The Black Romantic Revolution

The Black Romantic Revolution:Abolitionist Poets at the End of Slavery

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The prophetic poetry of slavery and its abolition

During the pitched battle over slavery in the United States, Black writers - enslaved and free - allied themselves with the cause of abolition and used their art to advocate for emancipation and to envision the end of slavery as a world-historical moment of possibility.

These Black writers borrowed from the European tradition of Romanticism - lyric poetry, prophetic visions - to write, speak, and sing their hopes for what freedom might mean. At the same time, they voiced anxieties about the expansion of global capital and U.S. imperial power in the aftermath of slavery. They also focused on the ramifications of slavery’s sexual violence. Authors like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, George Moses Horton, Albery Allson Whitman, and Joshua McCarter Simpson conceived the Civil War as a revolutionary upheaval on par with Europe’s stormy Age of Revolutions. The Black Romantic Revolution proposes that the Black Romantics’ cultural innovations have shaped Black radical culture to this day, from the blues and hip hop to Black nationalism and Black feminism. Their expressions of love and rage, grief and determination, dreams and nightmares, still echo into our present.


  • Written with deep and layered seriousness, and a healthy willingness to provoke and play, this impressive study reads Black poetry as profoundly political and as exceeding politics. Subtly theorized, especially via Black feminist theory, and attentive to changing imperatives of political coalition building, it nevertheless keeps the poets and the poetry front and center. The old surrealist insistence that poetry can be an emancipatory and creative activity emerges here not as an injunction but as one central aspect of lived history.

    David Roediger, author of How Race Survived US History
  • The Black Romantic Revolution is well written, characterized by smoothly flowing prose that offers both clarity and nuance. Matt Sandler's meticulous attention to literary form and to cultural context produces a study full of surprises supported by concrete evidence. Above all, The Black Romantic Revolution takes its insights from the authors it examines. Quite deliberately, Sandler refuses to look at nineteenth-century African American poets through the lens of European Romanticism, allowing its ideals to ground arguments about Black writers' validity. Instead, he studies their choices so faithfully that he shows readers how early Black poets developed a Romanticism of their own. Sandler's readers will come to appreciate authors like Frances E. W. Harper and George Moses Horton - as well as the turbulent decades and complex cultural landscape to which they contributed - in truly unexpected ways.

    Koritha Mitchell, author of From Slave Cabins to the White House and editor of Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy
  • With uncommon verve, Matt Sandler correlates Romantic poetic idioms from the natural world regarding whirlwinds and the coming storm to those about revolution and the impending crisis from the political world. The Black Romantic Revolution has as a latent question what happens to our understanding of the long nineteenth-century when re-read through the optics of African American literary studies, historical poetics, and Romanticism. Sandler not only illustrates how African American poets extended the temporal and thematic scope of Romanticism but also how black American poets came to fulfill its political yearnings and aesthetic apotheosis. In so doing, Sandler offers a trenchant critique of, and necessary corrective to, the disciplinary formations that have heretofore failed to put into clearer view the shared horizons between "African American" and "Romanticism."

    Ivy G. Wilson, author of Specters of Democracy: Blackness and the Aesthetics of Nationalism