African American Poetry (1870-1927): A Digital Anthology

Exploring Datasets 1: Books of Poetry by Black Poets Published by Decade

Context and Method: 

In 1916, Arthur Schomburg published a short volume called A Bibliographical Checklist of American Negro Poetry (available at HathiTrust and Archive.org; our plain text version is here). It was a list of essentially every published book he could find by Black poets in the U.S., but also the Hispanophone and Francophone Caribbean. (Schomburg, as most readers will know, was himself an Afro-Puerto Rican immigrant...) Many of the texts Schomburg listed were from his own collection. Later, Schomburg expressed some regret about the rushed nature of the Bibliographical Checklist, which he attributed to the publisher, G.E. Heartman (see Elinor Sinnette's 1989 biography of Schomburg for more on this, especially p. 108). 

Despite its idiosyncrasies, Schomburg's Checklist is a remarkable and important scholarly contribution, in part because no one else had ever done such a compilation before (though one possible predecessor might be Gertrude Mossell's 1894 book), and in general white editors and bibliographers often missed entries by African American writers in their various checklists. Also, the sheer number of published collections he was able to record is impressive -- I had never heard of many of the authors, even after working on open-access digital collections of African American poetry for the past few years. That said, a scholar looking at WorldCat or HathiTrust today would likely find some things he missed.

Readers unfamiliar with Schomburg's checklist can find our plain-text version of it here.

In 1945, a Librarian named Dorothy Porter, who worked at Howard University, took up the task of revising and extending Schomburg's list, publishing North American Negro Poets: A Bibliographical Checklist 1760-1944The extension in time to 1944 is especially important, as the Porter list contains African American writing through what scholars have understood to be its peak years in the Harlem Renaissance. Porter also filled in some gaps in Schomburg's list even from the earlier periods. And she removed the Hispanophone and Francophone texts that were on Schomburg's original list. A couple of notes: 

 

The final tally in my adjusted version of Porter's checklist is: 440 entries (1850-1944), of which about 20 entries remain undated. 

 

DecadeNumber of Books of Poetry Published by African American Poets
1850-18607
1861-18706
1871-18809
1881-18909
1891-190039
1901-191080
1911-192079
1921-193061
1931-194097
1941-194534


What can we learn from this dataset in general? 

Before we get into the specific data conveyed by the chart, it might be worth underlining why looking at this dataset is worthwhile. As I suggested above, Porter's Checklist is close to a comprehensive account of all books of poetry published by Black authors during these years. Here and there I found a couple of items she appears to have missed; I added in entries to the dataset in those instances. (Note: We are not including periodical poetry at this point, just published books. My study of periodical poetry is likely forthcoming...)  Having access to all of the texts from a limited historical period might allow us to look at Black poetry without the constraints of editorial filters and academic tradition. This 'macro-look' effectively gives us the ability to reset our understanding of the material. Some of what's entailed in the reset might be quantitative: a few questions I have go as follows: 

In this post, I'm just going to look at the first question; we'll save engagements with other questions for subsequent posts. 

What can we learn from this particular chart? 

First and foremost, I think the most important observation is the rate and timing of the growth of the African American poetry publishing world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is first a significant growth between 1881-1890 (9 books) and 1891-1900 (39 books). Second, there is a massive jump between 1891-1900 (39 books) and 1901-1910 (80 books). First the rate of publication quadruples, then it doubles again. And that increased rate continues through the next few decades. 

It would be a mistake to read too much into this (see my caveats below) -- though one clear takeaway might be that the  "Harlem Renaissance" (i.e., of the 1920s-30s) as a decisive tipping point for African American poetry might be overstated or inaccurate. More important might be demographic and educational changes -- many more African American people were literate, and interested in publishing as well as reading poetry starting in the 1890s (the literacy rate for African Americans jumped from 20% in 1870 to 70% in 1910; see the full data here). Also important (though harder to measure) might be the immense popularity of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar not only published extremely prolifically in the 1890s and early 1900s, he also inspired a generation of writers who were influenced by his style and voice. 

 

Caveats: 

The chart above only describes the number of books published per decade. It does not really speak to the influence of those books or their circulation levels. 

Many Black poets, especially before the 1920s, self-published their works in extremely small print runs and circulated them locally. Some poets, especially Frances E.W. Harper and Paul Laurence Dunbar, sold thousands of copies of their collections, often in connection with speaking engagements. Others sold very few. 

Moreover, other forms of literary prestige, including awards, and reviews in poetry journals and mainstream newspapers and magazines, were largely cut off to Black writers from earlier periods. That dynamic shifted substantially in the 1920s, as a growing number of white/mainstream periodicals began publishing poetry by Black authors. 

Another caveat: readers might notice that in the 1920s there is actually a dip in publication. I do not have an explanation for this, though it might be worth exploring. (I do not think the dip is necessarily very significant...) 

 

Coming soon -- further explorations of the dataset... along gender lines, regional lines, and theme/topic. 


--Amardeep Singh, June 2023

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