"We Must Seek on Highways the Unconverted": KathrYn Magnolia Johnson and Literary Activism on the Road

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Media Outlet: American Quarterly

Kathryn Magnolia Johnson was an African American activist whose literary activism deserves greater attention and who transformed her Ford Coupe into a roving bookstore and editorial office during the 1920s. Using archival sources like Johnson’s unpublished autobiography, this essay asserts that her literary history belongs in a nineteenth-century tradition of itinerancy and editorial evangelism by African American women. My argument for a literary-historical approach to Johnson as an editorial figure invested in a long nineteenth-century framework is threefold: first, that Johnson’s compilation, distribution, and revisions to her “Two-Foot Shelf” makes her an editor and curator; second, that Johnson’s work marks a significant example of how early car culture encouraged interventions into gendered discourses of mobility in the American landscape; and finally, that Johnson’s efforts taking literary activism on the road served to amplify the possibilities, as well as the limits, of civic belonging available to her (and others engaged in similar endeavors) as an African American woman in the early twentieth century.

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Jane Greenway Carr is an opinion editor at CNN.com. She was previously an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Public Fellow and a Contributing Editor at New America, where she helped to produce The Weekly Wonk.