Post-Bellum, Pre-Harlem: New Approaches to African American Literature and Culture, 1877-1919

Reprinted by permission of the authors. Copyright © 2006 by Caroline Gebhard, Jeremy Dean, Hellen Lee-Keller, and Marlene D. Allen

Part 2. Detailed description of session

This session will present new work by younger scholars on a period in African American literary and cultural production that typically has been described as "the decades of disappointment" or "the nadir." This special session topic is timely: it coincides with an increasing recognition of the aesthetic and cultural importance of this pivotal era, christened by Charles Chesnutt as Post-Bellum, pre-Harlem. Literature specialists and other scholars rethinking the nadir are part of a third wave of African American studies. No longer solely confined to recovering "lost" or underrated African American texts or preoccupied with developing theoretical and critical approaches arising from African American cultural standpoints, as in the first and second wave, they have begun to reassess connections between African Americans across classes and ethnicities, among black diasporic populations in Canada, Europe, and the Caribbean, and between African Americans, Native Americans, and other immigrant or ethnic American groups. As a result, the frozen view of the Post-Bellum era dominated by binaries of Northern Negro and Southern sharecropper, black victim vs. white oppressor, poor rural rubes and priviledged city folk has begun to give way to a much more complicated understanding.

More than a decade ago, distinguished scholars such as Houston Baker, Hazel Carby, Frances Smith Foster, Kevin Gaines, Henry Louis Gates, David Levering Lewis, Nellie McKay, Carla Peterson, Eric Sundquist, and Claudia Tate first engaged and recovered black cultural production of the Post-Bellum, Pre-Harlem era. Currently, the number of studies published or forthcoming attests to growing interest in this period. Examples include Jacqueline Goldsby's Spectacular Secret: The Cultural Logic of Lynching in American Life and Literature (forthcoming Chicago); Elizabeth McHenry's Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies (Duke, 2002); Michele Mitchell's Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny after Reconstruction (North Carolina, 2004); Shawn Michelle Smith's Photography on the Color Line (Duke, 2004); Siobhan B. Somerville's Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture (Duke, 2000), and Karen Sotiropolous's Staging Race: Black Cultural Politics before the Harlem Renaissance, 1893-1915 (forthcoming Harvard).

Four years ago, the MLA sponsored a special session devoted to this subject, based on collection of original essays sought by co-editors, Barbara McCaskill and Caroline Gebhard, now a book, Post-Bellum, Pre-Harlem: African American Literature and Culture, 1877-1919 (New York UP, June 2006). In 2002, our session drew a sizeable audience; we envision the proposed session as a follow-up that will both present cutting-edge work by emerging scholars as well as provide a stimulating forum for discussion on this period of African American cultural production.

To promote discussion, we have selected only three panelists who will be strictly limited to 15-minute papers. Professor McCaskill, the respondent, will pose questions both to the panelists and the audience so that a lively discussion may ensue. We will begin with "New West as New South in Pauline Hopkins's Winona" by Jeremy Dean. He argues that the West was "an important metaphoric and metonymic space for the working out of post-Reconstruction racial anxieties." By situating Hopkins's Western within the popular genre delimited by Owen Wister's The Virginian, Dean proposes to show how this astute Post-Bellum black writer challenged Turner's frontier thesis of American culture by representing westward expansion not as the pure escape he and so many others imagined but instead as the bleeding of the south into the West. By exploring how a black artist critiques the nation's mythic West, Dean delineates a new framework for reading the cultural work these fictions performed.

Similarly, Hellen Lee-Keller in "Sex and Sewing in the Short Fiction of Alice Dunbar-Nelson" takes up questions of race, region, and empire embedded in Creole identity in the context of national debates on emigration, labor, women's roles, race relations, and U.S. imperialism. Lee-Keller focuses upon Dunbar-Nelson's fictions that address prostitution and domestic work in New Orleans. Like Dean, she demonstrates how writers of African descent contested contemporary assimilationist narratives extolling the work ethic as overcoming race and citizenship by suggesting that Dunbar-Nelson rejected the imposition of black/white American racial politics upon her multi-racial, multi-ethnic native city.

The formal part of the session ends with a paper by Marlene Allen, who offers a radical reading of an understudied black author, Sutton Griggs. She interprets his first novel, Imperium in Imperio (1899), as a bold work of science fiction anticipating modern writers such as Ralph Ellison and Octavia Butler in his effort to imagine a utopian space where black people can free themselves. According to Allen, Griggs, in telling the story of two black men's struggle to create the Imperio, a secret black-controlled, underground counter-government organization in Waco, Texas, grapples with the scientific thought of the day, critiquing Social Darwinism as well as related late 19th-century discourses of race.

These papers all challenge the notion that Pre-Harlem era was a cultural nadir for African American artistic and political expression, despite the shameful suppression of black freedoms. We will build on these presentations to stimulate the audience to ask new questions about the Post-Bellum, Pre-Harlem moment in America and American culture. Moreover, for our purposes, Philadelphia is a fitting venue: the first stop in the Free States for many escaped slaves, the city after the Civil War saw the rise of worker's organizations such as Pullman car porters and the emergence of a genteel post-war black middle class. It is the city that also inspired Du Bois to study the social problems unique to this generation; thus Philadelphia is representative in many ways of the aspirations of the Post-Bellum, Pre-Harlem age. Given our panel's focus on regions beyond Harlem as the nexus of black cultural and political expression, Philadelphia would be the perfect location for this special session.