A new book explores how a story of rejection shaped African American literature and activism for generations to come.
While scholars have explored some of the historical periods that gave rise to contemporary African-American writing, the years leading up to the last century and immediately after 1896 are often overlooked. Plessy v. Ferguson Decision of the Supreme Court, which legalized segregation.
“I think our tendency to lump together the years 1877-1919, from the end of Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance, prevented us from identifying the specificity of the intervening years,” writes Professor Elizabeth McHenry, President of New York. University’s English department, in Making Black Literature: Writing, Literary Practice, and African-American Authorship (Duke University Press, 2021).
In the book, McHenry focuses on those forgotten years – from around 1896 to the first two decades of the 1900s – not because those decades marked success, but rather because it was a time of publication failure.
This is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the story of writer and activist Mary Church Terrell, one of the focal points of the book, whose challenges, according to McHenry, helped spur the success of African American writers. that we know today.
“Terrell wanted to pave the way for black writers to write fiction as the norm and for these fictional forms to become as acceptable as journalistic forms,” says McHenry.
While her journalism appeared in African-American print sources throughout the first decade of the 20th century, her archives at the Library of Congress are replete with unpublished news that she wrote and sought to publish in the nation’s elite literary magazines, ”McHenry continues in his book. “The collection also includes a discouraging series of rejection letters from the editors of these magazines which made it clear to her that she lived in a political climate that was not conducive to literary ambitions like hers.”
Yet she says these failures were “both fundamental and, as much as we regret today, also necessary.
“This body of work that I’m looking at, this body of work that includes practitioners and projects and authors and authorship as a concept, is like an infrastructure,” said McHenry, who previously wrote Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African-American Literary Societies (Duke University Press, 2002). “It’s the backbone of Negro literature, the backbone of what we now think of as African American literature – and not the way I think a lot of people look at earlier times and say, see. : ‘It was the roots of the Harlem Renaissance.’ These are not the roots of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s something different. These are the roots of an appreciation for literature and literary culture, and a substantial audience for black literature. It is a much larger infrastructure or scaffolding for literature as we know it now.
(Note: In the introduction to the new book, McHenry writes, “To use the word ‘Negro’, as I do deliberately in this study, is to evoke a particular time when African Americans adopted the word, insisting so that its first letter is capitalized as a means both to control its meaning and to signify the recognition and respect due to people of African descent. ”).
Here McHenry talks about the book and, more specifically, how African-American writing in the post-Reconstruction era had a purpose that extended beyond the printed page: