Black theories of citizenship in the early United States, 1793-1860
Spires, Derrick Ramon
Black Theories of Citizenship in the Early United States, 1793-1860, examines early U.S. citizenship through the work of black activists and intellectuals writing between 1793 and 1861, just after the framing of the Federal Constitution and just before the Civil War. My central premise is that black intellectuals did more than mine already-existing national ideologies for usable parts; rather, they actively engaged in creating and recreating citizenship within the context of the U.S. and in a variously conceived African Diaspora. Building on recent work by literary scholars (Brooks, Ernest, Smith Foster, and Levine) as well as work in American and African American studies, performance studies, and citizenship studies, I analyze civic texts ranging from pamphlets and convention proceedings to periodical literature and scientific treatises to recover an understanding of citizenship as a set cultural and political practices structured by law and custom and communicated through recognizable political styles. These models simultaneously index dominant trajectories of U.S. citizenship and imagine new routes. Focusing on highly collaborative documents including the black state conventions of the 1840s, periodicals (e.g. Colored American, Frederick Douglass’s Paper, and Anglo-African Magazine), and understudied writers like William J. Wilson, James McCune Smith, and Frances E. Watkins in conjunction with more canonical sources including Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, and, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Black Theories presents a multivalent and dialogic picture of early U.S. literature and political culture. Each chapter takes up a specific text or constellation of texts and considers how it contributes to our understanding of the discursive form and structures of black civic discourse in terms of ethics, politics, economics, and critique.