Thursday, September 20, 2012

Where are you, African American literary artifacts?

Dust jackets from Toni Morrison novels discarded by a university library

By Elizabeth Cali

I am pulled toward discussing literatures that don't seem to fit the way readers typically describe genre, as having a specific category and/or form. Where exactly do we position and locate the presence of literary texts that aren't traditionally considered a genre: literary artifacts. Where are you, literary artifacts? Are you relegated to the archives, far from publishing houses and fathoms from popular bookstores?

The systematic neglect of so many African American literary products during the early 18th and 19th centuries make artifacts especially important for understanding the authors and texts of that time period. Paradoxically, such ephemera are difficult to locate and piece together.

The seemingly endless list of materials that qualify as literary artifacts - advertisements, editorial blurbs, authors’ side notes, account ledgers, property receipts, family letters, etc. – as well as the expansive body of writings about those items suggest that literary artifacts en masse comprise a body, a form, even a character all their own. If we think of literary artifacts as a genre, then, we might find that this genre, in relation to African American literary culture, composes a specific narrative of individual, community, and literary experience.

Where are you African American literary artifacts, and what stories are you seeking to tell?

While it is unlikely that Barnes and Noble is on the brink of creating a new shelving section entitled “Literary Artifacts,” or dare I even suggest it, “African American Literary Artifacts,” I wonder whether we might celebrate the possibility that such extra-literary items are neither relegated to obscure archives, nor corporatized and potentially exploited by mainstream publishing’s marketing schemes.

We often learn that African American literary artifacts are in the protection of family homes and files. Other ephemera may be in the dust covered disarray of less protective owners. That said, what if available narratives of African American experiences and literary production are maps to literary artifacts in careful safekeeping, or in need of recovery from neglect? Perhaps we can view literary artifacts as a genre—a genre somewhat estranged from both academic privilege and corporate exploitation and at the same time a genre that we might we benefit from by its demand for community and cultural involvement and interaction.

Related: Where are you, Octavia Butler? by Erin Ranft

Elizabeth Cali is a graduate student in the English program at the University of Texas San Antonio. She writes about 19th-century African American literatures and print cultures, Black Feminist theory, and early American literary nationalisms.

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