African American Studies Print Culture
Heidi Morse
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0047


Print culture—or cultures of print, a designation some scholars prefer for its evocation of multiple and varying practices of print production and use—is the key term for an interdisciplinary field of study that has emerged from traditional book history scholarship to encompass a wide range of printed materials and the social, political, material, and economic processes of their production, circulation, and reception. Scholars of print culture, who primarily hail from the fields of bibliography, literature, and history, analyze books and other printed texts as material objects and study their role in shaping cultural relations. African American print culture refers to the contributions of African Americans to printed texts (and their circulation) as authors, illustrators, publishers, editors, printers, typesetters, binders, distributors, and readers. It also includes study of the ways that print processes have impacted sociopolitical circumstances and cultural movements integral to African American history. Major topics include the history of African American newspapers and periodicals, beginning in 1827 with Freedom’s Journal, and the history of African American publishers, which began a decade earlier with the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Book Concern in 1817. Since the late 19th century, African American bibliographers and archivists have been leaders in the project of documenting and preserving collections of early African American newspapers, books, and printed ephemera in collections such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. African Americanist literary critics and editors of scholarly editions have also played a crucial role in the study of African American print culture, especially during the recovery and reprinting efforts of the 1980s and beyond, and in recent scholarship on representations of race in print and on the circulation and reception of African American printed texts from the colonial era to the present. It was not until the turn of the 21st century that scholars and institutions predominantly identified with American print culture or book history broadly conceived began theorizing and offering substantive resources in support of African American print culture studies in particular. While this shift supported an increasingly diverse array of theoretical and material approaches to African American print culture, it also precipitated debates about leadership and best practices that are still ongoing. African American print culture as a field, then, is still in the process of defining itself, and it will likely see a continuing wave of new publications over the next decade.

General Overviews

The best overviews of existing scholarship and methodologies in the interdisciplinary field of African American print culture also include serious reflection on the state of the field, which includes a fractured history between the historically white-dominated discipline of book history and African American literary and cultural studies. Finkelstein and McCleery 2006, which is not a specifically African American studies resource, includes classic essays on book history and print culture that provide theoretical groundwork for some, but certainly not all, scholars of African American print culture. Foster 2005 and Jackson 2010 are essential introductions to fundamental debates and directions of African American print culture scholarship. Danky and Wiegand 1998 includes a history of institutional support for American versus African American print culture studies. Following the publication of Cohen and Stein 2012, a study of early African American print culture supported by the Library Company of Philadelphia and the American Antiquarian Society, Foreman 2013 critiques the dominance of non–African Americanist scholars in field-shaping projects in African American print culture studies. Moody and Rambsy 2015, a special journal issue of MELUS, is one recent response to Foreman’s call. Despite disagreements over leadership, most scholars agree that African American literary studies and American print culture studies have considerable existing and potential overlap in research goals, especially in regard to early texts by and about African Americans. As Hutchinson and Young 2013 puts it, a fundamental shared question is about how books and other printed materials “function as evidence for the ways in which ‘race’ has operated as a social category” (p. 7).

  • Cohen, Lara Langer, and Jordan Alexander Stein, eds. Early African American Print Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

    Edited collection on print culture in the 18th and 19th centuries organized by sections on “circulation, representation, adaptation, and publics” (p. 8). Cohen and Stein identify key goals as focusing on print’s role in racialization, tracing the social circulation of texts, and decentering black authorship as the sole criterion for identifying African American texts.

  • Danky, James P., and Wayne A. Wiegand, eds. Print Culture in a Diverse America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

    Edited volume on diversity and American print culture based on a 1995 conference. Wiegand’s introduction offers a history of the archives and institutions supporting American print culture studies and usefully identifies gaps in coverage of diverse topics. The volume includes five (of eleven) essays on African American print culture.

  • Finkelstein, David, and Alistair McCleery, eds. The Book History Reader. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 2006.

    Anthology of essays by foundational scholars in book history that presents key theoretical models, including Robert Darnton’s “communication circuit” (pp. 9–26) and Jerome McGann’s “socialization of texts” (pp. 66–73). Good resource for coursework, but best paired with supplementary texts as it lacks substantial analysis of race and gender. Originally published in 2002.

  • Foreman, Gabrielle P. “A Riff, a Call, and a Response: Reframing the Problem That Led to Our Being Tokens in Ethnic and Gender Studies; or, Where Are We Going Anyway and with Whom Will We Travel?” Legacy 30.2 (2013): 306–322.

    DOI: 10.5250/legacy.30.2.0306

    A critique of the marginalization of senior African American literary scholars in field-shaping projects, notably seminars, edited volumes, and conference panels on African American print culture (including Cohen and Stein 2012). Foreman problematizes instances in which scholars with primary training outside the field become spokespersons for African American literature.

  • Foster, Frances Smith. “A Narrative of Interesting Origins and (Somewhat) Surprising Developments of African-American Print Culture.” American Literary History 17.4 (2005): 714–740.

    DOI: 10.1093/alh/aji042

    A call to extend the parameters of the study of early African American print culture, particularly by rejecting its conflation with the abolitionist press and by including non-English-language publications. Foster identifies a thriving Afro-Protestant print tradition spearheaded by the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Book Concern, founded in 1817.

  • Hutchinson, George, and John K. Young, eds. Publishing Blackness: Textual Constructions of Race since 1850. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013.

    Essays collected in this volume examine topics ranging from the politics of anthologization and author-publisher relationships to the material forms of Black Arts works and issues of archival preservation. The editors’ introduction usefully theorizes overlaps and possible collaborative futures for historically white-dominated print culture studies and African American literary studies.

  • Jackson, Leon. “The Talking Book and the Talking Book Historian: African American Cultures of Print—the State of the Discipline.” Book History 13 (2010): 251–308.

    DOI: 10.1353/bh.2010.0014

    Field overview by a book history scholar essential for its detailed summary of the goals and conclusions of existing scholarship in African American print culture and for its suggestion of lines of inquiry for future research. Advocates better cooperation between scholars of African American literature and book history.

  • Moody, Joycelyn, and Howard Rambsy II, eds. Special Issue: African American Print Cultures. MELUS 40.3 (2015): 1–223.

    DOI: 10.1093/melus/mlv031

    Special issue that follows the theoretical emphases of Foster 2005 and Foreman 2013 by foregrounding “black epistemologies and analyses” in the study of print culture (p. 3). The eleven collected essays are split between contexts of the 19th and 20th centuries, with particular emphases on ephemera, (re)circulation, collecting, and production.

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