Courtesy of Cornell University

Prof. Spires’s lecture introduced the importance of 19th century African American print culture, which Spires says involves not only the words printed, but also all of the interactions people have with written words.

December 3, 2021

Prof. Derrick Spires Discusses Black Print Culture, Cornell Archives

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The Society for the Humanities hosted its annual Invitational Lecture Wednesday featuring Prof. Derrick Spires, literatures in English, who discussed early African American art and writing and how these works shape history. 

Spires’s lecture introduced the importance of 19th century African American print culture, which, as defined by Spires, involves not only the words printed, but also all of the interactions people have with written words.

Throughout his lecture, Spires spoke about African American print culture — referencing the archives of 19th century African American works housed by Cornell’s libraries. He emphasized the magnitude of information on the history of African American print culture found at Cornell, while maintaining that with such a wealth of information on hand, there is still more to learn. 

Cornell’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections includes the Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection, named for Reverend Samuel Joseph May, an abolitionist and friend of Cornell’s first president, Andrew Dickson White. In 1870, May donated more than 10,000 works from his collection to the University, consisting of pamphlets, broadsides, books and other material. According to Spires, these materials may have been lost to history without May’s donation to Cornell.

Spires stressed the importance of maintaining and curating collections similar to the May Anti-Slavery Collection to give these texts by and of African Americans the “long overdue attention they deserve.” In 1999, these works were digitized as part of the Save America’s Treasures grant. They are accessible to the public for free through Cornell’s Rare Books and Manuscripts collection. 

“At a time when the country was shifting from radical reconstruction to radical forgetting and reconciliation with insurrectionists, Cornell was collecting documents key to our understanding of Black print and organizing,” Spires said.

According to Spires, studying the 19th century texts on campus shows how African Americans have been pushing against racist systems through writing for over 200 years. 

However, these literary developments have not been focused on throughout history for two reasons. Spires said the intense focus on individual leaders, like Frederick Douglass, has obstructed scholars from recognizing the strength of the larger, shared fight against racism. The type of publications that Black writers used to share their messages in the 19th century, such as pamphlets, became less popular in the 20th century and afterward. 

Spires’s specialties are in early African American and American print culture, citizenship studies and African American intellectual history. Spires is the author of the award-winning book, The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States, and is in the process of writing his second book. Spires’s research into these works reveals that 19th century writers used the written word as a way to both challenge white supremacy and to foster creative expression. 

“If you look at sort of American print culture, the image you see of Black people in newspapers predominantly is the ‘runaway slave image,’” Spires said. “That’s it. Or Black folks were talked at and talked about. So what does it mean to create the words more that accurately reflect my life?”

Easier accessibility to 19th century Black works can facilitate a better understanding of history. The Rare and Manuscripts collection, for example, houses the May Anti-Slavery Collection in Kroch Library. Digitized versions of texts are available online. For those who prefer to research in person, the collection’s galleries and the reading room are open to all by appointment.  

Spires added that so much history unfolded right in Ithaca, and that exploring this is something every student should do.

“I think every undergrad should, at some point, visit our Rare and Distinctive Collections in Kroch,” Spires said. “Nothing can beat the experience of holding up a copy of a newspaper from 1827.”