Academic journal article African American Review

Information Wanted: The Curse of Caste, Minnie's Sacrifice, and the Christian Recorder

Academic journal article African American Review

Information Wanted: The Curse of Caste, Minnie's Sacrifice, and the Christian Recorder

Article excerpt

I the "Dedicatory Lines" he wrote for the Christian Recorder's inaugural 1852 issue, editor Reverend Daniel Payne apostrophized:

   Whate'er thine eyes behold, note down--
   The beautiful in nature, or the grand,
   The curious or sublime....
   Whate'er is useful to the world portray,
   And show its application just to all
   The ends of mortal life--the ends of God. (Payne 298, 11. 31-38)

The newspaper, functioning nominally as the house organ for the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, fulfilled, in many respects, Payne's grander "ends": it became an African American institution. Established and produced by members of the northern black elite, it was an important component in what Carla Peterson has described as a "program of 'racial uplift' that sought to raise the masses to its own social and cultural level as well as to theorize issues of black nationality" (11). Like its contemporary and erstwhile competitor, the Anglo-African, the Recorder was a vehicle for nationwide debate regarding issues such as emigration, suffrage, and social equality in addition to addressing concerns specific to the AME Church.

During the turbulent 1860s, the Recorder was also a crucial source of news. As one frequent correspondent put it, "We are amid stirring times--events thicken around us" (Lynch 41). In 1865 alone, the Recorder recorded the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery, the surrender of Lee, and the assassination of Lincoln--as well as the repeal of the "black laws" in Illinois and Missouri and the fiery destruction of Wilberforce University, recently bought by the AME Church as their flagship educational institution. (1) The Recorder was structured in such a way that portrayed this "thickening" of events particularly effectively. Its board of corresponding editors, made up of regional church conference leaders, described the doings of the local church, as well as notable speakers and other events; readers submitted accounts of their own; soldiers and chaplains from the US Colored Troops wrote dispatches from the front lines of the war. (2) Perhaps most poignantly, escaped slaves placed ads--with the customary headline, "Information Wanted"--describing long-lost relatives in the hopes of finding them. While the editor, on occasion, pleaded with his less communicative correspondents to send items, the Recorder, on the whole, suffered no shortage of copy. Indeed, in one instance the editor, Elisha Weaver, admonished his correspondents to "write their articles shorter, or we shall be under the necessity of abridging them ourselves," while elsewhere, he was apologetic for excluding submissions due to lack of space ("To Our Readers" 62). (3)

As one might expect, publishing fiction was not high on the list of the newspaper's priorities during the Civil War. Yet it was exactly from the mid-to-late 1860s that the Recorder saw fit to serialize two lengthy novels. Beginning in February 1865, Julia C. Collins's novel The Curse of Caste; or the Slave Bride, would appear in 31 installments and run for a period of seven months. Published over a similar period in 1869, the Recorder also serialized Frances E. W. Harper's Minnie's Sacrifice. It would not serialize another novel until they published a later novel by Harper: Sowing and Reaping, in 1876-77. In contrast to these novels, whose installments appeared on the front page of each issue, the short fiction that the Recorder customarily published was nearly always relegated to the back section, along with miscellaneous pieces of poetry, children's tales, and advertisements. Perhaps most curious, the appeal of both novels was dubious. Both were essentially recastings of the "tragic mulatta" plot, and The Curse of Caste is particularly troubling because it aligns Collins's mixed-race heroine with her white father and the white race by marrying her off to a member of the French nobility. What in these implausible stories would appeal to an audience contemplating the heady but suddenly very real possibilities of emancipation and enfranchisement, or alternatively, actually dodging "bombs and balls" on the field of battle (Turner, "A Very Important Letter" 109)? …

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