Globalizing a Race to Publish an Encyclopedia

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, United States on 2011-10-27 18:02Z by Steven

Globalizing a Race to Publish an Encyclopedia

American Nineteenth Century History
Volume 11, Issue 1 (2010)
pages 79-94
DOI: 10.1080/14664651003616966

Michael Benjamin, Independent Scholar
African American Print Culture
Cleveland, Ohio, USA

In 1912, Daniel Alexander Payne Murray published a prospectus for his “Historical and Biographical Encyclopedia of the Colored Race throughout the World.” He promised to publish what literary historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., would describe as the “Grail” for black scholars. As Murray planned his encyclopedia in the first decade of the twentieth century, persons of African descent in the United States were killed and assaulted because of their race, and racial identification was as critical an issue as it was also ambiguous. Moreover, despite its ambiguity, or perhaps, because of it, race, in 1912 and since the Naturalization Act of 1790, had everything to do with American citizenship. In Murray’s time, whether a person was identified on the one hand as “white” or “octoroon” versus an identity as “black,” “Negro,” “mulatto,” or “quadroon” influenced whether or not that person could exercise his rights as an American citizen (with her rights barely entering the question). However, race, as Murray understood with its skin color codes shading the meaning of American citizenship, was much more a social construction than it was biological evidence of a person’s hereditary origins. Formulating a strategy in support of black American citizenship, Murray developed a global interpretation of the black American experience from a pragmatically ambiguous cultural practice to compose an identity for himself, his people, and his proposed encyclopedia.

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