SEA Junior Scholar of the Month, October 2020: Tabitha Lowery
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
Whenever I took my first American literature survey class during one of my undergraduate years, I was exposed to Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative. I was drawn to the details of her captivity and wanted to learn more about the depiction of non-whites in early American literature. As the semester drew on, that class exposed me to Phillis Wheatley’s works, and I developed more of an interest in the roles Black Americans played in the formation of the United States. I appreciated reading works by Black authors that were not solely slave narratives. Once I began research for my own projects in graduate school, I happened upon other early African American writers whose stories complicated the focus on slave narratives as the foundation of African American literature. I felt it refreshing to know that Black writers existed before Frederick Douglass, even if they complicated our definitions of African American literature.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
I enjoy excavating the works of Phillis Wheatley and George Moses Horton from early black newspapers. The “social lives” of their works—to borrow from Michael C. Cohen—continue to unfold as I uncover their dimensions in Black abolitionist and religious-oriented newspapers. I’m particularly drawn to how their works functioned in obscure children’s magazines and newspapers and how this positions us to read their texts in a new light. Reading and understanding Wheatley’s complex poetry in the context of early children’s magazines brings awareness to the ways northern Black children understood their own liminal experiences in relation to Wheatley’s.
What are you currently working on?
I have been writing about the receptions of early Black authors in magazines and newspapers for child readers in early America. I am interested in the broader implications of the roles early Black poetry played within children’s literature. I am also intrigued by what these appearances suggest about our definitions of children’s authors. Even as early as 1811, editors incorporated early Black poetry into publications dedicated to Black children to address uplift and to challenge racial injustice in education. Even though the endeavor failed, I think even failed attempts to expose Black children to early Black poetry gives the field a broader understanding of the multifaceted representations of early Black poets.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
Right now, I am reading Honorée Jeffers’ The Age of Phillis and I appreciate the reimagining of the details of Wheatley’s life. I love the complexity that Jeffers weaves into our commonly held beliefs about Wheatley’s enslavement. The poems about Wheatley’s parents, especially those on her mother, are beautiful and helpful for imagining what life was like for Wheatley before her capture. I greatly appreciate that Jeffers questions the validity of Margaretta Matilda Odell’s memoir of Wheatley’s early life, especially when primary documents do not prove some of Odell’s assertions.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
There are several to name, but here are a few: Tara Bynum, Koritha Mitchell, Karen Kilcup, and Derrick Spires. Their works, in many ways, have illuminated forgotten histories that deserve more attention in the field. I also appreciate how most of these scholars work to show how African American literature can be concerned with more than just reactionary discourse. In many ways, these scholars show that African Americans created their own networks of friendship and citizenship and were met with resistance from white Americans when they were successful.
Tabitha Lowery is an Assistant Professor of African American Literature at Coastal Carolina University.