Pinned beneath the burden of the cultural moment, even resistant canon-police are growing sympathetic; but questions remain. How to imagine a new curriculum? How to give due to traditional juggernauts while making space for the work of the marginalized? These may seem to be the dilemmas of high-culture wars that have lightened into détente. But following the uprising of 2020, gravitas is surely returning to another cycle of struggle over what is essential in literary history, and how we ought to read that history.
Matt Sandler’s The Black Romantic Revolution is an example of generative scholarship that properly meets the weight of our moment. Although the book was written before the pivotal summer of 2020, it has much to say about how we might read American literary history after the murder of George Floyd. As Sandler uncovers the neglected artistic and political projects of 19th-century African American poets, he both builds the Western canon and Blackens it.
His purpose is not to dismantle, or to declare useless the canonical category of Romanticism through which he reads the consequential poetry of Black artist-intellectuals writing toward “the end of slavery.” Instead, through archival recovery and comparative reading, Sandler offers a compelling, innovative narrative about poets who commandeered the cultural logics, motifs, and forms of their era to produce Romanticism with a Black difference.
In the wake of Floyd’s impromptu and public execution, the moral dimension of Sandler’s book is unmistakable. If the murder pushed the national imagination toward confrontation with the horrifying consequences of America’s devaluation of Black life, it has prompted all but the most contrarian in academia to recognize that beneath the altar of white cultural supremacy is a grave filled with Black voices, texts, and history — to say nothing of bodies. Sandler’s reading of 19th-century African American poetry feels vital in this moment because it recognizes and resurrects a corpus of Black Romantic art that has been mostly buried for the better part of two centuries. By following a model of recovery scholarship pioneered and calibrated by Black and feminist intellectuals, the book brings to life the genius of a handful of African American cultural workers, whose collective antiracist project was guided by limpid moral vision. One of Sandler’s worthy aims is to show that their moral project “ramifies into the present.”
Among the liveliest characters in Sandler’s narrative of Romanticism are the self-taught, enslaved George Moses Horton and the freeborn poets Frances Harper and Joshua Simpson. Using a synthesis of recent theory and broad familiarity with periodical-based abolitionist discourse, Sandler convincingly demonstrates that these Black poets deployed Romantic templates with deliberate strategy. This was true even for a figure like Horton, who began his career by extemporizing poems “at the handle of the plow” and then reciting them before astonished Chapel Hill students at the University of North Carolina. Beneath the weight of enslavement, Horton taught himself to read and then to write. (Imagine one of Wordsworth’s pastoral characters is Black, enslaved, and takes up the poet’s pen to write back to Wordsworth.)
“The colored bard of North Carolina,” as he was known, did not simply conceive of himself as a “credit to the race,” auditioning for white arbiters, who might determine whether Black mastery of literary arts made him worthy of respect. Instead, like the other poets that Sandler features in the book, he manipulated the tropes of Romanticism to produce novel explorations and refutations of anti-Blackness and the peculiar institution. Because Horton was one of the very few people who published from inside Blackness and slavery, his poems make moves that weren’t in the cards for other abolitionists.
With a degree of authority rare even in African American letters, he “slips between lyric individualism and collectivism, between ‘I’ and ‘we’,” to speak on behalf of enslaved millions. But Horton was also adept in double-speak, encoding antislavery sentiment in allegory and symbol to avoid Southern backlash — particularly in the period of heightened surveillance and bloodthirsty retribution that followed Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion.
Sandler’s supple scholarship helps a contemporary audience appreciate the visceral creativity of Black Romantics like Horton. If the deep emotions of the fathers of Romanticism were summoned in response to the vague tyranny of rabid rationalism and mechanized modernity, Horton’s emotion springs from a mind bound to a body forced to labor, and ever-cognizant of the violence of the whip. It makes sense, then, that under these conditions, Horton’s poetic longing for freedom is repeatedly charged with bodily eroticism — as in a half quatrain like, “Dear Liberty! Upon thy breast / I languish to respire.” Sandler’s historicizing approach to lines like these underscores the daring ingenuity of such troping: “Neither antislavery songs of the abolitionist movement nor the spirituals of the early Black church […] risked this sort of perversity.” But Sandler also compels us to understand that when Horton gives a libidinal edge to his freedom dream, he aligns himself with the transgressive and dissident energy of a Dark Romantic hero like Byron.
In the autobiographical sketch that prefaces his 1845 Poetical Works, Horton lists the “Beauties of Byron” as one of the texts he studied while developing his craft. Sandler notes the appearance of Lord Byron — and Byronic sensibility — in Horton’s work, and also in an array of political and poetic texts of an “early […] Black radical tradition.” Threading together these sightings of Byron in a foundational chapter of his book, Sandler helps to justify his effort to produce the category of Black Romanticism. The key point of this tabulation is not to suggest the imitative aspect of 19th-century African American letters, but rather to demonstrate that, like the Black musicians who would make jazz out of European horns, Black poets pursued their cultural and political projects by making use of the instruments of the age.
Sandler manages to hear Byronic strains in the decades-long career of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Usually sequestered in the neglected Black section of American cultural histories, Harper’s prolific output has been overshadowed by White writer-abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe, and once-enslaved icons like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Sojourner Truth. But Sandler situates Harper in her rightful place at the center of American Romanticism. He does this by nimbly piecing together moments of her letters, orations, essays, novels, short fiction, and poetry. All this is set within the illuminating frame of theory, as when he reads the horror ballad “Free Labor” against the backdrop of Marx’s commodity fetishism. The poem, which Sandler makes a keystone in his chapter on Harper, was one element of an abolitionist campaign to attack what she called “the commercial throne” of slavery by boycotting consumer products, like clothing, that emerged from the plantations of the South.
It begins with the speaker-poet broadcasting her virtue through the assertion that she wears “an easy garment,” and that in its production “no toiling slave / Wept tears of hopeless anguish, / In his passage to the grave.” With Gothic and sentimentalist conventions activated in the opening stanza, the ballad goes on to remind readers that unless their clothing is ethically sourced, it is in fact sullied by “the stain of tears and blood.” Harper, thus, connects the touch, the feel of cotton on the American body to the nation’s torture-driven slave economy.
Through “Free Labor” and a selection of Harper’s other poems, Sandler traces the migration of her ideas and language from her politics, through her letters, and into her activist art. Harper’s poetry was conceived in a matrix that commingled early Black feminism and Romantic aesthetic thought. She extended this hybrid project into Reconstruction and the later decades of the 19th century, as she turned her attention to women’s suffrage and the temperance movement. But Sandler shows that 30 years after emancipation, Harper understood that she worked in the afterlife of slavery, in the context of social and economic relations ever-haunted by the Black sacrifice that seeded American power. Black feminist scholars have argued for greater recognition of the cultural and moral importance of Harper’s commitment to the dismantling and supplanting of slavery and anti-Blackness; Sandler adds to this work by highlighting her aestheticism, bringing her to the center stage of American Romanticism.
This type of valuation may seem the product of critical cheerleading, driven by the mandates of contemporary identity politics. But, as it orients our appreciation toward marginalized Black production, this rereading of the culture of early American modernity is actually the logical complement of contemporary historiography. With increasing clarity and purchase, new histories of capitalism reveal the foundational role of enslaved labor and cotton production in the 19th-century rise of American power. Alongside this emergent historical consensus, the value and consequence of Black Romanticism shines brightly. By building an aesthetic and political project that relentlessly assessed the psychic, economic, and ethical constellation of American slavery, Harper and the other Black Romantics assembled in Sandler’s book trained their powers on the essential substance of their era. They were the first school of artist-intellectuals to systematically hunt the chief demon in the machinery of American capitalism.
Largely forgotten today, Joshua McCarter Simpson numbers among that early cadre of demon hunters. Simpson was a genius abolitionist songwriter who took the popular music of his day — including its minstrel ditties — and remixed them into ironic, scathing exposés of American racial hypocrisy. (In one of his tunes of Black resistance, the refrain of “Pop goes the weasel” becomes “No, master, never!”) He was also a preacher, a science-minded herbalist, and a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
His striking photograph is one of the few small images scattered in the pages of Sandler’s book. In the portrait, Simpson is seated beside several large glass vessels and funnels. He rocks a close-cropped haircut, balanced against an unmoustached James Harden beard. His coat and vest appear worn, and he holds a Bible of some sort in his large left hand, while looking confidently into the camera lens. Contextualized by Sandler’s layered readings of revolutionary Romanticism, Simpson presents as a searching Dark Romantic — a self-made intellectual Blackening the spirit of the age. The symbol-laden photograph is a correlative for the pith of Sandler’s most important claims. It reminds us that African Americans have always used whatever tools available to expose and supplant the demons that haunt the nation.
Linking Black poetic tools of the 19th and 21st centuries, the final section of Sandler’s study is titled “Dreams and Nightmares,” borrowed from Meek Mill’s ferocious 2012 hip-hop anthem. The forms and tools of cultural engagement have evolved over two centuries, but the tectonic symbols of Black experiences in America have remained the same. As the roiling summer of 2020 has reiterated, this dialectical cycle continues to churn. Sandler’s important book shows that African American poets of the Romantic era were among the first creators to feel this cycle and bring it into the national literature. In our moment, this Black work matters.
Derik Smith is an associate professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College. He specializes in the study of 20th-century and contemporary African American literature and culture.