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Friday, January 19, 2018

January 19, 2018: MLK Day Figures: James Weldon Johnson



[To celebrate one of my favorite American holidays, this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of inspiring African American leaders, starting with my annual post on more fully remembering King himself. And leading up to a special Guest Post from one of my favorite current scholars and writers!]
On the professor, preacher, poet, activist, and novelist who embodies the concept of a Renaissance person.

It strikes me, in thinking back on the Americans on whom I’ve most consistently focused in this space—especially the nominees for the Hall of Inspiration, but certainly many of the other authors and historical figures as well—that many if not most of them would fit the definition of a Renaissance man or woman. While I’m sure that says something about my own ideals and emphases (and perhaps my goals for my own career and life, if I’m being fully honest here), I think it also represents a response to some of our contemporary and national tendencies toward specialization and categorization, our attempts to pin everybody’s identity down and figure out what most defines each of us. Certainly the academy has witnessed that trend over the last couple decades (although we might be moving away from it in gradual but real ways right now), but I think many other parallel trends can be found across our cultural narratives—such as the political need to categorize people as diverse as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Micheal Moore, Nancy Pelosi, and Noam Chomsky as all simply “liberals.” For all sorts of reasons, then, Renaissance men and women make particularly good tools with which to complicate such oversimplifying scholarly, cultural, and national narratives.

Yet I would hasten to add, both in general and when it comes to the folks on whom I’ve focused here, that there has to be depth as well as breadth—that for a Renaissance man or woman genuinely to inspire, to exemplify the best of our national histories and identities, he or she must have accomplished some meaningful successes in those many arenas, must offer quality as well as quantity. And the subject of my post today, James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), illustrates that balance perfectly. Johnson’s list of professional and personal roles reads like a LinkedIn template for the late 19th and early 20th centuries: he served as a teacher and principal at one of Jacksonville’s largest public schools; worked in the political and diplomatic realms as a consul (to a couple of Latin American nations) and campaign consultant (for Teddy Roosevelt); edited multiple newspapers, including the very influential African American weekly the New York Age; received one of the first law degrees granted to an African American; published pioneering works of anthropology and sociology, as well as multiple volumes of poetry, collections of sermons and spirituals (he also wrote the music to the popular song “Dem Bones” and various Broadway shows), and a historical examination of Haiti; served for a decade as the first African American president of the NAACP; and left that role in order to become the first Spence Chair of Creative Literature at Nashville’s Fisk University (a position created specifically for him). He excelled at each of those roles, enriching the particular professions and conversations and worlds and leaving them far different and stronger than had he not ventured into them.

Johnson’s most complex and controversial publication only further proves his ability to produce significant, quality work in each of his chosen roles. That work is his one novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), a book that he published anonymously to extremely vocal and divided reception, and for the authorship of which he took credit fifteen years later. Autobiography was controversial for a couple of related and telling reasons: it offered a realistic and compelling account of its unnamed protagonist’s ongoing experience of “passing” for white, nearly two decades before Nella Larsen’s Harlem Renaissance novel of that complex identity and issue; and it was unclear to its first audiences whether it was indeed an authentic autobiography or a novel. If the novel gained initial prominence because of those uncertainties and controversies, it remains a vital American text precisely because of what the uncertainties signal: the novel’s extremely complex, ambiguous, and compelling presentation of questions of fact and fiction, racial and national identity, authorship and narration and audience. As a literary critic, I’m tempted to wish that Johnson had written many more novels, so strong and unique is this one; but as an AmericanStudier, I can’t complain about (and instead, again, have the utmost admiration for) all of the other roles and work that occupied Johnson’s time.
Special Guest Post this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Figures or histories you’d highlight?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

January 18, 2018: MLK Day Figures: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper



[To celebrate one of my favorite American holidays, this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of inspiring African American leaders, starting with my annual post on more fully remembering King himself. And leading up to a special Guest Post from one of my favorite current scholars and writers!]
On an author and reformer whose efforts and works spanned virtually every significant 19th century period, issue, and literary genre.
Many of my nominees for the Hall of American Inspiration have been folks I have called Renaissance Americans, historical and cultural figures whose work, writing, interests, and influences spanned many different subjects and disciplines, communities and events. Such figures, to echo what I wrote about historical and literary inspirations in this post on Anna Julia Cooper, exemplify the deepest meaning of an interdisciplinary AmericanStudies approach, making clear that inspirational American identities do not adhere to specific categories or boundaries for where and how their influences are felt. And I don’t know that any American has crossed into more spheres of influence, nor done so by overcoming more significant obstacles, than Frances Ellen Watkins (Harper).
Watkins (her maiden name) was born to free African American parents in Baltimore, but in 1825, a period when (as Frederick Douglass’s slave experiences of that city around the same time illustrate) the lives and prospects of free blacks were not often far removed from those of slaves. Yet before she had turned 30—while slavery was still the law of much of the land, including of course in Maryland—she had published multiple collections of poetry, including the very successful Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854); had moved to Pennsylvania and was helping William Still run his portion of the Underground Railroad; and was traveling throughout the north delivering lectures on behalf of both abolitionism and women’s rights. Her 1860 marriage to Fenton Harper briefly removed her from such public efforts, and had she concluded her public careers at that time her life and works would already constitute an impressive and inspirational part of our histories and community.
Fentor Harper tragically died only four years later, however, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (as she would remain known for the remainder of her life) returned to the public sphere, or really many spheres, with renewed passion and power. She not only continued to work for African American rights, during and after Reconstruction and the many other post-war challenges, but became as eloquent and important a voice for women’s rights and suffrage as any American. She contributed so many journalistic pieces on those and other issues that she came to be known as the mother of African American journalism. She released many more collections of poetry, creating in Sketches of Southern Life (1872)’s Aunt Chloe one of the era’s most compelling characters and voices. She also published multiple novels, including one of the most important Reconstruction novels in Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892). And throughout she dealt with her period and its far too often dark histories with the combination of realism and optimism reflected in Iola’s subtitle and best captured in her most famous lines of poetry (and one of the principal inspirations for my most recent book): “Yet the shadows bear the promise/Of a brighter coming day.”
Last figure tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Figures or histories you’d highlight?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

January 17, 2018: MLK Day Figures: David Walker



[To celebrate one of my favorite American holidays, this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of inspiring African American leaders, starting with my annual post on more fully remembering King himself. And leading up to a special Guest Post from one of my favorite current scholars and writers!]
On one of the most aggressive, impassioned, and eloquent—if tragically short-lived—voices for social equality in our nation’s history.
When it comes to social progress and change, as I wrote most explicitly in this post on the Civil Rights movement (and as certainly informed my thoughts in Monday’s MLK Day post), I think our national narratives tend to emphasize peaceful mechanisms like passive resistance (which is of course not, as I also argued in this Occupy Davis post, necessarily peaceful nor passive) more than they do aggressive protests or challenges to the established order or society. That’s a perfectly understandable perspective, since it allows us to recognize the need for change while likewise celebrating peace, love, and other importantly unifying ideas. But just as Martin Luther King pushed back on such perspectives by arguing for Why We Can’t Wait, and just as Frederick Douglass illustrated by challenging his audience directly in his seminal “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech, significant social change depends as well, if not indeed centrally, on aggressive voices and protests.
When it comes to abolitionism, there is certainly no shortage of aggressive voices to include in our national narratives: Douglass himself, Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison, even (if also exemplifying the conflicts and violence that such aggression can produce) John Brown. But perhaps the most aggressive and angry, yet also eloquent and powerful, such abolitionist voice belongs to an almost entirely forgotten early 19th century American: David Walker. Walker’s life, and even more so his public prominence, were tragically short-lived—he burst onto the scene as one of Boston’s and the nation’s most vocal abolitionists in 1827/1828, published his seminal Walker’s Appeal (the full title is much much longer than that, and I insist you click the link to check it out!) in 1829, and died (probably of tuberculosis) at the age of 33 in 1830—which might explain in part his disappearance from our collective memories. But I would argue that Walker’s profoundly radical text and ideas likewise contributed to that elision—and are precisely why we should instead remember and engage with him today.
The most overtly, and not at all unimportantly, radical aspect of Walker’s Appeal is its typography: as scholar Marcy Dinius has analyzed at length, Walker utilized capitalization, exclamation points, enlarged typefaces, bold and italics, and many other typographical elements to create a text that quite literally yells (screams, even) at its audiences. Yet those typographical extremes parallel the book’s many equally aggressive and challenging ideas and elements: Walker’s use of the Constitution as a frame, in order to force the nation’s hypocrisies to the fore throughout; his arguments for immediate and absolute emancipation by any and every means, including violent slave revolts; and, perhaps most strikingly for the era, his titular and continued address not to fellow abolitionists, nor to slaveholders, or even to white Americans at all, but “to the Colored Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America.” That address, like Walker’s book and voice overall, refuses to accept any of the conditions of slavery, including its forced illiteracy and powerlessness, making a case instead for the shared anger, challenge, passion, and eloquence of all African Americans.
Next figure tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Figures or histories you’d highlight?