describes "poetry as an activist instrument" for addressing slavery's physical, psychological, historical, and geopolitical effects (90). Both thought and feeling are present in this image of the "seething brain" as a revolutionary, Black Romantic response to slavery (91). Treating the lyric in both written verse and song, this chapter reads verse as performative and thereby communal, regarding the poem's uses in "everyday, vernacular political education" (96). Poetry and singing were accessible [End Page 157] aesthetic forms, bridging positions of literacy, freedom, and enslavement for the purpose of radical organizing and expression that remained relevant and useful even into the postbellum era.

Sandler's fourth chapter returns to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, turning from her abolitionist poetry to provide an extended focus on her Reconstruction-era work. Here he reads the "transvaluation of Black objecthood" that reframes "enslavement as objectification" in the political economy. In Harper's later work, Sandler holds, "objectification is turned … into political subjectivity" (149). The result reveals Harper's vision of aesthetic work, in which "aesthetic practice could make objectification emancipatory rather than enslaving" (151). key to Sandler's discussion in this chapter is his reading not only of Harper's postbellum poetry but her lesser-known short fiction, serialized as "Fancy Etchings" or "Fancy Sketches" in the Black press. Through her characters, he holds, Harper expresses a "theory of politicized aesthetics" to accompany her activist poetry (139).

The fifth and final chapter turns to Albery Allson Whitman's epic frontier poetry in which both Black and Native characters negotiate their relationships to settler-colonialist nations and spaces as well as to one another. Ultimately, Whitman arrives at what Sander calls "a Romantic anticapitalist theory of poetry" (171). Taking up both the epic and Romantic poetic traditions and revolutionary abolitionism, Whitman's work draws Black and Native characters in the wake of Reconstruction's failures. Though confusing and not always consistent in his vision, at his best Whitman imagines "a kind of interethnic sovereignty from below" (176). The chapter ends with declining interest in Whitman in the late century, as Paul Laurence Dunbar rises to the foreground of celebrated Black poets.

In his conclusion, Sandler turns to twentieth- and twenty-first century resonances of Black Romanticism. As he does at times in the book's chapters (as with his tracing of Horton to Black thinkers such as W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, and Frantz Fanon), he situates these poets not only among their contemporaries, but in a longer Black aesthetic and intellectual trajectory. These trajectories variously may or may not take up Black Romantic forms, themes, and strategies as they explore the "dreamlike possibilities of freedom" in their own historical and political moments (187). The book closes with a brief bibliographic essay which contextualizes this project among the work of earlier scholars who have focused on the poets identified here as the Black Romantics. Importantly, Sandler distinguishes continuing work on understudied figures from what is often called "recovery."

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's image appears on the book's cover, and this gives a glimpse into her importance throughout this project. She is the subject of Sanders's fourth chapter but appears throughout this book, as a sort of touchstone figure of Black Romanticism. While Harper's importance among [End Page 158] the era's Black poets cannot be overstated, she is here situated in what is otherwise a rather masculinist project. Sanders does not give sustained treatment to any other Black woman writer, though he does emphasize interconnections between Black Romanticism and Black feminism (both with regard to Harper and in his conclusion). This decontextualization from Black women's specific literary engagements is a shame in a book that does give Harper her due.

In a reading of Black uses of and responses to literary histories largely associated with white writers and thinkers, there is a danger of presenting Black people as merely responsive to white traditions and tropes, the result of which has often been scholarship that problematically prioritizes white perspectives and values. Sandler avoids this trap and this is refreshing. There is no question that Black poets (fleshed out also as thinkers and activists in community with one another) are at the center of this book. The result is a glimpse into the ways that Black literary production has capaciously engaged itself beyond the rigid boundaries of genres and intended audiences. [End Page 159]

Brigitte Fielder
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Brigitte Fielder

Brigitte Fielder is an Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of Relative Races: Genealogies of Interracial Kinship in Nineteenth-Century America (Duke University Press, 2020) and coeditor of Against a Sharp White Background: Infrastructures of African American Print (University of Wisconsin Press, 2019). Her work has been published in journals such as American Quarterly, Legacy, J19, and American Literary History, and in various edited collections. She is currently working on a book about racialized human–animal relationships in the long nineteenth century, which shows how childhood becomes a key site for humanization and racialization.