Freedom's Journal: The First African-American Newspaper

By Watson, Shevaun E. | Composition Studies, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Freedom's Journal: The First African-American Newspaper


Watson, Shevaun E., Composition Studies


Freedom's Journal: The First African-American Newspaper, by Jacqueline Bacon. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2007.

Jacqueline Bacon's new and comprehensive history of Freedom s Journal is a welcome addition to African American rhetoric studies, and to the field of rhetoric and composition more generally. Freedom s Journal: The First African-American Newspaper follows on the heels of Bacon's important study of abolitionist rhetoric, The Humblest May Stand Forth. In Freedom s Journal, she turns her attention to the rhetorical dimensions of the early black press, linking this newspaper to antislavery efforts but also situating it within other meaningful contexts. Perhaps the greatest contribution of Bacon's study is her multilayered analysis of the newspaper, whereby through meticulous archival research she elaborates the biographical, historical, political, and social aspects of Freedom's Journal's success, demise, and lasting significance. As Bacon herself acknowledges, other useful studies of Freedom 's Journal exist, but important questions and lines of inquiry about this seminal paper have remained. She builds expertly on the groundwork laid by others, expanding readers' field of vision for understanding Freedom 's Journal while also refusing "to be the last word" on the subject (6-9). Those familiar with nineteenth-century African American rhetoric will appreciate this detailed history and deft analysis; others will welcome an engaging discussion of the era and some of its key black rhetors.

The book is organized into three sections. Part 1 provides important historical and rhetorical background. In chapter 1, Bacon offers what might be the most useful and succinct discussion of northern black communities, 17801830, currently available to rhetoric scholars. This period in African American rhetorical history is little known, so its inclusion here not only contextualizes the appearance of Freedom's Journal in 1827, but more importantly, provides a much-needed introduction to black rhetoric and politics during and after the Revolution. Chapters 2 and 3 discuss the exact circumstances and goals of the paper's genesis. What Bacon makes so clear and interesting in this section is the varied exigencies and objectives of Freedom 's Journal: not solely an abolitionist instrument, Bacon argues, the paper was devoted to other, larger causes, such as social justice in the broadest terms, as well as the development of community identity and black consciousness. Freedom s Journal provided local, national, and international news of interest and import to African Americans, while it also offered an array of information about black schools, businesses, organizations, and events. Bacon illustrates quite convincingly that, above all, the newspaper functioned as a highly accessible form of rhetorical education for free blacks and even for slaves. The editors, Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm, sought to promote debate rather than establish consensus on key issues of the day. By allowing the expression of diverse points of view, Freedom's Journal "[featured] models of strong persuasion by African Americans, [and .. . demonstrated] the link between rhetorical expertise and public activism" (84-85).

Part 2 traces the paper's "dialogic" treatment of the subjects most pressing to antebellum blacks: self-help, morality, and racial uplift (chapter 4); gender roles, masculinity, and womanhood (chapter 5); Africa and Haiti (chapter 6); colonization and emigration (chapter 7); and slavery and abolition (chapter 8). Bacon finds that in each case, the post-revolutionary African American community was far from monolithic in its sentiments, experiences, and struggles. Bacon does exquisite justice to the complexity of black communities at the time: there was "unity without uniformity" (6). She shows, for instance, that self-help rhetoric was part of a larger, ongoing debate among African Americans about the relationship between racism and moral behavior: "was prejudice due to condition (behavior or morality) or to color (the fact of being black in a white racist society)? …

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