Academic journal article African American Review

How Do You Solve a Problem like Theresa?

Academic journal article African American Review

How Do You Solve a Problem like Theresa?

Article excerpt

Freedom's Journal is well known as the "first newspaper published by African Americans." Words written in the first issue are often quoted and generally used to define its scope and purpose: "We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us" (Freedom 1.1 1). The dominant story of its origins is that this newspaper was published to defend African Americans after a particularly invidious assault against the character of the race by a Jewish journalist in New York and to compensate for the exclusion of African American points of view from public media. Freedom's Journal was, everyone knows, obviously an abolitionist paper written to inform and to persuade people to oppose slavery.

I had read somewhere, in a footnote or a brief textual aside, that Freedom's Journal included fiction. I don't remember in what context or when I stumbled across this tidbit, but I do remember that at the time, Frederick Douglass's "The Heroic Slave" (1852) was regularly deemed "the first published short story" by an African American and that accolades for the "first novel by an African American" went to William Wells Brown for his first version of Clotel, which had been published in England in 1852. I am pretty sure that when I began looking for fiction in Freedom's Journal, rediscovery of Emma Dunham Kelley's Megda published in 1891 had replaced Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy (1892) as the "first novel by an African American woman writer." It mattered but little that there were few clues as to who Emma Dunham Kelley was or why her novel seemed so out of synch with other African American literature of the time. Indeed, the mystery of Megda's author was soon rendered moot by the discovery of Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig, published in 1859. Scholars were delighted to find an even earlier debut for published prose by women, so they did not press hard on the questions of genre. As P. Gabrielle Foreman asserts, "The year of 1859 was a year of important 'firsts' for African American women's writing. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's short story "The Two Offers" appeared and Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig became the first novel by an African American to be published in the United States" (Foreman 317). Indeed, an entry of women writers even as late as 1859 gave a certain literary cach6 to the decade that preceded the Civil War. Douglass and Brown in 1852, Harper and Wilson in 1859 both featured and expanded slavery and freedom as the heart of antebellum African American literary history.

As I worked my way through page after indistinct page of Freedom's Journal microfilm, Victor Sejour's "Le Mulatre" had become a challenger to "The Heroic Slave" for "the first" title among male African American writers. The rediscovery of Victor Sejour as an African American writer was not without controversy, however. Some questioned whether a text published in French, in France, and apparently for "the French" could be considered authentic African American literature. Others accepted Sejour as an African American; after all, he was born in New Orleans to parents with some African ancestry. But they questioned whether he could be said to represent or to have influenced "the" African American literary tradition. Others welcomed the idea of African American literature as multilingual and diverse. Adding Sejour, who was also a very popular and prolific playwright in France, also evidenced early participation in the genre of drama as well as proof of international literary acclaim for writers of African descent. And certainly the 1837 publication in La revue des colonies made the published debut of an African American fiction writer almost a generation earlier than previously thought.

Before I found "Theresa--a Haytien Tale," I knew that Freedom's Journal was much more than--indeed may not have been intended to be--an abolitionist paper. Its first issue makes that clear. Founded by a diverse group of African Americans from several cities, it was created as a "public channel" by which "whatever concerns us as a people, will ever find ready admission" (Freedom 1. …

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