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Recovering a Lost Literary Tradition

Recovering a Lost Literary Tradition

Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies

Dr. Elizabeth McHenry

Duke University Press, 2002, 352 pp., $54.95 cloth, ISBN 0-8223-2980-8; $18.95 paper, ISBN 0-8223-2996-6

When writers such as Terry McMillan, Walter Mosley and E. Lynn Harris burst into the ranks of best-selling American authors, the media hailed their success as a triumph for the African American reading public, which had finally, so the stories said, “come of age.” But reading by African Americans is far from being a new trend. Indeed, there is a rich and vibrant history of African American literary associations and book clubs — a history that comes to vivid life in the pages of Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies.

Delving into 19th- and early 20th-century archival sources, the book demonstrates that, while much has been made of African Americans’ lack of literacy — from the period of enslavement to today’s racially charged media debates over underprepared Black youth — this is far from being the whole picture. While the history and the pernicious legacy of Black illiteracy are, of course, undeniable, Dr. Elizabeth McHenry argues thoroughly and convincingly that our cultural assumptions about Black inadequacy in this area have blinded us to the richness and variety of African American culture’s “literate practices.”

Forgotten Readers begins with one of the most famous episodes of 19th-century literature — Frederick Douglass’ description of the desperate stratagems he was forced to resort to to learn how to read — and places the passage in the context of the fevered levels of reading and writing that marked African American life in the North in the years leading up to the Civil War. Despite their exclusion from schools and their limited access to books, free Blacks in the urban North well understood their urgent need to read about and participate in the debates surrounding the spread of slavery and the plight of enslaved African Americans. Through literary and mutual aid societies as well as newspapers, pamphlets, letters — a wide variety of activities involving both prominent wordsmiths such as Frederick Douglass, David Walker and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and ordinary men and women whose names have been lost to history — McHenry argues that a “Black public sphere” evolved whose members used reading and literary conversation to intervene in political and literary debates from which they were intended to be excluded.

Through meticulous research, she documents the central role played by mutual aid societies and African American women’s clubs in the 19th century. In the 20th century, we are introduced to groups like the Saturday Nighters of Washington, D.C., — whose members included Jean Toomer and Georgia Douglas Johnson, writers who were to win acclaim during the Harlem Renaissance. And in an epilogue, McHenry links this rich tradition of reading and literary conversation to the Oprah’s Book Club phenomenon. Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., notes, “No scholar or student can understand 19th-century African American literary history without reading this book.” And indeed, McHenry appears to have made a serious and provocative contribution to the field of African American literary studies.

Dr. Elizabeth McHenry is assistant professor of English at New York University.

— Reviewed by Kendra Hamilton

African American Communication: Exploring Identity and Culture,
2nd Edition

Drs. Michael L. Hecht, Ronald L. Jackson II, Sidney A. Ribeau

Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2003, 321 pp.

Cloth, ISBN: 0-8058-3994-1, $74.95
Paper, ISBN: 0-8058-3995-X, $34.50

Applying the cultural contracts theory and the communication theory of identity, the authors of African American Communication explore relationships among African Americans, as well as between African Americans and European Americans, while highlighting the need for sensitivity to issues of power when discussing race, ethnicity and culture.

Hecht is a professor and head in the department of communication arts and sciences at Pennsylvania State University. Jackson is an assistant professor in the same department. Ribeau is a professor of interpersonal communication and president of Bowling Green State University.

Beyond Affirmative Action: Reframing the Context of Higher Education

By Robert A. Ibarra

University of Wisconsin Press, 2002, 323 pp., $24.95 paper, $59.95 cloth

ISBN: 0-299-16904-9

As affirmative action court cases make headlines across the nation, Robert Ibarra explores the premise that higher education has not evolved its thinking about affirmative action since the program was first implemented. Based on extensive interviews with Latino students and faculty, Ibarra introduces a theory of “multicontextuality,” and calls for a complete paradigm shift of the modern university establishment and academic culture.

Ibarra is assistant vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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