Author Archives: Ben Fagan

Crossing National Boundaries with the Early Black Press by Ben Fagan

As one part of a larger forum on “Digital Approaches to Periodical Studies” recently published in American Periodicals (a collection that includes a contribution from the BPRC’s Kim Gallon), I discuss how we might confront and change the fact that black newspapers published before the Civil War are totally absent from freely accessible digital databases like Chronicling America, and can instead only be accessed by those who are affiliated with institutions that subscribe to databases created by the for-profit companies that have “captured” and assert ownership over publications produced by 19th-century African Americans. My piece focused on the problems that this state of affairs presents for scholars researching early black newspapers, but the racial politics of digitization also cripple our ability to teach the black press to our students. In particular, the absence of early black newspapers in publicly available digital archives makes it nearly impossible to invite students studying outside of the United States to explore the depth and range of the early black press.

Through the Fulbright program, I am spending this semester teaching early African American literature to students at the University of Graz, in Austria. Because of the high-cost of obtaining print copies of African American literary texts outside of the United States, nearly every text that I have chosen to teach is freely available online. Since I am focusing my classes on early African American literature I have not had much difficulty finding high-quality digital versions of the vast majority of texts I assign, thanks in large part to the efforts of the team that created the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South archive. DocSouth makes it simple and easy for my students to locate and read works by David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs. But my time in Austria has crystalized the difficulties of teaching with black newspapers abroad, since there is not yet an equivalent of DocSouth for early black newspapers. As I discussed in an earlier blog post, there are a variety of ways to incorporate black newspapers into the literature classroom, including methods specifically designed for spaces where we do not have access to expensive digital archives. For example, Just Teach One: Early African American Print has provided a wealth of materials that make teaching the short story “Theresa” (from Freedom’s Journal) and the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” (which appeared in the Anglo-African Magazine) possible. Both those texts appear on my syllabi this semester in Austria.

But since my students cannot access the wider body of early black newspapers, we cannot explore together some of the more striking connections that early black newspapers created between the United States and Europe, in general, and Austria, in particular. For example, in 1848 Frederick Douglass’s newspaper The North Star devoted a substantial amount of space to connecting the revolutions that rocked Europe that year to the fight for black liberation in the United States (if so inclined, you can read more about those efforts here). And in 1852 Douglass’s second newspaper, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, spent months covering and commenting on the visit of the Hungarian nationalist and revolutionary Louis Kossuth to the United States. Kossuth holds a particular relevance to Austrian history, since he was fighting to free Hungary out from under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And in its coverage of Kossuth’s visit, Frederick Douglass’ Paper routinely connected that anti-imperial struggle to the fight for black liberation in the United States. In teaching early African American literature in Austria, I am always inviting students to consider how what we are reading relates, in some way, to their own lives and history. Early black newspapers in particular encourage precisely this kind of reflection since they often worked to carry and connect the concerns of black men and women living in the United States to readers in a variety of international locales. The lists of subscription agents and, in the case of The North Star, ledgers of early black newspapers show how these journals courted readers in spaces such as Haiti, Jamaica, Scotland, England, and Ireland. And the coverage of Kossuth’s 1852 visit in Frederick Douglass’ Paper offers a prime example of how early black print linked the causes and concerns of black Americans in the United States and Europeans. I can tell my students about the presence of Kossuth in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, and share with them individual articles and quotes from the paper. But since my students do not have access to the digital versions of Frederick Douglass’ Paper, which sit behind subscription paywalls, I cannot invite them to read deeply and broadly in early black newspapers, and see what kinds of connection emerge though that experience.

The potential for teaching with black newspapers outside of the United States, and the difficulties of doing so at present, reinforce the need to change the status quo of periodical digitization. A collectively created, freely accessible archive and database of the early black press would make it possible for readers across the world to access and engage with works that are not only critical to our understanding of African American literature and history, but that also routinely related that literature and history to distant places and peoples. An open archive would, then, make it possible for teachers and students at institutions within and beyond the United States to use the early black press to reveal and create international connections, and in doing so to honor and continue the efforts of the men and women who fought so hard to create and distribute early black newspapers in the first place.