Juliane Braun deposited The Poetics of Education in Antebellum New Orleans in the group LLC 19th-Century French on MLA Commons 1 year, 4 months ago
Published in New Orleans in 1845 by a group of free men of color, Les Cenelles: Choix de poésies indigènes is now commonly recognized as the first collection of African American poetry. As a testament to and expression of the intellectual prowess of New Orleans’s francophone free Black community, Les Cenelles deserves to be read as a formally integrated volume, a collection of poetry that was assembled with purpose and organized with a keen eye for the complexity and precariousness of the free Black experience in the 1840s. This essay reads Les Cenelles in conjunction with one specific aspect of this experience, namely, free Black efforts to gain access to formal education and institutions of learning.
Examining Les Cenelles alongside debates surrounding the establishment of the Institution Catholique des Orphelins Indigents (Catholic Institution for Indigent Orphans), New Orleans’s first school run by and for free people of color, this essay traces the emergence of a poetics of education, a theory of free Black community engagement that relied on the persuasive and instructive powers of poetry. In the absence of formal curricula or instruction manuals, I analyze Les Cenelles as a textbook of sorts, an exercise in writing and reading, designed to train both its contributors and its readers in the form, function, and tradition of French letters while simultaneously educating them about the very real threats the free Black community faced in New Orleans during the 1840s.
By reading Les Cenelles as a collective, deliberate, and cohesive work rather than a collection of individual poems compiled at random, this essay reveals not only how the contributors and their editor created webs of meaning through intertextual reference and by communicating to each other through their poems, but also how they engaged in a collective effort to consolidate, protect, and invigorate the free Black community through education.