Lecture to Explore Lost History of African American Literary Societies

Shown here with friends, Mary McHenry, MHC Professor Emeritus of English (in black dress), will be honored with an Elizabeth T. Kennan Lecture presented by her daughter October 11.

Mary McHenry, the woman credited with bringing African American literature to Mount Holyoke, will be honored with an Elizabeth T. Kennan Lecture presented by her daughter, herself a leading scholar in the field, Thursday, October 11, at 4 pm in Mary Woolley Hall’s New York Room. "Forgotten Readers: The Lost History of African American Literary Societies" will be presented by Elizabeth McHenry, associate professor of English at New York University and daughter of Mary McHenry, MHC Professor Emeritus of English.

The lecture will focus on black readers and reading societies from the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, which the younger McHenry said have been largely ignored. "Of course we are all more or less familiar with the current interest in book clubs and reading groups, in part because of Oprah’s television group," said McHenry. "Rather than being a new phenomenon, I argue that black Americans have a long history of involvement in book clubs and reading groups. What is new about this, is that most of what we know about African Americans and literacy is guided by assumptions of illiteracy."

These assumptions stem from traditional history lessons that have focused largely on topics such as the laws against literacy for black slaves in the South, as well as recent studies of black literacy that often focus almost exclusively on the black community’s history of illiteracy. "Without detracting from these studies, I argue that they have overshadowed the literary experiences, activities, and involvement of black Americans throughout history, and especially in the nineteenth century," said McHenry. "By looking at black Americans’ involvement and membership in literary societies, I’m able to trace a very different history of black American literary involvement and reading practices and habits."

Preston Smith, associate professor and chair of African American studies, agreed that this new perspective, recognizing black literacy within the larger context of black American illiteracy, is valuable, especially for those interested in American history, literature, and African American studies. "There has been attention to African Americans as subjects of literature and producers of literature, but not necessarily as consumers of literature," he said. Describing the lecture as an example of excellence in African American studies, Smith said he and his co-coordinators—religion professors Jane Crosthwaite and John Grayson—were thrilled at the opportunity to honor Mary McHenry with a lecture given by her daughter on a subject so close to her heart.

"We wanted to honor Mary because she has been such an inspiring presence in the program," said Smith. "She pioneered the teaching of African American literature at the College. Her contributions were foundational." McHenry taught at MHC between 1974 and 1998 and was a popular professor, Smith said. A number of her former students are expected to attend the lecture, including Michelle L. Taylor ’94, now an assistant professor of English at Miami University of Ohio. "Michelle credits Mary with her interest in teaching and her interest in African American literature," Smith said. "She developed quite a following among her students."

That kind of impact is not uncommon in the African American and African studies department, said Smith. "We have a good group of people in the program who work well together and contribute their intellectual gifts to students and colleagues. When one of us leaves, we feel it’s important to recognize that person."


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