Strangers Book: The Human of African American Literature

Strangers Book: The Human of African American Literature

Strangers Book: The Human of African American Literature

Strangers Book: The Human of African American Literature

Synopsis

The Strangers Book explores how various nineteenth-century African American writers radically reframed the terms of humanism by redefining what it meant to be a stranger. Rejecting the idea that humans have easy access to a common reserve of experiences and emotions, they countered the notion that a person can use a supposed knowledge of human nature to claim full understanding of any other person's life. Instead they posited that being a stranger, unknown and unknowable, was an essential part of the human condition. Affirming the unknown and unknowable differences between people, as individuals and in groups, laid the groundwork for an ethical and democratic society in which all persons could find a place. If everyone is a stranger, then no individual or class can lay claim to the characteristics that define who gets to be a human in political and public arenas.

Lloyd Pratt focuses on nineteenth-century African American writing and publishing venues and practices such as the Colored National Convention movement and literary societies in Nantucket and New Orleans. Examining the writing of Frederick Douglass in tandem with that of the francophone free men of color who published the first anthology of African American poetry in 1845, he contends these authors were never interested in petitioning whites for sympathy or for recognition of their humanity. Instead, they presented a moral imperative to develop practices of stranger humanism in order to forge personal and political connections based on mutually acknowledged and always evolving differences.

Excerpt

When the Times-Picayune returned to print four days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, its plaintive headline broke down the fourth wall of the fourth estate. Desperation was reflected in the headlines outsized typeface, which shouted down the papers customary flat editorial voice with an insistent “HELP US, PLEASE.” The storied newspaper of New Orleans had been reduced to an act of petition. Upon closer examination the quotation marks cordoning off the headline came into focus. In a deft displacement undertaken at a moment of great crisis, the newspaper shifted responsibility for its petition to Angela Perkins, the woman pictured in the large-scale color photograph appearing below the headline. In the photograph, Angela Perkins wears a close-fitted, cropped yellow top with spaghetti straps. Her black capri pants are screen-printed with large cabbage roses. Her head, feet, and shoulders are bare; her hands are clasped. Bending slightly forward, she kneels in a street clogged with spent water bottles. Perkins is at an oblique angle to the cameras lens, and her clasped hands lift toward her chest. Her eyes are closed, but the tendons in her neck look strained to the point of breaking. Her mouth is open. Crowds of people stand and sit on the curb behind her. The caption reads “NEW ORLEANS: A distraught Angela Perkins screams ‘Help us, please!’ outside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on Thursday. A cloud of desperation settled over the hundreds of hungry, homeless people at the Convention Center, creating an atmosphere of fear and hopelessness.” The inauspicious history of such cagey ventriloquism should be well known. Its legacy explains why you will have already guessed that Angela Perkins is black.

White antebellum abolitionists treasured images of petition. Attached to the plaintive “Am I not a man and a brother?,” the figure of a kneeling black man was ubiquitous. Here, Angela Perkins becomes the papers proxy; it is she, not the paper or the city, who requires witness and assistance. The paper draws on her presence while nevertheless associating her with the disorder it describes in a smaller headline. “After the disaster,” the Times-Picayune . . .

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