How are you using terms of cultural identification and why?

Human beings have constructed complex systems of meanings around naming groups of people. The words we use to name ourselves and others have power depending on who wields them, in what context, and for what purposes. Terms that at one time were self-selected later may be weaponized and used in a derogatory way; terms that were originally intended to be offensive may be reclaimed when used in specific ways. 

Black people in America before the twentieth century referred to themselves in their self-published works using many different terms. Most are recognized and used today, such as “black” (see The Black Woman of the South, Her Neglects and Needs) or “people of color” also spelled “colour” (see The Destiny of the People of Color). Other terms now considered offensive such as “Negro” or “coloreds” or “Jim Crow” were also used in the black self-published works on this site. For this project, the editorial practice has been to use “black” when referring to people of African descent or sometimes “African American” when referring to people specifically born in the United States. We have occasionally used “people of color” when referring to those of both Indigenous and African descent. We have used “white” when referring to people of primarily European descent. Black authors who had been enslaved referred to themselves as “slaves” as was nearly universal at the time, but in essays or accompanying documentation we have used “enslaved people” (except when quoting a work, title, etc.) to draw attention to the constructed nature of this status. We have not attempted to determine which works should be described as slave narratives and instead of using that term we have added the tag “life-writing” to all autobiographical works, which black self-published authors most often referred to as their narrative.

How do you define black authors?

Our list either follows the lead of how people of color represented themselves, or how public opinion at the time of publication or recent scholarship has fashioned the boundaries of racial identification. It is not a claim to demarcate the boundaries of blackness. In most cases, we accepted the work of the bibliographies and catalogers in identifying black authors. If two sources contained contradictory racial information about an author, we did further research. Occasionally, this led to eliminating texts from our list that were likely published by white authors writing as African Americans. In the case of authors claiming Indigenous ancestry or other non-black ethnicities, we required at least two sources listing black ancestry. In the case of Okah Tubbee and Paul Cuffee, this led to their inclusion on this list, although they identified themselves as Native American. While Cuffee certainly had Native American and Tubbee may have, we included them based on their black ancestry to present additional facets of self-publishing by people of African descent in early America and to highlight the politics of racial identification in print.

Why did you include narratives that list white authors on the title page?

In the case of Eleanor Eldridge, Lewis Charlton, Pharaoh Jackson Chesney, Robert Voorhis, and Boyrereau Brinch, their title pages list white authors. For some of these, the copyright is also held by this white individual. While listed as authors, these white individuals in many cases played the role of an editor or transcriber. Rather than speculate as to which person initiated the publishing process, we have included all such “partnership” books and listed “partnership” in the notes field to identify them. While we are not claiming these books were self-published by black authors, we include them to avoid assuming the reverse. Samuel Hall’s and Isaac D. Williams’s narratives also include “partnership” in the notes field because their narratives are listed as told to named white individuals who do not claim authorship but are sometimes identified in scholarship as authors. Again, further work is needed on these narratives’ publication histories.

Does this list contain only books and how are these defined?

This list expands beyond the realm of books to include broadsides, pamphlets, and, in a separate section, newspapers and periodicals. Our main list includes printed material, excluding that published in newspapers or periodicals, authored by black residents of the United States born before 1851. Since broadsides often lack authorial attribution and are underrepresented in bibliographies of black-authored texts, there are only a few broadsides included on the list. Newspapers and periodicals, while also a form of black self-publishing in so far as they print the words of their black publishers, are separated by a more communal authorship and different publishing conventions, and so are listed in a separate subsection.

How did you define a work as being self-published?

Self-publishing consists of the author taking initiative for the printing process and paying for the printing of their work. As opposed to the commercial publishing process, which emphasizes the need for a book’s commercial viability as identified by a publisher, self-publishing is reliant on the author’s impetus for publishing. How the author acquires the funds to self-publish, whether through networks of patrons or subscription customers or other means, is irrelevant, in our view, to whether the text was self-published. Although the source of funds for self-publishing is a fascinating topic, our definition of self-publishing focuses on the author’s impetus rather than their means of acquiring the capital needed to get their words in print. The process by which we gathered works that were or may have been self-published is described under methodology.

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