The Practice of Citizenship traces the parallel development of early black print culture and legal and cultural understandings of U.S. citizenship. Considering a variety of texts by both canonical and lesser-known authors, Derrick R. Spires demonstrates how black writers articulated an expansive, practice-based theory of citizenship.
2019 | 352 pages | Cloth $49.95
Literature / African-American Studies/African Studies
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Table of Contents
Introduction. Black Theorizing: Reimagining a "Beautiful but Baneful Object"
Chapter 1. Neighborly Citizenship in Absalom Jones and Richard Allen's A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People During the Late and
Awful Calamity in Philadelphia in the Year 1793
Chapter 2. Circulating Citizenship in the Black State Conventions of the 1840s
Chapter 3. Economic Citizenship in Ethiop and Communipaw's New York
Chapter 4. Critical Citizenship in the Anglo-African Magazine, 1859-1860
Chapter 5. Pedagogies of Revolutionary Citizenship
Conclusion. "To Praise Our Bridges"
Black Theorizing: Reimagining a "Beautiful but Baneful Object"
This book is about the questions and methodologies that emerge when we focus our analyses on the concerns black writers made foremost and on understanding these concerns in the terms they set forth. When we approach early black writing through a print culture made up of pamphlets, poems, sketches, orations, appeals, treatises, convention proceedings, letters, mastheads, gift books, petitions, autobiographies, and a host of other kinds of documents by black individuals and collectives, citizenship quickly emerges as a key term and vexed concept. A perusal of Dorothy Porter's touchstone Early Negro Writings (1971) reveals a collection of addresses on the abolition of the slave trade from 1808 to 1815 that begin, "Fathers, Brethren, and Fellow Citizens," or simply, "Citizens." Martin R. Delany dedicates Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People in the United States (1852) "to the American People, North and South. By Their Most Devout, and Patriotic Fellow Citizen, the Author"; Frederick Douglass addresses his July 5th "Oration" to "fellow citizens," even as he positions himself outside the "nation"; and many of the collective addresses black citizens issued to various publics through colored conventions were addressed to "fellow citizens." Even texts that did not argue for citizenship in the United States provide productive analyses about citizenship more broadly—what it was in the moment and what it could become. "Citizen," as the 1854 National Emigration Convention put it, was "a term desired and ever cherished" throughout early black America. While this convention argued explicitly for emigration, it nonetheless made useful claims about the meaning of citizenship, perhaps more so because it highlighted its abrogation for black Americans.
These explicit and implicit invocations of citizenship throughout early black print culture suggest that citizenship was a potent concept. Yet, it is still one of the most understudied by critics of early African American literature. It's not that scholars haven't taken up questions of black citizenship—that is, whether or not black Americans were U.S. citizens, legal persons, or humans before the law; the ways they made the case for their citizenship; and the multiform ways (local and national; cultural, economic, and political) that white Americans made clear their refusal to recognize black Americans as equal citizens, if citizens at all. These questions have been ably taken up and will continue to be important points of analysis. Yet, while scholars continue to recover histories of citizenship that document and analyze black activism and trace processes of racial ascription and white supremacy, we have yet to describe the degree to which black writers themselves conceptualized and transformed the meaning of citizenship in the early republic. Even when studies have taken up black theoretical work, they tend to focus on Frederick Douglass's writing or conflicts between Douglass and other men (Henry Highland Garnet and Martin Delany prominent among them). Overemphasizing Douglass flattens out a vibrant intellectual network of newspaper correspondents, convention goers, pamphleteers, and artists, whose key texts and forms were more often than not generated collectively. Hence, this book demonstrates the communal facets of citizenship discourse in black print culture to show that individuals and collectives were both critical to theorizing and practicing citizenship. What I demonstrate in this book stems from answering the following key questions: What happens to our thinking about citizenship if, instead of reading black writers as reacting to or a presence in a largely white-defined discourse, we base our working definitions of citizenship on black writers' proactive attempts to describe their own political work? What happens when we base our working definition of citizenship on black writers' texts written explicitly to and for black communities?
The proliferation of the phrase "fellow citizen" was more than a rhetorical device or ironic signifying. The Practice of Citizenship tells a story about how black writers theorized and practiced citizenship in the early United States through a robust print culture. It insists on exploring citizenship not just from the perspective of law and its framing of black people and others but also from the perspective of black Americans, who were some of the most important theorists of citizenship, both then and now. Yes, the texts I analyze here argue for black citizenship, but the citizenship for which they argue is not the same citizenship from which black Americans had been and continue to be excluded. Black writers argue for more than simple inclusion; indeed, they argue for the kind of political world in which they would not have to make such an argument. They argue for and actively seek to create a world otherwise. To understand this theory, The Practice of Citizenship moves beyond simply defining "citizenship" and pursues the processes by which black citizens used print to articulate and enact the citizenship they theorized. How black print culture imagined citizenship is therefore as central to this study as the citizenship they imagined, and by the end of this book, I hope it is clear that the process of theorizing does the work of citizenship.
I examine the parallel development of U.S. citizenship and early black print culture through key understudied flashpoints (the 1793 Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic and outbreaks of antislavery violence in 1856), movements (black state conventions and vigilance committees), intellectuals (James McCune Smith and William J. Wilson), and genres (the sketch, ballad, and convention minutes). I begin with events recorded in Absalom Jones and Richard Allen's A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People (1794) and end with Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's sketches for the last issues of the Anglo-African Magazine (1859-1860) just before the Civil War. Black citizenship theorizing developed over time as a collaborative, multimedia, polygeneric cultural and intellectual process for sustaining life in a fundamentally unjust society. For these writers, citizenship (and blackness itself) emerges not as a destination, an enacted identity, or static relation to a state but rather as a self-reflexive, dialectical process of becoming.
As state policies and public discourse around citizenship were becoming more racially restrictive, black activists articulated an expansive, practice-based theory of citizenship, not as a common identity as such but rather as a set of common practices: political participation, mutual aid, critique and revolution, and the myriad daily interactions between people living in the same spaces, both physical and virtual. They reject definitions of "citizen" based on who a person is, a preordained or predefined subject or subjectivity, in favor of definitions grounded in the active engagement in the process of creating and maintaining collectivity, whether defined as state, community, or other affiliative structure. Citizenship, in other words, is not a thing determined by who one is but rather by what one does. Law and custom shape these activities (negatively and positively), but they do not make citizenship or citizens. Practicing citizenship makes citizens.
Citizenship practices create citizens by enabling them, to quote Michel de Certeau, "to take up a position in the network of social relations" made up not only of currently recognized citizens but also of people who, by virtue of their engagement with and contribution to the whole, become citizens. This "more or less coherent and fluid assemblage of elements" is simultaneously formal, performative, and open to improvisation. It is governed by rules and conventions that are nonetheless subject to misfire and therefore under constant revision and contestation on scales large and small. Practices form a tradition insofar as they draw on catalogues of past activities and habits (from ways of worship and manners of speech to understandings of gender and sexuality, race and class), but they constantly respond to context and the need to make sense of the now. My sense of citizenship as a practice, then, is capacious, embracing recognizable acts, such as voting, alongside less structured acts, such as greeting others on the street. Both acts can signal membership in a political body, and exclusion or refusal (in the act of greeting) can become mechanisms of erasure or identifying those outside the bounds of "citizen." That is, citizenship and struggles for citizenship happen outside of official state institutions, in those very spaces black writers consistently cite as life sustaining. And it is through these sites that restrictive notions of belonging can be contested and in which alternate models can be theorized and practiced.
The role of spaces beyond state sanction is crucial to my argument. While it is true that the state provides one powerful structure for shaping citizenship, that does not mean that people who do not have this sanction are not theorizing and practicing citizenship. Yet that is how we typically understand it. The state sanctions certain practices and enables those in power to limit the range of activities we come to recognize as citizenship. This book, though, recognizes the unsanctioned activities of citizenship, arguing that they are perhaps more powerful and productive than the state allows and that scholarship has adequately acknowledged. As Dana Nelson claims in terms of vernacular citizenship, these practices are "immediate, informal, and nondelegable," not individual but rather "grounded in community. Not ritual in the sense of voting, the democratic power of the commons is both colloquial and routine: a daily practice." And while, as Saidiya Hartman reminds us, such practices under conditions of domination rarely result in lasting victories, they do open new possibilities of political action and for valuing everyday activities in making community.
As the chapters that follow suggest, in each reiterative instance, "citizen" invokes a civic ethos and protocols of recognition and justice that call on audiences to think about their relation to citizens and others as one of mutual responsibility, responsiveness, and active engagement, a relation in which membership and individual rights come with moral obligations to a collective. Put differently, citizenship for these writers is not reducible to individual interest nor should it be managed by racial, economic, or other forms of hierarchy. Alongside and beyond state-organized relationships, black writers linked citizenship to those actions that create and sustain relations between people, within and without formal politics. Absalom Jones's 1799 petition to the "President, Senate, and House of Representatives," for instance, claimed citizenship for his fellow petitioners, including enslaved people, "believing them to be objects of your representation in your public councils, in common with ourselves and every other class of citizens within the jurisdiction of the United States." But they were not merely objects of representation; rather, they were included in the Constitution's "We, the people of the United States" and, as such, were not outsiders asking for inclusion in the body politic or for a special dispensation. Black citizens, including enslaved people, were "guardians of our rights, and patriots of equal and national liberties." Thirty years later, when David Walker addressed his Appeal (1829) to the "colored citizens of the world, but in particular, and very expressly, to those of the United States of America," he was similarly speaking "colored citizens" into being, making a claim about their relationship to traditionally recognized citizens, and calling on them to assume the rights and subjectivity of citizenship.
Beyond overt invocations of "citizen" and claims making, The Practice of Citizenship is concerned with the multiple spaces—physical and in print—where black citizens theorized and enacted citizenship. As social geographer Anna Secor notes, "The everyday life-spaces of the city—its neighborhoods, parks, streets, and buildings—" function as "both the medium through which citizenship struggles take place and, frequently, that which is at stake in the struggle." While Secor's work focuses on urban spatial practices, Practice of Citizenship demonstrates that the principle holds for spaces of all kinds, both physical and imaginary, including texts such as Absalom Jones and Richard Allen's 1794 Narrative or William J. Wilson's 1859 "Afric-American Picture Gallery" in which "citizen" is not the operative term in play. As my discussions of neighborliness and economic citizenship reveal, black writers often found useful models for civic practices in unlikely places, such as the early American backcountry, picture galleries, parlors, or in abstract constructs such as the republic of letters.
At their most elastic, black theories framed enslaved people as rights-bearing citizens, found inspiration and instruction in antislavery violence, and embraced parlors and picture galleries as revolutionary spaces of marronage. "Forget not that you are native-born American citizens," Henry Highland Garnet proclaims to his assumed audience of enslaved "brethren" in his "Address to the Slaves of the United States" (delivered 1843, first printed 1848), "and as such, you are justly entitled to all the rights that are granted to the freest." Garnet argues that enslaved people, as citizens, had a right to refuse to labor without wages, leave the plantations if their masters did not comply, and defend themselves if their masters attempted to retain them by force. His recognition of their citizenship does not so much make them citizens before the law as it acknowledges and names a citizenship that they simply had to act on. In this sense, black theorizing insisted on and created black citizens in the act of insisting. The rest of this introduction develops the literary critical, theoretical, and historical threads subtending the arguments about citizenship that I develop more fully in subsequent chapters.
Citizenship and Early African American Print Culture
Scholars of African American literature and print culture have been drawing our attention to "early Negro writings" from a variety of collectives, including mutual aid societies, religious and fraternal organizations, sermons, confessionals, and constitutions, for decades. These texts bring to light a different set of intellectual, social, and cultural insights into what Porter describes as "the beginnings of the Afro-American's artistic consciousness . . . the first articulations of the appeal of beauty and the moral sense." While we have historically treated the documents comprising Porter's Early Negro Writings as documentary or evidentiary in nature, Porter framed them as the institutional and cultural building blocks of a literary culture, one decidedly more collaborative and situated in ephemeral media than the texts privileged in our traditional literary historical focus on bound books and single-authored works. Carla Peterson, Elizabeth McHenry, Frances Smith Foster, Jocelyn Moody, Eric Gardner, John Ernest, and others have begun changing this tendency and have given us a robust sense of the "early Negro writings" emanating from a variety of collectives, including mutual aid societies, religious and fraternal organizations, literary societies, and labor unions. Their projects are not just about the recovery of texts or troubling the canon, nor do they seek to diminish the importance of the slave narrative or experiences of enslavement; rather, they are invested in creating a deeper understanding of the expressive print cultures black communities created out of these experiences. Black citizens did this work not simply as a response to white oppression but as a matter of course in the shaping of their own communities and in the process of meeting their own political, social, and cultural needs "to speak to and for themselves about matters they considered worthy of written words." In those spaces, we still find free black Americans wrestling with issues of enslavement but also very much invested in local, everyday issues, slavery being one—though sometimes tertiary—issue among many. They meditate on ethical and deliberative notions of republican citizenship, model these paradigms through textual form and circulation, and activate them through embodied performances like conventions, vigilance activities, and everyday activities of walking, working, and loving.
These narratives, then, take shape in what Gardner describes as "unexpected places": print and geographical sites including periodicals, texts from the western states and territories, black writing in languages other than English, and massive collections of poetry that have yet to be fully explored or theorized. Black Theories' attention to print sources and how writers engaged them highlights the work of intellectuals such as William J. Wilson, who, often writing as "Ethiop," featured prominently among his contemporaries but whose work is only now coming to critical light. It also draws on canonical figures such as Harper from their more understudied works and genres. By thinking about citizenship beyond the laws and state relations shaping it, thinking instead about how and where black writers theorized and enacted it, I broaden the range of texts and sites where we can analyze how citizenship theorizing happened Some of these sites are obvious in their concern with citizenship, but our emphasis on their documentary nature, the sometimes messy fights over power between men like Douglass and Garnet, and the focus on nationalist/integrationist binaries has obscured the ways they produce ideas about citizenship, both in conversation with and quite different from contemporaneous models. The black state conventions, for instance, often outlined the legal and historical basis for black citizenship as they petitioned states to restore rights taken away from them. Beyond these arguments for citizenship, however, they were also theorizing and practicing citizenship in the modes through which they made these claims: in the many gatherings and print exchanges leading to the convention, in the deliberative activities of the conventions, and in the circulation and discussion following the conventions. The circulation of ideas, documents, and civic energies these conventions organized theorizes and enacts the participatory politics from which black citizens were being excluded formally.
Even as black writing offered theoretical readings of citizenship—that is, the content of black theories—its structure, innovative use of genre and form, and modes of circulation model the theories they sought to outline both in terms of how republican institutions should look and the critical sensibilities of the citizens who would constitute and, in turn, be constituted through them. Black writers' attention to and experimentation with form, style, and the relation between politics and aesthetics challenge us to rethink our narratives of early African American literary history. Their work, from Jones and Allen's 1794 Narrative to Harper's 1860 "Triumph of Freedom" in the Anglo-African Magazine, suggests this history has routes that do not lead inexorably from slave narrative to novel but rather, like early national citizenship practices, proliferate in multiple directions.
The periodical press is particularly useful for analyzing this aspect of black theorizing, precisely because its structure cultivated multivocal, dialogic narratives, and its modes of circulation often demanded communal reading and reenactment. Ernest observes, "The periodical press was uniquely suited to the task of telling the story of African American history—because the story it could tell would be marked by narrative disruption and because, in telling the story, the press could only be multivocal and multiperspectival." Todd Vogel has argued similarly that the ephemeral quality of the press "made the writers nimble. They could plunge into the public conversation and get their views out immediately" and, I would add, in a way that to some degree sidestepped the policing and paternalistic behavior of other activists, both white and black. While black men, Douglass in particular, have been canonized as representatives and drivers of black intellectual history, this archive offers a much wider range of voices and ideas. As "Caleb" reminds would-be leaders in "A Note on Leaders," an 1861 article in the Weekly Anglo-African, while being "pious or educated at a time when knowing the alphabet seemed extraordinary" may have once vaulted any man to leadership, that time had long passed; black people could and were thinking and writing for themselves. Top-down (and, I would add, masculinist) notions of black leadership would work no longer, if they ever had.
As Benjamin Fagan posits, the black press forces us to think about the ways black writers constituted community outside of the nation-state form. This includes acknowledging that citizenship in the United States was not always (or sometimes even) the black press's primary point of identification. At the same time, these collectives were still thinking through modes of organization and self-government, however formal or informal, that have much to teach us about citizenship as a relation created by and practiced between members of a community. The question these texts pose is less how citizenship theorizing in the black press imagined black Americans as U.S. citizens and more how black theorizing imagined citizenship practices within and without the U.S. nation-state. The black press and broader print archive, then, offers models of democratic exchange and the kinds of spaces and institutions (print, galleries, conventions, markets, etc.) that support it.
Black national and state conventions are another form to which The Practice of Citizenship gives special attention. These events and the texts they produced were by nature dialogic. They included the back and forth of debates before and during conventions along with the rendering of the physical events in print form for distribution and further commentary. The printed minutes have traditionally been objects only of historical and not literary analysis, though the Colored Convention's Project's dedication to chronicling the conventions as a cultural movement is quickly changing that. While the national colored convention movement that began with the 1830 "National Convention of Free People of Colour held in Philadelphia, PA," has dominated critical discussions about black nationalism and political strategy, the myriad state conventions held across the country from 1840 through the 1890s demonstrate the vast variety in black political thought and strategy and reveal the degree to which U.S. citizenship was functionally state based, not national, particularly before the Civil War. As I discuss in Chapter 2, these documents manifest materially what literary critics have described as "double-voiced discourse," often speaking simultaneously to black citizens and white voters. Most visibly, the New York and Pennsylvania conventions I analyze issued addresses to "colored fellow citizens" and "to the people of the state," often printed in the same document. These addresses mixed defiance with deference politics as convention delegates, on one hand, entreated black citizens not to lose faith in their advocacy and to continue working for their own uplift as proof of civic worth and, at the same time, excoriated white voters for demanding arbitrary proofs for rights that by law and principle should belong to black citizens as a matter of course. At the same time, these addresses could hint at, if not outright announce, calls to revolution and/or separation if white voters refused to heed delegates' reasoned arguments. Often, convention addresses made these moves simultaneously, sometimes within the same sentence.
Other forms, such as the sketches, short fiction, and poetry published in black and antislavery periodicals and newspapers, did equally important theoretical work. Many of the pieces in the Anglo-African Magazine, the short-lived magazine founded by Thomas and Robert Hamilton in 1859, were not explicitly about (concerned with) citizenship in the sense that they made arguments for black citizenship or challenged particular laws (though some did that). Yet they were about citizenship in the sense that they interrogated and modeled citizenship practices. When Wilson introduced Ethiop in the "Afric-American Picture Gallery" as someone meditating on U.S. and black American history through art and through his writing about art, he also introduced readers to a mode of critique essential to citizenship. Harper's Jane Rustic, the pseudonymous narrator of her "Fancy Sketches" series, similarly models a mode of citizenship-as-critique when she consistently interrupts the "tomfoolery" of the men who engaged in discussions about black liberation as an elite rhetorical pastime.
Reading black print as a space where citizenship was both theorized and practiced—that is, as both archive and repertoire—reveals the degree to which black theories of citizenship unfold through a highly creative and diverse community of letters, not easily reducible to representative figures or genres. I borrow from Diana Taylor's Archive and Repertoire (2003) not to expand the meaning of "repertoire" to the point of incoherence or to erase the distinction between archive and repertoire but rather to think through how print, when read less as an end point or a medium that fixes meaning and more as one element among several at the time of production, becomes a space where writers engaged in processes that created citizenship, knowledge, and power in a nation that denied both their citizenship and print culture. Though the texts black writers produced are an archive insofar as they record thoughts, events, and proceedings, black print culture—the creation, circulation, and consumption of these texts—constitutes an ongoing performance that we can read as a repertoire. These texts were not static documents, as the convention proceedings reveal most clearly; instead, they involved, among other things, public gatherings, oral delivery, recording, public debate in print and in person, and varying vectors into print and into variously constituted print publics. Insofar as the black state conventions were a performance, to stay with this one example, this performance extended beyond the meetings themselves to include conversations about the conventions in print and in local gatherings, the choreographed presentation of convention documents to the public in the form of proceedings, and the ongoing discussion of the convention and its documents, again, in print and in local gatherings. This complex interaction between print and embodied action constitutes a unique performance that is different in each instance.
In this sense, these texts, when taken as part of a larger cultural formation, belong to those practices "rehearsed and performed daily in the public sphere" that include, for Diana Taylor, "civic obedience, resistance, citizenship, gender, ethnicity, and sexual identity." In the context of black theorizing, writing and publication are part of the "cultural practices" Taylor cites alongside "embodied practice" that offer "a way of knowing," a way of theorizing. I extend Taylor's thinking to situate black theorizing as a practice depending on both embodied expression and print. This is not to say that one is consistently privileged over the other or that the distribution of work between print and embodied performance is even, but rather to highlight how the two were always enmeshed. Other kinds of embodied culture—street fashion, slave escapes, acts of civil disobedience, antislavery violence, storytelling, and so on—that were happening remain crucial lines of inquiry. At the same time, this study is interested in how black theorizing mobilized and conceptualized print as a site of knowledge production and a site of resistance that could destabilize white supremacist citizenship. By thinking of individual instances of black theorizing as a repertoire and the aggregate as an archive, I mean to signal each moment as a unique complex of textual production, circulation, and reception (imagined and actual) and at the same time to acknowledge my own position as an observer collecting and shaping a narrative out of these sites, a position I share with the writers I'm analyzing insofar as we are both engaged in the theorizing process.
"Can These Dry Bones Live?" Reading Citizenship Reparatively
Throughout Black Theories, then, I emphasize theorizing over conclusive definitions, seeking forms rather than identifying a singular tradition, and articulating citizenship practices instead of defining formal citizenship status. Black writers and activists saw great potential in U.S. framing ideals—its civic republicanism, the comingling of peoples and ideas, and shared sovereignty—but they also recognized that these same ideals could and did accommodate systems of oppression as readily as they did egalitarian polity. U.S. citizenship was a "beautiful but baneful object": beautiful in its potential realization of "E pluribus unum" and baneful because enslavement and other exclusionary practices not only limited the capacity to imagine this potential but also were integral to conceptions of citizenship's beauty. In this sense, black theories of citizenship were both critical—defamiliarizing the ostensible naturalness of what citizenship was becoming—and reparative in their articulation of what might have been and what could still be. In calling these theories "reparative," I draw on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's description of reparative reading: "[a] position from which it is possible in turn to use one's own resources to assemble or 'repair' the murderous part-objects into something like a whole—though not, and may I emphasize this, not necessarily like any preexisting whole. Once assembled to one's own specifications, the more satisfying object is available both to be identified with and to offer one nourishment and comfort in turn." While the "more satisfying object"—that is, a just and equal citizenship—may never be achieved, the point is to identify and reconstruct (or, in some cases, construct anew) methods for working toward it. Hortense Spillers articulates this point from a slightly different angle directly connected to the twinned acts of speaking and writing and in the context of a larger black feminist project. "In order for me to speak a truer word concerning myself, I must strip down through layers of attenuated meaning," she notes. This stripping down is not an end, and the outcome is not given; rather, it is the necessary preparatory work that will allow her/us to "await whatever marvels of my own inventiveness." The power of this stance is in the energies black theorizing marshals and the "room" it creates "to realize that the future may be different from the present" and that the past could have happened differently.
This stance finds its expression in speech and print as a collective imaginative enterprise that strips down to make anew. Early black writers remind us again and again that the past as we have received it did not have to unfold in the ways it did. Black theorizing breaks down and exposes the ravages of white supremacist citizenship in the name of creating and re-creating a more affirming world. As I argue throughout Black Theories, this seeking does not point to a messianic ending or a return to some founding ideal. The seeking itself enacts the citizenship for which black theorizers sought.
Scholarship has begun asking versions of this question in terms of "the human," personhood, and belonging. Jeanine DeLombard's analysis of black civic presence in In the Shadow of the Gallows asks, "How could the black majority ever achieve political membership in the form of citizenship" in a republic that attempted to remove them from "both the public sphere and the liberal state through their enslaved or outlaw status?" Alexander G. Weheliye has asked, "What different modalities of the human come to light if we do not take the liberal humanist figure of Man as the master-subject but focus on how humanity has been imagined and lived by those subjects excluded from this domain?" Following Weheliye, Lloyd Pratt adds a formalist dimension: "What does the human look like when we attend not only to how it is 'imagined and lived by those subjects excluded from' the major lines of liberal humanist thought, but also to the formal and institutional structures that facilitate and constrain that imagining?" The question itself is not necessarily a new one if we consider critical work from black literary studies that interrogated the relation between black writing and contemporaneous discourses such as sentimentalism or paradigms such as the public sphere. Yet these recent iterations of the question and the print culture methodologies through which we have begun examining it place renewed emphasis on black writing's work as simultaneously critical and creative and operating in forms and genres (conventions, pamphlets, periodical literature, and sketches) that remain understudied.
Rather than ask how black citizens could achieve citizenship or had achieved citizenship as a destination defined by the state or white recognition, The Practice of Citizenship asks how black citizens defined citizenship themselves, claiming their everyday activities as doing the work of citizenship, often outside of or despite dominant political frameworks. The question for me is less how the state constructed citizenship or black citizens or how texts about black people produced a black civic presence or black (in)humanity and more how black theorists thought about and mobilized citizenship within and without legal constructions through their own collaboratively developed texts and spaces. In this sense, The Practice of Citizenship expands on Walter Johnson's call to attend to how "enslaved people theorized their own actions and the practical process through which those actions provided the predicate for new ways of thinking about slavery and resistance." Johnson's observation about scholarship on enslavement also applies to studies of black print culture, where we often have more direct access to accounts from black citizens themselves about citizenship.
My interest in taking up this inquiry through citizenship comes from the term's equal ubiquity in black writing and its lack of a stable definition anywhere in the antebellum United States. Black citizenship theorizing developed in an era of proliferating, overlapping, contradictory, and improvisational definitions of citizenship from constitutional ratification through passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. Conceptions of citizenship were legion. Beyond taking my cue from black print, my interest in citizenship comes from a determination to not cede key political concepts—citizenship, civility, deliberation, and so on—to those who would use them to restrict freedom, access, and reparative justice. I am fully aware that these concepts carry with them the racist, imperialist, sexist, heteronormative, and Eurocentric traces of Enlightenment humanism, a humanism that was framed around and through white supremacy from its inception. Lauren Berlant, Russ Castronovo, Hartman, and others have described this dominant mode of citizenship as a process of subjection and a state apparatus "that narrows subjects to mere shadows of once embodied and engaged persons." It encourages citizens to cede politics to specialized classes and spaces in the name of consensus, impoverished civility, and moral innocence.
At the same time, black citizens needed to be even more vigilant against the trappings of liberal citizenship and its logics of ahistorical individual responsibility. As Hartman has traced, a version of citizenship as "burdened individuality" enacted during Reconstruction served to subjugate newly freed black people under the guise of formal equality. Hartman notes, "The ascribed responsibility of the liberal individual served to displace the nation's responsibility for providing and ensuring the rights and privileges conferred by the Reconstruction Amendments and shifted the burden of duty onto the freed. It was their duty to prove their worthiness for freedom rather than the nation's duty to guarantee, at minimum, the exercise of liberty and equality, if not opportunities for livelihood other than debt-peonage." The "gift" of freedom erased any obligations on the part of the state to the past and made individual freepersons solely responsible for their present condition and future prospects. Hartman and others—and, as we shall see, early black theorizers—warn against a kind of cruel optimism in which the citizenship struggled for and won becomes the means for reconstructing modes of subjection, a bait-and-switch in which giving up on a more critically engaged citizenship and claims for reparative justice are the price for admission.
Even so, citizenship remains a potent concept. Despite critical turns to transnational, international, Atlantic world, and other frameworks that decenter the nation-state, "despite," as Ayelet Shachar notes, "jubilant predictions by post-nationalists of the imminent demise of citizenship, the legal distinction between member and stranger is, if anything, back with a vengeance." Citizenship can in fact be a powerful mode for grounding and organizing a more liberatory politics based in a "commitment to public debate, an insistence on grappling with material conditions, a refusal to absorb embodied differences under consensus." Black theorizing foregrounded these messy processes, arguing for a more radical citizenship even as it sometimes became trapped in its limits, particularly in terms of gender as the black state conventions demonstrate. While we should continue critiquing citizenship's exclusions and while we should continue looking for other modes of affiliation, we should also attend to the ways excluded people have reconceptualized and worked through citizenship as a productive social, political, and economic arrangement.
More than challenge who is or is not a citizen or who can and cannot become a citizen under already recognized frameworks (birthright, property, gender, race, ethnicity, class, etc.), then, black theorizers redefined what citizenship meant. They weren't looking to join the politically dead, and they were even less interested in acceding to their own political and social deaths. Like the Hebrew God confronting Ezekiel, they ask, "Can these dry bones live?" And like Ezekiel, they evince a faith that dry bones can indeed live, but they must first receive the word. This "faith in the performative power of the word—both spoken and written" that Peterson highlights in black women's writing recurs throughout black theorizing. The word "agitates": it disturbs complacency, upends commonsense logics, and confronts us with the limits of our own perceptions in a way that cultivates a higher awareness and compels action.
These interruptive and intrusive acts constitute what I discuss in Chapters 4 and 5 as citizenship's critical and revolutionary functions insofar as they challenge and redistribute the range of ideas and actions that are thinkable, knowable, sayable, and doable and the range of people who can think, know, say, and do them. The power of the creative word, as Jacques Rancière notes, is in its ability to "widen gaps, open up space for deviations, modify the speeds, trajectories, and the ways in which groups of people adhere to a condition, react to situations, recognize their images." This last point is crucial. Black citizenship theorizing and early black print more broadly produced a different "angle of vision," new "conditions of possibility for the political," in its constant saying of the unsayable from people whose exclusion was increasingly framed as the precondition for American political union. Black print offers narratives of an expanding universe, not a contracting one, in which citizenship is less about membership in a predefined group, less about granting and withholding privileges, and more about creating structures that maximize human potential and what they saw as the benefits of republican governance.
Citizenship should enliven, not deaden. This vision of citizenship eschews neoliberal fantasies of a citizenry composed of abstractly equal disembodied individuals in favor of critically and collaboratively constructed citizenship practices. From the perspective of black theorizing, states do not make citizens—active and involved individuals and collectives create citizens. Or, as I argue in my discussion of neighborly citizenship, neighbors do not look for a good neighbor; they make neighborhood. Black writers argued that the state and civic institutions should work to strengthen the "social intercourse" that enables people to practice citizenship rather than allowing "private" racial, gender, or economic interests to create artificial barriers. Like the human body, the body politic could only grow stronger when power circulated evenly among its members, and like the human body (a potent metaphor in early Republican political discourse), it would suffer if this circulation were blocked.
We see this emphasis on citizenship as enlivening and circulatory throughout black print. Hosea Easton's A Treatise on the Intellectual Character, and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the U. States (1837), for instance, theorizes citizenship as a commons (rather than a private possession) essential to the functioning of any society and the livelihood of individuals within that society. "A withholding of the enjoyment of any American principle from an American man," Easton asserts, "either governmental, ecclesiastical, civil, social or alimental is in effect taking away his means of subsistence; and consequently, taking away his life." We might extrapolate from Easton and others to think about citizenship as a kind of political commoning. As Nelson notes, commoning is "a communal labor in communication, sharing, and meaning-making. It is about the sharing of work and materials: not just the bounty of nature but also the bounty of what people can produce together in local community." In a similar vein, Easton posits citizenship as the process through which communities make meaning and distribute resources, material and immaterial, in a republican government. Easton is not suggesting that lacking citizenship equals a lack of personhood or humanity but rather that citizenship, for him, was the most robust access point for constituting social, political, and economic collectives. Enclosing access to this commons, like enclosing access to water, arable land, or an affirmative culture, has very real material affects not just to the individuals or groups excluded but also to the republic as a whole. Refusing access to these networks constitutes an act of violence that makes the perpetrator, in Easton's words, a "murderer of the worst kind" because such restrictions—for current and potential citizens—create the very material inequalities that were paradoxically used to justify them, stripping individuals and groups of the means of political, material, and social existence.
And yet, an archive of black writing testifies that attempted murder could result in new forms of living and of articulating life. "Not all subjects lie still in democracy's graveyard," Castronovo notes, and Joanna Brooks asks us to consider how the world looks "to one who," like the biblical Lazarus, "has faced and survived death." Just as Vincent Brown's Reaper's Garden invites us to see the political and "social connections and communities of memory" that enslaved people "created through struggle," black theorists draw our attention to a "purposeful will and action" that didn't simply index the loss of rights associated with citizenship but rather actively worked to generate new ways of understanding citizenship and being citizens outside rights discourse even as, paradoxically, they argued for rights. This legacy included underground economies, vigilance committees, mutual aid societies, institutionalized shadow politics, and myriad informal and ad hoc cultural practices that often supplemented or replaced official citizenship frameworks. These citizenship acts help us uncouple citizenship from the state institutions that are the most recognized but not the only medium for organizing them.
Early U.S. Citizenship: Inverse Causality and Denization
By centering early African American print culture, I offer a take on citizenship from the perspective of those our studies often frame as the objects of legislation, excluded, or occupying a position of negation—those whose texts we often place in conversation with dominant discourses in ways that frame them as primarily responding rather than creating. Contrary to this narrative, the writers I study here claimed citizenship as their own. They called white America's bluff in ways that forced individuals, states, and the federal government to articulate exactly how black Americans were not (supposed to be) citizens. As I discuss in this section, this process required constant forgetting and definitional revisions that were never sufficient. Black citizens simply did not go away.
Before the Fourteenth Amendment established birthright citizenship as the federal standard, the United States did not have an explicit or uniform definition of "citizen." In the decades before the Fourteenth Amendment made birthright citizenship the national standard, experiences of citizenship were more state based than federal, and citizens in the early republic were identified more by a shifting catalogue of what they could and could not do within states (e.g., vote, own land, marry) and between states (e.g., freedom of movement and inhabitance) than by categorical federal statute. Each state had its own criteria for these rights, privileges, and protections involving gender, inhabitance, economics, age, native status, and increasingly race among the cadre of qualifications. On the federal level, the Constitution's Privileges and Immunities Clause knit these disparate rules into a patchwork approximating national citizenship. By the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, however, popular consensus, if not the law itself, saw black Americans as not fully citizens, neither in the rights-bearing sense nor in the eyes of most of the white citizenry. While individual states might have granted black Americans citizenship rights—the right to vote, for instance—these rights did not travel with them across state lines.
This was not always the case, nor was it an inevitable outcome of the Revolution. The Articles of Confederation defined citizenship explicitly and broadly: "The free inhabitants of each of these States, paupers, vagabonds, and fugitives from justice excepted shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of free citizens in the several states." The 1787 federal constitution, however, was silent on the subject, in part because slavery and the status of American Indians, women, and others were minefields for the Constitutional Convention but also because the distribution of power between federal and state governments, to the extent that it was settled, was weighted in favor of the states. When the Constitution used the word "citizen," it did so without definition. The Privileges and Immunities Clause, Article IV, Section 2, was the closest the Constitution came to defining citizens: "The Citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States." The document refers to citizens in the requirements for office holding and in defining the role of the judiciary but not in a way that gives insight into who is or can be a citizen or who was or was not a citizen at ratification.
The Naturalization Act of 1790 attempted to fill in some of the gaps as it clarified whom Congress believed could become a citizen, restricting naturalization to "free white persons." But it did nothing to clarify the status of those already in the country, at least not in law. Instead, as historian Douglass Bradburn explains, it along with a similar restriction in the 1792 Militia Act clearly demonstrated "an awareness" on the part of the federal government "of the type of citizens the act expected to create" and placed people of color in the double bind of not being accepted as native-born citizens and not having a clear institutional way to secure full citizenship. Where the Naturalization Act of 1790 "guaranteed that Indians and blacks would not be welcomed as future equal citizens," the Militia Act of 1792 "effectively ratified" this guarantee by restricting militia service, "one of the most potent symbols of male citizenship in the new American republic," to white men.
Against this backdrop, black writers invoked British and U.S. legal history and histories of black civic activity and cited ongoing citizenship practices, noting that changes in law were more akin to gross fraud than a clarification of some original plan. In this sense, documents such as the 1837 "Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens, Threatened with Disfranchisement, to the People of Pennsylvania" were both part of and intervening in a developing but as yet unestablished consensus about who citizens were and what they did. The document itself exemplifies the kind of content we tend to focus on when analyzing black citizenship. The "Appeal," drafted by Robert Purvis, outlines the legal and historical basis for black citizenship in Pennsylvania with a blistering critique of justifications for black disenfranchisement given during that state's constitutional convention in 1837-38. They cite black military service during the Revolution and War of 1812, black office holding, and taxpaying, moments during the framing of the Articles of Confederation when delegates struck down attempts to affix "white" as a modifier of freeman or free inhabitant, black passport holding, and passages from the Journal of Congress that confirm black citizenship from the nation's founding not simply as a rhetorical mishap but rather as a deliberate and deliberative decision on the part of the framers.
The "Appeal" points to an important strain of black theorizing as textual criticism, one hearkening back to Benjamin Banneker's critique of Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia and Jones and Allen's "refutation" of Matthew Carey's Short Account (1793), which I will discuss in more detail in Chapter 1. Purvis and others were especially attentive to records like the Congressional Journal, convention proceedings, and records of debates as sources for and objects of interpretation as they theorized citizenship, developing in the process a robust archive. In particular, they note a reference to "citizens of the United States, as are free persons of color" in a December 21, 1803, resolution on "American seaman." Over twenty years later, in the wake of the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision (1857), James McCune Smith would return to these documents along with their roots in Roman citizenship. "[I]n the absence of any definition of the word [citizen] in the Constitution," Smith argues, "the word must bear the meaning which language itself attaches to it . . . when it expresses the relation of the individual to the general government." He enumerates the rights associated with Roman and U.S. citizenship, noting that free black citizens exercised them all. He, like the Pennsylvania appealers before, then sets out to define citizens by way of the rights they exercise and the responsibilities they hold: "the possession of all or any of" these rights "constituted citizenship on the part of the individual holding them." Readings such as the 1837 petitioners and Smith's engaged historical and contemporaneous legal writing to expand, rather than contract, citizenship's parameters and to refuse the calculus by which white whim gained the force of timeless law.
Like many of the texts in Black Theories, the 1837 "Appeal's" materiality—its circulation and literal presence on the table at the convention—was key to its intervention. The "Appeal" was read during Pennsylvania's Reform Convention in 1837, sparking a prolonged debate among delegates (almost twenty pages), first over printing and distributing the "Appeal" to the convention and then over questions including the petitioners' status as citizens, what some delegates saw as the "Appeal's" "injurious" language, and the implications of accepting the "Appeal" for Pennsylvania's relation to slaveholding states. Some delegates took issue with the document's tone, calling it "a mere argumentative paper" with "nothing in its character which entitled it to receive any special attention," a document that contained language "not very courteous . . . indeed, for petitioners." These comments prompted Thaddeus Stevens (Adams County) to counter, "When a petition was couched in language respectful to the body to which it was presented, they were bound to receive it. Was this memorial, then, to be rejected? He would never give his vote for that. Such a memorial, coming from white men, would not be considered offensive." For Stevens, it seemed clear that to some of his fellow delegates, the document's "respectful" nature hinged on the racial identity of the petitioners, which itself was under question and admittedly artificial, as "probably many of those who signed the memorial are as white as many of us, although they do not rank according to the technical terms of 'white' and 'black.'" The debate highlights the degree to which notions about racial hierarchy colored the reception of political acts and even whether or not an act would be received as political at all. The convention eventually decided at least to print and distribute the petition (fifty-six for, forty-five against), though it kept the language restricting voting rights to white men.
This moment of claims making through print circulation, like so many instances on scales small and large, was a civic and textual act that called those in power to recognize and admit how central black citizens and their claims were to national politics and the very definitions of republicanism and freedom. As one delegate to Pennsylvania's constitutional convention put it, the "Appeal" "involved questions of the utmost importance not only to the character of our deliberations, but to that of the State, and to the Union itself, of which it forms an important part." While the "Appeal's" content articulated the sham of Pennsylvania's disenfranchisement of black citizens, debates over its formal status as a petition, appeal, or memorial, as well as the debate over how the convention should accept it, if at all, had ramifications for the nature of representation and the relation between government and the governed more broadly. The stakes involved not just whether or not black men could vote on the same terms as white men but also the meaning of citizenship altogether.
In contrast to the histories and practices that documents such as the "Appeal" and Smith's "Citizenship" excavated, some of the earliest attempts to define U.S. citizenship quickly began linking those rights and social markers that identified the citizen to white men, in principle if not yet in law, through historical amnesia and outright fabrication. David Ramsay's 1789 A Dissertation on the Manners of Acquiring the Character and Privileges of a Citizen, for instance, used "Negroes" as a foil for differentiating between sovereign citizens and mere inhabitants:
Negroes are inhabitants, but not citizens. Citizenship confers a right of voting at elections, and many other privileges not enjoyed by those who are no more than inhabitants. The precise difference may be thus stated: The citizen of a free state is so united to it as to possess an individual's proportion of the common sovereignty; but he who is no more than an inhabitant, or resident, has no farther connection with the state in which he resides, than such as gives him security for his person and property, agreeably to fixed laws, without any participation in its government.Ramsay builds on a generally understood connection between citizenship and the specific set of rights and social practices associated with sovereignty and collective governance: citizens were sovereign, voting was a sign of sovereignty, and, therefore, anyone who voted was implicitly a U.S. citizen. But he does so in a way that fixes the range of people who could conceivably perform these practices, suggesting that "Negroes" (along with women, children, and American Indians) were and could only be inhabitants without a share in collective sovereignty. The fact that at the time Ramsay was writing, free black people ("Negroes") could and were legally voting in every state except Georgia and his own South Carolina, and so were in fact citizens by Ramsay's own definition, was less important in practice than the conventional wisdom that black people, a priori, were not "original citizens" and were, in fact, the negative against which citizenship gained clarity. Being "Negro," free or otherwise from Ramsay's perspective, precluded them from being part of the original contract, so citizenship was something they would have to be given with the consent of and always contingent on white sovereigns' sufferance.
These assumptions were codified as historical fact, as the definition of "citizen" developed in subsequent texts such as the United States' first legal dictionary, John Bouvier's A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America (1839). In 1839, Bouvier's Dictionary defined citizen without racial ascription: "One who, under the constitution and laws of the United States, has a right to vote for representatives in congress and other public officers, and who is qualified to fill offices in the gift of the people." The entry distinguished between "natural born" and "naturalized" citizens only in that the latter could not become president. The central change to the dictionary's definition over the next decades was a racial qualification: "under the word citizen, are included all white persons born in the United States, and naturalized persons born out of the same, who have not lost their right as such. This includes men, women, and children." The 1854 edition then devotes the entire third entry to explaining birthright citizenship's limits: "All natives are not citizens of the United States; the descendants of the aborigines, and those of African origin, are not entitled to the rights of citizens. Anterior to the adoption of the constitution of the United States, each state had the right to make citizens of such persons as it pleased. That constitution does not authorize any but white persons to become citizens of the United States; and it must therefore be presumed that no one is a citizen who is not white." Texts such as Bouvier's attempted to prescribe a particular understanding of white citizenship as much as, if not more than, they described citizenship in practice. Like Ramsay's definition, these revisions neglected the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution's silence on citizenship in general, and other proofs of black citizenship. The revisions demonstrate how racializing citizenship required consistent acts of historical revision, amnesia, and counterfactual narration but also, particularly in the decades when states were revising their constitutions, how racialized citizenship was codified in law only in the wake of black citizens asserting their position as citizens and as white powerbrokers were attempting to consolidate their own positions.
Ramsay's Dissertation and changes to Bouvier's Dictionary map a trajectory that first linked citizenship to political rights generally assumed to be restricted to white men but then increasingly linked citizenship to white manhood itself, eliding rights as the third term in the metonymic chain in a way that produced race—whiteness and blackness. As states revised their constitutions to restrict political rights to white men and as new states adopted constitutions with even more restrictive black codes, Ramsay's, Bouvier's, and others' assumptions became reality and took on the timeless character of what had always already been. The state of Connecticut's argument against black citizenship in Crandall v. State of Connecticut (1834), for instance, argued that since voting rights had "been denied to the coloured race generally, it is evidence, that that race were not embraced by the framers of the constitution, in the term citizen."
This argument, as the defense for Crandall pointed out, ignored black voting "in Pennsylvania and New-York, (as well as in Maine, New-Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, New-Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, North-Carolina and Tennessee)." The defense also attempted to unlink voting and citizenship by citing instances in which people could not vote (naturalized citizens, women, and children) but were nevertheless recognized as citizens. At the same time, their list of states where black citizens could and did vote shows how readily black citizenship practices could be ignored or erased in argument and memory even in the face of historical records.
Other states and attorneys general, following Crandall, argued that because black Americans did not exercise all of the rights of white citizens (never mind that all white men did not exercise all the rights of their fellow citizens across all states), they should not be considered citizens of the United States or, if citizens, a special kind of second-level citizen whose rights other states were not obligated to respect. Instead, these courts and legislatures read claims for black people under the Privileges and Immunities Clause as one state's encroaching on the jurisdiction of another. Georgia, for instance, justified its detention of black sailors based on both disenfranchisement across several states and laws explicitly preventing marriage between black and white people in states such as Massachusetts. Free black people did not have a claim to all the privileges and immunities of federal citizenship, the state of Georgia argued, because they did not enjoy all the privileges of citizenship in their home states. South Carolina similarly justified the imprisonment of free black seamen through the states' police powers, arguing that such men would be disruptive to state and national security.
Definitions like Ramsay's and Bouvier's and subsequent legislation and court decisions would seem confirm Barbara Welke's assertion that from the ratification of the federal constitution, the "law privileged able white men's ownership of self, according full personhood and belonging only to those who were able, white, and male." And there's strong evidence for this characterization, as Welke's study bears out. Yet, black theorists rarely conceded this assumption as fact. Indeed, black writers from Absalom Jones to Frances Harper would take the absence of racial designations in law literally, forcing states to make presumptions of white citizenship explicit in law. If, from the outset of the new republic, white men assumed citizenship as their private domain, black citizens (men and women) would continually argue and act in ways that suggested they assumed otherwise.
When viewed from this position, these "official" delineations of citizenship were neither static nor definitive in this era but rather participated in a broader process seeking to fix these categories and to do so, at least in part, in a way that explicitly curtailed or foreclosed access for all except Anglo-Saxon Protestant men. As the century wore on, whiteness began trumping even property as an indication of citizenship. Bradburn has described this process as "denization," a procedure that "extended only some rights and privileges of citizens" to black people without considering them "part of the body politic." Black Americans were not "aliens," as such, but the state increasingly treated them as partial citizens only, denizens, and their status "remained conditional, and privileges once extended could be revoked." The facts of black citizenship gave way to tragi-comic commonsense assertions that such could never have been the case. Where Ramsay argued in 1789 that since "Negroes" could not vote, they must not be citizens, Chief Justice Roger Taney and Senator Stephen A. Douglas (Ill.), backed by revisionist history, racial science, and popular opinion, would argue in 1857 that black people could not be and were never intended to become citizens; they could never be more than inhabitants because they were not white. And, to riff off Taney, even if they had rights, no white man was "bound to respect" them.
Ramsay's Dissertation, myriad federal and state judicial decisions, and the 1787 Federal Constitution demonstrate that the codification of white citizenship was a long political and economic process of selective inclusion and exclusion requiring constant institutional and cultural maintenance. This narrative is a familiar one, filled with the duplicity, willful ignorance, and betrayal that characterize the "racial contract's" institutionalized and "iterative" privileging of white interests at the expense of all others. It can fit neatly within contemporary scholarship placing blackness as the negative against which the West defines humanity and can serve as a prelude to a narrative of black agency and resistance. And this book at times offers a bit of both.
At the same time, Black Theories' overarching trajectory suggests a narrative of inverse causality. Neither black reaction nor protest as we've generally used the term, inverse causality suggests a dynamic in which white citizens (1) stripped rights away in response to or fear of black citizenship practices and aspirations; (2) structurally created conditions that led to material inequality; and then (3) retroactively used the resultant "condition" to argue that black Americans were never citizens because they did not, could not, and could never have exercised the rights from which white Americans had (just) barred them. Reading early citizenship restrictions through inverse causality and denization reorients the action-reaction model we tend to follow that frames black activism as responding to racist policy. Bradburn notes this dynamic in the eighteenth-century context: "As more and more free blacks clamored for access to power, more and more restrictions were placed upon their citizenship." "Unlike subjecthood," Bradburn concludes, "citizenship demanded equality—and equality was out of the question." In this sense, U.S. citizenship cannot be untangled from the tensions gradual emancipation wrought across northern states. Though I hesitate to draw a direct causal relation between specific black texts and shifts in documents like Bouvier's Dictionary, his and others' revisions did not happen in a vacuum—he, in fact, practiced law in Pennsylvania during the ratification of that state's 1838 constitution. His editions and the discourse of U.S. citizenship must be considered in relation to the political movements occurring in the intervening years (women's rights, workers' rights, and the focus of this book, the black state and national conventions) that forced representatives of the law to clarify, again and again, a restrictive definition of citizenship and associated concepts and to deny, again and again, the histories and practices that Purvis and others kept in circulation.
Using the interpretive insights of Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, the black state conventions, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and the countless contributors to the black press as guides, The Practice of Citizenship is organized around five interrelated citizenship practices and the stylistic and perspectival schemas each practice cultivates: neighborly contact, the free circulation of civic energy, economic representation, critique, and revolution. This listing is not meant to be comprehensive but rather suggestive of key concepts that emerge from the archive I've assembled. Together, these chapters offer a diachronic and synchronic narrative of black theories and practices as each chapter takes up a specific site that constitutes black theorizing's repertoire. It argues for the specificity of each moment in terms of historical context, geographic scale, and the exigencies of needing to persuade a wide range of audiences, from hostile white auditors to ambivalent black citizens to fellow black activists with opposing views. At the same time, black theorizers often thought of these practices as scalable. Neighborly citizenship, for instance, is not just about local interactions but rather models an ethics for institution building and for how institutions should facilitate citizenship's work.
Though each chapter focuses on a specific citizenship practice, these practices are mutually constituting and always simultaneously in play. One requires the other to create a viable polity: neighborliness depends on circulation and critique to give it boundaries; economic citizens should behave not as individual agents in an ostensibly liberal market but ethically, as participants in a collective neighborhood. Yet writers emphasize one approach over another in response to political and historical moments of crisis and change. There were more possibilities for citizenship when Jones and Allen formed the Free African Society in 1787 than when Robert and Thomas Hamilton founded the Anglo-African Magazine in 1859, and black theorists' tactical shifts reflect that declension. The black state conventions emphasized voting rights as crucial to citizenship in the 1840s in the wake of multiple states ratifying constitutions restricting voting to white men. Many of these same writers continued advocating for formal rights into the 1850s, but they also shifted focus to the need for more dramatic political reconstruction in light of states rejecting their claims and after passage of the Fugitive Slave Law (1850) and the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854). Jones and Allen's foregrounding of neighborliness—what I define in Chapter 1 as the ability of fellow citizens to engage each other on terms of mutual responsibility and good faith through "real sensibility"—in the 1790s speaks to their sense of hope that the young nation could hold to the promises of equality and commonwealth they saw articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and abolitionism. The rapidity with which the two former slaves rose to prominence in Philadelphia gave them an attenuated hope in a generally progressive trend, despite many setbacks. But the moment did not last, not in Jones and Allen's day and not across subsequent decades. By 1860, calls for neighborly citizenship might have seemed misplaced in light of an ascendant capitalist citizenship and the sense that the current world would need to be dismantled completely before any kind of democratic society could be constructed. And yet, this is precisely when Harper returns our attention to the potential power of "real sensibility" and the power of the word—spoken and written—to spark substantive and revolutionary realignments.
Many of the texts and scenes I draw from constellate around Philadelphia and New York as the setting or point of origin, in part as a reflection of the two cities' status as print centers. And yet, as Gardner has noted, periodicals such as the Christian Recorder, Douglass's Paper, and the Anglo-African Magazine might have been produced in Philadelphia and New York, but their correspondents and circulation went well beyond these confines. Indeed, though the Anglo-African Magazine was based in New York City, contributors such as Harper were not. At the same time, my selection of these texts is not an argument for a cohesive or homogeneous black print public. Instead, it reflects my sense that citizenship theorizing was always simultaneously local and contextual in nature and at the same time aware of and pointed toward larger audiences that, as I discuss in Chapter 3, McCune Smith invoked in terms of the "Republic of Letters." By focusing tightly on specific literary historical flashpoints, The Practice of Citizenship does the necessary work of providing context for understanding both the continuities and differences in what comes after. My approach here has been shaped by Elizabeth McHenry's work on black readers in Forgotten Readers (2002), an interest in micro-history, and how lessons learned from micro-histories of black texts might be applied at varying spatial and temporal scales. By drawing attention to theorizing as a process, rather than a goal, to citizenship as constantly under construction rather than something possessed, The Practice of Citizenship nevertheless also offers a model for thinking across multiply configured periods without losing this specificity.
I end with 1861, because the moment just before the Civil War represents a time of intense theorizing that often gets overshadowed by what comes after in much the same way that Dred Scott v. Sanford overshadows events of 1856, including "Bleeding Kansas" and Margaret Garner's killing of her daughter. Indeed, while a potential Thirteenth Amendment that explicitly prevented Congress from interfering with state enslavement laws was on its way to ratification, a literary explosion was occurring in black periodicals, where writers were producing fiction, poetry, and essays at a blistering pace. I want to capture the tensions between possibility and disappointment from this prewar perspective—as if emancipation and the Reconstruction amendments had not and perhaps would never happen—and from a moment when all signs pointed toward the permanence of enslavement and increasing racism. Chapter 1 examines competing accounts of Philadelphia's 1793 yellow fever epidemic to outline neighborliness as the ethical foundation for the citizenship practices articulated throughout The Practice of Citizenship. Building on the notion of an "expressive language of conduct," Jones and Allen's 1794 Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People clarifies neighborliness as a form of sensibility made material through concrete actions. The neighborly focus on being a good neighbor rather than on identifying the good neighbor creates fellow feeling independent of other forms of association—familial, racial, economic, national, and so on. Narrative's vignettes in the style of the parable of the Good Samaritan flesh out neighborliness as a citizenship practice robust enough to promote mutual aid yet open enough to promote more democratic engagement.
Jones and Allen published Narrative, in part, as a direct response to Matthew Carey's A Short Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia (1793, 1794), which accused black Philadelphians of theft during the epidemic. Yet, Carey's Account provided not only an occasion to go to print but also a foil against which to stage their account of black citizenship practices. The two restage scenes from and in the style of Account as a way to narratively dismantle its racial and economic assumptions. More than a response to Carey's immediate claims, however, Jones and Allen's articulation of neighborly citizenship provides the grounding for their plan for emancipation, an "experiment" in institutional neighborliness that would educate the children of slaves as full citizens.
Chapter 2 positions the black state conventions of the 1840s as central to our understanding of citizenship and the operation of participatory politics as a citizenship practice more generally. Through readings of convention proceedings from New York (1840), Pennsylvania (1841, 1848), and Ohio (1848, 1849, 1851), I trace a shift in U.S. political culture from potentially more direct and public forms of political participation, like extra-governmental conventions, to more managed and proprietary forms of representation. To counter arguments that black people were either too irredeemably inferior or too dependent on waged and manual labor to warrant full citizenship, convention addresses built on natural rights theory and contemporaneous physics to suggest a circulatory model of civic power. Fellow citizens, they suggest, are not linked by common ancestry or political agreement but rather by their faith and participation in a republican style of government. Just as blocking access to major waterways could destroy a city, blocking the free circulation of civic power could result in either civic and social deterioration or explosive revolt among those disenfranchised.
While the male delegates to these conventions often made these claims in explicitly masculinist terms, black women nevertheless made use of the conventions to stake their own claims to participatory politics and citizenship. They lobbied for recognition in official convention spaces and were key to the convention's material contexts, including providing the means for circulating documents for some conventions and forming auxiliary committees. The conventions allow us to track not only the arguments black activists made for citizenship but also the tensions within black collectives around gender and access to political space. Moreover, the printed documents associated with these conventions—the calls, debates, actual proceedings, and subsequent responses—evince a robust print culture that put the theoretical concerns about the relation between political participation and citizenship into practice.
My discussions of neighborly citizenship and the circulation of civic power reveal that citizenship practices and economics were inextricably linked. Chapter 3 turns to pseudonymous correspondences in Douglass's Paper during the early 1850s—James McCune Smith's "Heads of the Colored People" series and William J. Wilson's "Letters from Our Brooklyn Correspondent"—to excavate changing understandings of citizenship in the wake of midcentury market revolutions. Both Wilson and Smith read the United States as tending toward economic citizenship, a structure in which the market displaces civil society as the privileged space of citizenship practices and civic identity. Yet, where Wilson argues pragmatically for the cultivation of a "black aristocracy," economic representatives for what he saw as a solidifying U.S. oligarchy, Smith valorizes the "best average colored" person as the embodiment of a new urban republicanism, the foundation for a strong democratic polity of laboring folk.
Wilson and Smith use their pseudonymous narrators, "Ethiop" and "Communipaw," and the generic flexibility of the sketch to lay out the kinds of fluid subjectivities best suited to navigate the new civic-economic terrain, the former offering a street-savvy businessman viewing the economic landscape from the "heights" and the latter a "whitewasher," a skilled laborer who transgresses boundaries and insists on a horizontal configuration of politics. Rather than a precursor to the Washington-Du Bois debates that have become standard to our narrative of black intellectualism, however, these two collaborated to create a culture of engagement through literary expression. Their collection of fictionalized case studies, ethnographic observations, and flâneur-like urban narratives highlights the degree to which black conceptions of citizenship unfolded not just in speeches, conventions, and pamphlets but also through communities of letters engaged in explicitly literary discussions about representation.
The writers and collectives I examine throughout Black Theories did not separate politics, citizenship, and critique. They did not restrict politics to voting or specialized spaces, and while the state conventions often restricted or did not credit women's participation, as I discuss in Chapter 2, these restrictions themselves became a matter of critique from within the conventions themselves. While the chapters on neighborliness, circulation, and economics are all also concerned with practices of critique and revolution, this book's final two chapters take up critical and revolutionary citizenship explicitly. Separating the two allows me to distinguish between two fronts: (1) how black writers analyzed and critiqued the framing of public thought and citizenship and (2) how black writers analyzed and represented the violence—cognitive, physical, and aesthetic—of breaking that framing and found in antislavery violence, be it fugitive rescues or insurrections, sites of knowledge production. In this sense, while slave rebellions are certainly moments of critique, characterizing them as revolution emphasizes not just their physicality but also the way they created new worlds and, even in failure, reaffirmed a sense of potentiality.
Chapter 4 examines the meaning of critique and the means for cultivating a critical sense among a diverse citizenry. Through the Anglo-African Magazine (1859-1860), I outline a collective and participatory project of building different idioms of citizenship and peoplehood as a counter to the "limitation of humanity and human rights" and "truth," following editor Thomas Hamilton and Frederick Douglass, that national fantasies of white citizenship authorized. Critique under white citizenship allows deliberation within the structural confines of the racial contract but punishes discourse operating outside those confines. No matter how acrimonious Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas became in 1858, for instance, both candidates cultivated a taste for white supremacist citizenship. Each performance reaffirmed whiteness as foundational and set this reaffirmation as the linchpin that would maintain the Union and that would get either Lincoln or Douglas elected. By contrast, critical citizenship is at its core concerned with identifying, probing, and challenging these frameworks and taste regimes. The work in the Anglo-African Magazine—serialized fiction, scientific and historical treatises, and polemics—cultivates readers' tastes for understandings of history, the constitutional "we the people," and politics more broadly as messy, sometimes contradictory, and always in process. Through William J. Wilson's "Afric-American Picture Gallery" series, the chapter examines how the "thrillingly sublime courage" of slave resistance catalyzes this disruptive process and serves as a warning that critique, without a concomitant impulse to action, risks reproducing the very closures it is meant to defy.
Taking up the question of consciousness raising, revolutionary violence, and literary representation, Chapter 5 uses Harper's writing, speaking, and activism in the years before the Civil War to explore the cultural work that could sustain a prolonged battle for emancipation, even if, or perhaps especially when, violent conflict seemed not only imminent but also necessary. These writings—letters, poetry, sketches, and short stories—offer an overview of black political rhetoric and citizenship practices from the past decades and analyze their grounding ethos. They argue that this work should be focused through the fight against enslavement and the greater dissemination of freedom. Harper theorizes the generative power of the word and the connections between theory and practice and word and deed perhaps more clearly than any other writer this book examines. Her work from the months between John Brown's execution and the first shots of the Civil War use the sublime—identified as sublime, agitation, soul energy—to reinvigorate sensibility, to reconnect it to a sense of possibility in a moment of uncertainty and pessimism. The retrospective and reflexive nature of Harper's work also occasions a critique of the previous chapters, a warning that even if the principles I outline here are consistent in nature, their application must adapt to the contingencies of context. In a broader sense, her meditations on the sublime—identified as sublime, agitation, soul energy, and the like—raise questions about the relation between revolution, righteous violence, and citizenship and prompt us to ask, "What happens after critique?"
While still active today in movements such as Black Lives Matter, environmental justice actions, and advocacy for refugee communities, we know in hindsight that these versions of citizenship have yet to become common practice. Formal recognition of black citizenship in the shape of the Fourteenth Amendment brought with it new forms of subjection in part by nationalizing the racial restrictions that had been in force in northern states for decades. And the amendment did nothing to include Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, or others. To the extent that The Practice of Citizenship tells a story, then, it is a story about the tension between black citizens' creative struggle for a just society based on the promises they saw in republican self-governance set against the developing national predilection to foreclose such possibilities through increasingly restrictive legal and social practices. The continued pressure of such a volatile landscape forced black theorists to rethink and rearticulate their relation to the state continually, resulting in a body of literature that offers some of the most incisive analyses of citizenship available today.