Friday, February 16, 2024

Books: "Black Writers of the Founding Era" From Library of America


Black Writers of the Founding Era: A Library of America Anthology

Edited by James G. Basker and Nicole Seary; Foreword by Annette Gordon-Reed

Library of America; hardcover, 750 pages; $40.00

One of the most rewarding books that you will add to your collection, which will deepen your knowledge of American history, is this comprehensive anthology ever published of Black writing in the turbulent decades surrounding the birth of the United States.

The Black experience had an astonishing richness and diversity in the time of the American Revolution, and it is revealed here through an unprecedented archive of historical sources, including more than 200 poems, letters, sermons, newspaper advertisements, slave narratives, testimonies of faith and religious conversion, criminal confessions, court transcripts, travel accounts, private journals, wills, petitions for freedom, even dreams, by over 100 authors.

There are works that have been famous for a long time, such as Phillis Wheatley's poems and Benjamin Banneker's astonishing mathematical and scientific puzzles. In addition, there are plenty of first-person narratives that offer little-known Black perspectives on the events of the times, such as the Boston Massacre and the death of George Washington.

The writers featured here provide viewpoints all over the spectrum, both enslaved and free, female and male; northern and southern, soldiers, seaman, and veterans; painters, poets, accountants, orators, scientists, community organizers, preachers, restaurateurs and cooks, hairdressers, criminals, and carpenters.

These are bold eloquent contributions to the public debates of the time, about the meanings of the revolution and the values of the new nation, to their intimate thoughts preserved in private letters and diaries, some of which have been unseen to the present day. These writings also dramatize the many ways in which protest, activism, and community organizing have been integral to the Black American experience from the beginning.

In addition, there is a 16-page color photo insert that presents portraits of some of the writers included and images of the original manuscripts, broadside, and books that have preserved their words.

In this excerpt, Basker and Seary write in the introduction: "African Americans have long been denied their rightful place in our memory of the founding era. In 1857, in his infamous Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Roger Taney tried to rewrite history by claiming the Founders had not meant to include Blacks among 'the people' encompassed in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and therefore they had no legal or civil rights. Taney effectively sought to erase Black people from American citizenship and American memory. Three months later, Abraham Lincoln publicly criticized Taney for his 'erroneous' history. Quoting Justice Benjamin Curtis's dissenting opinion, Lincoln pointed out that 'colored persons were not only included in the body of 'the people of the United States' by whom the Constitution was ordained and established,' but that the Declaration itself was intended by its authors 'to included all men.' The heated controversy, which played out on a national stage, suggests how precarious the place of African Americans could be in our history. Black writers such as William Cooper Nell in the 1850s and William Wells Brown in the 1860s attempted to write Black people back into the record, but their efforts had little impact and were soon forgotten. It would be a century before works like Benjamin Quarles's The Negro in the American Revolution (1961), Dorothy Porter's Early Negro Writing, 1760-1837 (1971), and Sidney and Emma Kaplan's Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution (1973) would mark the beginning of a new era of more inclusive and honest history.

This volume is meant to address the marginalization and invisibility that have long haunted African American history. It restores to view the writings of more than 120 African Americans during the founding era, from the eruption of resistance in the American colonies in the 1760s, to the death of George Washington and the election of Thomas Jefferson at the end of the century. During the years of the American Revolution and the creation of the United States, there was an upwelling of Black voices, a turn to activism, and an outpouring of new ideas in the African American community. Apart from the writings of a celebrated few such as Phillis Wheatley, Benjamin Banneker, Richard Allen, and Absalom Jones, almost all the authors of the 200 works in this collection have been long forgotten. They are brought together here for the first time.

The texts in this book chart the Black presence and make visible the Black experience in a period for which we lack even basic information about most of the Black population - names, birth and death dates, hometowns, spouses, children, relatives. Hundreds of the burial grounds that might yield such information have been for centuries untended, forgotten, paved over. In recent decades the recovery of such sites as the African Burial Ground in New York City have inspired similar projects from New England to Georgia, while also reminding us of how much we still don't know about the lives of Black people in the founding era. Similarly, scholars are still debating even the basic number of African Americans who fought in the Revolutionary War. Estimates range from 5,000 to 8,000, and nothing like a definitive list of soldiers' names, regiments, and dates of service has yet been compiled. The sixteen Black Revolutionary War veterans whose writings are included in this volume bring into focus the lives of individual Black soldiers, the sacrifices they made for the American cause, and the deprivations they endured in their later lives. They prompt us to remember that there were Black soldiers among the American forces at Concord and Lexington and Bunker Hill, that Black men fought in all the major battles down to the Battle of Yorktown, and that the first American to die at Valley Forge was a Black soldier from Connecticut names Jethro."

About The Library of America: An independent nonprofit organization, the Library of America was founded in 1979 with seed funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford Foundation. It helps to preserve our nation's literary heritage by publishing, and keeping in print, authoritative editions of America's best and most significant writing. 

Library for America editions will last for generations and withstand the wear of frequent use. They are printed on lightweight, acid-free paper that will not turn yellow or brittle with age. Sewn bindings allow the books to open easily and lie flat. Flexible, yet strong binding boards are covered with a closely woven rayon cloth. The page layout has been designed for readability, as well as elegance.

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