Making and Unmaking Whiteness in Early New South Fiction After the Civil War

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2014-12-21 01:40Z by Steven

Making and Unmaking Whiteness in Early New South Fiction After the Civil War

77 pages (21,670 words)
eBook ISBN: 9781476497068

Peter Schmidt, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English Literature
Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania

This essay—a work of literary criticism and critical race studies written to be accessible to non-specialists—examines how popular fiction contributed to and contested new forms of white racial dominance, collectively known as Jim Crow or the “color-line,” in the U.S. in the 1880s and after. I focus in particular on the cultural work undertaken by the “command performance” scene in these texts, in which a black person was asked to tell a story or otherwise give a performance that was supposed to affirm the affection and respect “good” blacks held for whites. Yet what begins to emerge again and again in such “command performance” scenes, even sometimes against the author’s efforts to downplay them, are suggestions of coercion, duplicity, and instability in power hierarchies and racial identities. White supremacy is demonstrably not a given here; it is imperfectly produced, or at least reaffirmed under stress, in a way that locally conditions any power that whiteness may claim. And if a white person’s sense of entitlement was so dependent upon the performance of another, to what degree could such a sense of self be threatened or even unmade in such encounters?

Making and Unmaking Whiteness surveys a broad range of black and white authors but gives special attention to the fictions of four—Joel Chandler Harris, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Kate Chopin, and Pauline Hopkins—who in the early Jim Crow era both dissected the contradictions in white supremacy and imagined alternatives.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Dividing Lines: Class Anxiety and Postbellum Black Fiction

Posted in Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2013-02-24 22:48Z by Steven

Dividing Lines: Class Anxiety and Postbellum Black Fiction

University of Michigan Press
232 pages
6 x 9
Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-472-11861-8
Ebook ISBN: 978-0-472-02890-0

Andreá N. Williams, Associate Professor of English
Ohio State University

Photograph of John and Lugenia Burns Hope and family, undated, Atlanta University Photographs—Individuals, Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library
(Pictured from left to right: Dr. John Hope, Edward Hope, John Hope, II, and and Lugenia Burns Hope)

New insights on the intersection of race and class in black fiction from the 1880s to 1900s

Dividing Lines is one of the most extensive studies of class in nineteenth-century African American literature. Clear and engaging, this book unveils how black fiction writers represented the uneasy relationship between class differences, racial solidarity, and the quest for civil rights in black communities.

By portraying complex, highly stratified communities with a growing black middle class, these authors dispelled popular notions that black Americans were uniformly poor or uncivilized. But even as the writers highlighted middle-class achievement, they worried over whether class distinctions would help or sabotage collective black protest against racial prejudice. Andreá N. Williams argues that the signs of class anxiety are embedded in postbellum fiction: from the verbal stammer or prim speech of class-conscious characters to fissures in the fiction’s form. In these telling moments, authors innovatively dared to address the sensitive topic of class differences—a topic inextricably related to American civil rights and social opportunity.

Williams delves into the familiar and lesser-known works of Frances E. W. Harper, Pauline Hopkins, Charles W. Chesnutt, Sutton Griggs, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, showing how these texts mediate class through discussions of labor, moral respectability, ancestry, spatial boundaries, and skin complexion. Dividing Lines also draws on reader responses—from book reviews, editorials, and letters—to show how the class anxiety expressed in African American fiction directly sparked reader concerns over the status of black Americans in the U.S. social order. Weaving literary history with compelling textual analyses, this study yields new insights about the intersection of race and class in black novels and short stories from the 1880s to 1900s.


  • Introduction: Contending Classes, Dividing Lines
  • 1. The Language of Class: Taxonomy and Respectability in Frances E. W. Harper’s Trial and Triumph and Iola Leroy
  • 2. Working through Class: The Black Body, Labor, and Leisure in Sutton Griggs’s Overshadowed
  • 3. Mapping Class Difference: Space and Social Mobility in Paul L. Dunbar’s Short Fiction
  • 4. Blood and the Mark of Class: Pauline Hopkins’s Genealogies of Status
  • 5. Classing the Color Line: Class-Passing, Antiracism, and Charles W. Chesnutt
  • Epilogue: Beyond the Talented Tenth
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity

Posted in Anthologies, Arts, Books, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2012-07-19 00:55Z by Steven

Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity

Duke University Press
400 pages
71 photographs
Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8223-5085-9
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5067-5

Edited by:

Maurice O. Wallace, Associate Professor of English and African & African American Studies
Duke University

Shawn Michelle Smith, Associate Professor of Visual and Critical Studies
School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Pictures and Progress explores how, during the nineteenth century and the early twentieth, prominent African American intellectuals and activists understood photography’s power to shape perceptions about race and employed the new medium in their quest for social and political justice. They sought both to counter widely circulating racist imagery and to use self-representation as a means of empowerment. In this collection of essays, scholars from various disciplines consider figures including Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and W. E. B. Du Bois as important and innovative theorists and practitioners of photography. In addition, brief interpretive essays, or “snapshots,” highlight and analyze the work of four early African American photographers. Featuring more than seventy images, Pictures and Progress brings to light the wide-ranging practices of early African American photography, as well as the effects of photography on racialized thinking.

Contributors. Michael A. Chaney, Cheryl Finley, P. Gabrielle Foreman, Ginger Hill, Leigh Raiford, Augusta Rohrbach, Ray Sapirstein, Suzanne N. Schneider, Shawn Michelle Smith, Laura Wexler, Maurice O. Wallace

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Pictures and Progress / Maurice O. Wallace and Shawn Michelle Smith
  • 1. “A More Perfect Likeness”: Frederick Douglass and the Image of the Nation / Laura Wexler
  • 2. “Rightly Viewed”: Theorizations of the Self in Frederick Douglass’s Lecture on Pictures / Ginger Hill
  • 3. Shadow and Substance: Sojourner Truth in Black and White / Augusta Rohrbach
    • Snapshot 1. Unredeemed Realities: Augustus Washington / Shawn Michelle Smith
  • 4. Mulatta Obscura: Camera Tactics and Linda Brent / Michael Chaney
  • 5. Who’s Your Mama?: “White” Mulatta Genealogies, Early Photography, and Anti-Passing Narratives of Slavery and Freedom / P. Gabrielle Foreman
  • 6. Out from Behind the Mask: Paul Laurence Dunbar, the Hampton Institute Camera Club, and Photographic Performance of Identity / Ray Sapirstein
    • Snapshot 2. Reproducing Black Masculinity: Thomas Askew / Shawn Michelle Smith
  • 7. Louis Agassiz and the American School of Ethnoeroticism: Polygenesis, Pornography, and Other “Perfidious Influences” / Suzanne Schneider
  • 8. Framing the Black Soldier: Image, Uplift, and the Duplicity of Pictures / Maurice O. Wallace
    • Snapshot 3. Unfixing the Frame(-up): A. P. Bedou / Shawn Michelle Smith
  • 9. “Looking at One’s Self through the Eyes of Others”: W. E. B. Du Bois’s Photographs for the Paris Exposition of 1900 / Shawn Michelle Smith
  • 10. Ida B. Wells and the Shadow Archive / Leigh Raiford
    • Snapshot 4. The Photographer’s Touch: J. P. Ball / Shawn Michelle Smith
  • 11. No More Auction Block for Me! / Cheryl Finley
  • Bibliography
  • Contributors
  • Index
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“Entirely Black Verse from Him Would Succeed”: Minstrel Realism and William Dean Howells

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2011-12-16 03:56Z by Steven

“Entirely Black Verse from Him Would Succeed”: Minstrel Realism and William Dean Howells

Nineteenth-Century Literature
Volume 59, Number 4 (March 2005)
pages 494-525
DOI: 10.1525/ncl.2005.59.4.494

Gene Jarrett, Associate Professor of English
Boston University

In the early months of 1896, James A. Herne returned to his hotel in Toledo, Ohio, the city where he was directing and performing in his most popular play to date, Shore Acres. The hotel clerk informed the preeminent actor and playwright that one Paul Laurence Dunbar had left him a gift. Indeed, after attending and enjoying Shore Acres, Dunbar decided to leave Herne a complimentary copy of his second and latest book, Majors and Minors (1896). Fortunately for the African American poet, Herne was well acquainted with the most authoritative literary reviewer, cultural critic, editor, and publisher at the time, the so-called Dean of American Letters, William Howells. Howells was already a household name for mentoring and helping to publish the works of such well-known writers as George Washington Cable, Henry James, Sarah Orne Jewett, Joel Chandler Harris, and Mark Twain. Readers of Harper’s Weekly in particular had come to know and appreciate Howells’s columns, which for a decade had epitomized the magazine’s long-standing identification and review of instructive and entertaining literature. When Dunbar dropped off the book at Herne’s hotel, the thought that Herne would hand Majors and Minors to Howells, who would then review the book for Harper’s Weekly and thereby launch Dunbar’s literary career, was far-fetched, to say the least.

Remarkably, these events occurred in this exact way. Herne did not respond to Dunbar while Shore Acres was playing in Toledo, but he did later in Detroit, where the play relocated and from which he sent the poet a letter: “While at Toledo a copy of your poems was left at my hotel by a Mr. Childs,” Herne wrote; “I tried very hard to find Mr. Childs to learn more of you. Your poems are wonderful. I shall acquaint William Dean Howells and other literary people with them. They are new to me and may be to them.” Herne passed Majors and Minors on to Howells, who decided to review the book in the 27 June 1896 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

Majors and Minors was “new” to both Herne and Howells not because of its two main genres, British Romantic and American local-color poetry: Herne was well read in American literature, while Howells specialized in classic and contemporaneous Western literature. Actually, the frontispiece of Majors and Minors, an image of Dunbar at age eighteen, made the poems “new” (see Figure 1). Howells found the image so compelling that, for the benefit of his readers, he decided to describe Dunbar’s phenotype and physiognomy, those biological traits that affirmed the poet as a “pure African type.” So captivated was Howells by the frontispiece and its implications that, reportedly, he wrote a substantial portion of the review—the sections regarding the idea of someone like Dunbar—without yet reading all of the poems in the book. For Howells the frontispiece verified Dunbar’s identity as an African descendant born in the postbellum New World. The image influenced Howells’s encounter with Majors and Minors in much the same way that a “paratext” influences a reader’s encounter with a text, although Dunbar’s book lacks a comprehensive paratextual frame. Aside from the printer’s information (“Hadley & Hadley, Toledo, Ohio”) and the dedication to Dunbar’s mother, Majors and Minors, as Howells puts it in the review, was “dateless, placeless, without a publisher.” Initially unable to “place” the work, Howells focused on the discernibly Africanphysiognomy and dark phenotype in the frontispiece in order to “place” Dunbar and his work…

The frontispiece created certain expectations for Howells about the kind of writing that should exist in Majors and Minors Whenever Dunbar’s book defied these expectations, skepticism tempered Howells’s enthusiasm. In his review Howells suggests that, in order to assure both critical acclaim and commercial success, the poet should dedicate himself to writing verses only in “Black” dialect, similar to those filling the second and smaller section of Majors and Minors. For Dunbar is “most himself,” Howells insists, when he writes in such informal or colloquial English. Accordingly, he maintains that Dunbar should refrain from writing poems in formal or “literary” English, such as those filling the first and larger section of the book. Howells subtly reiterates this assessment one month later in a letter to Ripley Hitchcock, then serving as literary editor and adviser at D. Appleton and Company. Dated 29 July 1896, the letter belongs to a long-running conversation between Howells and Hitchcock about promising American writers, most notably Stephen Crane. After informing  Hitchcock of his laudatory review of Crane’s two books, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and The Red Badge of Courage (1895), in the previous Sunday’s World, Howells closes the letter with a couple of sentences about Dunbar: “Major Pond is going to platform young Dunbar next winter, and I believe a book of entirely black verse from him would succeed. My notice raised such interest.”‘

These words are remarkable for three reasons. First, Howells is referring to Major James A. Pond, a prestigious literary agent who had previously directed the lecture tours of Twain and Cable, among other popular American writers. Dunbar had secured Major Pond as an agent by the time he decided to travel to England in February 1897 to lecture and recite his poems.  Second, the reason that Dunbar interested Major Pond in the first place had much to do with that “notice”—Howells’s term for his review of Majors and Minors in Harper’s Weekly. Third, and most important, Howells’s assertion that “a book of entirely black verse from [Dunbar] would succeed” values the racial authenticity of African American literature, particularly the orthography of dialect that came from the pen of a “pure African type.” This appreciation, I argue, belongs to a larger critical and commercial demand for what I call “minstrel realism” in postbellum nineteenth-century American culture.

Although “minstrel realism” sounds oxymoronic, it makes sense when placed within the proper context of how certain ideologies of race (racialism) and realism interacted in the nineteenth century. In this essay I intend to show that the racialism of blackface minstrelsy, performed by individuals darkened usually by burnt cork, created a cultural precondition in which postbellum audiences regarded Black minstrelsy (that is, minstrelsy performed by Blacks) as realistic. This reaction resulted from the commercialization of Black minstrelsy in American culture as an avant-garde cultural performance of racial authenticity. An analogous reaction occurred upon the publication of Majors and Minors in 1896. Howells and other reviewers, editors, and publishers appreciated the particular section “Humor and Dialect” for what happened to be the protocols of minstrel realism: the humor and dialect of African American culture. My argument has several implications. Minstrel realism united realism with what George M. Fredrickson calls “romantic racialism,”” a relationship that flies in the face of the historical conflict between these genres in American culture. While characterizing Anglo-American literary realism as the eschewal of romance and sentiment, Howells in particular defined African American literary realism in these very terms. This apparent inconsistency points to the racialism that helped to perpetuate this definition in the dramatic and literary cultures of minstrelsy.

In this essay I urge another re-categorization of American literary realism. Elizabeth Ammons has already recommended an expansion of this genre to include a variety of realisms, to move beyond the “white, middle-class ideas” of Howells, Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Edith Wharton, among others, and accommodate the diverse approaches of African American, Native American, and Chinese American authors. But Howells’s notion of literary realism included Dunbar as well as other “ethnic minority” writers, such as Charles Chesnutt and Abraham Cahan. In order to explain, then, the fact that Howells cites both Crane and Dunbar in the same letter to Hitchcock as the avant-garde of American literary realism, I suggest that, for Howells and his contemporaries, racial authenticity determined the aesthetic value of literary realism. The contrasting racial identities of Crane and Dunbar, for example, created different sets of expectations for the kinds of realism that they could and should have produced…

…Of all these writers, only Douglass, Chesnutt, Dumas, and Pushkin appeared in essays that Howells wrote elsewhere. None, as we shall soon see, could match Dunbar’s literary potential in Howells’s eyes-not even Chesnutt. Though Chesnutt was a writer who was well respected for publishing in the Atlantic Monthly several Black-dialect short stories (which he would later compile for his first book, The Conjure Woman [1899]), he did not appear as racially authentic as he sounded in these volumes. In a to November 1901 letter to Henry Black [Blake?] Fuller, a Chicago novelist, Howells suggests that Chesnutt could pass for White: “You know he is a negro, though you wouldn’t know it from seeing him.” Thinking similarly, anthologists in the early twentieth century tended to omit Chesnutt from the African American canon, due to his ostensible lack of Black authenticity (see Figure 2). Thus, Dunbar’s impact on African American canon formation at the turn of the century-a period spanning from his rise to prominence in 1896 to the eventual disappearance of his work from national periodicals and from anthologized canons of American literature by World War I-exceeded Chesnutt’s, insofar as Dunbar’s perceived racial “purity” enabled critics and publishers to authenticate his dialect writing in ways initially inapplicable to the dialect writing of Chesnutt and other African American authors of ostensibly mixed racial ancestry.

In Howells’s eyes, the sort of interracial complexion that characterized not only Chesnutt, but also Dumas and Pushkin, disqualified them from the tradition of authentic African American literature. In his introduction to Dunbar’s third book of poems, Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896)-an introduction that incorporates but also modifies his review of Majors and Minors—Howells argues that though Dumas and Pushkin antedated Dunbar as renowned writers of African descent, “these were both mulattoes, who might have been supposed to derive their qualities from white blood … and who were the creatures of an environment more favorable to their literary development.” Dunbar, by contrast, was more authentic:

the father and mother of the first poet of his race in our language were negroes without admixture of white blood….

… Paul Dunbar was the only man of pure African blood and of American civilization to feel the negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically….

… There is a precious difference of temperament between the races which it would be a great pity ever to lose, and … this is best preserved and most charmingly suggested by Mr. Dunbar in those pieces of his where he studies the moods and traits of his race in its own accent of our English.

(“Introduction,” pp. vii-ix)

Howells’s investment in the discourse of blood in his introduction to Lyrics of Lowly Life followed in the wake of the Supreme Court decision for Plessy v. Ferguson,  which legalized the biological discourse of interracialism and supported public notions that one could subject racial identity to biological measurement. This discourse both pervaded the literary criticism and art of African American authors and determined the politics of  racial representation. By the time that Howells wrote his introduction to Lyrics of Lowly Life between September and December 1896, the biological language of Plessy v. Ferguson had already seeped into American popular consciousness for close to half a year. For Howells one drop of “Black blood” did not so much detract from the intellectual potency of “White blood”; rather, this drop became, in its “unmixed” state, a racial virtue—just as it was in the minstrel industry…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: , , , , ,