Renard Press: Celebrating Black History through Literary Classics
by Avneet Bains
In recognition of Black History Month, Renard Press, a new independent publisher whose works range from classics and contemporary fiction to poetry, has published two works by African American authors from the eighteenth century, Lucy Terry Prince and Phillis Wheatley. I talked to Will Dady, its founder, to find out more about the work Renard Press is doing to celebrate black voices in publishing, through these stunning literary classics.
Can you tell us more about Renard Press and your ethos of “fleshing out the literary classics canon with underrepresented voices from across the globe”?
Absolutely! When we launched Renard Press in June this year, we made a commitment to publishing classics from a broader spectrum of writers than is usually represented. As a queer-led publisher, we think it’s hugely important that publishing programmes diversify and try to present a whole range of cultures and lives – after all, isn’t a big part of reading a book discovering new worlds?
And, of course, readers aren’t all straight middle-class blokes, so why should we publish as though this were the case?
How did you go about deciding the books you have published to be part of your classic series in recognition of Black History Month? What stood out to you in their work?
Since we wanted to celebrate Black history specifically, we thought we should start right at the beginning and find books which marked the first publication of Black writers’ words. We picked Phillis Wheatley’s poems, as it was the first book of poetry by an African American author to be published. However, it wasn’t the very first known work by an African American author – Phillis was beaten to that honour by Lucy Terry Prince, whose Bars Fight was first told in 1746 but not written down until a century later.
Bars Fight is so short, being only twenty-eight lines long, that it would be difficult for most to turn it into a book – and that’s perhaps why it wasn’t available for sale outside of a print-on-demand textbook from 1855. As a small publisher, we have been able to hand-bind small-format hardback concertina editions to make it more substantial, as we felt that it was an essential work missing from the pages of history. Phillis’ poems really stood out to us too, because there’s so much going on in them! There are Homeric epics, treatises on various subjects and poem-letters, as it were, to various notable figures. In reading the poems, you can’t help but feel close to her, because, as with volumes of letters, you’re essentially following her through her life.
Could you tell us more about your hopes for future publications in terms of amplifying Black voices, and authors of colour more widely?
Diversity is part of Renard’s raison d’être, so we’re definitely going to keep publishing in the same way. And, while we think it’s important to approach classics in this way, we also want a range of voices in our contemporary list too. We operate a blind-submissions policy, so I hope we arrive at this point organically, but we’ll make sure we stick to our commitment - you’ll have to wait a while until we unveil next year’s list though!
“...to look backwards but also forwards to future possibilities...”
In publishing these two firsts, Renard Press has given new life to these stunning works and has shed light on crucial literary pieces by not only female authors but Black voices who have often been overlooked in classical literature, contemporary to the time and even today.
Bars Fight by Lucy Terry Prince
Lucy Terry Prince (c.1730-1821) was the first known African American author and composer of poetry, who was stolen as a child and sold into slavery in America. In 1756, she was freed by her husband Abijah Prince, a free man, with whom she had six children. They went on to become one of the first African American landowners in Guildford, Vermont at a time when slavery was at its peak. In her 1821 obituary (long in length and reprinted which was unusual at the time for a woman of colour), it was said that she was an eloquent speaker, having defended against land disputes in court, and was known as an exceptional person.
Bars Fight is her only surviving work, a ballad she wrote about the difficulties faced by two families during an ambush by Native Americans in Deerfield, Massachusetts, where she resided, in 1746. Though short in length, the beauty of this piece is in its simplicity. Offering a narrative style which follows oral tradition, the ability that Prince has to convey this series of events in rhyming couplets effectively captures the actions of the ambush and fates of each person. Renard Press’ edition offers a short history of Terry Prince printed on one side and on the other lies the poem, beautifully bound and captured in its own right.
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley (c.1753 - 1784) was the first published African American author of poetry. Named after the ship which brutally took her from her home in West Africa, The Phillis in 1761, she was sold to the Wheatley Family, who lived in Boston, Massachusetts. Receiving a classic education in Greek and Roman literature, Latin and brought up as a Christian, Phillis was first published aged 13 and continued to write poetry including Poems on Various Subjects, atypical for the time. Many doubted her writing ability which led her having to continuously defend herself. She toured around England and was published in a time when there was much conversation on the abolition of slavery. There has been much debate about the nuances to her own personal experiences, or commentary of slavery in her work due to its restrained nature, though there are both direct and indirect references. After being emancipated by the Wheatleys and getting married to John Peters, Phillis unfortunately died shortly after, left in ill health and destitute. It is however, through her extraordinary work and unique voice that she still lives on.
In Poems on Various Subjects, Wheatley alludes to Western Classical thought and Christian morality. Her use of sophisticated language to invoke meaning led me to further research her allusions, helped by the “Notes” included later on in the book. Employing poetic devices such as couplets and iambic pentameter, she explores a range of forms and ideas. In her first poem “To Maecenas”, she looks to ideas of Horace and Virgil, and alludes to her stance and attitudes towards Christianity and slavery, shaped by her own experience as an enslaved, educated African American woman. A fascinating read and an intriguing narrative, Renard Press’ edition allows her work to be seen and recognises Wheatley for all her ability “as a poet, not property”, unlike much earlier editions of her work.
And it is through publishers such as Renard Press, and a growing awareness in the publishing industry and wider society that we are now embracing and giving well deserved attention to Black authors like Lucy Terry Prince and Phillis Wheatley, hopefully opening the way for many more Black voices to be heard, and their works read for many years to come.
You can find more about Renard Press on Twitter
@renardpress and learn more about these incredible works here!