This quarterly e-publication explores diverse aspects of digital historical collections and provides insights into web-based resources, including the Archive of Americana.

Dirty Searching and Roundabout Paths: Using Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922, in a Master's Level Seminar

Would you consider sealing your next envelope with a sticker that read: “Be not partakers in other men’s sins.” More pointedly if you received such a missive, by ripping the seal would you be endorsing or decrying the maxim? I’m not sure, myself. But I was glad to learn about and see the page of gummed Abolitionist labels that my student placed within the discourse of indulgence and sin during the nineteenth century.

In fall 2013 my graduate students explored the online collection Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia. They were instructed to construct a historically informed narrative from what they found—a narrative that could demonstrate what possibilities the collection might offer future users: students, scholars, and archival tourists alike. Since I was teaching this Clemson University Master’s level seminar, English 8200, The Slave Narrative in English, I directed students to primarily read texts as representations of a cultural and literary imagination. Nonetheless, I also instructed them to relentlessly frame questions of storytelling with rich contextual shaping of cultural truths, historical events, and material culture studies. While we focused mainly upon reading history and theory of the narrative tradition, as well as on contemporary iterations within important Neo Slave novels, the class was designed to explore the language and culture of racial power and social change more generally for the 19th century.

Dirty Searching and Roundabout Paths: Using Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922, in a Master's Level Seminar


Dismantling the Minstrel: A Pedagogical Approach

Introduction: Stains of Cork

A buffoon is a figure who cannot succeed in his performance without “failing” in his role. In minstrelsy, many of the characters are buffoons whose failure elides the actor’s identity so that blacks are stereotyped as a race that cannot control their behavior and thus become objects of derision. Blackface extends negative perceptions, regardless of the actor’s race beneath the burnt cork, because these roles are meant to reify stereotypes.

De Vere’s Negro Sketches, End Men’s Gags, and Conundrums.
Click to open full page in PDF.

The performances I have chosen for this lesson plan are geared toward the construction of “black” men unable to act seriously. This lesson plan aims to teach notions of blackface as well as the cultural construction of minstrelsy that has incorporated the stereotypes beneath the cork. I have included three transcripts of short minstrel shows from the book De Vere’s Negro Sketches, End Men’s Gags, and Conundrums, which are available in Readex’s online collection Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia. These sketches include “Bones as a Legitimate Actor,” “He Would Be an Actor,” and “Dar’s De Money” (a malapropism for “Desdemona”).

Dismantling the Minstrel: A Pedagogical Approach


“Be Not Partaker in the Sin”: The Language of Abstinence in 19th-Century Abolition and Temperance Texts

With deep roots in evangelism and a heavy focus on boycott, negative action, and righteous rejection as the means of social improvement, the temperance movement and abolitionist movement of the 19th century were undertaken with some of the same religious arguments. The collaboration between the two is widely known, but the mechanisms beyond religious motivation are deserving of further exploration. Despite a widespread sense in the North (and a nearly universal one in the South) that these movements should be carefully separated (Carson 660), temperance continued to overlap with abolitionism. The heart of this collaboration may be revealed by exploring the language of archival primary documents printed by abolitionist societies. Suffused with the language of boycott and purity, these texts, which are taken from the Readex database of Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia, reveal a concern with maintaining middle-class values of abstinence through refusing the touch of slavery with the same fervor that a virtuous citizen might refuse tobacco or alcohol. I suggest the application of sociological temperance theory to the literary analysis of anti-slavery documents published from 1845 to 1861. Through this lens, I identify the correspondences between the two movements as results of a middle-class preoccupation with performative refusal, and I propose that this understanding forms a vital underlying component of the 19th-century activist voice.

From The Child’s Anti-Slavery Book.
Click to open full page in PDF.

“Be Not Partaker in the Sin”: The Language of Abstinence in 19th-Century Abolition and Temperance Texts


Confessing to Nothing: The Agency of Confession in Nat Turner and John E. Cook

On October 16, 1859, the white abolitionist John Brown and 21 followers attacked the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, an event that secured Brown a place in the hall of iconic American personalities and which, paradoxically, obscured the men who sacrificed with him. Indeed, while volumes have been filled about Brown, there is a serious dearth of information surrounding his band of militants, so much so that many students might believe Brown acted alone. One such militant in particular was so invaluable to Brown’s campaign that it would be historically ignorant to overlook him.

John E. Cook.
Image source: green-wood.com

His name was Captain John E. Cook, brother-in-law of Indiana Governor A.P. Willard, poet, womanizer, respected abolitionist—and if it weren’t for the Afro-American Imprints collection—a continued mystery for myself and others. A Readex Archive of Americana collection, Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia is an enormous archive of important documents relating to the African-American literary and cultural experience. The collection represents more than just a compendium of slave narratives; it is a gateway to a hidden cultural past shared by slaves, freemen, abolitionists, slave owners, writers and activists. It should truly serve as the logical starting point to any scholarly inquiry related to pre-20th century African-American studies.

Confessing to Nothing: The Agency of Confession in Nat Turner and John E. Cook


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