Tea and Talk explores African American print culture

AlishaKnightTalk4_HeberGuerra-RecinosEDITEDBy Olivia Montes

Elm Staff Writer

Dr. Alisha Knight came to the Rose O’Neill Literary House for her Tea and Talk event “Agents Wanted: Selling Racial Uplift at the Turn of the Twentieth Century” as part of the Literary Series of panels and talks during the fall semester this past Thursday.

Dr. Knight, an associate professor of English and American studies at Washington College, brought to life the history behind the movement of African American print culture, as well as how this often-overlooked print revolution impacted lives at the beginning of the 20th century.

According to the WC website, Dr. Knight “specializes in African American literature and print culture at the turn of the twentieth century, [which] her teaching and scholarship favors interdisciplinarity, as she aims to expand the canon with lesser known authors and bring new perspectives to well-known ones.”

Dr. Knight specializes in teaching courses focusing on both African American literature and history, and has put both her knowledge on the subject and her passion for her work into this project.

Her project, “Putting Them on the Map,” explores the rise of African American magazine agents throughout the 1900s across the United States.

Along with the help of ArcGIS, a geographic information site, Dr. Knight demonstrates the technological advancements she was able to use to support her research, and just how much of an impact these nationwide networks made for African American people in all corners of the nation.

“The mission of these agents and this movement was to climb as well as lift up,” Dr. Knight said. “The goal was to address racism and inspire a significant effort to rise up and be recognized as members of a national literary community.”

Using PowerPoint, Dr. Knight projected the historical significance and correlation between agents and the rise of print culture within the African American community. Print culture includes all forms of printed text and visual communication.

According to her research, there were eight known black-owned publishing firms from 1817 to 1897, at a time where subscriptions to literary magazines had gained a bad reputation for poor sales and unreliable works. However, with the rise of the “Colored American Magazine,” under the management of Pauline E. Hopkins, sales began to rise.

Dr. Knight explains how this change in management, as well as an increase in the variety of published works, effectively reached African and black Americans across the nation.

“Subscriptions to ‘Colored American Magazine’ — promoted by hired agents — helped to produce renowned works of literature and gave a sense of belonging between communities,” Dr. Knight said.

The talk focused on the role of agents and their role in the rise of African American print culture.

“Agents were recruited to encourage subscriptions amongst their communities, developing a widespread following of both African American and Anglo-Saxon readers,” she said.

“Her demonstration of digital humanities tools that she used to make her research public [during the presentation] was very interesting,” senior and attendee Saoirse said. “It really goes to show that the work done in academia does not have to be encased in a leather-bound book stored in some ivory tower but can actually be made public and make change in meaningful ways.”

Throughout Dr. Knight’s presentation, she used a combination of images, articles, and maps to get years of informative agent research out to her audience, as well as to shed light on a forgotten art in the world of literature.

“After reading ‘Putting Them on the Map’, her digital humanities research project done in part through collaboration with the College’s Geographic Information Systems program, I approached Dr. Knight about giving a presentation in the Literary House’s ‘Tea and Talk’ Series, which focuses on WC professors to highlight the fascinating work done here, particularly in the realm of literary arts and production,” Dr. James Hall, associate professor of English and director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House, said.

In the future, Dr. Knight plans on continuing to expand her project to students as potential research and job opportunities and editing new works of literature.

She is currently working on embedding new information into the developing website, showcasing her work with her team, particularly pinpointing the names of those agents along the Eastern Shore.

Dr. Knight says she hopes to have the new website running soon.

“We hope to accomplish this next step within the next few months,” Dr. Knight said.

The WC campus, the Chestertown community, and particularly the students are looking forward to what happens next.

“I think it is immensely useful to look at the intricacies of the lives of the people we consider important in our history,” Saoirse said. “Not to do so is a disservice to them, to ourselves and to history and Dr. Knight’s work is instrumental in adding those layers of nuance in our understanding of history.”

“Her talk, ‘“Agents Wanted”: Selling Racial Uplift at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,’ was an amazing and insightful presentation,” Dr. Hall said. “Dr. Knight’s research into the African American publishing trade at the turn of the 20th century is important work,” he said.

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