Lecture to Explore Lost History of African American Literary Societies
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 Halls 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 Oprahs 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 communitys 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,
Im 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-coordinatorsreligion professors Jane
Crosthwaite and John Graysonwere 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 its important to recognize that person."