Black Women Readers
- Mary I. UngerMary I. UngerDepartment of English, Ripon College
Black women readers have innovated various literacies—oral, textual, visual, and digital—as a way to validate their lived experiences, bond with one another, and lobby for their personal and collective agency. During the 18th century, black women made use of both vernacular and print cultures as strategies of survival and emancipation. Throughout the 19th century, they used reading for racial uplift in institutions such as the black press, the black women’s club movement, and literary societies. Moreover, they documented these acts of reading in cultural artifacts such as scrapbooks, which gave them the ability to manipulate print culture in deeply personal and political ways. Throughout these endeavors, black women readers deployed various literacies—reading both “aright” as well as “rogue”—to assert their agency in the era of print. In the 20th century, black women’s reading became even more professionalized in the role of editor, a position that facilitated the circulation and promotion of black women’s writing; this effort became even more urgent toward the end of the century when black feminists formed consciousness-raising groups and established new academic disciplines that depended on the recovery, anthologizing, and reading of black women’s writing. At the same time, from the postwar era through the end of the century, black women readers emerged as a significant reading demographic, courted by publishers who recognized them as a profitable consumer base. Into the 21st century, black women readers have turned to online and digital spaces in which to continue the tradition of reading for liberation and unity. In this way, the act of reading has also provided for black women a way to negotiate their relationships to American culture, each other, as well as themselves.