Loyola University Chicago

Midwest Modern Language Association

Previous Winners

The MMLA would like to congratulate the 2019 Book Award winner, Derrick Spires of Cornell University. His book, "The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States," was published in February 2019, and focuses on the years between the American Revolution and the U.S. Civil War.

Derrick R. Spires is Associate Professor of English at Cornell University. He specializes in early African American and American print culture, citizenship studies, and Black speculative fiction.  His book, The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2019, analyzes the development of practice-based theories of citizenship in early Black writing. He is working on a second book, Serial Blackness: Periodical Literature and Early African American Literary Histories in the Long Nineteenth Century, that takes up seriality as both the core of early African American literary history and a heuristic for understanding blackness in the long nineteenth century. Spires’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in African American Review and edited collections on early African American print culture, time and American literature, and the Colored Conventions movement. His research has been supported by fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Antiquarian Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, Oberlin Archives, and UNCF/Mellon-Mays and Ford Foundations.

In The Practice of Citizenship, Derrick R. Spires examines the parallel development of early black print culture and legal and cultural understandings of U.S. citizenship, beginning in 1787, with the framing of the federal Constitution and the founding of the Free African Society by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, and ending in 1861, with the onset of the Civil War. Between these two points he recovers understudied figures such as William J. Wilson, whose 1859 "Afric-American Picture Gallery" appeared in seven installments in The Anglo-African Magazine, and the physician, abolitionist, and essayist James McCune Smith. He places texts such as the proceedings of black state conventions alongside considerations of canonical figures such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Frederick Douglass. Reading black print culture as a space where citizenship was both theorized and practiced, Spires reveals the degree to which concepts of black citizenship emerged through a highly creative and diverse community of letters, not easily reducible to representative figures or genres. From petitions to Congress to Frances Harper's parlor fiction, black writers framed citizenship both explicity and implicitly, the book demonstrates, not simply as a response to white supremacy but as a matter of course in the shaping of their own communities and in meeting their own political, social, and cultural needs.