Tag: African-American Literature

HISTORY: Pioneering African-American Librarians Share Their Stories

Jessie Carney Smith in 1965, her first year as a university librarian at Fisk University in Nashville.
Jessie Carney Smith in 1965, her first year as a university librarian at Fisk University in Nashville. (photo via americanlibrariesmagazine.org)

by  via americanlibrariesmagazine.org

When Jessie Carney Smith arrived at Fisk University in Nashville in 1965, she says many people there did not know about black literature. Smith, the dean of the library, says, “Many scholars were told that blacks had no history.” But African Americans within the library profession have certainly had a long history, with one of the first librarians of color, Edward C. Williams, joining the American Library Association (ALA) in 1896—20 years after the founding of the Association. And today, African Americans comprise roughly 14,250 of the estimated 190,000 librarians in the United States, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

American Libraries spoke with five leading African-American librarians about their careers, the changes they have witnessed over the decades, and the current issues in librarianship. While no two people have the same story, all five interviewees note inclusivity as an important theme. They discuss libraries as safe havens, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the history and future of the Association, as well as their legacies within the profession.

As library professor Alma Dawson says, “Even in this day and age, we still have to tell our own stories.”


Satia Orange
Satia Orange

Satia Orange

When Satia Orange, 75, was growing up in the 1950s, she saw what she described as “the grinding work” of her parents, both librarians.

Her father was A. P. Marshall, an ALA Councilor and director of libraries at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, and Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. Orange saw him come “home for dinner and then return to the library until 9 or 10 p.m., doing budgets.”

Orange herself later went on to become director of ALA’s Office for Literacy and Outreach Services, retiring from ALA in 2009. “I was pulled into the profession kicking and screaming,” she jokes.

She began her career in education, teaching in Milwaukee in the mid-1960s, when she received a call one day from Virginia Lacy Jones, dean of Atlanta University’s School of Library Sciences and the first—and at that time only—black library school. Jones offered her a fellowship, promising Orange that she would be able to work with young children, something she enjoyed as part of her prior experience working in the library in the Atlanta school system.

It wasn’t until she started attending conferences that Orange began to view librarianship as her profession. As she participated in midwinter meetings and annual conferences, she recalled what her father had told her years ago: “This was a profession that has a national and international impact.”


Robert Wedgeworth
Robert Wedgeworth

Robert Wedgeworth

Robert Wedgeworth, 80, knows well about the profession’s impact. Wedgeworth became ALA executive director in 1972, at a time of significant financial challenges, with one library publication suggesting that bankruptcy was imminent. But Wedgeworth said he received “some very good advice from friends in the banking industry”; after analyzing the Association’s finances, “they advised me that ALA didn’t have financial problems—it had control problems.”

Wedgeworth balanced ALA’s budget within two years.

During his 12-year tenure, ALA membership increased by more than 25%, and its annual budget more than doubled. The Association also resolved an ongoing building development issue with the construction of Huron Plaza, which has since brought more than $18 million into ALA endowments, and took over operation of National Library Week from the National Book Committee.

Wedgeworth’s forward-thinking approach is also evident in how he applied what he learned from the 1962 Century 21 Exposition in Seattle. He was one of 75 librarians that ALA chose to work at the futuristic Library 21 exhibit, and he was, as he says, “in the first group of librarians to apply computers to library problems” when he became assistant chief acquisitions librarian at Brown University in 1966.

His career in libraries has spanned decades: working as a 14-year-old in libraries over the summer and continuing throughout his four years in college, where a librarian “influenced me to consider librarianship as a career.”

Since leaving ALA, Wedgeworth has served as dean of the School of Library Service at Columbia University in New York and university librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and he is currently president of ProLiteracy Worldwide, a nonprofit that promotes adult literacy.


Alma Dawson
Alma Dawson

Alma Dawson

As Russell Long professor and professor emeritus in library and information science at Louisiana State University (LSU), Alma Dawson, 74, was one of the primary forces in the long-term rebuilding of libraries after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. She led Project Recovery, an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant-funded project to educate librarians in south Louisiana to compensate for staff losses after the hurricanes. “It was important to me to make sure that we were connecting what the students were doing in the classroom to everyday experience,” Dawson says. Students recruited for Project Recovery met LSU graduate school requirements and were then admitted into the library program, and all of them went on to professional library positions.

Dawson has also worked to document the history of African Americans in librarianship. “Even in this day and age, we still have to tell our own stories,” she says. “We can stress the importance of figuring out where people are, the kind of positions they have, and the research they’re doing.”

Dawson was, if not recruited to librarianship early, at least welcomed to the library in her youth. “I worked with a librarian in high school who let me help with the library and helped me get scholarships,” she says. “I was the first person in the family to go to college, and it was all on scholarships.”

She didn’t initially work at the library as a student at Grambling (La.) State University, but she was friendly with the librarians there. She also worked in a segregated public school during the Jim Crow era, in the 1960s. “We didn’t really have the resources for students, so we had to raise all the money to buy materials for the library. It was always my goal to find a way to have the resources that the students needed,” she says.


Gladys Smiley Bell
Gladys Smiley Bell

Gladys Smiley Bell

It was Dorothy Porter, curator of Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center and the major force behind building it into a premiere collection for the study of African-American history, who encouraged Gladys Smiley Bell, 68, to go to library school. “When I was a student, I didn’t know about ALA and the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA), so I try to encourage people to join now,” she says.

She’s also worked to help librarians forge connections through professional activities. Bell cochaired the first Joint Council of Librarians of Color (JCLC) in 2006, the first-ever shared conference among ALA’s five ethnic affiliate associations: BCALA, the American Indian Library Association, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association, the Chinese American Librarians Association, and Reforma.

With that conference, she says she “was very excited for how we could change the profession in terms of diversity and how we could come together to serve the people,” Bell says. A second JCLC was held in 2012, and a third will take place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in September.

Bell is now the Peabody Librarian of the William R. and Norma B. Harvey Library at Hampton (Va.) University.


Jessie Carney Smith
Jessie Carney Smith

Jessie Carney Smith

Jessie Carney Smith, 87, is not a historian even though some people call her that. “I’m a librarian who has done some historical work,” she says. As dean of the library at Fisk University in Nashville, she has published extensively on African-American history, including three books of biographies of black women and two books of biographies of black men. “I looked for areas that had not been talked about,” Smith says.

After college, she moved to Nashville but couldn’t find a teaching job because of the limited openings in segregated schools. She found a job as a clerk-typist at Fisk University under librarian and writer Arna Bontemps. “I was impressed by his work and the contact he had with other writers and publishers,” Smith says.

She earned a master’s and eventually a PhD in library science, returning to Fisk when Bontemps retired. “When I became familiar with what was then called ‘Negro collections,’ I thought, ‘Why not do some work that would use those materials and promote them to others?’”

And that history is important to having a complete picture. “You may have an interest in one particular topic, and that’s fine,” she says. “But you need to know about the whole of America, not just white but black and Hispanic and other ethnic groups as well.”


Many recent events have been extremely disruptive to communities, ranging from natural disasters to unrest following police shootings or white nationalist rallies. What should a library’s role be in responding to events like these?

Satia Orange: Our Librarian of Congress [Carla Hayden] provided an example of how to respond [as director of Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore]. After the police confrontation, she opened up the library the next day. They were busy because people needed to do what they needed to do but also to understand what was happening in their neighborhood.

In Ferguson, Missouri, the director [of Ferguson Municipal Public Library, Scott Bonner] was brand new, but his training and intuition let him go in and keep the library open and make it the center of the community for information, safety, and resources.

Robert Wedgeworth: Libraries have to be responsive to their constituents, and they need to present themselves as a place where people can find information that helps to explain and understand the current issues affecting their lives. That has been a very important role for libraries over the years, and it will continue to be one. It’s not the social issue itself but that the library can be an active place in helping people to respond to issues as they present themselves.

In the 1960s, librarians were asking what extent they should be active participants in protests and combating certain topics. That continues to be a question raised in the ranks of professionals, and it will always be controversial. Different people will feel different levels of responsibility in dealing with various circumstances, but there will always be a professional role to helping people understand what’s going on in their lives and in their world.

Alma Dawson: First of all, people need information. If they’re just running on emotion, they don’t have the correct info. If we’re talking about Black Lives Matter and other issues of the day, the library has background information that is not just emotional. They have the history right there. When the hurricanes came, people went to the library because that’s where they could connect with family and the community. Librarians can be the right group of people to help.

Gladys Smiley Bell: In my opinion, those protests are political. It’s just appalling to know that things like that are happening today. But libraries can open their doors during times of crisis to provide resources and displays. Schools tend to shut down, but libraries seem to gear up. There is someone out there archiving those events for the future, maybe with the collection of what happens over the years, so that things can be better in the future. Libraries play a role in that because their doors are open to everybody to come and find out for themselves why, who, and what to do about these issues.

Jessie Carney Smith: We have a difficult job to do to help people cope with natural disasters and increasing violence. One has a right to protest, but keep violence out of it. Libraries can help by becoming involved in local dialogue, as we are doing in Nashville. But what works in one community might not work in another. You have to find ways to soften the ugly, tense moments that we have to face. Having grown up in the South, I have seen a lot of ugly and tense moments. We must find a way to deal with the bad as well as the good and let people know that we are dealing with community problems. Continue reading “HISTORY: Pioneering African-American Librarians Share Their Stories”

Sidney Keys III, 11, Founds Books N Bros to Help Other Boys Fall in Love with Reading

Sidney Keys III founded Books N Bros, a reading club that emphasizes making reading fun while lifting up works of African American literature and culture. (KELLY MOFFITT | ST. LOUIS PUBLIC RADIO)

article by Kelly Moffitt via news.stlpublicradio.org

Six months ago, 11-year-old St. Louisan Sidney Keys III started a reading club for boys his age to band together in their love of books. He calls it Books N Bros, and the club has an emphasis on making reading fun while lifting up African American literature and culture.

“Books N Bros is a book club for boys and we read books and African American literature because every time I go to the library at my school, there aren’t many African American literature books there,” said Keys in an interview on St. Louis on the Air. “I already love to read and since we don’t get that much time to read in school, we just discuss in groups. I wanted to read a book but I also wanted to discuss it with other people.”

Keys’ mom, Winnie Caldwell, said she knew Sidney had always loved to read because he’d often come to her wanting to talk about books.

About six months ago, they went to visit EyeSeeMe, a bookstore in University City focusing on African American children’s literature. While there, Winnie shot a video of Sidney reading in the store and it went viral on Facebook. Some 62,000 people have viewed the video and it has been shared 1,700 times.

Books N Bros card (KELLY MOFFITT | ST. LOUIS PUBLIC RADIO)

“He hadn’t seen [a bookstore] like that before and I certainly never had, so he was making himself comfortable on the floor, reading a book,” Caldwell said. “… When you get to a point when he is 11 years old and it was so shocking for him to relate to someone on the cover in a positive aspect rather than it be some negative urban story we see a lot. I would like to make sure he sees himself in being whatever he can be.”

After the video went viral, she and Sidney sat down to think about what he wanted to do next. A book club immediately jumped to mind.

“We specifically reach out to boys around ages 8-10 because that is statistically the age they stop reading — we wanted to combat that,” Caldwell said.

Keys added: “My motivation is I already love to read but it would be awesome, even better, to read with other people. I want to keep doing it because I don’t know what will make me stop reading because I love to read.”

The club meets once a month, discussing one book the club has voted on. While their numbers are still small, the book club has grown each month. Last month, two new members joined bringing the group to 7-10 members each month. The group is welcoming to boys of all backgrounds and races, but the club does focus on stories with African American protagonists.

Keys and Caldwell have also struck a deal with the Microsoft Store at the Galleria, where the book club meets. The boys discuss their books for an hour before each gets 30 minutes to play video games on a personal console at the store. A group called Serving with the Badge also donated 200 books to the book club so boys can take books home with them for their personal collection.

Some of the book club favorites so far have been “Danny Dollar,” “Hidden Figures” and “Supah Dupah Kid.” In February, for Black History Month, the group read “A Song for Harlem: Scraps of Time,” by Patricia McKissack, a St. Louis-based children’s book author.

For now, the book club has plans to stay boys-only, but Caldwell said there’s another book club called Nerdy Girls, which is aimed at girls between ages 6-12 and has over 75 members. Caldwell and Keys plan on partnering with Nerdy Girls in the future.

Caldwell said that if there are boys who are interested in joining the club, which costs $20 per month, they can find more information on the website https://www.booksnbros.com/ or email info@booksnbros.com.

To read full article, go to: Books N Bros’ 11-year-old founder wants to help boys love reading at an age when they often don’t | St. Louis Public Radio

Author Paul Beatty Becomes 1st American to Win Man Booker Prize With ‘The Sellout’

Paul Beatty, who won the Man Booker Prize for “The Sellout,” a satire about race in America, at a ceremony Tuesday in London. (Credit: John Phillips/Getty Images)

article by Alexandra Alter via nytimes.com

Paul Beatty’s novel “The Sellout,” a blistering satire about race in America, won the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday, marking the first time an American writer has won the award.

The five Booker judges, who were unanimous in their decision, cited the novel’s inventive comic approach to the thorny issues of racial identity and injustice.

With its outrageous premise and unabashed skewering of racial stereotypes, “The Sellout” is an audacious choice for the judges, who oversee one of the most prestigious awards in literature.

“The truth is rarely pretty, and this is a book that nails the reader to the cross with cheerful abandon,” Amanda Foreman, the head of the judging panel, said at a press briefing in London before the winner was announced. “It plunges into the heart of contemporary American society.”

At a ceremony in London, Mr. Beatty said that writing “The Sellout” had taken an emotional toll.

“It was a hard book for me to write; I know it’s hard to read,” he said. “I’m just trying to create space for myself. And hopefully that can create space for others.”

A raucous tragicomedy that explores the legacy of slavery and racial and economic inequality in America, the novel felt deeply resonant at a moment when police violence against African-Americans has incited protests around the country and forced Americans to confront the country’s history of racism.

In a review in The New York Times, Dwight Garner wrote that the novel’s first 100 pages read like “the most concussive monologues and interviews of Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle wrapped in a satirical yet surprisingly delicate literary and historical sensibility.”

To read full article, go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/26/business/media/paul-beatty-wins-man-booker-prize-with-the-sellout.html?_r=0

How the Dark Room Collective in Boston Sparked “Total Life” in Literature | Harvard Magazine

Members of the Dark Room Collective, photographed by Elsa Dorfman in 2013; from left to right: Sharan Strange, Janice Lowe, Danielle Legros Georges, John Keene, Tisa Bryant, Major Jackson, Artress Bethany White, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Patrick Sylvain, and Tracy K. Smith (Photograph © 2016 Elsa Dorfman)

article by Sophia Nguyen via harvardmagazine.com

NO OUTWARD SIGN sets the pale yellow house at 31 Inman Street apart from its neighbors. Someone going on a literary pilgrimage in Cambridge might start a mile away, at 104 Irving Street, where e.e. cummings ’15 grew up; then head west, to 16 Ash Street, where T.S. Eliot ’10, A.M. ’11, Litt.D. ’47, studied Sanskrit in the attic; then westward still, to the final residence of Robert Frost ’01, Litt.D. ’37, at 35 Brewster Street—guided the whole way by blue historical markers, never thinking to glance in the opposite direction.

But back in Central Square, that anonymous Victorian was the cradle of the Dark Room Collective. There, in the late 1980s, a trio of young African-American writers—Sharan Strange ’81, Thomas Sayers Ellis, and Janice Lowe—formed their own literary center of gravity. During its decade of existence, their reading series and writers’ group gathered a nebula of creative energy, a starry critical mass whose impact on American letters continues to expand.

The Dark Room Collective (DRC) was a haven for early members like writer and translator John Keene ’87, experimental prose writer Tisa Bryant, and poet Patrick Sylvain, Ed.M. ’98—a place to get together and get serious about their craft. It was “a whole ‘nother kind of education,” says Keene. “It was an immersion in a world that I only kind of glimpsed when I was in college.” By e-mail, co-founder Sharan Strange comments, “I often say that working within the DRC and curating the reading series was in many ways my true M.F.A. experience.”

The reading series was also an early performance venue for then-emerging talent—from current Boston poet laureate Danielle Legros Georges to Natasha Trethewey, RI ’01, U.S. poet laureate from 2012 to 2014. Many others passed through over the years, including Aya de Leon ’08, now director of Poetry for the People at the University of California, Berkeley; poet and critic Carl Phillips ’81; visual artist Ellen Gallagher; sound artist Tracie Morris; and actress Nehassaiu deGannes. In all, the participants’ published books number in the dozens, and they have earned fellowships and nominations and wins for honors like the National Book Awards, Whiting Awards, and Pulitzer Prizes.

“Once you’re in, you’re in forever,” declares poet Kevin Young ’92 in his nonfiction inquiry The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness. Young joined while still an undergraduate, as did Tracy K. Smith ’94, who remembers thinking, “Oh, wow—these young people want to be writers, and I want to be a writer, but they’re actually doing it.”

She began to help with lighting at events, just to “be in that space and see what the model for this life that I wanted looked like. For me,” Smith adds, “the Dark Room was really about saying, ‘If you want to do this, this is how you do it. And don’t wait. Do it now.’”“For me, the Dark Room was really about saying, ‘If you want to do this, this is how you do it. And don’t wait. Do it now.’”The audience for literary writing is small, and slimmer still for poetry; by that measure, it’s unsurprising that the Dark Room remains obscure. But even dedicated readers of contemporary verse might know the Collective only as a common footnote to its alumni’s impressive biographies.

Over coffee at Lamont Library, Harvard Review poetry editor Major Jackson, RI ’07, muses, “I almost tweeted this, but am glad that I didn’t—,” then just barely hesitates before continuing, “And maybe this is no better—but I think if there were a group of poets who were white and male, or white and male and female, or white and female, there would have been a documentary made about them by now. There would be a movie about them.” Individual members have been celebrated, and the Dark Room has been loosely associated with those summed accomplishments. But, he says, the Collective has not been recognized as a whole: “Maybe we need to all grow gray hairs before that happens and America catches up.”

To read full article: How the Dark Room Collective sparked “total life” in literature | Harvard Magazine

‘Invisible Man’ Ban Rescinded by North Carolina School Board After Community Backlash

"Invisible Man" author Ralph Ellison and his wife, Fanny, at their home in New York in 1972, 20 years after the novel's publication. (Nancy Crampton / Knopf)
“Invisible Man” author Ralph Ellison and his wife, Fanny, at their home in New York in 1972, 20 years after the novel’s publication. (Nancy Crampton / Knopf)

ASHEBORO, N.C. — High school students in Randolph County once again can get “Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison’s classic 1952 novel of alienation and racial discrimination, at school libraries.  Nine days after the county school board banned the book, it reversed itself at a hastily called special meeting Wednesday night, voting 6 to 1 to return the novel to school bookshelves. Several board members apologized for the ban and said they had been chastened by an outpouring of angry objections from county residents.

The backlash caught board members by surprise. Several said they had been inundated with emails begging them to reconsider. Others conceded that they had acted rashly and should have consulted with the superintendent and rank-and-file teachers in the 16,000-student district, about 85 miles northeast of Charlotte.  Several said the public reaction had opened their eyes to viewpoints they had not considered and broadened their outlook on the importance of all types of literature.

“We may have been hammered on this and we may have made a mistake, but at least we’re big enough to admit it,’’ said board member Gary Cook, who had voted for the ban but reversed himself Wednesday.  The meeting, in a packed boardroom, lasted only 45 minutes. The vote to rescind the ban took a few seconds, with only board member Gary Mason dissenting. He called the book “not appropriate for young teenagers.”

The board’s abrupt reversal came in the middle of the annual Banned Books Week sponsored nationally by the American Library Assn., which celebrates the freedom to read. The association and the Kids’ Right to Read Project wrote the school board condemning the ban and asking that it be reversed.

Continue reading “‘Invisible Man’ Ban Rescinded by North Carolina School Board After Community Backlash”

Black Authors Thrive Through Business of Black Book Clubs

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Over the last 20 years, the channels for discovering new books, especially books by first-time and emerging authors, have shrunk or disappeared. Newspapers and magazines dedicate mere slivers of arts sections to book reviews — if at all. Those papers like the New York Times that do devote more space to book coverage rarely review debut authors. Likewise, bookstores prefer to invite already established, bestselling, or celebrity writers to do readings and signings. That leaves Oprah — and the Queen of Talk has endorsed only 72 books since she started her eponymous book club in 1996, including the two she has recommended since her 2.0 reboot.

It’s even more difficult for black authors — new and established — to get their books on readers’ radars. As it is, African-American interest books receive a mere fraction of the coverage noted above, and with the closing of more than 100 black-owned independent bookstores in the last 15 years, as well as the shuttering of Black Issues Book Review there are even fewer places for black authors’ work to gain visibility. MosaicAfrican Voices, and the new Spook can only review so much.  “The last [issue of] Essence covered the same book Oprah covered,” observed Troy Johnson, founder of the African-American Literature Book Club better known as AALBC.com.

In this landscape, black book clubs offer authors a valuable — albeit extremely competitive —promotion and sales channel. “[Book clubs] have advanced far beyond the small get-togethers in someone’s living room,” says Carol Mackey, editor-in-chief of direct-to-consumer book club Black Expressions.

Continue reading “Black Authors Thrive Through Business of Black Book Clubs”

Harlem Renaissance Novel By Claude McKay Is Found

Author Claude McKay in the 1920s.

A Columbia graduate student and his adviser have authenticated the student’s discovery of an unknown manuscript of a 1941 novel by Claude McKay, a leading Harlem Renaissance writer and author of the first novel by a black American to become a best seller.  The manuscript, “Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem,” was discovered in a previously untouched university archive and offers an unusual window on the ideas and events (like Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia) that animated Harlem on the cusp of World War II. The two scholars have received permission from the McKay estate to publish the novel, a satire set in 1936, with an introduction about how it was found and its provenance verified. Continue reading “Harlem Renaissance Novel By Claude McKay Is Found”