The Literary Movement America Forgot

What creates a history? Is it the stories we tell, the events we record, the texts we study, the myths that are told and retold? All of this and more, certainly. But sometimes, history resides in the omissions, in the moments we've forgotten, in the events we failed to record, in the documents we simply overlooked.

The idea of history-though-omission struck me forcefully in recent years as Fidel Louis and I delved into research for a project we were working on that recently saw publication. We were studying America's 19th-century black-owned presses for an anthology of verse, titled Voices Beyond Bondage: An Anthology of Verse by African Americans of the 19th Century [NewSouth Books]. As we groped through countless reels of microfiche and exhumed hundreds of poems, we came to more fully understand the rich cultural and literary heritages of African Americans, heritages that have largely been subsumed in popular history by the horrific reality of slavery in America and our shameful race-based human chattel bondage system.

"Omission-history tells us that slavery was the only identity of African Americans in the 19th century, but this is not the case."

Omission-history tells us that slavery was the only identity of African Americans in the 19th century, but this is not the case. Relatively sizable populations of free African Americans existed in cities like New York and Boston, while smaller communities dotted the landscapes of Border States, the northeast, and America's territories. And, of course, not all southern African Americans were enslaved. But while these people were sadly, inarguably marginalized, often wholly invisible to society at large and for the most part completely segregated from Anglo society, they were not universally without resources or voice.

In 1827 the efforts of three freeborn New York City African American clergymen -- Samuel E. Cornish, John B. Russwurm, and Peter Williams Jr. -- birthed the nation's first black-owned and operated newspaper. When Freedom's Journal hit the newsstands, it marked the first moments of an unprecedented revolution in American media. As the sole black-controlled publication in the nation, this four-page weekly was the first to focus on content of interest to African American communities (something woefully absent from mainstream media) and was refreshingly, blissfully, free of the usual clutter of socially demeaning ads. Although initial circulation was small, the Journal was lauded by the abolitionist/liberal media for its fine reporting and touched off what would become a veritable maelstrom of black-owned presses to follow.

"African Americans grasped onto verse like a lifeline: readers responded to open-call columns in droves, with some papers receiving more poems than they could publish."

Perhaps what is most surprising about Freedom's Journal is not merely its existence in an era of such segregation, but that the paper -- which had no shortage of topics to cover -- reserved in every issue an open-call column for poetry, thereby creating and nurturing a creative space for African Americans, making the Journal truly the voice of its readership. While versifying in the 19th century was far more commonplace than it is today -- most major newspapers featured poetry -- the fact that a radical four-page weekly operating on a shoestring budget would deliberately solicit poetry submissions to run in its pages speaks volumes to how deeply and immediately African Americans identified with verse.

And it was here in Freedom's Journal, that we discovered the foundations of a forgotten literary movement, a movement created and sustained not by a few elite authors, but by ordinary everyday people of color, people living -- and thriving! -- in marginalized circumstances.

African Americans grasped onto verse like a lifeline: readers responded to open-call columns in droves, with some papers receiving more poems than they could publish. Throughout the rest of the century almost every black-owned newspaper, from wide-reaching and influential publications like Frederick Douglass' Paper )Rochester, NY, 1851-60) to the smallest of presses like the Kansas Herald (Topeka, KS, 1880), would feature an open-call poetry column. While black-owned newspapers -- there were scores of them by the century's end--- did run poetry by famous American poets and Caucasian abolitionists, by and large the poetry of the black press became an empowerment for African Americans, a voice for the voiceless, a creative safe haven in which they could speak of daily struggles and personal joys in verse.

But where in our history do we remember the African American poets and poems of the antebellum, Civil War, Reconstruction, or early Jim Crow years? Where do we record those who bravely spoke out against the era's libelous mischaracterizations of people of color and the then-prevalent myth of white supremacy? Where do we honor these creative, complex, lush, passionate voices? With a few high-profile exceptions, the answer is simple: We don't. We instead misremember 19th century African Americans as illiterate slaves or -- at best -- a poor, uneducated people with little interest (or aptitude!) for literature and poetic expression.

The poems of 19th-century black-owned press prove otherwise. They offer a different, more nuanced, view of African American history. Slaves, the free born, the self-liberated, the emancipated or manumitted, the children of slaves, and creoles of color are all represented in Voices Beyond Bondage, and their writings cover a broad array of topics. How ever did we fail to know them?