The Non-Innocence of Recovery and the 1884 World’s Fair

By James DeMaio


This Beautiful Sisterhood of Books is attempting to recover the Black women authors, orators, and craftspeople at and around the 1884 World’s Fair in New Orleans. But what, exactly, is recovery, and how should it be approached, especially at an event billed as the “World Cotton Centennial”? A basic definition of recovery is the search for previously under looked works to expose them to a larger audience for examination, teaching, and analysis. But this seemingly simple definition comes loaded with a slew of important caveats and questions. As Cary Nelson says of literary recovery, recovery “is never an innocent process” (Nelson 12). What are some of the pitfalls of recovery, and how might we try to avoid them here? These questions are especially pertinent for Black women and the World’s Fair because the Black women who would be part of the fair specifically requested to join the women’s department and were ignored.

Recovery Bias

For one, there must be an attempt to avoid (or at least a recognition of) the biases of the ones doing the recovering. Nelson says that “we recover what we are culturally and psychologically prepared to recover,” and that “what we ‘recover’ we necessarily rewrite,” and this is true for this project as well (Nelson 12). Even in recovery projects specifically designed to bring to light underrepresented people, there is bias against those most underrepresented. Some women might be included over others because the scholars doing the recovering enjoy their works more than others or think that their works are more important or relevant. This is, however, up to the personal analysis of the scholar, just as the content of the World’s Fair one hundred and forty years ago was up to the personal biases of those responsible for curating the exhibits. Some women might be included because they are more well known or fit into the contemporary analysis of Black women’s literature better and are thus more likely to be included in scholarly conversation. There is also societal bias present; the initial contributors to the Black women’s page of this site are all white, and for the most part of similar age and geographic, educational, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Similarities like these can lead to unconscious biases in the way that works are selected- and especially the way that works are analyzed. In addition to necessitating conscious avoidance of these biases, recovery efforts must also avoid the deification of those recovered. It is important to recognize recovered figures as complex, flawed, and human, and to not overlook or gloss over these complexities and flaws when discussing their lives and works. 

We are aware of and have attempted to consciously avoid these pitfalls, though some are nearly inevitable. For example, Julia Creson (link to Julia) engaged in deep archival research of dozens of Black newspapers’ coverage of the fair and those involved with it. This examination of primary sources attempts to practice less biased recovery by recovering Black thought about the fair instead of only engaging with predominantly white newspapers, but is still limited by the exclusion of women at the time. The Wish Lists present in some of the exhibits (link to where there are wish lists) are another example of attempting to ameliorate recovery biases. In these lists there is a wide range of underrepresented women who may not fit into contemporary analysis of Black women scholarship or who may not (yet) be part of scholarly conversation. The bias for selecting authors and works more likely to be included in scholarly conversation is also ameliorated at least in part by many of the authors of this exhibit not being professors but grad students, who have less of a stake in selecting the ‘correct’ people to talk about to advance careers. It is not just in the selection of works that we attempted to avoid bias but also in how these selections are presented. Mia Schneller, Renee Bunszel, and Bridgette Valenti created a map (link to map) of influential Black women writers of the late 19th century to present biographical information and chart their movements around the country. While creating this map, they kept in mind the tendency of many maps to perpetuate colonial ideologies in various ways. Our hope is that biases- especially societal and personal biases- will be further avoided by more scholars adding to this recovery project in the future.

Recovery as a Continuous Process

Recovery is an especially important process for women and Black authors, who have been historically excluded from the ‘canon.’ The story of American literature for the past few hundred years has been told as if by someone recounting their bar crawl from last night- with many gaps and exaggerations, some important, and some included purposefully, to make the storyteller appear better than he really is. Uncovering a more true story is the purpose of literary recovery, as “recovering Black histories—and especially histories integral to print—offers us a much richer and a more honest sense of American literature and history” (Fielder 18). One by one the things that were elided and ignored will be dragged to light.

Such recovery is a continuous process which involves the combatting of what Desiree Henderson calls “post-recovery neglect.” Recovery is perpetually incomplete because of the sheer volume of marginalized history that has been erased and excluded, and recovery projects must make an attempt to not be fleeting, ephemeral things. Too often recovery is performed but does not stick. New works by women or Black authors are brought to light momentarily but are still not integrated into scholarship or education and eventually fade back into relative obscurity, where a new work by an established author in the canon would be included. Digital recovery can help with this; instead of this project being published in a journal to be read and then discarded, where a future prospective reader would have to hunt down an old copy, it is a free website only a quick Google search away. While websites can die, it is our hope that years from now this one will still be read and cited by students looking for information on Alice Dunbar Nelson’s life and works, or analysis of 19th century Black newspapers’ reactions to the World’s Fair, or a brilliant essay on literary recovery.

The Deliberateness of Exclusion

There is an importance in keeping the deliberateness of exclusion in the idea of recovery constantly in mind (in this project especially, as Black women requested to be included in the women’s department and were denied). As Fielder mentions, there is a tendency to use the healing of a disease or some such as a metaphor for recovering lost works into the canon, but the canon is not suffering from some natural affliction, it has been deliberately, methodically shaped in a way that excludes certain people. Any recovery project therefore must embody “a practice of archival discovery that attends to the conditions that would produce textual absence” (Nishikawa 183). In other words, it is just as important to focus on the archive as a site of inquiry as the texts that you are adding to it. This extends to recovery wherein recovered works are too quickly classified under already accepted understandings, immediately “categorized into legibility” (Nishikawa 176). Such a recovery “substitutes an ideology of textual presence (“Look what I found!”) for an assessment of textual absence (“Why is this here at all?”)” (Nishikawa 177). It confirms what is already known about literature instead of raising questions about, for example, the reasons for a work’s obscurity. One way to combat the tendency to view newly recovered works under already accepted understandings is to deliberately change the view into something new. For example, Madison Cramer and James McCoyne have written a series of essays (link to Madison and James) viewing some women authors of the 19th century through a trans theory and queer theory framework. Instead of recovering a story written by an enslaved person as “ah look, another slave narrative” or a new work written by Faulkner as “ah look, another modernist piece” the recovery scholar should look at those works with fresh eyes and an open mind, from a variety of angles and through a variety of lenses, in order to not simply reify thoughts about the established canon. McCaskill puts a similar concept a different way when she says, “we may benefit from concentrating less exclusively on recovery and its uncertain outcomes and more on what the investigative process itself reveals about how to frame and then pursue questions about early African American women’s print cultures: where to look for traces of them, how to interpret what we find, and, in the first place, why these mechanisms matter” (McCaskill 13). The process of recovery itself is illuminating, not just the texts recovered. 

As an example, take the recovery performed for this project by fellow scholar Julia Creson (link to Julia). Julia researched the Black periodicals of the time in order to examine what the Black press thought of the fair and the people involved. Her analysis of what she found is illuminating, but what she didn’t find is interesting as well. In the 40-odd newspapers about Black figures that she examined, only 8 mentioned Black women by name. What does this say about the relative importance granted to Black women versus Black men even from articles specifically about Black accomplishment? Beyond what was found (or not found), the process of recovery for Julia’s project also sheds light on some of the issues of recovery. The limitations of technology appeared as some of the newspapers that had been copied into Internet archives were too blurry or had too fine of print to be searched through by search programs or even read at all. And all of this recovery of Black periodicals was only possible because of Julia’s use of Tulane University resources; without being associated with a university, many of the sites that she used to access old newspapers would not have been available. Recovery of this sort was only possible because of enrollment in expensive and time-consuming higher education, and even with university affiliation some materials are gated behind paywalls.

Recovery as Relational Canon

Recovery is not simply about adding voices to an established canon, but about how these additions completely change the canon when they are included. This is the idea of a ‘relational’ canon vs an ‘additive’ one- in the additive idea of recovery, newly recovered works from previously excluded people are simply added to the canon, like a few new shirts or pairs of shoes into a closet that already contains clothes; the closet’s overall style has changed slightly, perhaps, but the clothes that were already there are the exact same as they were. In the relational notion of canon, the inclusion of recovered literature not only warps the overall canon but also changes the meaning of the literature that was already there. This upheaval necessitates not just new thought about the new people added, but new thought about who was there before- and why they were there. When it comes to the works of Black women authors, “extending the canon to include such texts will contribute to a diverse and democratic society in need of an oppositional language, socially critical perspectives of anger and idealization, and subject positions we can take up consciously” (Teres 64). 

This idea of relational canon can be applied to the hypothetical addition of Black women to the women’s department of the 1884 World’s Fair. What does Julia Ward Howe’s denying Black women entry into the women’s department do to our understanding of the women’s exhibit, and how would the inclusion of those Black women change that understanding? The women’s department was about modernity and reconciliation: modernity in terms of women working both inside and outside of the home (and, while not explicitly stated at the fair, Howe was for women’s suffrage), and reconciliation in terms of healing after the Civil War. As Miki Pfeffer said in a lecture about the fair’s women’s department, “one of the reasons for being here was also to show the other women visitors what women could do in their lives… it was a needy time, women needed to find work, either in the home or elsewhere” (Pfeffer 11:39). Pfeffer also states of Howe, “she talked about how women were all under one flag now after having been separated by Civil War and reconstruction” (Pfeffer 3:36). The exclusion of Black women from the women’s department was deliberate and we must treat our recovery of it with this deliberateness in mind. The inclusion of Black women would fundamentally alter the message that Howe was attempting to convey with the women’s department, as it would include Black women in a vision of modernity and reconciliation. It would include Black women as capable of engaging in a multitude of different kinds of productive labor (and perhaps even deserving of a vote), and it would give Black women a place in the reconstruction of the country after emancipation. For further reading on how exclusion impacts the institution being excluded from, fellow Beautiful Sisterhood scholars Sala Thanassi (link to Sala) and Carol Asher (link to Carol) write about the dynamic and interrelated world of Black women’s authorship via authors such as Fannie Barrier Williams and Ida B. Wells and how the World’s Fair(s) of their times failed to access this world.

For Whom are We Recovering?

Another important question in recovery scholarship is “for whom are we recovering?” For this project- This Beautiful Sisterhood of Books- we hope to recover for a diverse audience with diverse needs. Much attention has been paid to the Digital Humanities aspect of the project to make it as accessible as possible; the website is free and available to everyone, not locked behind a University-affiliated library system, and a good amount of thought has gone into concepts like website layout and design. Earlier I said that the purpose of literary recovery is to expose previously buried works to reading, teaching, and analysis, and we hope that all three happen here. This website is open and accessible to those who simply wish to read of these women and to read their works, as well as those who wish to educate and be educated, from college students to high school students researching for a project. And of course, our wish is that this site inspires scholars to analyze these women previously under studied, for as Fielder says, “‘recovered’ texts are not simply ‘found’ but recognized and valued by scholars with the expertise to interpret them” (Fielder 19). Digital archives are a powerful tool for recovery scholarship, as Henderson explores, with the versatility they offer making it easier to “make visible the diversity and flexibility encompassed by the label ‘American women’s writing’” as well as African American writing (Henderson 2). They have another aspect that is revolutionary in its power: crowdsourcing. We at This Beautiful Sisterhood have not crafted this project solely to educate about the 1884 World’s Fair, but also to inspire others, including you reading this, to dig even deeper, both in recovery and in analysis. 

Works Cited:

Adams, Katherine, Sandra A. Zagarell, and Caroline Gebhard. “Recovering Alice Dunbar-Nelson for the Twenty-First Century: An Introduction.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, vol. 33, no. 2, 2016, pp. 213-253.

Barbara McCaskill. “Beyond Recovery: A Process Approach to Research on Women in Early African American Print Cultures.” Legacy, vol. 33, no. 1, 2016, pp. 12–18. JSTOR, doi:10.5250/legacy.33.1.0012. Accessed 27 Mar. 2023.

Fielder, Brigitte. “Recovery.” American Periodicals: A Journal of History & Criticism, vol. 30, no. 1, 2020, pp. 18-21. Project MUSE,

Foster, Frances Smith. Introduction to Love and Marriage in Early African America. Northeastern University Press, 2008.

Henderson, Desirée. “Recovery and Modern Periodical Studies.” American Periodicals: A Journal of History & Criticism, vol. 27, no. 1, 2017, pp. 2-5. Project MUSE,

Lauter, Paul and Sandra A. Zagarell. “From ‘Forum on Democracy and Recovery’.” Legacy, vol. 36, no. 2, 2019, pp. 236-266.

Moody, Jocelyn. “Preface, ‘Sympathy and Revolution’ Notes.” Sentimental Confessions: Spiritual Narratives of Nineteenth-Century African American Women, 2001, pp. ix-25 and 179-183.

Nelson, Cary. Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945. University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Nishikawa, Kinohi. “The Archive on Its Own: Black Politics, Independent Publishing, and The Negotiations.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the U.S., vol. 40, no. 3, 2015, pp. 176-201. Project MUSE,

Pfeffer, Miki. “Writing Women at the Fair, 1884-85.” YouTube, 29 Mar. 2023,

Teres, Harvey. “Repression, Recovery, Renewal: The Politics of Expanding the Canon.” Modern Philology, vol. 89, no. 1, 1991, pp. 63–75. JSTOR,