Seizing the laurels : nineteenth-century African American poetic performance
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The diverse voices of African American poets from the nineteenth century have yet to receive their due. The critical gap is regrettable, because the nineteenth-century phase of the African American poetic tradition, although sparser and less philosophically unified than some later phases, nevertheless constituted a true tradition, connecting writers to one another and to writers of the coming century. Nineteenth-century black poets laid the groundwork for their artistic descendants both stylistically (by “signifyin’” on the tropes of their contemporaries) and thematically (by interrogating Euroamerican claims to exclusive political and moral authority), while building communal sites for literary and political activity such as the black press, the book club, the abolitionist circuit, and the university. In order to adequately theorize the nineteenth-century African American poetic tradition, we need a new critical narrative that would contextualize nineteenth-century African American poetry by emphasizing its interactions with various currents of literary and political enterprise in America and abroad. This study will gesture towards some of the possible outlines of such a narrative, while also suggesting a new set of hermeneutics for apprehending the achievements of early black poets, urging an examination of the early black poetic tradition in terms of performativity. A critical emphasis on performativity is particularly well-suited to the explication of nineteenth-century African American poesis for several reasons. Firstly, because the poetry so often centers around acts of repetition and revision, the primary texts are vulnerable to being misunderstood as imitative. By insisting that poetry’s meaning is generated through relationships between poets, texts, and various readers, the performative emphasis helps to spotlight the competitive and revisionary nature of much black poetry. Secondly, when African American poems are read as performances, their political dimensions come into sharp relief. This study examines the performances, personas, and prophecies of George Moses Horton, Frances Harper, Joshua McCarter Simpson, and Albery Allson Whitman in order to generate a deepened critical understanding of nineteenth-century African American poesis.