ERIC ACREE: Hey, my name is Eric Acree. I am the director of the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library in the period of Africana collections in the division of rare manuscript collection. And it's my pleasure today to welcome you to the Chats in the Stacks hosted by CUL. The book that we're going to be focusing on today is The Practice of Citizenship, Black Politics and Print Culture in Early United States. This is by my friend and colleague, Derrick Spires.
Let me tell you a little bit about Chats in the Stacks for those of you who may not have ventured in this area before. Chats in the Stacks is a program aimed at presenting an opportunity for Cornell faculty and researchers to present their recently published books to a cross disciplinary audience. That would be you.
Before introducing Professor Spires, I would like to touch on a few points concerning the logistics of today's event. First, we do have live capturing service associated with this talk. So if you'd like, you can see the live captions. Be sure to hit the CC Live toggle on your Zoom view. Second, much like our usual book talk, today's events will begin with our speaker's presentation, which will then be followed by a question and answering session moderated by yours truly. You may submit question by the chat in this webinar at any point during the presentation.
Now, let me tell you a little bit about my friend Derrick. Professor Spires is associate professor of English and affiliate faculty in American Studies, Visual Studies, and Media Studies, that's a lot of studies, at Cornell University. He specializes in early African American and American culture citizenship studies and African American intellectual history.
His first book, which will be dealing with today, The Practice of Citizenship, won the 2020 Bibliographic Society of St. Louis Library Prize and the 2019 MLA Book Prize and was a finalist for the Library Company of Philadelphia's First Book Prize. He is also now working on a second book, Serial Blackness, Periodical Literature and Early American African American Literature Histories in [? the ?] 19th Century.
Now, let me say this. Professor Spires also serves on editorial boards of the American Literature and Early American Literature, and his work on early African American politics in print culture has appeared or is forthcoming in the serial African American Review, American Literary History, and Edited Collections on early African American Print Culture, Time and American Literature in the Color Conventions Movement. His research has been supported by Fellows from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American [INAUDIBLE] Society, excuse me, and the Library Company of Philadelphia, [INAUDIBLE] archives and UNCF Mellon s Ford Foundation. That is a mouthful.
Now, before we get into the books, I want to make a few remarks about the book before we get into the discussion and we hear Derrick's presentation. Spires' books brings to the surface some key books by Black authors, which helps shape a certain thought and activism within the Black community, which by the way, still lives today. For me, the book brought out many emotions. It also inspired me to go back to some of these texts for reflections.
One book in particular being David Walker's Appeal. When I first started reading the book, I was wondering if he was going to mention this key work which called for the end of slavery in the United States. Therefore, being the library guy that I am, I turned to the index only to find out if I continued to read the book, information about the Appeal would appear in the next paragraph. As I continued to read Spires' books, I would learn about Black authors that I did not know had existed. His book is truly a researcher's dream. I am looking forward, as I'm sure you are, to hear from the author of this outstanding book. Please let's welcome Derrick to the conversation.
DERRICK SPIRES: Greetings, everyone. Good afternoon, good evening, wherever you are. Thanks for taking the time to spend with us. Thanks to Eric Acree for that generous introduction. Thanks as well to [INAUDIBLE] J. Butcher and Jenny [INAUDIBLE] and Susette Newbery for the invitation and for organizing this event. And thanks to Sean Taylor for all your work behind the scenes.
I have to also note that over a year ago, just a little bit over a year ago, Jamila Michener's Chat in the Stacks was one of my first events I attended as a Cornell faculty. So it's especially nice to be doing one of these events now. I also want to acknowledge, especially in a talk about citizenship, that Cornell University is located on the traditional homelands of the Cayuga Nation, a member of the Six Nations Confederacy that provided one of the models for the US Constitution. It's one of the earliest and longest running continuous democracies in the world.
So without further delay, I'll get into the book talk. The practice of citizenship started with the basic question and a few library trips, a few trips in the stacks. What's up with all the documents, the convention minutes, addresses, newspapers, articles, petitions, and other counts in which Black writers addressed their audiences as fellow citizens? Indeed, citizenship talk was ubiquitous in Black print well before the Civil War. Dorothy Porter's touchstone Early Negro Writing, published in 1971, introduced me to a collection of addresses on the abolition of the slave trade delivered between 1808 and 1815 that began, fathers, brethren, and fellow citizens, or simply citizens.
I also note that while the first image here is an image of the cover of Dorothy Porter's Early Negro Writing, the second image is special to me, because my previous institution had a tradition of book plating a book on the advent of tenure. So when I was tenured, I got to pick a book, and the library placed a book plate with an inscription in it in that book. And the book I chose was Dorothy Porter's Early Negro Writing.
Martin R. Delany dedicates his 1852 pamphlet to condition, elevation, immigration, and destiny of the colored people in the United States to the American people, North and South, by their most devout and patriotic fellow citizen, the author. And Frederick Douglass addresses his July 5, 1852 oration to fellow citizens even as he positions himself outside of the nation. And so reading these books that were in the library, and everywhere I look, there were just these addresses to fellow citizens.
Then because of the serendipity of library stacks, I saw a pair of red books. Philip Foner and George Walker's collection of the proceedings of the Black state conventions, which these conventions provided not just a documentary history of Black activism, but as I cracked the book open, I noticed that they were really a collection of legal philosophical and literary meditations on what it meant to claim citizenship before the Civil War, even as states like Pennsylvania and New York were becoming more restrictive and hostile towards Black citizens.
When in 1821, for instance, New York ratified a new state's constitution, they removed property restrictions for white male voters but maintained a $250 requirement for Black men. Black male voters in Pennsylvania, on the other hand, could legally vote until 1838 when that state ratified a new state constitution restricting voting to white men. History was moving backwards, and many states were using this backward movement as justification for further exclusion.
In 1843, Black Michiganders described the mechanism by which state policy produced the very conditions in Black communities that politicians would then cite as evidence of Black inferiority and calls for further exclusion. Quote, "You have trampled on our liberties in the dust. And thus standing with the iron heel of oppression upon our heads," or with your knee on our necks, we might say in 2020, "You bid us rise to a level with yourselves. And because we do not rise, you point the finger of scorn and contempt at us and say that we are an inferior race by nature." End quote.
Five years later, delegates to the 1848 Pennsylvania Convention of Colored Citizens would further outline this anti-Black racism and white identity politics as what they called a passport to power. The politicians who restricted voting in Pennsylvania to white men only, quote, "well knew that no argument founded on a condition, as in actual evidence of Black inferiority, would meet the prejudices of their constituents." By focusing voters' attention on protecting their shared interest in whiteness against incursions from easily isolated others, those in power could more easily mask their maneuvering for more control.
As these activists know, many of those who supported race based suffrage restrictions, quote, "would not only have disenfranchised us but the poor of every nation and whole political parties that were opposed to them in the bargain." End quote. In other words, race based exclusions were easy to do. But look out. These politicians are coming after you next.
I raise these sources because while I did spend a good deal of time in the archives for this book, some of the most foundational materials were already in the stacks. And if we were in the physical space, I'd point in the general direction. At its core, then, the practice of citizenship became about the questions and methodologies that emerged when we focus our analysis on the concerns of Black writers made foremost and on the understanding these concerns and the terms they set forth.
How do you articulate yourself as a citizen in a moment when the very definition of citizenship is in flux and each state had its own idiosyncratic way of defining who belonged and who didn't? How do you do this work also in a time when the state is in the process of stripping away the rights associated with citizenship, rights that you have had access to for at least a generation?
I wanted to tell a story about Black citizens that insisted on exploring citizenship not just from the perspective of law and its framing of Black people and others but also from the perspective of Black Americans, not as objects of law or passive oppressed bodies, but rather as people constantly looking for ways to create new life and new possibilities. Indeed, it is one of my book's implicit arguments that Black writing compels us to read differently. Not out of surprise that Black books and Black theories existed, not out of surprised that voters and literary communities existed since before the US founding, but from a position that assumes that there's a there there. If there's politics to be done, Black folks are in it.
As state policies and public discourse around citizenship were becoming more racially restrictive, Black activists articulate an expansive practice based theory of citizenship as a set of common concepts. Political participation, neighborliness, critique, revolution, and a myriad daily interactions between people living in the same spaces, both physical and virtual.
From Absalom Jones and Richard Allen's founding of the Free African Society in 1787, the same year that the US Constitution was drafted, through Frances EW Harper's writing about antislavery violence in the Anglo-African Magazine on the eve of the Civil War in 1860, Black intellectuals help us see citizenship work happening in recognizable acts, such as voting, alongside less structured acts, such as greeting others on the street and parlor gossip. That is citizenship and struggles for citizenship happened outside of official state institutions, in those very spaces Black writers consistently cited as life sustaining.
We see this work clearly and Jones and Allen's A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, the first text register with US Copyright by Black Americans, as far as we know. I want to start with this early text, because in many ways the theory of neighborly citizenship they offer provides the stance, that is, the ethics for all other citizenship practices. Jones and Allen published Narrative in 1794 partially in response to accusations of Black theft and extortion published in Matthew Carey's official account of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia.
In a little less than three months, the yellow fever killed between 4,000 and 5,000 people, roughly 10% to 15% of Philadelphia's population, which at the time was the nation's capital. Approximately 400 of the dead were free Africans. An additional 20,000 or so fled the city, which as I said, was the federal capital. Alexander Hamilton was in town, by the way, and he apparently caught the fever too.
Audiences gobbled up yellow fever narratives and variations of the general theme replicated throughout American literary history. Carey's account as the official chronicle spread widely through multiple editions, and with the accounts spread the characterizations of, quote, "some of the vilest of the Blacks as thieves immune to the fever and symbols of desolation."
Rather than talk about the fever and Carey, however, I want to note how Jones and Allen give meaning to these events. That is to the event of staying behind, helping with the recovery, and then seeing themselves vilified in the press. I want to talk about the tactical deployment of print to rethink the shape of the republic in these early years. Just as inequalities we're seeing with COVID-19 aren't new, what happened during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic was not wholly unique to Black experiences in ordinary times, just more extreme. That said, I also want to signpost Rana Hogarth's Medicalizing Blackness, an excellent account of the intersections of race and yellow fever epidemics across time.
So Jones and Allen's Narrative. On a very basic level, Jones and Allen's Narrative provides a chronology of Black work during the epidemic, beginning with Jones, Allen, and William Gray's voluntary efforts and the free African churches answering Mayor Matthew Clarkson and physician Benjamin Rush's, excuse me, call for assistance, and accounting for the group's expenditures and disposal of beds. Jones and Allen even include a ledger, as they brought receipts to counter Carey's claims of extortion and theft.
They contest kind assurances from physician Rush and others of Black immunity that were widely accepted as fact at the time, and they offer their own firsthand observations of the fever's course in Black patients. Richard Allen contracted the fever, but he recovered. William Gray, one of their partners, contracted the fever and died. Jones and Allen note, as critical race and public health research have reinforced, that studies using white subjects as baselines are fundamentally flawed. And Jones and Allen set out to counter partial accounts of Black workers, because and Jones in Allen's words, quote, "many unprovoked enemies who begrudge us the liberty we enjoy are glad to hear of any complaint against our color, be it just or unjust."
Responding to Carey in the style of public reputation, a form that would have been familiar to contemporaneous readers, think The Farmer Refuted from Hamilton, provided a vector for making broader claims against white America. Indeed, in their initial justification for entering print, Jones and Allen employed stylistic tactics from a Black intellectual tradition of critiquing those who, as Benjamin Banneker notes in his letter to Thomas Jefferson, have long looked upon us with an eye of contempt. For both writers, the stated occasion for entering print provides a hook but not the ultimate target for their arguments.
The connection to Banneker in particular might run deeper. Jones and Allen potentially had access to Banneker's letter to then Secretary of State Jefferson, which was printed in Philadelphia in 1792, a couple of years before their own Narrative was published. Banneker claims in the letter that it was not originally his intention to write a lengthy missive to Jefferson, but having taken up the pen in order to send a copy of his Almanac as a present, Banneker was unexpectedly and unavoidably led to respond to racist claims Jefferson made in Notes on the State of Virginia published in 1785.
These claims included Jefferson's argument that, quote, "the Blacks, whether originally a distinct race or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites and the endowments both of body and mind," end quote. Banneker sent the Almanac in manuscript form, noting that he was unsure of bringing it to print.
The letter itself excoriates Jefferson through the language of the Declaration of Independence. Quote, "Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect that you should at the same time as you declared independence from so-called political enslavement be found guilty of that most criminal act which you professedly detested in others with respect to yourselves."
Jefferson responded to Banneker, affirming his wish to see a plan for emancipation enacted, and Banneker published his initial letter to Jefferson and that response in pamphlet form. Banneker also included the exchange in his Almanac, which he would publish that year. The entire sequence of events shows Banneker candidly manipulating print not only to publish an incisive antislavery pamphlet but also to drum up interest in his Almanac.
Jefferson may have been Banneker's addressee, and he was clearly one of Banneker's objects of critique, but it's just as clear that Banneker had larger goals in mind from the start. You can think of Banneker's letter to Jefferson functioning as something of a trolling quote tweet, which he @-ed Jefferson, Jefferson responded, and then Banneker used the sort of energy of the exchange to drum up interest in both the original letter and this Almanac.
So whether or not Jones and Allen read Banneker's pamphlet or Almanac that year, the resemblance in print and rhetorical strategy is striking. Jones and Allen's main thrust was not simply refuting Carey's specific charges about Black theft during the fever. They were no doubt looking for ways to articulate their rage and frustration with white Philadelphia to help their communities find meaning despite this backlash and seized an opening to deploy a different way of understanding Blackness and citizenship.
Historian Gary Nash conjectures that Black relief workers may have seen themselves as Good Samaritans coming to the rescue when all the respected men of the community turned their heads. Imagine the bitter disappointment then at finding out that Black Philadelphians would not only not receive credit for their work, but they would become scapegoats for all of Philadelphia's failures.
Yet beyond the allegorical value, the parable of the Good Samaritan offers a framework through which Jones and Allen forwarded neighborliness as a citizenship practice. That is, the recognition-- sorry. That is, the recognition of a shared condition between individuals that grounds a real sensibility that presupposes and affirms each individual as having equal moral worth regardless of prior social, political, or economic status, and prioritizes mutual aid and neighborhood over profit and the market.
So when Jones and Allen lay out their case in Narrative, many of the cases they cite mirror standard accounts of wholesale failure, only to subvert assumptions about who acts for the good and why. One such vignette features the actions of a poor Black man set against two others. Quote, "A poor, afflicted, dying man stood at his chamber window, praying and beseeching everyone that passed by to help him to a drink of water.
A number of white people passed, and instead of being moved by the poor man's distress, they hurried as fast as they could out of the sound of his cries, until at length a gentleman, who seemed a foreigner, came up. He could not pass by, but he had not resolution enough to go into the house. He held $8 in his hand and offered it to several as a reward for giving the poor man a drink of water but was refused by everyone." End quote.
So the first half of this story follows a common pattern Carey and others employed. A poor person without a human being to hand them a drink of water. Men of affluent fortune abandoned to the care of a Negro, as Carey would put it. And those whose monies cannot procure proper attendants. Yet where Carey and others illustrations typically end with the person dying, and in some cases the presence of said Negro signaling their utter destitution rather than the fact that they were cared for, Jones and Allen offer a poor Black man who came up and not only supplied the poor object with water but also rendered him every service he could.
The Black man's story undoubtedly offers a direct rebuttal to Carey's assertion of Black immunity. Above these evidentiary moves, however, the anecdote provides a more general theory of citizenship, an eminent sense of responsibility uncoupled from social status or economic motivation. The man's actions demonstrate a real sensibility revealed through the expressive language of conduct that compels him and other Black citizens to move forward even as white neighbors hide or stand by.
So I grew up Baptist, and my first teaching experience was teaching Sunday School because I liked close reading and I was also tired of our Sunday School teacher. So I figured, why not just do it myself? So reading this anecdote, I was always struck by how it mapped almost directly onto the Samaritan story found in Luke 10. Jones and Allen never named the narrative, but they were ministers, and the structure aligns almost exactly. So I'm going to rehearse the parable here, because the details matter. Here's the parable of the Good Samaritan, the concise version.
When the lawyer questions Jesus about eternal life, Jesus responds with a question of his own. What is written in the law? The lawyer replies, thou shalt love thy Lord thy God with all thy soul, strength, and mind and thy neighbor as thyself. Jesus tells the lawyer that he's answered correctly. But not to be outdone, the lawyer asks a logical follow up question. And who is my neighbor?
Rather than answer the lawyer's question by describing the set of people whom the lawyer should love and implicitly need not to love and thus offer a restricted notion of neighborliness, Jesus offers a case study outlining the characteristics of the neighbor as the subject sensible to another suffering in action. As in Jones and Allen's vignette, the parable features an injured man in need of assistance.
While respected community leaders and symbols of civic and moral good recognize the man's suffering, they go out of their way to avoid helping him. Instead, a Samaritan not only aids the man but also ensures his safety until his recovery. The Samaritan discovers the neighbor in the injured man and becomes the good neighbor, the keeper of the law who will inherit eternal life because he acts as the neighbor rather than looking for the neighbor.
Context matters here. Jesus isn't offering a morality play. He's interpreting the heart of the law. Remember, he's in conversation with a lawyer. What does the law compel us to do? What assures my citizenship in the community? By extension, the neighborliness practices Jones and Allen model are not a supplement to citizenship.
Rather, neighborliness gets to the heart of the kind of society republican governance should produce, one in which citizens love for yourselves and for those inestimable laws of human rights lead them to feel a duty to apply, in Benjamin Banneker's words, their most active effusion of their exertions to ensure that all people have equal access to the benefits thereof.
By 1848, Martin R. Delany would convert this principle into what he calls true patriotism. Quote, "An impartial love and desire for the promotion and elevation of every member of the body politic, their eligibility to all the rights and privileges of society." Or to bring us back to Jones and Allen's Narrative, citizens have a duty to do all the good they can for their suffering fellow mortals and to do so on terms of equality, not condescending benevolence, because it is the best way to secure the good of all.
Neighborly citizenship, as Jones and Allen articulated, critiques implicitly the merger of ethics and market capitalism. As formerly enslaved men, Jones and Allen well understood that the market was never free but rather an arena that rewarded and reinforced power depending on who had control of the narrative.
While confronting accusations of inflation, they asked, quote, "If it was natural for white people in Carey's and others accounts of the epidemic to abandon the nearest and dearest in the name of self preservation, was it not more natural for relief workers, who are already economically depressed and physically vulnerable to eschew state sponsored rates in the name of economic self-interest in a free market? Especially when the state apparatus allowed it. Had Mr. Carey been solicited to such an undertaking for hire, [? query, ?] what would he have demanded?" But Carey, they know, quickly after his election left the city.
Like Phillis Wheatley before them and David Walker after them, Jones and Allen's use of the question is as flawless as it is ruthless. I'll return to this theme of the question in a moment. Here I'll note that like those who follow Jones and Allen point to a problem that is structural and about power, not individual or emotional intention. Market logic will never be a sufficient guide for right action, especially when the state protected and excused malfeasance from one segment of the population as natural and understandable while condemning others as irresponsible.
Quote, "We know as many whites who were guilty of theft and extortion, but this is overlooked," Jones and Allen remind readers, "While the Blacks are held up to censure. Is it a greater crime for a Black to pilfer than for white to profiteer?" Jones and Allen ask us to consider who gets called on to sacrifice in moments of crisis and whose sacrifices receive honor. At the same time, they reveal that no amount of virtue, public or private, can save Black citizens from white betrayal and violence.
And so many of the texts I treat in The Practice Of Citizenship, from Frances Harper's poems to Frederick Douglass's speeches, recognize the willful denial of Black life as a precondition for a beautiful and innocent white citizenship. And they recognize the power of critique, of the question, as a necessary citizenship practice.
In a June 9, 1854 editorial for Frederick Douglass's paper, Douglass outlined a taste regime that cultivated a desire for white union and a concomitant aversion to discussions and people who might disrupt, disturb, or otherwise intrude on that union. Here we see a 19th century precursor to 21st century complaints that even raising the question of racism is somehow divisive.
The true American, Douglass notes, hears the discord of injustice represented in moments like Anthony Burns's re-enslavement in 1854 not as discord at all, but rather sweet music. Anthony Burns had escaped enslavement in 1853 and had been living in Boston for about a year before his enslavers captured him and returned him to slavery under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act with the full support of the US National Guard and the state of Massachusetts.
Watching these events, Douglass asks, how sweet to the ear and heart of every true American are the shrieks of Anthony Burns as the American eagle sends its remorseless beak and bloody talons into him? How grateful to the taste and pleasant to the eye is the warm blood of the [INAUDIBLE] fugitive?
This image of Burns invokes Prometheus, the Titan of Greek myth who stole fire from the gods for humanity. As punishment, Olympians chained Prometheus to a rock for eternity and tasked an eagle or bird to devour his liver daily as he writhed in pain, only to have the liver regenerate overnight. The allusion suggestive of both Gothic horror and a worthy price for human freedom symbolizes a sort of national beauty. But America's response to Burns is not a call to defend humanity. Instead of cheering those attempting to free Burns, the public celebrates the punishment of one who would steal himself from them and hail this punishment as a fitting sacrifice on the altar of union.
Douglass grounds his argument in an understanding of beauty as less a transcendent, universal ideal and more an institutional and collectively shaped sensibility, a representation of and a way to enforce consensus. The public did not fail to discern the gross injustice of Burns's rendition. Rather, they found beauty in the system that saw him returned to enslavement, and this system in turn catered to them.
The rise of an explicitly antislavery Republican Party in the mid to late '50s and denunciations of Dred Scott v Sanford in 1857 would seem to attenuate Douglass's critique of national taste, at least in relation to states such as Massachusetts that had legal traditions of defending Black citizens against kidnapping and capture. And yet these same responses suggest that this taste, this longing for a beautiful citizenship, provided a powerful vehicle for racist logic, such that even arguments defending Black rights and emancipation could reinforce white citizenship's boundaries.
In his majority opinion, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney famously claimed African descended people were so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect. Justice John McLean's dissenting opinion, as well as newspaper editorials, were quick to point out the license Taney's opinion took with the history of Black citizenship. McLean noted that several states had granted persons of color voting rights, and by a logical extension and tradition had quote, "received them as citizens in the slave as well as the free states."
There's a long history of Black voting rights before the Civil War, in fact. "Further, the making of citizens of all grades," he says, "through the late treaty with Mexico at the conclusion of the US Mexico war suggested that even subsequent color based restrictions passed by the states did not negate the potential for any freemen to be federal citizens." Black people have voted, they fought in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and participated in countless ways as citizens across the US history.
Yet McLean does something curious, in the way that white supremacy often makes me go, huh. While McLean challenged Taney's historical facts and his interpretation of federal law, he did not challenge the assumptions, the political tastes, underwriting Taney's opinion. Even as he affirmed the legal basis for Black citizenship, McLean also had to admit that the government was quote, "not made especially for the colored race.
Rather, whether a colored citizen would necessarily be an agreeable member of society," McLean hedges, is" more a matter of taste than of law." Rather than challenge theories of racial difference or that white citizens have the right to judge, McLean concludes, quote, "It must be admitted that we have not been very fastidious." End quote.
Now, this appeal to taste absolves white citizens of their racism. Neither the fact that Black citizenship was distasteful or perceived as a threat, nor white citizens' aversion to black citizens could be helped. Non-white citizenship was simply a burden that white citizens must bear and should be applauded for bearing. Even or especially when law opens up space, then the taste for white citizenship sets boundaries for how far law will go and to whom it applies.
In this context, the current US president's favorite adjective, beautiful, as in beautiful flag, beautiful anthem, beautiful person or people, beautiful wall, beautiful scene of militarized police dispersing protesting citizens, set against nasty women and ugly questions. This appeal to beauty is as dangerous as his more overtly targeted racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. It is an attempt to channel public taste around who deserves citizenship and equal protection and which practices, depending on who performs them, count as citizenship work.
It is doubly important to keep in mind the misogyny and racism underwriting this focus on beautiful bodies as objects of acquisition, preservation, and appraisal. It trades in the assumptions that beauty is a universal standard. That is, we know it when we see it. While actively cultivating and enforcing a restrictive consensus of the beautiful in a way that replicates McLean's logic but with an added threat. We have not been that fastidious lately, but we used to when America was great. We ought to be now that the beautiful nation is under siege, and we will be because such acts are natural.
And this isn't just a question of policy, law, or the current administration or ruling party but rather about the census of citizenship shaping our everyday encounters. Think about the recently famous phenomenon of doing x while Black at any given moment and the dangers we face every day.
What is one to do in the face of this historical pattern? 19th century Black activists have at least a few answers and questions. From this vantage, progress calls less for celebration and more for increasing pressure and critical remembering. Here we can also think with Douglass, who's speaking on the anniversary of abolition in Washington, DC in 1888, reminds his audience, quote, "The temptation on anniversary occasions like this is to prophesy smooth things, to be joyful and glad, to indulge in the illusion of hope, to bring glad tidings on our tongues and words of peace reveal. But," he continues, "there comes a time when it is best that the worst should be made known."
As Kim Gallon argues in the recent essay titled "What the Mainstream News Media Can Learn From the History of the Black Press," well, the history of the Black press reveals that speaking truth to power requires a more complex approach that depends on a commitment to not only routing out lies but also combating injustice.
Frances Harper is even more explicit in her calls for [INAUDIBLE] as the practice of fearless truth telling to those in power and against popular opinion. Speaking in 1875, five years after passage of the 15th Amendment, the poet and suffrage activist would put the issue this way in a speech titled "The Great Problem To Be Solved."
Quote, "With all the victories and triumphs which freedom and justice have won in this country, I do not believe there is another civilized nation under heaven where there are half so many people who have been brutally and shamefully murdered with and without impunity as in this Republic within the last 10 years. And who cares? What cost is there to be paid," she continues, "by a nation that permits people to work, create families, and build communities within its geopolitical borders but then declines to extend them membership in the body politic."
Here again we have the question and demand of an answer. Harper asked the question in 1875 after white violence handed the unreconstructed South a massive electoral win in 1874. And it remains unanswered in 2020. And yet Harper asks, who cares? Harper gives us the sublime as a political aesthetic counterposed to the beautiful in so far as the sublime generates not comfort and conformity but rather agitation and movement and provides a principle of activism that begins not in the ballot box or the street but rather in the parlor and the classroom.
There is courage among us, Harper's characters proclaim in Fancy Sketches published in 1859. Courage that has been thrillingly sublime amid the annals of the past. "Have we ever had anything to exceed the courage of that Tennessee hero," she writes, "who knew the plan of some of his fellow slaves to obtain their freedom but rather than betray them received 750 lashes and died? Oh, if I had children, the memory of this man should be stored up in their earliest recollections, and I would teach them to hate with a bitter, intense loathing the despotism that rushed out his life," end quote.
This kind of education trusts children and the public in general to confront the enormity of past and ongoing injustice and to see in such an education not a blame focused anti-patriotism but rather the very definition of neighborly and critical citizenship, a call to work that requires, first and foremost, a clear articulation of the problem to be solved, the systemic racism and sexism that created these problems, and a commitment to repair.
Almost 150 years after the 15th Amendment's passage, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, led by Fannie Lou Hamer, continued asking Douglass and Harper's question. During the Democratic National Convention of 1864, Hamer and other delegates insisted on being heard and breaking the frame of Mississippi's white dominated Democratic Party. As it vied for credentials to be seated among the state's delegation, Hamer testified to the violence she and others faced as they attempted to register to vote the previous year.
She ended her testimony with this warning. Quote, "And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hook because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings in America?" Hamer questions an America that never was but one that she believes, that she had to believe, could be.
Hamer's sentiment recalled a climactic stanza from Langston Hughes' 1936 poem, "Let America be America Again." "Oh, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath. America will be." As the poem's constant refrain America never was America to me suggests, this work is not about returning to some original moment of equality that never existed.
The speaker's call, like Hamer's judging question, is an imperative to remake the country in the image Hamer conjures in her testimony and that Harper, Jones, Allen, Douglass, and others articulate. The land that never has been yet. A land worthy of the very citizens it so often seeks to deny and through the practices that structures so often attempt to manage and suffocate.
This, then, is the premise of the citizenship practices my book outlines. Claiming citizenship is not an endpoint but rather the start of a transformative collective process. As Douglass assured his audience in his final speech, "Lesson of the Hour," delivered in 1894, quote, "Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your problem will have been solved." Thank you.
ERIC ACREE: Derrick, that was amazing. There are a lot of questions that are coming through chat. I just want you to take a deep breath. [LAUGHS] Drink your tea. It was amazing. I'm hoping the audience is feeling what I do in the terms of how profound what Derrick is sharing with us is. And they are just so many different places that I can go to as I'm waiting for the questions to come in. And you're getting a lot of thumbs up, bravo, thank you, Derrick. All those things are coming in.
I want to-- I kind of was going in a couple of different places. But Derrick, I want to ask you this question. Because you ended it kind of with one of my favorite people, Fannie Lou Hamer. I mean, this is a woman that many Americans or people of history don't know about. And I think she was one of the strong leaders within the Civil Rights movements of the '60s. And she's noted for the term, "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired."
Looking at her and others, where does the faith that these writers and these activists, where does their faith in what America can be come from? What do you think it is? Because with all the various different laws and things that have been passed and different beliefs of what Black folk are, but they seem to have this faith that America could be something better. So where does this faith come from, do you think?
DERRICK SPIRES: I'll start by saying I'm going to base my answer in their writing, because that's what I have to work with. And I think part of it-- I'm teaching a course on Hamilton, the show, and we're looking at that moment, that 1770s through the 1790s, for instance. And it is true that that was a moment of incredible flux. You have all of these great documents attesting to a general sense of equality and natural rights, et cetera. And folks like Jones and Allen, Banneker, and others are watching this and say, hey, you wrote this, so I'm going to again and again and again call you on what you wrote. So that's one thing.
The second thing is I often wonder who or what they have faith in. So first and foremost, I think these activists have faith in themselves and their communities. Regardless of how people respond, they have faith in Black communities and Black folks to take care of themselves under whatever conditions may throw out at them. This is why Jones and Allen are founding the Free African Society, a mutual aid organization.
Second, they're also always working with allies. And so there are people like Benjamin Rush, even though Benjamin Rush has to be trained. Jones and Allen trained Benjamin Rush out of his racism, some of it in the same way that Douglass and others trained Lincoln out of his racism. They keep pushing until they have faith in doing that work. And sometimes they lose faith. I can't romanticize folks. Sometimes they lose faith. Just before the Civil War, Douglass was looking at Haiti thinking, you know what? Immigration might not be such a bad deal.
ERIC ACREE: Got it. That's awesome. We got a question, and we got a couple of questions that are coming in. And as I go through them, I want to encourage audience members to go in the chat and please put your question down, and we'll do our best to get to them.
We have one now that I'm going to read from. Frederick Douglass and his "What to the Negro is the 4th of July" emphasizes the point that the independence they were celebrating was theirs, not his. What does this say about the feeling of citizenship? Or was he only distancing himself from being an American whose independence was being celebrated, recognizing that he was alienating himself with his enslaved brethren and sistren? That's a good question.
DERRICK SPIRES: That's a great question about that Douglass speech. And I'll say that kind of have to read Douglass closely, because he often pulls rhetorical [? okie dokes. ?] So one of the things you notice about that speech is he says, this is your nation. This is your national holiday. But he's addressing them as fellow citizens. So he's saying, he's making a distinction between the national imaginary, the heritage on the one side, and the legal rights he has as a citizen.
And he often does this. In a speech he gives in 1854 in Chicago, he says, I come to you because I have a duty as a citizen. How am I a citizen? I pay taxes in New York. I vote in New York. I'm covered under the privileges and immunities clause. And so he's often making that sort of distinction between sort of access to citizenship, legal citizenship on the one hand, and then the everyday experiences that, in his view, white America sort of shapes to negate that access.
ERIC ACREE: I'm always amazed with Douglass as I rediscover him, Derrick. Like we were talking earlier, I always attribute The Color Line to W.E.B. Du Bois only to find out that Douglass was writing about this in 1881 in an article that he penned. And what's fascinating about it when you read through their letters, it's almost like you can change some of the things that he could be talking about today. And I think in your book, you bring that to the surface too.
Because a lot of times I'm reading your book, and I'm like, man, you talk about the yellow fever. And then earlier you made a comparison with COVID-19. We could talk about Hurricane Katrina and when Black folks were getting stuff to survive, they're looting. But when white folks were doing it, it was a whole different terminology. So could you talk a little bit about that in terms of the stigmatization that it seems like that Douglass was talking about in that letter and [INAUDIBLE] within Americana?
DERRICK SPIRES: Yeah. So first, you pinpointed a dynamic in the Thompson and Spires household wherein Nafissa Thompson-Spires, my wife, will say, hey, this thing is happening. I'll say, you know, back in the 1850s, James McCune Smith said this thing. And so one of the things you learn is that the model we're working under is an old model, and it's a repetitive model, especially-- and you can see segregation and disenfranchisement in the North as really the first iteration of what would happen post reconstruction. Because that was the first emancipation, emancipation in states like Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, et cetera.
And there's also-- and they're experiencing this dynamic wherein no matter how respectable Black people were, Black women, Frances Harper talks about this. She is the image of respectability. So classically trained, [INAUDIBLE], et cetera, and she's on her way to a women's rights convention in the 1860s, and she's talking before these largely white women and saying, look, you're talking about white women's rights, but on the way here, we faced segregation just on the streetcar.
And when I [INAUDIBLE] Harper, she'll note in fiction and elsewhere when a Black woman in particular asserts herself, she's viewed as dangerous. She's viewed as angry. She's viewed as aggressive. When her white women counterparts do the same thing, they're viewed as patriotic.
And so Harper and others even then. One of my favorite lines from Phillis Wheatley's On Being Brought from Africa to America, she says, remember Christians, Negros Black as Cain may be refined and join the angelic train. Even in the 1770s, she's calling out at that time white British subjects on their hypocrisy.
ERIC ACREE: I got two more. I'm going to just skip to the last one, because it's relating very much to what you just said about Harper. The question is, speaking of Harper, could you talk a little more about how you see the sublime functioning in that speech of hers as capable of generating political action [INAUDIBLE] feeling? How do you think that connects to what she's doing when she writes in a sentimental mode?
DERRICK SPIRES: Yeah, that's a good question. And I think it's connected to another question I saw in chat about where I see [INAUDIBLE] the sort of truth telling happening in literary form. So the thing to know about Harper is that today she would be an endowed professor at some institution, whether it's Cornell or one of our peer institutions, because she was classically trained. She was reading [INAUDIBLE] and Mills and Douglass and Wheatley and others.
And so when she invokes the sublime, she really is speaking of it in philosophical terms, the kind of confrontation with this image, with this issue or concept that sort of exceeds our capacity to contain it and triggers a process by which the mind has to adjust. And that adjustment produces agitation. And for Harper, as her career developed, she's thought of that kind of agitation as a more political efficacious sort of aesthetic than, say, the sentimental see a crime, see injustice, cry, and then feel good that you cried about it. She was looking for something else, something that would propel, so motion.
And so she would do that in poetry, but she'd also write these sketches, fictionalized parlor conversations that sort of staged out how this truth telling can happen just in conversations among people in a house while somebody is peeling apples. They're having conversations about politics. They're having conversations, and they're checking each other. So one of Harper's characters, Jane, a young woman, checks the man in the house, because he doesn't believe in going to see a woman give a lecture. And so she's like, what? You want to be, in 21st century times, you want to be woke, but you also want to be a [INAUDIBLE]? What's up with that?
ERIC ACREE: We got maybe time for one more question. We'll see. We'll see what we can do. Your work, this is a question, your work calls attention to such a rich variety of literary forms and print formats that revolve in the practice of Black citizenship, almanacs and so forth and so on. Were there any particularly literary forms of print formats that lend themselves for better or worse to the practice of Black citizenship? That's an interesting question.
DERRICK SPIRES: I think Harper is a good example of this in the sense that she wrote in all the forms. You'd see her in conventions. You'd see her writing poetry. She'd write essays, speeches, fiction novels, et cetera. And so for use value, Black writers used whatever happened to be popular and circulating in the moment.
I think there's something really special about the Black newspaper as a space where people wrote in and debated each other using pseudonyms in a way that looks a lot like Twitter. And so that was a space crafted for Black folks by Black folks where they could have these intense discussions among each other. And you really get to see the variety of opinions and sort of the way people were using poetry, the literary sketch, short stories, and honing their craft.
I also just want to quickly note the question about white supremacy as a psychological problem. Maybe I think more than a psychological problem, it's a power problem. It's the problem of viewing life and politics as a zero sum game where if others gain a little bit, that means I necessarily lose something rather than something different. I think people in general have a problem of admitting when they're wrong.
And white supremacy rewards silence. It rewards ignoring what's in front of you. So you get Jefferson. Banneker writes to Jefferson and says, hey, let me lay out this case for you. And Jefferson is like, yeah, you're right, but I'm going to just keep doing what I'm doing anyway.
ERIC ACREE: There you go. We're at the 6:00 PM mark, and I know some people, they're [INAUDIBLE]. I have so many questions we can still ask with regard to Marcus Garvey. That was a big thing I had in terms of-- because I know with Marcus Garvey, his whole thing was take Black folks to Africa, not so much become citizens within the American framework.
So I was wondering even within that, maybe we could talk about this privately, but where does he fit within the writings that you discovered with this Black culture, this Black writing? Because he was rejecting of that. And then later on, you have the Nation of Islam come in just saying, no, you need to give us five Black states, five states, and that will become our nation. So what do you say about those Black folks that are writing outside of becoming citizenship, performing their own type of citizenship either within America or outside of America?
DERRICK SPIRES: I think folks like that are the reason I started focusing on practices rather than what the state grants. And in the back of that is that state is infrastructure for doing the work of citizenship. Citizens [? like ?] citizens. That's part of the argument I make.
But beyond that, you have someone like Martin Delany, who in the 1850s is looking to Nicaragua, Jamaica, Haiti, Central Africa as a space where we can build an economic base, where we could be, where Black Americans could be citizens of their own space. And he does that without ever disavowing his desire for US citizenship. And as soon as the Civil War happens, he's back.
As I said, Douglass similarly. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, you have Black activists looking elsewhere. Canada. [? Marianne ?] [INAUDIBLE] will lobby vehemently in the 1850s for Black Americans to emigrate to Canada. And as soon as the Civil War happened, she's right back doing the work.
ERIC ACREE: Well, I want to thank you on behalf, because when we're looking in the chat, as you can see, we're getting a lot of accolades from some of our colleagues and others. And this is super, man. And I just want to thank [INAUDIBLE]. She's one of my colleagues and friends with Cornell Library, director of [INAUDIBLE] libraries, for asking me to take part in this event.
DERRICK SPIRES: Thank you. Thank you to everyone for coming out.
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Citizenship, nineteenth-century Black activists argued, is not who one is, but rather what one does. Between the Revolutionary era of the 1770s and the onset of the U.S. Civil War in 1861, Black intellectuals defied ongoing enslavement, disenfranchisement, and anti-Black violence to develop an expansive theory of citizenship based in everyday practices of community making, according to Derrick R. Spires, associate professor in the Department of English.
In this live Chats in the Stacks webinar, Spires discusses ideas of citizenship defined by political participation, mutual aid, critique, and revolution, from his book The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), which was dubbed as “essential reading” by Reviews in American History. A discussion session moderated by Eric Acree, director of the John Henrik Clarke Africana Library and curator of Africana Collections in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, follows the talk.