Recovering a Lost Literary Tradition

Article excerpt

Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies

Dr. Elizabeth McHenry

Duke University Press, 2002, 352 pp., $54.95 cloth, ISBN 0-8223-2980-8; $18.95 paper, ISBN 0-8223-2996-6

When writers such as Terry McMillan, Walter Mosley and E. Lynn Harris burst into the ranks of best-selling American authors, the media hailed their success as a triumph for the African American reading public, which had finally, so the stories said, "come of age." But reading by African Americans is far from being a new trend. Indeed, there is a rich and vibrant history of African American literary associations and book clubs -- a history that comes to vivid life in the pages of Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies.

Delving into 19th- and early 20th-century archival sources, the book demonstrates that, while much has been made of African Americans' lack of literacy -- from the period of enslavement to today's racially charged media debates over underprepared Black youth -- this is far from being the whole picture. While the history and the pernicious legacy of Black illiteracy are, of course, undeniable, Dr. Elizabeth McHenry argues thoroughly and convincingly that our cultural assumptions about Black inadequacy in this area have blinded us to the richness and variety of African American culture's "literate practices."

Forgotten Readers begins with one of the most famous episodes of 19th-century literature -- Frederick Douglass' description of the desperate stratagems he was forced to resort to to learn how to read -- and places the passage in the context of the fevered levels of reading and writing that marked African American life in the North in the years leading up to the Civil War. Despite their exclusion from schools and their limited access to books, free Blacks in the urban North well understood their urgent need to read about and participate in the debates surrounding the spread of slavery and the plight of enslaved African Americans. Through literary and mutual aid societies as well as newspapers, pamphlets, letters -- a wide variety of activities involving both prominent wordsmiths such as Frederick Douglass, David Walker and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and ordinary men and women whose names have been lost to history -- McHenry argues that a "Black public sphere" evolved whose members used reading and literary conversation to intervene in political and literary debates from which they were intended to be excluded. …