Eric Lamore, editor of Reading African American Autobiography: Twenty-First-Century Contexts and Criticism, spoke with us about why it’s necessary to study overlooked texts to gain deep insight into African American life narratives. His book is published today in the Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography series.
What influence do you think that President Obama has had upon readers and writers of African American autobiography?
In putting together this collection of eleven essays on African American autobiography, I was particularly interested in Robert B. Stepto’s claim that scholars of African American literature need to rethink this canon because the President of the United
States for the last eight years is himself an African American writer. In his book, A Home Elsewhere: Reading African American Classics in the Age of Obama, Stepto compares relevant parts from Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, with foundational literary texts, some of which are autobiographies. I titled my introduction “African American Autobiography in the Age of Obama” to emphasize this connection.
This election season, I went back and reread Obama’s Dreams, and I was struck by the President’s comments on reading. He wrote in the preface to the 2004 edition of his memoir that he wanted to revise parts of his book, because he would have told his life story differently had he written it later in his life. But, he commented that his 1995 memoir would be read differently as republished in a post-911 world, so he was quite aware of the relationship between text, reader, and context. Part of Obama’s contribution to the study of African American life narratives in the twenty-first century is this important point about the need to reread older life narratives, because cultural and political landscapes continue to change in the United States and around the world. One could reread pertinent African American life narratives from the past, for example, in the context of the #blacklivesmatter movement.
I think Obama’s Dreams also laid an important textual foundation for African American life narrators in the twenty-first century. Though Dreams was first published in 1995, Obama’s explorations of the biracial self, and his search for people and places (including outside the United States) that impacted his constructions of self, are found in much of twenty-first-century African American life writing. The last four essays in Reading African American Autobiography explore these themes. There are striking parallels between Obama’s Dreams and twenty-first-century African American life writing that scholars need to explore further.
How might future scholarship build on the essays in this volume?
The contributors and I collectively make the case that reading these life narratives in the twenty-first century requires scholars to consider a wide array of texts and a host of critical approaches. We also directly address ways that innovative critical frameworks, such as ecocriticism or queer theory, allow scholars to reread seminal life stories from our past in new ways.
Some of the contributors reclaim overlooked texts and lives, including a criminal confession published on a broadside in the late eighteenth century, an abridged edition of Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography published for children and adolescent readers in nineteenth-century New York, an uplift narrative published after the Civil War that contains important photographs, and autobiographical graphic narratives published in the late twentieth century. The slave narratives published in the antebellum period still remain very important, of course, but my book makes the case that scholars need to spend more time analyzing other overlooked texts and lives. More work needs to be done to recover neglected aspects of African American lives and to dig into texts that have not received adequate critical attention.
We also call for studying a wider range of genres. Scholars today can look at the presentation of self in blogs, YouTube posts, graphic narratives, films, and photography, to name just a few genres. The intersection of genealogy and genetics, too, has produced all kinds of new information on African American lives that we need to consider. The printed page is still important, but these other channels make it clear that African American life narrators are telling their stories and exploring the self in ways beyond the writing of a memoir. All these varied explorations have expanded the canon of African American life narrative in dramatic ways. There is no doubt that the field must and will become more interdisciplinary.
In the book, we also look at celebrity life writing in the twenty-first-century. Almost all examples of this in the African American life narrative canon are collaborative projects. It would be fruitful to study that process, especially if there is documentation (transcribed interviews, recordings, and the like) mapping how the celebrity and the collaborating writer worked together.
In the chapter that you contributed to this collection about Olaudah Equiano, you draw on the history of books and publishing to shed light on the complex textual histories of the African American autobiographical tradition.
Yes, I’ve been influenced by scholarship on early black Atlantic literature and book history. I’ve written here about Abigail Mott’s 1829 abridged edition of Equiano’s autobiography. Usually, Equiano is understood as one of the main individuals of African descent involved in the political movement against the slave trade in 1780s Great Britain. The point of my chapter is that there is a whole different story on Equiano if you look closely at the several different editions of his autobiography that were published in the United States, both during his lifetime and following his death. Mott’s 1829 edition, published thirty-two years after Equiano’s death, was aimed at students in the New York African Free School. It is the first edition of Equiano’s autobiography I know of that was edited specifically for young African American readers in the United States.
Mott’s abridged edition is a perfect example of what I referred to earlier as an overlooked text. By looking at more than one edition, we can discover that Equiano’s autobiography was edited and read in the United States differently from editions published in Great Britain. These differences tell us a great deal about how editors and book publishers packaged Equiano’s life in specific ways for their readers. Mott’s edition shows us one of the points where Equiano’s autobiography entered the African American canon (though he clearly viewed himself as an Afro-British subject). Studying abridged, unauthorized, and posthumous editions of early black Atlantic life writing reveals a great deal about the changing histories and contexts of works that shaped the beginnings of the African American life writing tradition.
Eric D. Lamore is an associate professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. He is the editor of Teaching Olaudah Equiano’s Narrative: Pedagogical Strategies and New Perspectives and coeditor of New Essays on Phillis Wheatley.