Jim Crow Networks: African American Periodical Cultures by Eurie Dahn
Volume 7, Cycle 1
© 2022 Johns Hopkins University Press
The last few years have witnessed the loss of a handful of longstanding and influential Black publications. The Chicago Defender ceased its print publication in 2019 (but remains online) and the Johnson Publishing Company—publishers of Jet and (until 2016) Ebony—was liquidated in the same year. These legendary publishers left a profound legacy on African American print culture and these recent changes have occasioned many eulogies and prompted more consideration of the influential history of twentieth-century Black publishing. While there is a rich tradition of scholarship on African American periodicals in the nineteenth century—from abolitionist newspapers and religious journals to international publications and children’s periodicals—scholarship on twentieth-century African American periodicals has not been quite as robust. Eurie Dahn’s Jim Crow Networks: African American Periodical Cultures represents, however, part of a recent surge in scholarship on twentieth-century Black periodical culture in the United States, and this volume offers a host of valuable examples and interpretive models for this rich subject matter.
As her title suggests, Dahn draws heavily on network thinking, Actor-Network-Theory (ANT), as well as recent developments in new formalism, such as the work of Caroline Levine in Forms (2015). She is, however, duly measured in her approach, wary of the overuse of and overreliance on a notion characterized by such conceptual “slipperiness”: as she notes, “‘Networks’ can seem empty and voracious as a concept; they seem to mean nothing because they can be used to describe so much” (7). Here she offers a helpful intervention, particularly for scholars of periodicals. She defines and differentiates between periodical “intranets” and “internets,” which she describes respectively as the networks within individual periodicals and those among different publications (5). This proves to be especially valuable as she moves through several case studies that demonstrate the importance of print culture networks in the Jim Crow era. The tensions created by and between intranets and internets prove to be the conceptual cornerstone of her project.
Dahn’s subjects in Jim Crow Networks range chronologically from the 1890s activist writing of Ida B. Wells (discussed in Dahn’s introduction) to the mid-1950s coverage of integration in Ebony. Along the way, she highlights several periodical forms and venues, pairing each with a canonical literary figure. She examines the curious and underresearched serialization of James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man in the middlebrow domestic magazine the Half-Century; she draws parallels between the shame experienced by Helga Crane of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and that described by readers of the Chicago Defender when encountering new arrivals from the rural South; she explores the publication in Ebony of William Faulkner’s defense of his notorious position on integration and the reader exchange this engendered; and she tracks the periodical publication of elements of Jean Toomer’s Cane through a host of little magazines with distinctly different literary and political identities.
Of particular interest in Jim Crow Networks is Dahn’s chapter on James Weldon Johnson. Both the Half-Century and Johnson’s appearance in it have received scant attention from scholars. This magazine is one of the few excellent examples of middlebrow African American writing during this period; Dahn emphasizes the Half-Century’s importance as a venue that sought distance from what it called intellectual “highbrows” at the same time that it featured content committed to racial uplift (39). The appearance of Johnson’s “highbrow” novel alongside the magazine’s “placid domestic fiction” might seem unusual, but Dahn makes a strong case for seeing this as a complex gesture on the part of both Johnson and the magazine (45). For Johnson, the Half-Century offered his novel a new and larger audience; for the magazine, the serialization of the Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man allowed a magazine otherwise concerned with “consumerist domesticity” to “gesture to the cultural elite of the time” (52, 58). Attending to this form of Johnson’s novel not only provides a more complete history of the novel’s passage through “Jim Crow networks,” it also helps establish a prominence for the novel that is normally reserved for its 1927 republication under Johnson’s name.
Jim Crow Networks also turns its attention in productive ways on the networks of readers that encountered a variety of Black publications in this era. Dahn’s chapter on “Affective Networks” offers an intriguing pairing that highlights the complex experience of racialized shame in this period. First, she close reads a host of letters submitted to the Chicago Defender that detail a variety of forms of surveillance experienced by recent transplants from the South. Longtime Black residents of Chicago found the habits and manners of these “‘down home’ people” to shatter their sense of “middle-class respectability,” and the resulting conversations in the Defender reveal the extent to which readers and the newspaper sought to police the behavior of new arrivals (84, 79). Dahn finds a valuable parallel to this in the work of Larsen, particularly her novel Quicksand. The surveillance of Quicksand’s protagonist Helga Crane—and her own oscillation between respectability, exoticism, and “down home” ruin—mirrors, Dahn argues, the very conversations that readers of the Defender were having during the Great Migration.
Readers also figure prominently in her chapter on William Faulkner’s appearance in Ebony in 1956. Following Faulkner’s notorious essay “A Letter to the North” in Life in which he urged integrationists to “go slow now” after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Faulkner sought to clarify his position to Black readers and reached out to Ebony, which published his unfortunately titled article “If I Were a Negro.” Dahn’s chapter offers a thick description of this publication, including the chance New York street encounter with Billie Holiday that might have inspired Faulkner to approach Ebony, the history of Faulkner’s publications leading up to his appearance in Ebony, and some valuable contextualization of the essay’s title (which was also used for a regular feature written by white public figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and published in the intellectual journal Negro Digest). These details, however, merely form the background for Dahn’s principal interest in the chapter: the rich archive of reader letters that appeared in Ebony in the following months responding to the publication of “If I Were a Negro.” In featuring these letters, Dahn argues, Ebony created “a space where a Nobel Prize–winning author can be criticized by the readers and, implicitly, the editors . . . and . . . revealed the outlines of an editorial platform in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision” (127).
Dahn’s final chapter shifts more explicitly from “intranets” within individual publications to the “internets” between different publications, as she tracks the complex publication history of individual pieces that make up Jean Toomer’s Cane. Cane’s “periodical family tree” offers Dahn the opportunity to think about how the placement of Toomer’s work in a variety of contexts—national and international avant-garde magazines, regional Southern magazines, and African American journals—mirrors Toomer’s own oscillating racial and national identity (135). At the same time, this chapter emphasizes Toomer’s engagement with African American modernism. The placement of works like “Karintha” in the international journal Broom’s Mayan issue shows how the networks of Cane involve “not only an expanded geography” but also an opportunity to think about the networks of Wai Chee Dimock’s “deep time,” which occasions a discussion of Toomer’s invocation of the “Dixie Pike” as a network that runs across both time and space as it charts the history of enslavement (147).
If anything limits the impact of Jim Crow Networks, it is Dahn’s focus on canonical figures as representatives of these networks. Her conclusion—on the rise of activist networks in the Black Lives Matter era—already seems to anticipate this critique as she highlights the decentralized networks of social media that have driven much of the racial justice work in our present moment. It’s worth wondering what an inquiry with a focus on decentralized networks might discover in the Jim Crow period: the archival record can be spotty, as many publications (even those from the twentieth century) are lost or incomplete in our archives, but such a focus on lesser-known writers and publications outside metropoles like Chicago could turn up some equally compelling evidence and work to empower voices outside the traditional canon. Still, Dahn’s Jim Crow Networks does important and valuable work in arguing for a reconsideration of Jim Crow-era publishing contexts and networks and offering a model for how such attention can lead to revealing insights on the history of African American literature of the twentieth century.