To Make Negro Literature

Writing, Literary Practice, and African American Authorship

To Make Negro Literature

Book Pages: 320 Illustrations: 26 illustrations Published: September 2021

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

In To Make Negro Literature Elizabeth McHenry traces African American authorship in the decade following the 1896 legalization of segregation. She shifts critical focus from the published texts of acclaimed writers to unfamiliar practitioners, whose works reflect the unsettledness of African American letters in this period. Analyzing literary projects that were unpublished, unsuccessful, or only partially achieved, McHenry recovers a hidden genealogy of Black literature as having emerged tentatively, laboriously, and unevenly. She locates this history in books sold by subscription, in lists and bibliographies of African American authors and books assembled at the turn of the century, in the act of ghostwriting, and in manuscripts submitted to publishers for consideration and the letters of introduction that accompanied them. By attending to these sites and prioritizing overlooked archives, McHenry reveals a radically different literary landscape, revising concepts of Black authorship and offering a fresh account of the development of “Negro literature” focused on the never published, the barely read, and the unconventional.


“From the title to the final words of her coda, Elizabeth McHenry provokes, persuades, and prods readers to apply thought to the knowledge presented in this book. It is a nuanced and wise offering of immaculate research and righteous rumination to anyone—whether the casual browser who never once thought about the topic or the most sophisticated scholar of Black culture generally and print culture particularly.” — Frances Smith Foster, author of ’Til Death or Distance Do Us Part: Love and Marriage in African America

“In this revelatory study, Elizabeth McHenry argues that the turn of the twentieth century, so often lamented as a nadir of race relations, was in fact the pivotal era when the infrastructure for the African American literary tradition was built. Looking behind the scenes at efforts that at first glance might seem perfunctory or crassly commercial (subscription bookselling services, printing presses, reading rooms, bibliographies), she unearths the enormous labor—albeit sometimes aborted or thwarted or unfinished—undertaken by writers and intellectuals in the period to create the very concept of ‘Negro literature’ as a viable publishing category as much as an ideological project linked to uplift and civil rights.” — Brent Hayes Edwards, author of Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination


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Elizabeth McHenry is Professor of English at New York University and author of Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies.

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Table of Contents Forthcoming
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Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-1451-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-1359-4