McHenry 2002

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McHenry, Elizabeth. Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African-American Literary Societies. Durham: Duke UP, 2002.

Introduction: In Search of Black Readers

Familiar representations of af-am literacy: 1) Frederick Douglass, learning to read; mistress wanted to teach him, but master said it would ruin him as a slave; 2) Antebellum atmosphere: "the tremendous thirst for eduction demonstrated by freed slaves in the years following the Civil War" (2)

Not only examples, though -- "less well-known are stories of the efforts of free black sin the urban North to acquire and use their literacy, or of the channels through which they gained access to and distributed books and other printed texts. Althought technically free, this population also faced systematic resistance to their efforts to gain and exercise their literacy."

"In fostering the development of a literate population, literary societies furthered the evolution of a black public sphere and a politically conscious society." (3)

Literary societies and reading practices of African Americans between 1830 abnd 1940 -- remained largely invisible

"The legalized withholding of literacy left a pernicious legacy that even the desire for education exhibited by ex-slaves in the years following Emancipation could not immediately erase." (4)

1880 -- 70% of black population illiterate; by 1910, 30%

Assumption that black culture is "'oral in nature' has helped push awid facts surrounding other language uses -- especially those related to reading and writing" (5)

"celebrations of the black oral tradition and black vernacular have also unwittingly undermined historical evidence that points to a long and complex history of African Americans' literary interaction, not only as readers of the 'canon' of European and European American authors but as creators and readers of their own literature as well." (6)

Slave narrative as "founding paradigm of black literary production in the nineteenth century," according to most scholarship -- but in privileging them "we risk overlooking the many other forms of literary production that coexisted alongside slave narratives" (6)

"In order to recover more fully the history of African American cultural production, with all of its nuances and complexity, we must be open to replacing our notion of a singular black literary tradition by attending to the many, diverse elements that form the groundwork of any tradition." (6-7)

Archives of black history are scattered; hard to track evidence of reading ("How can we know or historically document the act of reading, an activity that in our own day and age, at least, is mainly practiced in silent and individual ways that seem impossible to access?" (7))

"New directions in the study of black readers and reading need, however, to decenter formal education as the primary institutional force behind the reading of literature. Historically, black Americans have been denied access to formal educational opportunities, and the public education that has been provided for them has been of inferior quality. They have therefore created and relied on other institutions to suppllement and sustain their literary education. To uncover a more nuanced and more accurate history of their interaction with ltierature, we must look beyond the venues traditionally associated with reading and literary discussions and aska series of broader questions: What institutions have centered the literary experiences of African Americans? Where has literacy been practiced and literature enjoyed, discussed, and debated? How have literary texts been acquired and exchanged?" (10) -- churches, private homes, beauty parlors

Think beyond literature as novel and imaginative works; many black readers wanted non-fiction, journalism; "One reason scholas have posited an African American literary tradition as a monolithic entity that begins with the slave narrative is that they have not valued these other literary forms." (12)

"rather than bound books, newspapers were the primary sites of publication and sources of literary reading for African Americans in the nineteenth century" (12)

Challenging notions of "literacy" baked into Douglass's anecdote; "not every member of African American literary societies wanted to be a writer or enjoyed an unmediated relationship with texts; some black Americans participated actively in the activities sponsored by African American literary societies without ever acquiring the ability to read or write for themselves." (13)

Douglass's own wife was a free woman but illiterate; "The riddle of Anna Douglass's lifelong illiteracy and her membership in a literary society has long troubled scholars of African American history and literature, to this day introducing a challenging series of questions that are not easily answered. But these are the very questions that will stimulate new ways of looking at the multiple uses of literature and the various literary situations that existed in nineteenth-century African American communities." (13-14)

Need to "dispense with the idea of a monolithic black community and replace it with a more accurate and historically informed understanding of a complex and differentiated black population" (14)

Privileging of working class blacks as sites of resistance in the scholarship -- need to attend more to middle and upper class counterparts

"What is called for at this critical juncture in the development of African American historical, cultural, and literary studies is a greater understanding of the common forms of oppression faced by black Americans, as well as a more complex vision of what constitutes resistance. African American literary societies provide a convenient lens through which to contemplate and develop this perspective. My study of the organized literary activities of middle- and upper-class african Americans in the ninteenth-=century urban North argues that Arican American literary socities were formed not only as aplces of refuge for the self-improvement of their members but as acts of resistance to the hostile racial climate that made the United States an uncomfrotable and unequal place fo all black Americans, regardless of their social or economic condition." (17)