Jennifer Tuttle delivers paper on the history of Black women writers
Jennifer Tuttle, Ph.D., Dorothy M. Healy Professor of Literature and Health in the University of New England School of Arts and Humanities and 2021-2022 Ludcke Chair of Liberal Arts and Sciences, delivered a paper at the Western Literature Association Conference in Santa Fe, New Mexico, held from Oct. 19 to 22.
Tuttle's paper, "The Matter of Black Lives in California Print: Introducing Dora L. Mitchell," is her first public presentation about Mitchell (1891-1970), the main subject of research during her recent sabbatical.
Beyond introducing this entirely unknown author to contemporary scholars, Tuttle's paper concerned itself with one of the challenges facing those who study early Black women’s writing in the West: the ephemeral nature of their archives. Mitchell's creative work appeared in venues — such as silent film, newspapers, and pulp magazines — so fragile that much of them have crumbled into dust and many more are extremely difficult to find, Tuttle commented.
Tuttle's paper considered one of Mitchell's surviving stories, a courtroom drama called “The Shadowed Witness” (published in the Black Los Angeles newspaper the California Eagle in 1923), which portrays a Black legal victory over white supremacy.
The very materiality of that newspaper, Tuttle said, imperils the story's recovery for the modern era. Paper copies of the Eagle are rare, issues from 1923 (often of limited quality) are not included on loanable microfilm, and online incarnations of the issues in Internet Archive proffer dreadful images as well as misnumbered and misdated pages. Rather than making Mitchell's story discoverable, the archive actively, if unintentionally, hides it, Tuttle remarked.
Tuttle's paper thus considers the challenge Mitchell issues to scholars today, who must not only rethink expectations about where to look for Black women’s writing but also become resistant and persistent readers of the very archives we have built to make this work available for study.