Editor's Introduction

By Johnson, Sherita L. | Southern Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview
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Editor's Introduction


Johnson, Sherita L., Southern Quarterly


The current issue is a personal and professional reflection of the South as home. As a native of Gainesville, Alabama (just two hours north of Hattiesburg, Mississippi on 1-59), I was raised in a small rural town that still preserves signs of its antebellum past in white and gray marble. Large estates with columned porches and "hidden" gravesites are just a few of the monuments to the Confederacy that symbolize Gainesville's historical significance (it was incorporated around 1832) as a river town on the bluff of the Tombigbee. I should mention that this local history is lost to most of the residents in this now predominately black town. Only reminders of economic prosperity (likely based on slavery) that survived the Civil War linger. The curious cultural anthropologist in me - even as a child - wonders then about the owners (past and present) of the pristine antebellum homes and Confederate soldiers buried just a short distance from my Head Start school building? Most perplexing is where are the monuments to the African Americans and Native Americans) who also once lived there? After all, it is their black descendants who survive today.

Though I became an English professor instead of an anthropologist, I am still driven to excavate early African American cultural contributions to the South. Literary scholars such as William L. Andrews and Frances Smith Foster helped to make this field (and my career) possible considering the scope of their research of African American writers in the nineteenth century. In this special issue of The Southern Quarterly, the contributors extend the conversation about "my southern home" by examining the experiences of African Americans, either as slaves or free people, who considered the South their home throughout the nineteenth century despite the social conflicts they might have encountered while living in the region. It features those African Americans who, as southerners, wrote about matters of race and region in their fiction, poetry, plays, letters, speeches, essays, and autobiographies. This issue concentrates on definitions of southernness that contest an imagined, pure antebellum southern culture as well as a constructed, white hegemonic post-bellum southern identity in the absence of blackness.

To provide a survey of the literary lives of black southerners during this period, we begin with Ben Schiller as he presents slave epistles as crucial documents for cultural historians and literary critics alike. These examples of slave correspondences with their masters show how important critical literacy was for a disempowered class. Schiller's essay serves as an interesting counterpoint for discussing the development of African American literature that essentially centers on narratives written by former slaves. It is important to understand how enslaved blacks also sought ways of engaging in epistolary, public discourse, "though frequently coded and covert," as another way to resist bondage while remaining in the South. Even when escape was the most appealing option, southern black slaves maintained a sense of place as Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897) claimed Edenton, North Carolina. Anne Bradford Warner explains just how Jacobs constructs a different southern home than that which appears in other slave narratives influenced by northern abolitionists: in Edenton, there was a "southern, African American folk community ... organized, functional, and rich with its own cultural legacies and traditions."1

Writing about his native South, William Wells Brown's life and literature inspired this themed-issue. Brown (1814-1884) led a very active public life as an abolitionist and prolific writer. His autobiography, Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written By Himself (1847), was the first of his numerous books of history, fiction, and travel writing. His novel, Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (1854) is considered the first novel by an African American, which he revised and published several editions.

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