The first major source for our data compilation is Dorothy Porter's North American Negro Poets: A Bibliographical Checklist 1760-1944 (1945). Porter's Checklist, which is in turn a revision of Arthur Schomburg's 1916 Bibliographical Checklist, is close to a comprehensive account of all books of poetry published by Black authors during these years.
Dorothy Porter was a groundbreaking librarian who worked at Howard University; there is a helpful profile of her accomplishments by Zita Nunes at Smithsonian Magazine.
From Porter's list, I have been working with just the years 1850-1944, since those are closer to my own area of historical emphasis, and have converted it to spreadsheet form. Here and there I have found a couple of items Porter appears to have missed; I have added in entries to the dataset in those instances. (Note: We are not including periodical poetry at this point, just published books. A 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. With African American poetry, that might entail decentering the 'Harlem Renaissance' as an endpoint, along with the best-known names from the 1920s. Some of what's entailed in the reset might be quantitative (i.e., analysis at scale), though we'll also endeavor to make interpretive assessments from reading the poetry itself (as much of it as we can). A few preliminary questions I have go as follows:
- Did the amount of poetry published by Black poets increase over time? (See Dataset 1)
- What was the gender breakdown in African American poetry during this period, and did it change? (See Dataset 3)
- What was the geographic breakdown in terms of publishing locations and the locations of the authors themselves? (Did the writing become more urban, metropolitan, and northern over time?) (See Dataset 2 for a preliminary map)
- What was the breakdown in terms of self-published poetry vs. big commercial publishing houses, and did that change over time?
- From within the poetry itself, what are some patterns we can identify in terms of style and theme? Did the poetry generally seem to become more politicized over time, or less so? How did Black poets use or deviate from established poetic forms? What role does the use of AAVE play in Black poetry during this period?
- What role did HBCUs play in the formation of a community of Black poets during the late 19th and early 20th centuries?