The Strangers Book

The Strangers Book explores how a constellation of nineteenth-century African American writers radically reframed the terms of humanism by redefining what it meant to be a stranger.

The Strangers Book
The Human of African American Literature

Lloyd Pratt

2015 | 200 pages | Cloth $49.95
Literature | African-American Studies/African Studies
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Table of Contents

Introduction. Print and the Human
Chapter 1. The Making of Self-Evidence
Chapter 2. Frederick Douglass's Stranger-With-Thee
Chapter 3. Les Apôtres de la Littérature and Les Cenelles
Chapter 4. The Abundant Black Past
Chapter 5. How to Read a Strangers Book
Epilogue. Stranger Literature


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


When the Times-Picayune returned to print four days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, its plaintive headline broke down the fourth wall of the fourth estate. Desperation was reflected in the headline's outsized typeface, which shouted down the paper's customary flat editorial voice with an insistent "HELP US, PLEASE." The storied newspaper of New Orleans had been reduced to an act of petition. Upon closer examination the quotation marks cordoning off the headline came into focus. In a deft displacement undertaken at a moment of great crisis, the newspaper shifted responsibility for its petition to Angela Perkins, the woman pictured in the large-scale color photograph appearing below the headline. In the photograph, Angela Perkins wears a close-fitted, cropped yellow top with spaghetti straps. Her black capri pants are screen-printed with large cabbage roses. Her head, feet, and shoulders are bare; her hands are clasped. Bending slightly forward, she kneels in a street clogged with spent water bottles. Perkins is at an oblique angle to the camera's lens, and her clasped hands lift toward her chest. Her eyes are closed, but the tendons in her neck look strained to the point of breaking. Her mouth is open. Crowds of people stand and sit on the curb behind her. The caption reads "NEW ORLEANS: A distraught Angela Perkins screams 'Help us, please!' outside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on Thursday. A cloud of desperation settled over the hundreds of hungry, homeless people at the Convention Center, creating an atmosphere of fear and hopelessness." The inauspicious history of such cagey ventriloquism should be well known. Its legacy explains why you will have already guessed that Angela Perkins is black.

White antebellum abolitionists treasured images of petition. Attached to the plaintive "Am I not a man and a brother?," the figure of a kneeling black man was ubiquitous. Here, Angela Perkins becomes the paper's proxy; it is she, not the paper or the city, who requires witness and assistance. The paper draws on her presence while nevertheless associating her with the disorder it describes in a smaller headline. "After the disaster," the Times-Picayune reports, "chaos and lawlessness rule the streets." The very same streets where Angela Perkins kneels. Although the "us" of the newspaper's headline would, therefore, appear to include Angela Perkins or even to issue from her, a second us organized around her exclusion is in the making. This second us invoked by the paper's headline is the you implied in its address to its readers. "You, help us, please." This second us, or you, is the U.S. national audience that the Times-Picayune, many New Orleanians, and Louisiana's leaders sought to rouse to action when the nation-state made clear that it had no plans for saving the city from this ongoing and preventable event. This particular mode of address led to the destruction of New Orleans being figured in the days that followed Katrina as a source of national shame, which, of course, it was. It is nevertheless worth acknowledging how this event and its aftermath were used to rehabilitate the idea of a national audience at a historical moment committed to hyping the emergence of a globe unencumbered by national, racial, or other boundary limits. The rhetoric of aid and sympathy emerging from Katrina sought to reconstitute the nation in a way that even the Second Iraq War had failed to accomplish. In our moment of distraction, the category of the human came to be figured as isomorphic with the nation. We became Americans again and so did you. Other options were available.