Tag Archives: Teaching the Black Press

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.


Teaching the Black Press With Literature by Benjamin Fagan

15622With the summer coming to a close I’ve been prepping my syllabi for classes this fall, and thought it might be a good time to reflect on the challenges and possibilities for including black newspapers in literature courses. Like many of us, I suspect, I don’t often have the luxury of teaching a course focused exclusively on the black press, but must instead find ways to work black newspapers into survey courses or seminars that mainly revolve around more familiar kinds of literary texts. One strategy in such cases is connecting black newspapers to other kinds of texts. For example, in a class on “African American Literature and the Media,” we spent a few weeks reading Richard Wright’s novel Native Son. White reporters and newspapers appear at critical moments in the text, and the media emerges as one of the novel’s major concerns. Indeed, real-life newspaper coverage of an alleged black murderer in Chicago inspired the basic outlines of Native Son’s plot. So alongside the novel we read contemporaneous articles from the Chicago Tribune and, most importantly, the Chicago Chicago_DefenderDefender. For a paper assignment, students were asked to analyze newspaper reports in the same way they would a passage from the novel. They composed essays exploring the power of the press to shape events through language, and offered insightful comparisons between coverage in black and white newspapers. Native Son is particularly well suited to this kind of approach to teaching black newspapers, given its inspiration from real-world newspaper coverage, treatment of the media, and the fact that the Defender covered the events fictionalized in the novel. But such an approach could be adapted to a variety of other texts that regularly make their way onto literature syllabi. One could, for example, pick a particularly powerful theme from a novel, poem, play, etc., and then ask students to research that same theme in black newspapers. This kind of research assignment is, though, potentially limited to institutions with subscriptions to commercial databases, which were not available when and where I taught Native Son. In that case, I provided students with the relevant issues from the Defender and the Tribune. This deprived them of the opportunity to conduct their own research, but they were at least introduced to the pages of black newspapers.

Another successful way to work black newspapers into the literature classroom is, in my experience, to teach texts that appeared in the pages of the black press, and focus on that context in classroom discussions and essay assignments. For example, in a survey of African American literature before 1900 that I am teaching this coming fall, students will read the short story “Theresa – A Haytien Tale,” which originally appeared in 1828 in the pages of Freedom’s Journal. We will read the story itself, and then the four issues in which appeared. A possible essay topic could then ask students to connect particular themes in the story to concerns in the newspaper. Similarly, I will be teaching sketches from the Anglo-African Magazine in an upper-division course on the literature of the American Renaissance. Both of these choices are inspired by the Just Teach One: Early African American Print initiative, which provides not only the primary material for teaching these texts but also sample assignments, lesson plans, and teaching reflections. And one need not be teaching a course focused on African American literature in order to incorporate black newspapers. Frederick Douglass’s Paper serialized Charles Dickens’s Bleak House in its entirety, and a variety of black newspapers printed poetry from now-canonical figures from both sides of the Atlantic (e.g. Longfellow and Tennyson). Teaching these texts in their periodical context would not only introduce students to the archive of the black press, but also underscore how all kinds of literature circulated in the 19th –century.

Hopefully, this post has highlighted the ways in which black newspapers fit, with a bit of creativity, into a variety of kinds of literature classrooms. And in my experience, even the smallest introduction to the black press can be enough to inspire students to explore the archive of black newspapers outside of the classroom. Of course, such exploration is made far more challenging when black newspapers are trapped behind the massive paywalls of commercial databases, a fact that makes the work of expanding access to the black press all the more imperative.