“For me, depth and rigor best describe Carla Peterson’s scholarly work. The numerous articles she’s written on 19th-century African American literary history shed bold, illuminating light on such topics as the transatlantic circulation of black short fiction before the Civil War; the rights and “writes” (as in “writing”)-based rhetorics of Frederick Douglass’ journalism; and the “rise” of the African American novel during the infamous “nadir” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to name a few. Taken together, her three books–The Determined Reader: Gender and Culture in the Novel from Napoleon to Victoria (Rutgers UP, 1986); “Doers of the Word:” African American Women Speakers and Writers in the North, 1830-1880 (Oxford UP, 1995); and now, Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City (Yale UP, 2011)–argue for the centrality of cultural production to shaping social identities and public spheres on both sides of the Atlantic, across the color line.”
In Black Gotham, Peterson invokes Toni Morrison’s Beloved to describe her storytelling practice: “Like Morrison’s Denver, I’ve tried to endow the few scraps of memories I possess with blood and a heartbeat. But, unlike Denver, my memories are not those of a still living parent and grandparent but of distant ancestors who have bequeathed me even less than Sethe and Baby Suggs gave her. This absence of memory has weighed heavily on me” (27).
Peterson describes Black Gotham as a scrapbook, and in her lecture, she took us back to a scrapbook’s most basic elements: found objects made precious by time and memory (the posts that follow this one describe these textual objects). As she told us, the book is the story of her ancestors Philip White and Peter Guignon, and it is also a mapping of the concentric circles inhabited and created by African Americans of the cultural elite in Gotham, both before and after the Civil War. In her talk, she outlined the narrative and historical material she mined from researching trade relationships between black and white men (particularly pharmacists and tobacco merchants), reactions to the 1863 Draft Riots and the cross-racial alliances among philanthropic women in postbellum Brooklyn (citing the Brooklyn Order of the King’s Daughters).