Black Romanticism pt. 3: Horton's Naked Genius

 Title page for  Naked Genius  (1865)

Title page for Naked Genius (1865)

George Moses Horton's first two books of poetry are available in html format on the University of North Carolina's Documenting the American South website. Docsouth, as it's known for short, is an extraordinarily useful online resource for people working on the history of slavery-- I've found tons of great things there, not least about Horton, who's of course well covered there because of his close ties to UNC. 

Horton's third book, Naked Genius (1865), is not featured there, I'm not quite sure why. It may be because of a 1982 edition published by the Chapel Hill Historical Society, which offers a facsimile of the original text from 1865, and an introduction by Richard Walser, who wrote a biography of Horton. It's now long out of print, as far as I can tell, so I'll link here a pdf. 

Naked Genius is an extraordinary book, arguably Horton's best, and certainly his longest. He wrote substantial portions of it while following the Union Army as "contraband" as it passed through North Carolina. Its publication was arranged by Captain Will H.S. Banks, who apparently took an interest in Horton, and wrote the book's introduction. 

It contains some of Horton's most deeply felt poems, such as "The Southern Refugee" (which casts the experience of emancipation in paradoxically melancholy terms), as well as some of his funniest, like "Jefferson in a Tight Place" (which depicts the former president of the Confederacy on the run). Horton's work here is defiantly weird, a quality he always seems to have had but ratcheted up in his old age during the heated days at the end of the Civil War.

Black Romanticism pt. 2: Original Anti-Slavery Songs

Here's another hard to find work of nineteenth century African American poetry. Or something like poetry. Joshua McCarter Simpson's Original Anti-Slavery Songs (1852) is a collection of songs intended to be sung at the informal gatherings that took place along the Underground Railroad. Simpson intended these to be sung to the tune of popular songs (often minstrel songs), hoping that this strategy would "kill the degrading influence of these comic Negro songs," as he writes in his prefatory note. The most famous of these is "Away to Canada," set to the tune of Stephen Foster's "Oh! Susanna," which had come out just a few years before.

Only a few copies of Original Anti-Slavery Songs survived; both are held in research libraries in Ohio, where Simpson lived his whole life, and which was crucial state for those escaping slavery. Simpson's second collection, The Emancipation Car (1874), expands on the project of this book, and contextualizes the songs with prose pieces. It's a little more widely available, since it was reprinted after the rise of Black Studies in the 1970's, but maybe I'll say more about it later. 

Black Romanticism: George Moses Horton and the Digital

I've decided a good use of this space is to try to collect online the sources I've used in my current book project (tentatively entitled Black Romanticism: Early African American Poetry and the Spirit of the Age). My hope is that these materials might attract attention from other readers and researchers. 

I should also say that this project has substantially made possible by digital resources which have appeared in the 12 years since I first began work on this subject. Print resources like Joan Sherman's anthology African American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century hinted at vast troves of material only available in special collections. These materials are increasingly easy to access because of digitization which has made my work possible absent of significant research funding. 

I'd like here to pay forward the work of recovery-oriented scholars (like Sherman) of the 70's, 80's, and 90's, as well as the benefits I've accrued from new technologies and digital humanities projects of various sorts. 

In the first of these, I'd like to spotlight someone much younger than me, Constance Chia, a recent graduate of UNC Chapel Hill, who for her undergraduate honors thesis made available George Moses Horton's "Address to Collegiates of the University of N.C.: The Stream of Liberty and Science" (1859). This speech is a crucial document, transcribed by the students as it was delivered by Horton, who spent most of his life in enslaved and working on campus. It gives an idea of his perspective on a wide range of philosophical, social, and local issues, in a kind of extraordinarily weird and extemporaneous rhetorical style.

The transcription has long only been available in a the difficult-to-read original manuscript, and in recent years circulated as a pdf, but Chia has provided a typescript, as well as a rich, contextualizing introduction. It's a really useful resource and I hope it gets more attention. I'll say more about the speech itself sometime, but for now, check out a fantastic piece of undergraduate research!