Critical Mass

Hubert Harrison, A Pioneering African-American Reviewer

By Eric Banks

At the Columbia Journalism Review, NBCC board member Scott McLemee has a fascinating article on the pioneering reviewer Hubert Harrison (thanks James Marcus for the tip!):

“Book reviewers for newspapers write the first draft of cultural history. Or so we tell ourselves, at times, to lift our spirits. Of late this is not so easy. All signs now point to a future in which the news hole for cultural coverage will be budgeted strictly for updates on celebrity pregnancies. Authors are going to keep on writing books, of course, but exposure will involve coordinating the efforts of a publicist and a fertility expert.

“To some of us, it seems obvious that newspapers should respect, and even foster, the activity of reading as such—obvious and yet, given the circumstances, also mildly subversive. So perhaps it is a fitting time to rediscover Hubert Harrison (1883-1927), a left-wing ‘community organizer,’ as we say nowadays, who once jokingly proclaimed himself ‘the only “certified” Negro book-reviewer in captivity.’

“His public debut came in 1907 with a letter to The New York Times complaining about its books coverage—arguably rendering him a literary blogger avant la lettre. By the early 1920s, Harrison edited what he called ‘the first regular book-review section known to Negro newspaperdom.’ He had passed through the ranks of the Socialist Party and Marcus Garvey’s early black nationalist organization, and his commentary on books naturally tended to have a polemical edge. But his sense of mission went beyond using reviews as a format for social criticism. He also saw reviewing as a way to consolidate an audience that took pride in its own seriousness about reading.”

Read more here