Collecting Black Books: a new exhibition explores a rich literary tradition

The history of African-American literature is vast and rich, but its beginning can be traced back to 1773 with the publication of a small volume of poems by a sweet 19-year-old girl named Phillis Wheatley.

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Image courtesy the Givens Collection of African American Literature

Phillis was a slave, brought to Boston from West Africa at about the age of 7, and bought by the Wheatley family (they named her “Phillis” after the boat she arrived on). Too frail to work, Phillis instead came under the tutelage of the Wheatleys’ daughter, who set about teaching her to read and write English, study the Bible, and eventually learn Latin.

Wheatley soon became known far and wide for her intelligence, her way with words and her poetry. By the age of 14, she had her first poem published in the local paper.

In her lifetime she would meet with the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire and George Washington. Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls her the “Oprah Winfrey of her time.”

Unable to find a publisher in Boston, Mr. Wheatley brought Phillis with him on a trip to England, where a collection of her poems was readily printed. She was the third American woman ever to have her poetry published.

At his English friends’ urging, upon returning to the United States, Wheatley freed Phillis.

I could go on telling you Wheatley’s remarkable life story, and the various controversies that have surrounded her writing, but I have to stop there because her book is just one of the many important and fascinating works of African-American literature currently on display at the Elmer L. Andersen Library on the U of M Campus.

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Image courtesy the Givens Collection of African American Literature

The library’s small gallery feels as though it’s bursting at the seams with portent as it brings together the works of such famous figures as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, but also presents the transcripts of slave memoirs, the science fiction writing of Samuel R. Delany, and countless letters, plays and songs depicting the vast range of African-American culture.

Curated by Cecily Marcus and research fellow Davu Seru, “Bibliophilia: Collecting Black Books” examines how the collecting of African-American literature by African-Americans is connected to questions of social equity, cultural diversity and self-respect.

“There is no American literature without African-American literature,” says Marcus, after hosting a tour of the exhibition. “It is not a ‘contribution’ to American culture — it is inherent to American culture.”

Many of the first written works of blacks living in the United States deal with personhood and natural rights. Phillis Wheatley had such a hard time publishing her work in Boston because few people believed a slave was capable of such nuanced expression. For a black writer to publish a compelling literary work flew in the face of the era’s propaganda.

In addition, black writers were committing to paper a history of oppression that the majority was uncomfortable facing.

Still other authors dive into African culture, seeking to reclaim a history that was ripped from them.

“The intent has always been to move African-American life from the margins to the center,” says Seru.

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Image courtesy the Givens Collection of African American Literature

The exhibition represents just some of the highlights of the Givens Collection of African American Literature, housed at the Elmer L. Andersen library. But those highlights span genres from the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement and contemporary writing.

The exhibition also marks the first opportunity for visitors to examine works that were recently donated to the Givens collection under the name “The Lou Bellamy Rare Book Collection.” An anonymous donor gave a gift of more than 850 significant works of African-American literature in honor of Lou Bellamy, artistic director of Penumbra Theatre, and until his recent retirement, professor at the University of Minnesota.