Date of Graduation
Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
In spite of the substantial amount of critical work that has been produced on the recovery of early African American literature in the last few decades, our representations of black authors are still limited. Current studies of early African American poets privilege the identification of African American literature with resistance to slavery. This identification has persisted and has made the field one-dimensional. My dissertation provides reception histories of four early black poets—Phillis Wheatley, George Moses Horton, Frances Harper, and Paul Laurence Dunbar—to argue for and present an expansive understanding of African American literature. A thorough examination of these authors’ circulation histories reveal that editors engaged in children’s literature, a topic that is often overlooked in African American literary history. I argue that editors and sometimes poets recirculated black poetry in the interest of training children for social justice activism. This topic requires scholars to reconsider the complex cultural influences that shape their representations of early black authors; it will also allow for the inclusion of early black authors into white spaces. Forgetting these histories further deepens the gaps between recovered and unrecovered works.
Scholars often represent Wheatley as a poet concerned with appropriating western language or subtly resisting western hegemony. Chapter one argues for the importance of Wheatley’s neglected poems by examining an unrecognized circulation history. My research reveals how various kinds of readers often repurposed Wheatley’s poems to provide varying forms of moral uplift that subjugated black children to dominant political forces. By using Arthur Donaldson’s Juvenile Magazine (1811, 1813), Freedom’s Journal (1827-1829), and even The Upward Path (1920), just to name a few, I uncover the ways editors used Wheatley’s moral poetry to teach varying forms of uplift to black children.
My second chapter will redirect attention back to Horton as a nature poet for black children to recharacterize Horton’s importance in shaping black identities. Horton’s obscurity attests to the ways scholars have characterized his poetry as simply derivative of white models of poetry. I examine publications such as Eliza Follen’s juvenile magazine, The Child’s Friend (1843-1858), and Lydia Marie Child’s The Freedmen’s Book (1865) to argue that Horton’s poetry was used to teach black and white children rhyme and romantic ideations of nature to reshape their relationship to the turbulent American landscape of nineteenth-century America.
Chapter three reorients Harper’s poems in the context of children’s literature to reimagine Harper not only as an advocate for black and white adults, but for children as well. My research refocuses commonly anthologized poems to consider how they speak to black children in the mid-nineteenth and late-twentieth centuries. The Anglo-African Magazine (1859-1860), William Wells Brown’s The Black Man (1863), and The Freedmen’s Book (1865), among others attest to the ways Harper’s poems were reimagined for child audiences.
Chapter four relocates Dunbar in contexts of children’s literature that sought to make Dunbar the ideal early black writer for black children. Relocating Dunbar as a children’s poet rouses more scholarly attention toward Dunbar’s Christmas poems and poems that went beyond racial themes. My analysis of Readings from Negro Authors (1931) and Christmas Gif’(1965) enables an unique perspective on Dunbar’s representation.
My conclusion surveys the patterns that emerge in the representations of Wheatley, Horton, Harper, and Dunbar in several American literature anthologies and newspapers throughout four different periods. The collections, Over the River and Through the Wood (2014) and Who Writes for Black Children (2017) have garnered attention for topics of early black children’s poets within African American literature, though more work remains to be done in ciphering through the messiness of nineteenth-century periodical culture.
Lowery, Tabitha LaShay Joy, "Early Black Poetry, Social Justice, and Black Children: Receptions of Child Activism in African American Literary History" (2020). Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 7787.