The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Review | Jim Crow Networks: African American Periodical Cultures

Jim Crow Networks: African American Periodical Cultures. By Eurie Dahn. University of Massachusetts Press, 2021. 208 pp. $90 (cloth); $26.95 (paperback).

Reviewed by Suzanne W. Churchill, Davidson College

At last, a study of modern, countercultural magazines that does not center Ezra Pound! Eurie Dahn's Jim Crow Networks: African American Periodical Cultures instead holds up Ida B. Wells as an exemplary leader and champion of the periodical press, describing the writer and activist as “an early theorist of race and periodicals” who strategically used them to educate readers, campaign against lynching, and undermine the authority of “official and mainstream accounts that legitimize extralegal acts of terrorism” (17, 20). Wells recognized periodicals potential to empower readers with knowledge, or, as she put it, “The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press” (qtd. in Dahn 21). Jim Crow Networks is also a fine educator: the study provides an excellent primer on network theory and a glossary of key concepts in periodical studies. Its clear, methodical approach is a model for graduate students and scholars alike.

Jim Crow Networks examines “the networks in which African American periodicals of the first half of the twentieth century were embedded” during a transitional time in which print culture shifted focus from slavery to “racial violence and resistance in response to the conditions of legalized segregation” (3). Eurie Dahn examines a wide range of interracial and intraracial periodical networks to show how they provided a public field for negotiating concerns about racial inequality. These dialogic networks decentralized power by providing alternatives to vertical hierarchies of authority, thereby opening up avenues for exchanges among a diverse collective of readers, editors, authors, and texts. Dahn examines highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow periodicals to show how they deployed social categories to market themselves, attract audiences, and pursue alternately competing and complementary strategies for sociopolitical change. Drawing upon a rich matrix of network theory, the study makes a novel contribution to periodical studies in its dual emphasis on networks internal to an individual periodical (“intranets”) and the larger networks in which each periodical participated (the original “internets”) (5). Crucially, the study establishes Ida B. Wells as a leader and driving force in American periodical networks during the Jim Crow era and examines African American periodicals in relation both to one another and to the white mainstream press.

Dahn organizes the book around the “tactics of activism” deployed in various periodical networks (24). Chapter one investigates how Half-Century’s publication of James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man enabled the middlebrow magazine to stake out its position between the highbrow Crisis and the lowbrow Chicago Defender. Chapter two explores the discourse of shame as manifested in reader letters to the Chicago Defender and in Nella Larsens Quicksand, arguing that while “the novel does not have a direct connection with the newspaper,” both publications participated in “a broader affective network grounded in a shared concern with shame in relation to race” (66). Chapter three examines dialogue about race between William Faulkner and readers of Life and Ebony, where his essays “A Letter to the North” and “If I were a Negro” were published respectively, showing how these popular magazines allowed readers to question the authority of a revered American author. Chapter four tracks the publication of selections from Jean Toomer's Cane across an international network of little magazines, including Broom, the Double Dealer, and the Little Review, as well as the Crisis. A brief conclusion reflects on how periodical networks are changing in the twenty-first century with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the emergence of digital culture.

Dahn offers illuminating synopses of each magazine conveying their circulation figures, audience demographics, and distinctive dispositions. We learn that, like the Crisis, Half-Century magazine was committed to racial uplift and “interested in improving the taste and behavior of its readers, but did not see literature as the main path toward that goal” (33). Instead, it encouraged Black women readers to uplift themselves by embracing domestic consumerism—a form of what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism” because it urged women to invest in behaviors unlikely to bring about true freedom and equality. Dahn likens Half-Century to “a department store in that it offered goods for sale, not only in its advertisements, but also in its content, tying consumerism to racial uplift and race pride” (52). The analogy bolsters an argument made in Richard Ohmann’s Selling Culture: Magazines, Markets, and Class at the Turn of the Century (1996), which traces the word magazine back to magasin, the French term for a store or boutique. Framed in this context, reading Half-Century becomes an activity akin to shopping, choosing from racks of items curated for middle-class, feminine aesthetics and domestic interests. Although Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man might seem like an outlier in this context, Dahn argues the novel shares the magazine’s shame about being identified with “the lower classes by the white gaze” (60). The publication of Johnson's novel in Half-Century enabled the magazine to certify its superior taste and Johnson to reach a diverse audience (60-63).

The study's most original work occurs in its innovative metaphors and approaches to reading magazines, as when the author likens the contents of Half-Century to a department store, or the format and layout of Cane to a magazine (157). Dahn uses the notion of network to make an audacious and compelling comparison between the elevated genre of the novel and the relatively understudied genre of letters to the editor, bolstering the connection by developing useful strategies for “reading letters as texts” (81). While the discussion of Quicksand might have done more to demonstrate how shame is rendered transformative through shifts in narrative perspective, Dahn persuasively argues for the relationship of the normative white gaze to shame and racial uplift in a Mrs. James’s letter to Half-Century: “I know the white folks are watching our Race and trying to see what they can [sic] on us, and it hurts me to see some our people acting as they do” (85). Similarly, Dahn offers a cogent analysis of letters to Ebony from several readers who push back against Faulkner’s claim to understand the Black experience in his essay “If I were a Negro” (122).

Jim Crow Networks shares extensive research and fascinating findings yet includes only six illustrations—a few magazine covers, a table of contents, and two timelines. More reproductions, especially facsimiles of letters to the editor to illustrate the lively dialogue therein, would be welcome additions to Dahn’s study, though perhaps costs were prohibitive. Dahn’s compelling and original arguments would be strengthened by more quotations and analysis of the focal texts to demonstrate how their meanings are shaped by their periodical contexts, especially in the chapter on Toomer, “Global Networks: Cane in the Magazines.” There, the author offers an incisive reading of a short story by Robert W. Bagnall, but only a brief quotation from the focal text, Toomer’s poem “Song of the Son” (154). Similarly, although the chapter includes a generous excerpt from a Crisis article about the gruesome murder of Mary Turner, “the real-life basis of Mame Lamkins” in Toomer's “Kabnis,” Dahn does not provide sufficient evidence from the short story to support the assertion that “by turning Turner's death into art, Toomer establishes literature as a tool of self-help” (155–56).

Despite these caveats, Jim Crow Networks is a groundbreaking, valuable contribution to the field of modern periodical studies. The book recognizes Jim Crow conditions as foundational to modern U.S. print culture. It connects celebrated literary texts to the highbrow, middlebrow, and the lowbrow periodical networks in which they participated. Most importantly, Jim Crow Networks not only centers Ida B. Wells, but also de-centers whiteness, showing how African American writers, editors, readers, and periodicals contributed to the literature of modernism and the discourses of modernity.

This page has paths: