introduction
on meaningful worlds
Black Atlas is about the ways literature reflects and composes place. I
begin from the position that places are sites we imbue with meaning.
They are constituted by our ways of knowing. Just as importantly, they
are imprints of feelings and attachments. The pages that follow look at
the ways places are generated through processes of participation. They
take the view that places are about how we use them, how we share them.
I further argue that place resists the closure of any singular mode of rep-
resentation. Place is something semiotic (between concept and symbol)
and something material with real conditions. It exceeds any private expe-
rience. In making these claims, it is necessary to foreground the stakes of
my argument—what a reinvigorated understanding of place means for
more specific communities in time. I am particularly interested in what
place means for those whose histories have been vernacularized, or sim-
ply overwritten in the dominant records of a culture. Black Atlas is about
these kinds of communities and about their stories.
This book takes up with African American literature from the volatile
period between 1849 and 1900, an era of massive national expansion and
hemispheric ambition. The period encompasses the radical abolitionist
movement, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. From an artis-
tic perspective, it might be called “the rise of the black novel period,”
because the decade of the 1850s alone launched the first generation of
black novelists, including William Wells Brown, Frank J. Webb, Harriet
Wilson, and Martin Delany.1 But to limit the story of black place aes-
thetics to this midcentury literary surge is to hem a complex record of
print expression into a too- narrow scope of periodicity and genre. Late-
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