The Roving Reader Files
My inner voices were going at it hammer and tongues: “It’s just too confusing! Why does it have to have three names on the cover? Isn’t one enough? James, Susan, Lois…? Who wrote the book?”
Just look at this: Memoir of James Jackson, The attentive and obedient scholar, who died in Boston, October 31, 1833, aged six years and eleven months. By his teacher, Miss Susan Paul. Edited by Lois Brown. That’s the book’s title. Wouldn’t you be confused?
I was looking at a slim, unassuming academic volume. The mystery was soon explained, as I settled down to find out what exactly was inside…
It turned out that, in the 1830s, little James Jackson had attended teacher Susan Paul’s Baptist primary school for Black children, in the free Black district of Boston, USA. So impressed was Susan with James’s intelligent good nature and respect for his elders, that when he died so young, she decided to commemorate his short life as an inspiration to others. A reprint of the resulting Memoir of James Jackson (published 1835) formed the centrepiece of the book I was holding.
That explained James, and it also explained Susan. But what about Lois? Just bear with me.
Until recently, Memoir of James Jackson had been long forgotten. And forgotten it would have remained, if Black American scholar Lois Brown hadn’t unearthed it, painstakingly tracking down anything she could find that would illuminate its special place in Black literary history. Her work reconstructed for our benefit the life and times of James Jackson’s community, bringing into focus the significance of this, the first known African American biography.
On the cover, Lois was referred to as ‘editor’. Hmmm. What did that mean?
Except for the 38 pages taken up by Susan Paul’s Memoir of James Jackson, Lois had written most of the rest of the volume, contributing her knowledge and expertise to provide accompanying materials explaining the importance of Susan’s work, as well as the meaning of some of its more obscure references.
The little book had been packed with additional goodies – Acknowledgments telling us who’d helped Lois Brown and funded her research; a 63-page Introduction, explaining the history of Memoir and the social context in which it was written; reprints of relevant stories, articles and letters from the 1830s; plus a Chronology, and 36 pages of Notes.
The Acknowledgments showed that Lois had searched high and low, visiting library after library, receiving the advice of numerous archivists, academics and friends. With their help (and the funding of Cornell University and Mount Holyoke College in the US), she consulted early nineteenth-century censuses, dusty old newspapers, city directories, collections of letters, and ephemera from concerts and conferences of long ago – all the kinds of material which could contextualise the life of little James Jackson within its era.
The resulting Introduction reconstructed the startling backdrop of Memoir, which turned out to be far from just a simple morality tale about a harmless small boy. No. Memoir had been extremely controversial in its time, the work of a free Black female anti-slavery activist. Susan Paul loomed large as a now all-but-forgotten co-worker with White luminaries of the abolitionist cause such as William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Maria Child, risking life and limb to raise awareness of the injustices of a system that caused so much misery to so many.
Memoir had appeared not long after the 1831 Nat Turner slave revolt in Virginia, which caused panic throughout the Southern slaveholding states, and a clampdown on the education of Black children even in the North. In deliberately presenting Black families as examples of conventionally-respectable domesticity, and Black children as thirsty for and deserving of education, Susan Paul’s work was highly controversial.
Mainstream distributors of children’s religious literature wouldn’t touch Susan’s book with a bargepole, and she succeeded in finding a publisher only with great difficulty.
So who wrote the book? I think we’d all agree it wasn’t James Jackson, though without him there’d be no book to read. It turned out to be Susan Paul the biographer, without whom James would never have been remembered, and Lois Brown the editor, without whom the context of Memoir would never have been understood…
Memoir of James Jackson, The attentive and obedient scholar, who died in Boston, October 31, 1833, aged six years and eleven months. By his teacher, Miss Susan Paul. was originally published in 1835 by a small specialist anti-slavery press in Boston (James Loring, 132 Washington Street). The Centre’s copy is the edition edited by Lois Brown, published by Harvard University Press in 2000.