The Black Newspaper and the Chosen Nation

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Benjamin P. Fagan
  • Athens, GA: 
    University of Georgia Press
    , June
     2016.
     200 pages.
     $44.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780820349404.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Benjamin Fagan’s The Black Newspaper and the Chosen Nation captures the chosen nation and millennialist rhetoric Northern black newspaper editors deployed from the late 1820s through the end of the American Civil War. Fagan, an assistant professor of English at Auburn University, highlights the religious sensibilities of free African Americans, and how they interpreted national ideas of chosenness and the coming millennium for black Americans. He details how that rhetoric grew more radical and anti-American as the promise of freedom and justice for all proved elusive for non-whites. Fagan thereby serves scholars in journalism, English, history, American studies, and cultural studies. However, while his literary analysis is excellent, the actual religious content—the theological explanations of chosenness and the millennial anticipation—is surface level at best.

Fagan’s opening chapter documents the importance of black newspapers for both their intended and unintended audiences, and captures the diversity of thought among African Americans in the antebellum North. Black activists saw the press “as a key weapon in the war against tyranny and oppression” (2). The editors Fagan focuses on believed that black Americans “would lead the world to universal emancipation” (3). This faith in black chosenness connected to calls for black liberation. Fagan pinpoints the origins of black chosenness in two pamphlets: a 1794 pamphlet from Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, the founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), who reminded whites that God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and that God would free blacks as well; and the second is an 1810 pamphlet from AME Reverend Daniel Coker, who uses First Peter to proclaim that blacks are a chosen nation, and a holy people. Fagan, failing to identify the denominational connections of Allen, Jones, and Coker, much less how that might have influenced their ideas of chosenness, then goes on to explain the role of “chosenness” in American exceptionalism, drawing almost exclusively on primary sources from Conrad Cherry’s anthology, God’s New Israel (University of North Carolina Press, 1998). Fagan’s analysis is strictly textual, with little theological depth; an acknowledgement of the British origins of chosenness in the thought of William Tyndale, or recognition that almost every culturally Christian nation saw itself as chosen to some degree. He notes that for black religious leaders, chosenness was not about privilege, but about responsibility; and many of the middle-class newspaper editors urged their readers to act chosen. He also details how black activists reversed American chosenness: instead of seeing the US as the New Jerusalem or the Promised Land, they viewed it as Egypt or Babylon, awaiting the day when God would hear the cries of his people and rescue them. Some developed a black exceptionalism that yearned for a special destiny in which black talent and knowledge would instruct the world.

Chapter 1 focuses on the first black-run newspaper, Samuel Cornish and John Brown Russworm’s Freedom’s Journal, founded in New York in 1827. Cornish is the only editor in Fagan’s book that gets any spiritual biography, as he was an ordained Presbyterian minister who started his own church. According to Fagan, Cornish and Brown worked to “create and advertise black propriety” (23), wanting to counteract negative depictions of African Americans, and convince whites that blacks were worthy of freedom.

Chapter 2, one of the book’s strongest, focuses on The Colored American, which ran under several editors, including Cornish, from January 1837 through December 1841. The Colored American embedded the millennial thinking of American culture—that is, the idea that America would be the site of Jesus’s return. Again, Fagan only scratches the surface of millennial thought, but he captures the nuance of premillennial versus postmillennial thinking. Colored American’s editors initially favored the reformist impulses of the postmillennialists, who believed human effort could help usher in the golden age, and that the millennium would predate Christ’s return. Initially, Colored American editors believed blacks were part of a chosen America, but gradually, they came to see America as an oppressor. As editor, Cornish “pleaded with white Christians to abandon the prejudicial practices that had carried them away from Christ” (49). By 1840, then-editor Charles Ray predicted a more premillennial cataclysm, in which the millennium would still come to America, but Christ might wipe the US and its sins from the earth.

Chapter 3 examines Frederick Douglas’s North Star, which ran from December 1847 through April 1851. Douglas linked black struggles for liberation with the revolutions rocking Europe in 1848. Rather than the chosenness of either the US. or blacks, Douglas’s perspective encompassed a “transnational community of the oppressed” (74). As with Freedom’s Journal, the North Star also encouraged blacks to act chosen, instructing them that “respectability could be revolutionary” (74). Though he saw the Paris barricades as inspiring the fight for freedom, Douglas eschewed violent action in the North Star.

Chapter 4 highlights a black female activist, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, who sought greater liberation in Canada, and established the Provincial Freeman to urge black Americans to move north and take on British identity. She embraced British exceptionalism based on that Empire’s elimination of slavery in its colonies, and urged blacks in America to secure freedom under the crown while they awaited the destruction of the US. Cary rejected the “chosenness” of both the US and blacks.

Chapter 5 follows Robert and Thomas Hamilton’s war-time Weekly Anglo-African, launched in July 1861. As the US debated whether to accept black regiments, the Hamiltons “offered competing visions of acting chosen in wartime” (127), featuring debates over whether blacks should prepare themselves for battle to rescue their enslaved people, or whether blacks should stand aside and await God’s judgment on the nation’s sins. The paper endorsed black enlistment in 1863 when that door was opened. Later, the paper would advocate a new special destiny for black Northerners: to educate Southern slaves on how to be upright citizens.

Fagan’s conclusion aptly notes that the treatment of blacks during the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow segregation left most caught between “slavery and liberation” (148). The blacks had left Egypt, but they were still wandering the desert in search of freedom.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christina Littlefield is Assistant Professor of Journalism and Religion at Pepperdine University.

Date of Review: 
September 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Benjamin Fagan is assistant professor of English at Auburn University.

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