Reclaiming Black Biography

Lois Brown, Arizona State University

Acts of reclamation are often, at their core, heroic acts of intervention and inclusion.  They are motivated by the realities of implicit and explicit gatekeeping and the politics of inclusion that relegate some to the periphery of canons, histories, and traditions, or that insist on enduring invisibility for others. Acts of reclamation are inherently political acts that strive to expose the architectures and systems of exclusion on which socio-cultural, artistic, racial, gender or political dominance depends. 

The Reclaim Her Name campaign presents itself as an aesthetically pleasing project of reclamation and revelation. Launched in honor of the 25th anniversary of the London-based Women’s Prize for Fiction, the campaign is not simply an effort to draw attention to long-lost individuals. Rather, the campaign emphatically articulates its investment in unveiling women writers who, challenged by their eras, chose to employ pseudonyms and monikers that veiled their gender identity and also asserted maleness.  

What, one might ask, could possibly go wrong?  Reclaim Her Name quickly reveals that acts of sweeping and dehistoricized reclamation produce a fevered myopic view of the arc of literature by women and individuals identifying as female.  Reclamations untethered from the archives and substantial, deliberate scholarship give way to a careless, frenzied enthusiasm that culminates in problematic re-veiling as well.  These two fault lines emerge clearly in the Reclaim Her Name treatment of African American biography. 

Reclaim Her Name quickly reveals that acts of sweeping and dehistoricized reclamation produce a fevered myopic view of the arc of literature by women and individuals identifying as female.

The only dark brown cover in the set of 24 Reclaim Her Name books also is the only one to feature the image of a man. Between the bright white print of the name Frances Rollin Whipper and the title The Life of Martin R. Delany, is an image not of Delany but of Frederick Douglass.  Delany and Douglass—who, one must assert immediately, looked nothing alike—were peers across the awful antebellum years of the 1800s and both lived well into the era of Reconstruction. To mistake Douglass for Delany is to manhandle key differences between the two. Douglass, a formerly enslaved and boldly self-emancipated individual, became the nation’s most influential abolitionist and orator. He advocated for African American inclusion and citizenship, supported African American military service, and saw two of his sons join the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. He was a prolific writer and journalist, publishing three volumes of his autobiography, and was a diplomat and statesman. Delany, who never was enslaved, pursued multiple careers as a physician, journalist, author, and judge, to name a few. He became the highest-ranking African American man in the Union Army and was known for his emphatic pan-Africanist and emigrationist politics. These details—in concert with the fact that Delany kept his hair cut short and Douglass was immediately recognizable because of his gorgeous mane—underscore the canonical violence done by mis-seeing Delany and imposing Douglass on the cover of the biography authored by Frances Rollins Whipper. 

The canonical violence continues, though, with the assertion that Whipper’s biography of Delany, published in 1883, is “the first African American to publish a biography.” This is false.  The Life of Martin R. Delany was predated by some 48 years by the first known work of African American-authored biography published in 1835 by educator and abolitionist Susan Paul of Boston. Paul published the Memoir of James Jackson, The Attentive and Obedient Scholar, Who Died in Boston, October 31, 1833 By His Teacher Miss Susan Paul and in so doing also produced the first biography of a free child of color in the North.  The significance of the Memoir of James Jackson is heightened when one positions it against the tumultuous world in which it appeared five years after the enactment of the Indian Removal Act and the 1831 Nat Turner Revolt.  When Paul published the biography, black lives and bodies across the nation increasingly were under siege because of the aggressive Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.  Her turn to biography was a determined effort to claim—and not to reclaim–place, perspective and presence for people of color, families of color and readers and writers of color.

1835. 1883. This span of forty-eight years between Paul’s Memoir and Whipper’s The Life violently shifts the beginning of a black literary biographical tradition by almost a half century. The space between Paul and Whipper, as a result of this historical inaccuracy, becomes a yawning void. The 1880s are a late, late date from which to think about a beginning of African American life-writing, biographical intention and literary output. Claiming the 1880s as the beginning of African American biographical tradition also suggests that the writing of black lives did not happen before then. We know, of course, about the tradition of narrative written by enslaved and formerly enslaved people and the significant epistolary, journalistic reportage, documentary writing and fiction produced by people of African descent in the 18th and 19th centuries. Does everyone know of this? The treatment of Frances Rollin Whipper in the Reclaim Her Name campaign compels us to consider how this troubling, incorrectly decorated dark brown covered republished work posed as a “first” warps the hard-won collective literary “knowledge” and the painstakingly archivally-informed restored timeline.

The Reclaim Her Name campaign has emerged at a time when so many are coming to the realization and making public assertions that black lives matter. Black lives, black writing and black histories matter.  Today’s growing political awareness underscores the importance of seeing clearly, documenting carefully and contextualizing deliberately black lives and our reclamations of them.

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