ENGL 254: Public
“Public” is an assumptive word. When thinking about what a public is we tend to define it as a social totality, imbuing it with a powerful sense of authority. Yet, as Bruce Robbins points out in Keywords for American Cultural Studies, the term’s presumed universality can be challenged by evidence that large classes of individuals are often left outside the social whole it claims to represent (183). This ability to drift between implied totality and exclusive tendency can be seen in the use of “public” in eighteenth and nineteenth century black Atlantic literature, where its referential scope was largely mediated by prevailing ideas of who were legitimate members of the social sphere it framed.
The origins of the word itself do not imply a social totality. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “public” was derived from the Latin populus, or “people,” which evolved from the word pubes, or “adult men.” Indeed, the definition adult men, or more accurately adult white men, provides a fairly accurate sense of whom the word characterized within texts of this period given that women, children, and certainly Africans, were all marginalized peoples and forced outside mainstream discourse. As Michael Warner noted in Publics and Counterpublics, to address a public, or to participate in one, is to be “motivated by a certain normative horizon and speak within a certain language ideology” (10). Without a doubt, the “normative horizon” of eighteenth and nineteenth century England and colonial America was that of the white male.
Take for example, the prefatory materials in Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral, which contained an attestation to the validity of her poems signed by “the most respectable characters of Boston” and appearing under the heading “To the Publick:”
We whose Names are under-written, do assure the World, that the Poems specified in the following Page, were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best judges, and is thought qualified to write them. (7)
All eighteen individuals who signed the attestation were, of course, white men of notable social stature in colonial Boston. Even though it is authoritatively addressed “to the public” and seeks to “assure the world,” the universal sense of “publick” is limited by the presentation of an all-white male authoritative body legitimizing Wheatley’s work. These “respectable characters” are put forth as representatives of the larger public sphere. Thus, the absence of anyone other than white men among them restricts the constitution of that sphere.
This limitation is not surprising given the prevailing discourse regarding whether or not Africans and other races were members of the human family. Interestingly, if the goal of the attestation was to enlighten the audience regarding the abilities of an African to write imaginative literature, and thereby affirm their humanity, then “To the Publick” could be seen as an address to all of humanity. Yet, by taking up the concern as to whether an African could produce such poetry, the attestation gives initial credence to the notion that Africans were not, as of yet, universally accepted members of the human race. In this context, “publick” is more accurately a referent to all presupposed members of the human collective or, in other words, white people of European descent. This dominant white sensibility is underscored by the language within the attestation that refers to Wheatley as having been “brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa.” This phrase subjugated Wheatley, emphasizing her inferior slave status, reiterating her place outside the white Anglo-American and English public her text addressed.
Whom a text addresses is crucial in defining the public sphere’s borders. As Michael Warner notes, a public for a text exists by virtue of being addressed or, put another way, as an end to the publication itself. The public for a text is any potential reader, who could come across the text at different times and in different places, whoever they might be (67-68). This organization of the public through discourse is evident in David Walker’s Appeal To The Coloured Citizens of the World. Addressing his brethren, Walker warns of potential repercussions for his political position:
I say, I do not only expect to be held up to the public as an ignorant, impudent and restless disturber of the public peace, by such avaricious creatures, as well as a mover of insubordination—and perhaps put in prison or to death, for giving a superficial exposition of our miseries, and exposing tyrants. (4)
Walker first uses “public” in the passage as a singular noun, representing the white, men who oppress him and his brethren. The word is then wielded as an adjective to modify “peace.” In both cases, “public” is used to frame the normative public-at-large which, in this case, would be Anglo-American white men. Walker addressed his brethren (men of color), yet he credited his white oppressors with being the “public” or dominant social sphere. Notable here is Walker’s acknowledgement of a dominant public sphere within an address to a group of individuals who fell outside that sphere. In doing so, Walker created what Warner defines as a counterpublic. A counterpublic is a dominated group that seeks to become a public but is organized in such a way that it is in conflict with how the dominant culture defines itself as a public (112-113). Due to their oppression, Walker and his brethren were unable to fully participate in the social discourse. That said, by addressing people of color as potential members within the sphere of discourse, he formed them into a group that became part of the innumerable strangers that could read or hear his text. Additionally, his Appeal’s method of distribution further cemented this counterpublic by ensuring that it was read aloud to people of color at church revivals.
“Public” is often invoked in opposition to the word “private;” a term that, Robbins notes, was drawn out of the Latin word pivatus, or “withdrawn from public life” (185). This use of “public” in contrast to “private” is not surprising in texts of this genre, given that marginalized groups like women, children and people of color are not just “withdrawn from public life” but are forced from the public sphere. This public/private relationship is highlighted in Quobna Ottobah Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evils of Slavery when he laments the damage inflicted by the Royal African Company’s trading posts on the coast of Africa:
But the European depredators and pirates have not only robbed and pillaged the people of Africa themselves; but by their instigation, they have infested the inhabitants with some of the vilest combinations of fraudulent and treacherous villains, even among their own people; and have set up forts and factories as reservoir of public and abandoned thieves, and as a den of desperadoes, where they may ensnare, entrap and catch men. (72-73)
Cugoano’s use of “public” modified “thieves,” characterizing the thieves’ actions as particularly atrocious. They were not performed outside the dominant social sphere, in private, but in the open instead. He utilized the tension between the two spheres to admonish the behavior of people within the dominant one. The thieves are characterized as the worst kind of thieves, public ones. They thieve out in the open where their actions are either ignored or endorsed by members within the dominant social sphere. Cugoano’s use of “public” does differ from the previous examples. Although he, too, was characterizing a dominant social sphere, his encompassed not only white males, but also black Africans who conspired with the European oppressors.
Walker, also, used “public” in opposing terms to “private” in order to frame issues of power. When characterizing Jefferson’s degrading remarks on people of color, he writes, “Do you know that Mr. Jefferson was one of as great characters as ever to lived among the whites? See his writings for the world, and public labours for The United States of America” (18). Walker modifies “labours” with the adjective “public” to emphasize the importance of Jefferson’s labors within the dominant sphere. Robbins notes that the innumerable number of strangers that can constitute a public means its make-up lies beyond empirical verification. This immeasurable scale explains how the term can be used in excess, or redundantly added as an adjective to a noun that would presumably be intrinsically public (184). Walker underscores the dominance of Jefferson and the United States by his exhortative use of “public” as a modifier of “labours,” which would already be presumed to be public in nature when performed on behalf of the United States.
“Publish,” another form of “public,” appears frequently in texts in this archive and is also used in relational terms to “private.” Cugoano, proposing a proclamation outlawing slavery, writes, “And if such a proclamation be found advisable to the British legislature, let them publish it, and cause it to be published, throughout all the British empire, to hinder and prohibit all men under their government to traffic either in buying or selling men” (98). Merriam Webster defines “publish” as “to make generally known” or “to disseminate to the public.” Here again, the act of dissemination creates a tension between public and private. Cugoano wants the proclamation published so that it will be made “generally known” to everyone within the dominant sphere of discourse or, in this case, white Europeans. The publishing of the proclamation keeps what would be the outlawed slave trade out of the marginalized private sphere, or domain of personal freedom, where presumably it could hide and continue unabated without interference from the state.
Cugoano, like Walker, had a deep understanding of how publication could enlarge the public sphere. The front page of his book, in fact, includes in its title the words, “Humbly Submitted To The Inhabitants of Great Britain.” While not using the word “public” directly, this statement is an obvious reference to the public as a social totality. His interesting choice of the term “inhabitants” allows him to address all people, including those marginalized people of color. You don’t have to be a citizen to merely inhabit England. This address successfully widens the sphere of discourse provided by the publication of his book.
Publication was vital to the reception to Wheatley’s work. The words “publish,” “publication” and “publisher” all appear in the front matter. The book’s preface begins with the statement, “The following Poems were written originally for the amusement of the Author, as they are the Products of her leisure Moments. She had no Intention ever to have published them” (4). Notice again, the tension created between “private” and “public” through the act of publishing. Publication takes her poems out of the private sphere, or her “leisure moments,” and brings them into a public sphere of discourse. If private musings, produced in idleness, are publishable, then the distinction between public and private becomes less clear. The rationale, then, behind excluding some individuals, namely women, children and persons of color, and not others from public life becomes unstable. Wheatley, a black female slave, was excluded from Anglo-American, colonial public life, yet her access to education permitted her to write about it. Those writings, though leisurely, granted her intellectual, and eventually, literary admittance into the very public that excluded her.
The public, it would seem, can’t escape exclusionary inclinations. Writers of the black Atlantic, reacting to oppression, sought to battle these tendencies and stretch the public realm in an effort to promote inclusion. Today, Robbins points out, we must similarly reexamine the public’s scale as we attempt to define a sphere of discourse that is increasingly international in nature (187). World markets, transnational media and the Internet are just a few of the factors that force us to reevaluate our understanding of where the public begins and ends. At the heart of this examination lies the universal question of who truly belongs within its borders. Some things never change.
Cugoano, Quobna Ottobah. Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evils of Slavery. New York: Penguin, 1999.
“Public.” The Oxford English Dictionary. Online Edition. 2009. http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/findword?query_type=word&queryword=public&find.x=0&find.y=0&find=Find+word
“Publish.” Merriam Webster Dictionary. Online Edition. 2009. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/publish
Robbins, Bruce. Keywords for American Cultural Studies/edited by Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. New York: New York University Press, 2007.
Walker, David. David Walker’s appeal to the coloured citizens of the world/edited and with an introduction by Peter P. Hinks. Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.
Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone Books, 2002.
Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral. University of Virginia, 1998. http://etext.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/WhePoem.html