Professor Ajuan Mance Pens New Book on 19th-Century Black Writers

Oakland, CA–February 23, 2016

When people think about 19th-century African American history, slavery mostly comes to mind, not the thriving intellectual culture of the North, according to Mills College English Professor Ajuan Mance.

Mance has written a new book on black writing for black readers from 1808 to 1910 called Before Harlem, an Anthology of African American Literature from the Long Nineteenth Century published by University of Tennessee Press. The book is a 632-page collection of 143 newspaper articles, poems, pamphlet articles, and book excerpts from 65 authors.

“If black readers are anything like me, they will say ‘I need to read these writers,’” said Mance. “They changed how I see myself and black history.”

She found the pieces in historical archives, at libraries, and in several Northeastern universities, including Brown and Yale, over seven years of research. Most of the writing was published in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and several communities in Ohio, Mance said.

“When you read collections of African American literature from the 19th century, it’s mostly about slave narrative,” said Mance. “It’s very much based in the South. But this writing focuses on African American people who wrote for each other. They are not trying to convince white folks of anything. I had no idea of the breadth and depth of this. All of these things are news to me. I thought ‘if I don’t know these people existed, who does?’”

Mance said the phrase “before Harlem” references work before the Harlem cultural renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. Many of the stories in the book chronicle racial violence, education, segregation, and access to schools.

“I’m hoping a lot of people will use this for a class, and I’m hoping for a black readership beyond academia,” Mance said.

Mance has been teaching at Mills College since 1999. Her areas of interest include African American literature, 19th-century American literature, US popular culture, the oral tradition in US literature, black feminist thought and African American art. Before Harlem is her second book. Her articles have appeared in the Journal of African American Studies, and Callaloo, among others.

Mance is scheduled to read from her new book at an upcoming launch party hosted by Mills College.

Book Launch and Reading
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
6:00 pm8:00 pm
Mills College Faculty and Staff Lounge
5000 MacArthur Blvd.