Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History

Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History

Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History

Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History


What is African American about African American literature? Why identify it as a distinct tradition? John Ernest contends that too often scholars have relied on na ve concepts of race, superficial conceptions of African American history, and the marginalization of important strains of black scholarship. With this book, he creates a new and just retelling of African American literary history that neither ignores nor transcends racial history.

Ernest revisits the work of nineteenth-century writers and activists such as Henry "Box" Brown, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Wilson, William Wells Brown, and Sojourner Truth, demonstrating that their concepts of justice were far more radical than those imagined by most white sympathizers. He sheds light on the process of reading, publishing, studying, and historicizing this work during the twentieth century. Looking ahead to the future of the field, Ernest offers new principles of justice that grant fragmented histories, partial recoveries, and still-unprinted texts the same value as canonized works. His proposal is both a historically informed critique of the field and an invigorating challenge to present and future scholars.


People who are looking for “a lot of interesting ideas,” and hope to
dabble here for little more, offend the author and degrade themselves.
They would do well to stop right now. Those who read in order to take action
on their consequent beliefs—these are the only readers I respect or look for.
Atrocities, real and repeated, proliferate within this social order. the deep
est of all lies in our will not to respond to what we see before us.

—JONATHAN kozol, The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home

This book has been inspired by numerous conversations, conferences, articles, and books over the years, but basically it was sparked by my initial experience of reading and trying to understand Frances E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892). Intrigued by the names of the characters in Harper’s novel, I started to do some very elementary research on such names as Iola, Delaney, Latimer, Latrobe, and Gresham, and in so doing found my way to Ida B. Wells, Lucille Delaney, George Latimer, John Hazlehurst Boneval Latrobe, and Gresham’s Law, among many other entrances to the complexities of nineteenth-century American history and culture. Since then, I have had many occasions for realizing anew that I did not know nearly enough about the literary and cultural history on which, according to my doctorate and professional experience, I was supposed to be an expert. As I read and taught numerous narratives, novels, poems, pamphlets, orations, and other pieces, and as I immersed myself in the relevant and even peripheral scholarship on African American literature, culture, and history, I found myself increasingly convinced that we cannot appreciate American literary and cultural history without a deep understanding of nineteenth-century African American literature. I found myself focused on a single though admittedly broad question: What are the requirements . . .

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