ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance
“At Home in the Crystal Palace: African American Transnationalism and the Aesthetics of Representative Democracy”
“At Home in the Crystal Palace” argues that antebellum African Americans, as part of their transatlantic antislavery work or other migrations, appropriated the Crystal Palace at the First World’s Fair (London, 1851) as a key trope to imagine a cosmopolitan public space that would complicate ideas of representative citizenship. In place of the representative logic on display in the nationalist exhibits at the Great Exhibition, such writers as David Dorr, Josiah Henson, and Williams Wells Brown describe cross-cultural encounters within an emerging transnational contact zone to witness a more open-ended, even “unbecoming,” aesthetic idea of representativeness in which both natives and “foreigners,” free citizens and fugitive slaves, would participate in the ongoing construction of the nation’s identity and democratic ideals.
Antebellum African American literature has often been understood to demand full democratic inclusion, but this paradigm of a political protest tradition can naturalize and leave unexamined ideas of national democratic citizenship. By contrast, migratory transatlantic African Americans, who often felt as much foreigners at home as abroad, drew on the experience of their displacement to reimagine the foundational ideas of national belonging and citizenship. For these writers a revitalized democratic tradition promoted not an additive logic of ever greater inclusion. Instead, taking the deterrence figure of the cosmopolitan at the Crystal Palace Exhibition as the exemplar of new border-crossing allegiances, these writers reversed the gaze to contend that democratic freedom is rooted in an aesthetic participation in the imagining of the nation’s always becoming—and unbecoming—representativeness.