Sunday, September 23, 2012

Where are you, nineteenth-century African American satire?

"It is not quite as easy to compile a list of nineteenth-century black satirists."
By Allegra Castro

African American literary history includes the recovery of numerous lost or forgotten literary artifacts. For example, a recent New York Times article announced the discovery and authentication of a satirical novel written by Claude McKay during the latter part of the Harlem Renaissance. For students and scholars interested in African American satire, McKay’s novel is an exciting discovery.

While it is possible to identify numerous black satirists such as Zora Neale Hurston, George S. Schuyler, Ishmael Reed, and Aaron McGruder writing in the twentieth and twentieth-first century, it is not quite as easy to compile a list of nineteenth-century black satirists. When I tell people that my research project targets nineteenth-century African-American satire, they usually respond with a combination of intrigue and puzzlement: Intrigue because it sounds like an interesting topic and puzzlement because they cannot think of a black author who wrote satire.

Considering the scant attention afforded to nineteenth-century black authors in American literature survey courses, this may not be surprising. However, I think that even those individuals who are familiar with African American literary traditions would be hard pressed to identify nineteenth-century black writers who are known as satirists, as authors of autobiographies and slave narratives are more widely known.

So where does one even begin to locate the place(s) of nineteenth-century African American satire? While I have my own nerdy fantasy of finding it in some neglected box housed in a library archive like the dissertation student who found McKay’s novel, a more likely scenario would be finding it in digitized black print sources or media. However, even this scenario poses the problem of gaining accessibility to digitized archives and negotiating indexing methods and search tools.

Perhaps “where” is not the best question to ask anyway. A better question might be “What is nineteenth-century African American satire?” Because satire functions not only as a genre but also as a mode, I think of “what” in terms of the satirical approaches and techniques employed by black authors. By casting a wider, more inclusive net that accounts for black authors’ use of satire in works that are not wholly satirical, it is possible to identify the many places where we might find nineteenth-century African American satire.

Where are you, Audre Lorde? by Christina Gutierrez
• Where are you, African American Literary Artifacts? by Elizabeth Cali
Where are you, Octavia Butler? by Erin Ranft

Allegra Castro is a graduate student in the English department at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She writes about nineteenth-century African American literatures, African American satire, and nineteenth-century black intellectual thought.

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