Early Struggle against Racial Injustice Comes to Light
in African-American Protest Literature
May 22, 2001
by Susan Murphy
Follow RITNEWS on Twitter
Fiery abolitionist David Walker, a free black man from North Carolina living in Boston in 1830, lashed out against slavery and American hypocrisy in pamphlet after pamphlet. When mysterious circumstances silenced the pamphleteer, the African-American community preserved Walker's protest literature, hiding and recirculating it years later.
Impassioned, angry protest essays written by African-American writers like David Walker between the American Revolution and the Civil War give today's historians a glimpse of the early struggle against racial injustice. Protest essays were more openly hostile than the later slave narratives, whose authors had less control over their biographies.
"The heyday of the slave narrative was after 1830," says Richard Newman, professor of history at Rochester Institute of Technology and scholar of early African-American reform. "But if you want to see what African Americans were thinking and protesting during an earlier period, you?d find that in pamphlets."
Newman is the lead editor of Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest Literature, 1790—1860 (Routledge), with colleagues Patrick Rael and Phillip Lapsansky, and author of the introductory essay. Pamphlets of Protest reprints 25 pamphlets largely from the collection of the Library Company in Philadelphia, a repository of pre-Civil War African-American literature, and brings to light several essays previously unpublished in book form.
Pamphlets were an important vehicle of communication for the African-American community. They were easier and cheaper to produce than book-length narratives, and gave the authors more control over their messages.
"A pamphlet was also a way for African Americans to prove their humanity by creating literature that defied stereotypes of the time, those which said blacks were mentally inferior," Newman says.
"Protest essays have been overlooked by a lot of scholars because they are more political," he adds. "Most scholars look at slave narratives to understand pre-Civil War black thought, but they were often written to capture a white audience and underwritten by white philanthropists. Thus, black authors had less control."
Frederick Douglass' narrative is often viewed as the epitome of black literary protest before the Civil War. Douglas carefully wrote his account, however, not to offend white abolitionists, Newman explains. "Douglas was statesman-like. He could express the anger and frustration shared by Walker in a diplomatic way so that his audience wouldn't even know they had been hit over the head."
Newman is currently working on his next book, The Transformation of American Abolition (North Carolina Press), due out spring 2002.
NOTE: To speak to Newman, contact Susan Murphy at 716-475-5061 or email@example.com. Cover art from the book and a photograph of Newman are available upon request.