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Elizabeth McHenry, To Make Negro Literature. Writing, Literary Practice, and African American Authorship

Durham: Duke University Press, 2021. 312 p. ISBN: 978-1-4780-1451-5. $27.95
Cécile COTTENET
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Elizabeth McHenry, To Make Negro Literature. Writing, Literary Practice, and African American Authorship. Durham: Duke University Press, 2021. 312 p. ISBN : 978-1-4780-1451-5. $27.95

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  • 1 See for instance Laura Helton, “Black Bibliographers and the Category of Negro Authorship, in Afric (...)

1In July 2022, To Make Negro Literature was awarded the DeLong Book History Prize by the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP), making Elizabeth McHenry a two-time recipient of this award. The NYU Professor of English continues to expand the definition of African American literature, its practices, authorship, and structures, following on from her acclaimed 2002 study, Forgotten Readers. Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies. This second opus is a welcome addition to the body of work engaging with Black Print Culture that has seen significant development since the early 2000s when the field was just emerging both in France and the United States. McHenry’s interest in archives and bibliography is now shared by several contemporary scholars of African American literature, including Shirley Moody Turner, Laura Helton, or Lucas Dietrich, to name but a few of these thought-provoking scholars.1

2McHenry offers a convincing plea for a renewed perspective on African American literary culture and history, one that considers dismissed, disregarded, or overlooked artefacts and projects, and turns “our critical attention away from the usual markers of literary achievement (known authors and traditionally published works of poetry and fiction)” (6). This study explores the infrastructures that made possible the shift from literacy – the focus of Forgotten Readers – to literary for African Americans in the years that “surround the turn of the [20th] century” (5), between two cultural heydays that have been amply examined by African-Americanists, the post-bellum era and the Harlem Renaissance. Encompassing the Woman’s era (1890s), the selected period unfolds in the middle of what historian Rayford Logan characterized as “the nadir of race relations,” between 1877 and 1915. Expansion is therefore conceptual rather than historical: as McHenry specifies, the longue durée is not suited to her endeavors, i.e. a close analysis of four diverse literary projects that have been concealed in the historical folds either as a result of unsuccess, of gaps in the archive, or of scholarly neglect. With characteristic humility, she does not showcase these projects as thoroughly unknown, but rather proposes to focus on their internal mechanics, traceable in archival material, to better understand how African American literature was made at that particular time. Her approach evinces the recent archival turn in literary studies; acknowledging the work of archivists and librarians, both in brick-and-mortar repositories and as instigators and co-constructors of digital archives, she reminds us that Black archives, especially, are “spaces of power struggle”, constrained by institutional choices. This raises questions as to what constitutes relevant archives, as well as relevant objects of study.

  • 2 José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York University Pres (...)

3The articulation of the two parts of the book is revealed through the metaphor of the “scaffolding” – that which was intended to be concealed, yet contributed to increasing the visibility of African American engagement with literature – and José Esteban Muñoz’s concept of “queer failure”.2 Muñoz’s definition of the term as “failure to participate in a system of valuation that is predicated on exploitation and conformity” (Cruising Utopia, 174), is here understood as a set of intentional “queer literary practices through which African Americans reject a system of racial categorization that deemed them socially intolerable, intellectually inferior, and politically unqualified” (6). The first two chapters examine examples of infrastructures, including the materiality of printed matter, that provided a scaffolding for Black literary culture. The last two chapters offer a reflection on “failed” and performed authorship. McHenry’s clear and impeccably structured arguments and her engaging writing are a model of academic writing for graduate students and scholars more generally.

  • 3 Claire Parfait, “Collective Biographies and African American History. Men of Mark (1887) and Progre (...)

4Chapter one focuses on the example of Progress of a Race (1897) edited by William Crogman, a racial schoolbook sold by subscription, that went through several editions between 1898 and 1929. McHenry’s conception of the book as a schoolroom outside the school, in an architectural analogy with the Negro building of the 1895 Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, prompts us to think once again about books as organized artefacts. As a “mobile site” of learning, rooted in the long tradition of African American self-education outside educational institutions, Progress of a Race also raises questions about its actual uses. Despite the habitual lack of evidence of actual reader response, McHenry interestingly suggests that its sale by subscription made it exclusive, an alternative provider of information that could not be found in schools; so that owning such a book was a sign of self-respect for less-privileged African Americans. In this way, the book operated as scaffolding for the development of Black literature, not only for its educational value, but also for helping to locate “racial identity and race pride in the space of books” (76). Her analysis of the subscription model, which testifies to the challenges of working with missing publishers’ archives, complements Claire Parfait’s 2022 account of the publishing history of Progress,3 and the included “Sales Talk” distributed to canvassers (61) is fascinating.

  • 4 For more on the Black Bibliography Project, co-directed by Jacqueline Goldsby and Meredith McGill, (...)

5The structural metaphor is further developed in Chapter 2 to include bibliographies as “scaffolding to establish the scope and parameters of Negro authorship and writing about race” (81). Like Crogman’s hybrid book, bibliographies organized and produced knowledge, and by selecting titles that fell under the heading of “literature”, actually shaped the ways in which African American literature was to be “seen, defined, and used” (16). The projects under consideration – Gertrude Bustill Mossell’s chapter on “Afro-American Literature” in The Work of the Afro-American Woman (1894), Daniel Murray’s bibliographic project for the 1900 Paris Exposition, and DuBois’s bibliographies for the Atlanta University Studies program between 1900 and 1905 – were conceived at a time when lists helping to identify authors of African American literature were proliferating, and bibliography was professionalizing. This chapter will certainly add grist to the mill of the US Black Bibliography Project which aims at remedying the scarcity of organized, descriptive information about Black texts.4 McHenry convincingly argues that for Murray and DuBois, the work of these bibliographies constituted a first phase upon which they built their ulterior literary efforts. These oft-discarded printed artefacts allow us to (re)discover librarians and other “information workers,” and recover their intellectual labor. They foreground the collaborative dimension of bibliography, reaching across the color line as attested by Murray’s work at the Library of Congress.

6Chapter 3 reflects on the articulation and dissociation of the author/ writer figures, on the basis of the relation between Booker T. Washington and one of his literary “footsoldiers,” editor and journalist T. Thomas Fortune. Setting for himself the mission of steering Washington “into the space of authorship” (130), turning him into a model to advance Black writing, Fortune ghostwrote, revised, edited, and arranged several of his works. McHenry outlines the asymmetry in this literary partnership, due not only to their different political strategies for racial uplift, but also to their opposite trajectories: while Fortune built the scaffolding upon which Washington would ascend to authorship, he himself never rose to these heights, failing to publish his own books. Supported by Fortune’s efforts, as well as those of his secretary Emmett Scott and several ghostwriters, Washington ultimately performed authorship and did carry out Fortune’s plan to “advance black writing”. The fact that he was even able to manipulate two publishers into bringing out two quite similar autobiographies in the same year speaks to his astute playing of the publishing market. Washington’s rise to authorship inevitably rendered his literary acolytes participating in these infrastructures invisible. Incidentally, in addition to the role played by Fortune, that of Victoria Earle Matthews in conceiving, editing and arranging the contents of Black-Belt Diamonds (1898), a collection of Washington’s speeches and addresses finalized by Fortune, would deserve a full chapter in its own right.

7The last chapter, a revised version of a 2007 article published in American Literary History, centers on Mary Church Terrell’s “queer failure” to publish her short fiction, which remained confined to the limits of her archive, while her journalistic work was printed. One of the questions raised here is that of the discrepancy between the (in)visibility of Terrell’s and other African American writers’ production. In the face of repeated rejections from magazine editors, Terrell refused to accommodate the perceived white reader’s taste for stereotypes and accepted images of Blackness, instead capturing and presenting the problems of the colored middle class and the complexity of race. As she continued to circulate her stories amongst a restricted readership of friends and editors, she developed a form of “private authorship”, in the words of McHenry. Drawing on Terrell’s cover letters, her journals, and editors’ refusals, the author contends that Terrell’s tireless submissions became an almost aggressive campaign to challenge the “conspiracy of silence” of the press. Failure is thus ultimately articulated, following Muñoz, as “potentiality” and “a platform of criticism and dissent” (228).

8To Make Negro Literature does not brashly proclaim the renewal of African American, and, in fact, of American literary history, but instead proposes to subtly challenge the accepted narrative, by encompassing objects and individuals heretofore excluded from “literature” and literary culture. It is a call to consider, instead of published successes, “literary acts”, some small and quiet, and recognize “the unfinished, the unsuccessful, and the anomalous as conditions of the literary” (238). By suggesting that we turn to the “underground” structures of literature, and consider failure as a form of resistance, Elizabeth McHenry invites us to think about the potentiality of literature, and of literariness.

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Notes

1 See for instance Laura Helton, “Black Bibliographers and the Category of Negro Authorship, in African American Literature in Transition, 1900-1910, ed. Shirley Moody-Turner (Cambridge UP, 2021): 23-47; Lucas Dietrich, Writing across the Color Line: U.S. Print Culture and the Rise of Ethnic Literature, 1877-1920 (U of Massachusetts Press, 2020).

2 José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York University Press, 2009).

3 Claire Parfait, “Collective Biographies and African American History. Men of Mark (1887) and Progress of a Race (1897)”, in John Ernest, Race in American Literature and Culture (Cambridge UP, 2022), p. 309-323.

4 For more on the Black Bibliography Project, co-directed by Jacqueline Goldsby and Meredith McGill, see https://blackbibliog.org/about/. See also « What is ‘Black’ about Black Bibliography?”, Jacqueline Goldsby and Meredith McGill, in The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 116, n°2 (June 2022): p. 161-189.

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Cécile COTTENET, « Elizabeth McHenry, To Make Negro Literature. Writing, Literary Practice, and African American Authorship »E-rea [En ligne], 20.1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2022, consulté le 01 février 2023. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/14868 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.14868

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Cécile COTTENET

Aix Marseille Univ, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence, France

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