Oxford AASC: Dispatches

Dispatches From the Editor in Chief


Avenues of Communication

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

While African Americans were enslaved they developed elaborate and sophisticated communication networks so that the culture they were creating in the cabins and fields—and the culture they brought from Africa—could thrive. Long before anyone dreamed of a digital revolution, black people had developed the legendary "grapevine," the bold Underground Railroad, sublime spirituals, call-and-response sermons, and the folktales, myths, blues, and mother wit of the oral tradition, all of which became the basis of a national black culture, a shared paper-free culture. With the coming of literacy and its uses in the abolitionist movement, new forms evolved, such as the widely read slave narratives. Speakers on the abolitionist lecture circuit gave masterful performances to full houses. Our history is full of moments involving communication networks created or used by African Americans. Some of these networks were open, some were closed. Some were broadcast and some used the broadcast media available at the time to send specific messages to specific recipients. African Americans have always been a communicating people.

Consider the record left to us: The poet Phillis Wheatley was only eleven or twelve when she wrote a letter to the Native American preacher, Samson Occom, in England, making use of the Colonial postal service. Wheatley published her first poem in the Newport Mercury in 1767, when she was only thirteen or fourteen, making use of the popular press in Colonial America.

After the American Revolution, black newspapers emerged. The black-owned Freedom's Journal was first published in New York City in 1827, to mark the abolition of slavery there. David Walker's radical and widely circulated antislavery manifesto, the Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (an impressively audacious title) was published in 1829. Walker, a tailor, sewed his text into the uniforms of black sailors, who widely distributed the text to slaves throughout the South, leading to calls for Walker's murder. Walker died under suspicious circumstances two years later.

Closed and coded communication played just as important a part in our history. Scholars and singers of slave songs and spirituals have long been aware of their use for transmitting hidden messages in the lyrics or the refrain. Under the nose of the overseer or even the plantation owner, singers would communicate with each other about meeting times or the next stop on the Underground Railroad. Sometimes these were "map" songs, such as "Follow the Drinking Gourd," to direct fugitives using the Big Dipper. Sometimes they were "signal" songs, relating news of a successful or an unsuccessful escape or to say "tonight's the night," as in "Steal Away." Quilts and clothing also carried messages that were indecipherable by overseers and slave catchers.

Narratives of escaping slavery were best-sellers by the middle of the nineteenth century, among the best of these by Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Linda Brent (Harriet Jacobs), and William and Ellen Crafts. These authors joined other antislavery advocates, such as the powerful (and illiterate) orator Sojourner Truth on the lecture circuit, along with speakers such as Maria Stewart, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and many others.

Beyond book publishing, African Americans took advantage of the communication and transportation networks established up and down the East Coast even before the Civil War. As Hollis Robbins notes in her American Studies essay, "Fugitive Mail," Henry "Box" Brown famously exploited the "complex system involving roads, depots, railroads, ferries, bridges, and steamships that was in place along the Atlantic coast by which a 250-pound crate could be transported from Richmond to Philadelphia in a little more than twenty-four hours." After shipping himself to freedom via Adams Express, Brown published his narrative and joined the lecture circuit, jumping out of his famous box.

Before, during, and after the war, black newspapers such as the North Star and Frederick Douglass's Paper carried advertisements seeking information about the whereabouts of family members as loved ones sought to reunite.

One hundred and fifty years later, Philip Rubio's book There's Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice, and Equality (2010) tells the story of African Americans fighting for jobs in the post office and positions in the union to become a force for social change. Who can doubt this change occurred in looking at such leaders in the modern communication era as Oprah Winfrey and Richard Parsons, the former CEO of Time Warner?

African Americans have not only been full participants in using every communication channel available, we also have created new modes of communication and will continue to do so. And the African American Studies Center is one such innovation, through which we can consolidate our memory of and access to the black tradition in words, images, audio, and video.

Our American understanding of African American Studies is ever growing and expanding. My new film series for PBS, Black in Latin America (scheduled to air in February 2011), examines Afro-Latin culture and politics in Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Scholars from each of these countries offer their own research and perspective, enriching what we know of the black experience in America. Of the 12.5 million African slaves shipped to the New World between 1501 and 1867, only 450,000 actually arrived in the United States, over the entire course of the slave trade. In fact the largest impact, in numbers at least, of the African presence in the New World occurred south of Miami.

Yet because of limited access to scholarly monographs and especially expensive reference works, the progress of comparative analysis between the black experience in the United States and that throughout Latin America has been difficult. While comparative studies of slavery—fueled dramatically by David Eltis's astonishing Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database—have thrived, as have comparative studies of, say, the Harlem Renaissance and black literary movements in the Caribbean and South America, the work of African Latin American studies are only in their infancy. During my travels in Latin America since May, I have been introducing the Latin American scholars in my film series to the African American Studies Center, and their enthusiasm has been contagious and gratifying.

These scholars, such as Professor Marial Iglesia Utset in Havana, have already begun proposing new entries for the reference works on our database, making comparisons between events that were occurring simultaneously in the history of race relations in the United States with those, say, in Cuba or Brazil. Using this comparative method, we will understand more about the role of black soldiers in the Spanish-American War and its implications upon race relations in the subsequent years of the newly independent Republic of Cuba, for example, or about the causes of the dreadful massacre of the followers of the first independent black political party in Cuba in 1912, and the relation between that event and the deterioration of race relations in Wilsonian Jim Crow America at the same time. I look forward to comparative theories about mestizo or miscegenated national cultures in the work of Jose Vasconcelos, in 1920s Mexico, alongside Gilberto Fryre's work in Brazil and Ferdinand Ortiz's work in Cuba in the 1940s, alongside Jean Toomer's theories of a "new American" genetic and cultural identity during the Harlem Renaissance. All of these writings echo and riff off each other. There are thousands of these connections waiting to be explicated. And now, through digitization and access to the Internet, scholars can begin to do just that. And the best part of all of this is that the AASC can grow infinitely, to incorporate new data, new studies, and new biographical and reference entries, further facilitating even more comparative studies.

My own dream is to edit a Dictionary of African Biography to be followed by a Dictionary of Afro-Latin American Biography, and to continue to expand our Africana encyclopedia. And with Oxford's help, we are doing this.

We are at the beginning of a renaissance of knowledge about the black world, in all of its myriad linguistic, genetic, and historical complexions. And that new knowledge can only help to create better understanding between our cultures, and lead—even indirectly—to more sensitive and humane policies about immigration, foreign aid, free speech, and the growth of Black Studies throughout the Caribbean and South America. Scholarship needs no other justification for its existence that its being in itself, of course; but these public policy implications can be quite important to race relations in the societies in which this scholarship about the history of race relations is unfolding.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Editor in Chief
Oxford African American Studies Center
August 2010