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Sacred ground: the Schomburg is the neighborhood library to students of black history and to great scholars who mine its vast collections for clues to the "lost" history of a people.

THE LATE DR. JOHN HENRIK CLARKE OFTEN RECALLED THE first time he climbed the stairs at the New York Public Library in Harlem to meet Arthur "Arturo" Alfonso Schomburg. "I had read his essay 'The Negro Digs Up His Past,' and so I boldly walked into his office and demanded that he teach me about our history and culture," Clarke said. "He told me that what we're calling African history and African American history is nothing more than the missing pages of world history."

From this meeting, Clarke began his 65-yearlong trek in the pursuit of the "missing pages." The eminent scholar (and a sizable portion of his papers are among the immense collections at the Schomburg) who died in 1998 was just one of many who fell under Schomburg's tutelage. Those unfamiliar with his legacy might think he was of German extraction, but Schomburg was of African and Puerto Rican ancestry, and the essay that captured Clarke's attention was indicative of Schomburg's interests and research. Much of what he "dug up," the countless number of artifacts and extensive memorabilia from Schomburg's personal collection, formed the basis of the Center that would bear his name in 1940, two years after his death.

"The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future," Schomburg wrote. "Though it is orthodox to think of America as the one country where it is unnecessary to have a past, what is a luxury for the nation as a whole becomes a prime social necessity for the Negro. For him, a group tradition must supply compensation for persecution, and pride of race, an antidote to prejudice. History must restore what slavery took away, for it is the social damage of slavery that the present generations must repair and offset."

I came along much too late to have personally known Schomburg, but I did get to know the late Jean Blackwell Hutson, the successor to Lawrence Reddick who had replaced Schomburg. I was also privileged to know Ernest Kaiser, a remarkable, still active bibliophile whose reference guide to publications remains among the Center's most cherished documents.

If Schomburg Could See It

Even such a prodigious scholar and librarian as Schomburg would be amazed at the vastness of the various collections now housed at the Center. The numbers alone are stunning: More than 150,000 volumes and 85,000 microforms; 15,000 pieces of sheet music; 500,000 photos and prints; 5,000 motion pictures and videotapes. Add some 3,900 rare books and 580 manuscript collections and you have a veritable treasure trove of data and documents, a researcher's dream.

Much of this array of data is now available online and in digital formats. However, there is no replacement for an actual visit to the Center, for which the endless parade of students to the environs is a daily testament.

And the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has been an inexhaustible reservoir of information for writers and scholars. There is hardly a major author worth his or her salt who hasn't spent time poring over the microfilms and microfiche, delicately handling the priceless manuscripts or merely carrying a pile of books to one of the tables in the general reading room.

The Center was a valuable resource for David Levering Lewis when he was completing his Pulitzer Prize-winning, two-volume study of W.E.B. Du Bois, W.E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868--1919 and W. E. B. Du Bob: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963. Arnold Rampersad thanked the Center and its staff for helping him finish his definitive biography of Langston Hughes (The Life of Langston Hughes, 1920-1941: I, Too, Sing America [1986] and The Life of Langston Hughes, 1941-1967: I Dream a World [1989]). The Center was among the first repositories Carla Kaplan cited in her monumental work on Zora Neale Hurston, Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters (2002). For the unstinting assistance she received compiling American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military From the Revolution to Desert Storm, Gail Buckley went so far as to personally thank the Schomburg librarians and administrators Alice Adamcyzk, Aisha Al Adawija, Diana Lachantanere, Betty Odabashian and Roberta Yancey.

To this list of stalwarts, I would add the name of Sharon Howard, who has been indispensable in helping me track down obscure bits and pieces of African American history for practically all of my books.

"I'm just doing my job," has been Howard's response to my accolades. Another notable regular at the Schomburg is Christopher Moore. There are few better curators than Moore, and this is exemplified in the research and writing he did on the African American Burial Ground and Black New Yorkers projects. His most recent book is Fighting for America: Black Soldiers--The Unsung Heroes of World War II (One World/Ballantine Books, December 2004).

Moore says that the New York Public Library and its Schomburg Center "was the single most important venue for" obtaining information for his project.

One of the hallmarks of scholar-meets-archives occurred in 1988 when Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. edited the three-volume The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers (Oxford University Press, 2002). [See "Lost in Time" page 36.] In his acknowledgments, Gates wrote, "I can think of no better way of demonstrating than in this set the role the Schomburg Center plays in assuring that the black heritage will be available for future generations."

Never content to rest on its considerable laurels, and under the admirable leadership of its chief curator Howard Dodson, the Schomburg continues to find new ways to extend its range and reputation. Most recently, the Center launched an exhibition on black migration. This three-year project entitled In Motion: The African American Migration Experience is one of the largest ever assembled to chart the movement of people of African ancestry. The project, Dodson told the press, "will serve as a catalyst for the continued rethinking of who the African American community is ... it is organized around thirteen migrations, two of them involuntary: the domestic slave trade and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade."

The Diaspora Project

In Motion accompanies the impressive Web site of the same name, and it draws extensively from the Center's matchless resources. There is also a 224-page book (See BIBR, July-August 2005, EYE, "Charting the Journey"), replete with rare photos and firsthand accounts that shatter many of the myths surrounding the history of Africans in the Diaspora. It is a multifaceted endeavor that has the same grand scale as two previous Schomburg projects: Lest We Forget: The Triumph Over Slavery and the African American Burial Ground.

Far less ambitious but no less significant are the numerous press conferences and special events the Schomburg hosts. When it was reported that Ossie Davis had died in Miami, within an hour, Harry Belafonte was conducting a press conference at the Schomburg's American Negro Theater. The Schomburg was the choice of Warner Home Video when it was announced that Spike Lee's film Malcolm X was being released on DVD. Whether for extended exhibitions or short-term events, the Schomburg is a resourceful and available venue.

"The Schomburg is your home away from home, there's always something going on here," Dodson told a gathering in early February in the Center's Langston Hughes Auditorium. "And if there isn't anything happening, you can go downstairs and make something happen. Every month is Black History Month at the Schomburg."

Opening Malcolm's Treasures

One of the most rewarding experiences I have had at the Schomburg came as a result of an assignment I was given to cover the Center's reception of several crates filled with items belonging to Malcolm X. I was the only reporter allowed to be at the Center when they opened the crates. It was like being present when they opened King Tut's tomb, of course without the deadly repercussions.

The one thing that immediately commanded my attention was looking at Malcolm's Koran, to see the notes he had inscribed on the pages. From a passel of documents, it was possible to note how the slain leader gathered information, his attempts to learn Arabic, his penchant to hold onto material he knew would one day be valuable. I was also allowed, within limits, to photograph some of the items, careful not to disturb the integrity of the still unprotected diaries, photos and notebooks. This was truly a Schomburg moment, and I was so thankful to be invited.

This experience was reminiscent of my first visits to the Schomburg back in the 1960s before it was moved to its present location. For many years, Richard Wright's original typeset of Native Son was on display. You could see the progress of the manuscript--Wright's handwriting as he added and deleted. This, along with the bust of Ira Aldridge as Othello, was a reminder that you were in the right place, and standing on sacred ground.

But for most of my hundreds of visits to the Schomburg, which is in walking distance of my home and near a former residence of Dr. Clarke, I didn't need an invitation. Nor is one necessary for anyone in pursuit of African or African American history and culture. On recent occasions, I have seen such scholars as Dr. William Seraile at the Center in the midst of gathering research for his book on a colored orphanage of the 19th century. I have conferred with Martha Biondi while she was putting the final touches on her study of civil rights in postwar New York City; and I observed Gerald Home at his wireless laptop with a stack of books nearby detailing the relationship between black and Japanese Americans. If, like Mr. Schomburg, you're interested in digging up the "Negro past," there is no better place to begin than here in the heart of Harlem.

Let the Record Show: Books From the Schomburg

In Motion: The African American Migration Experience by Howard Dodson and Sylviane A. Diouf, National Geographic Books, January 2005, $35, ISBN 0-792-27385-0

The Black New Yorkers: The Schomburg Illustrated Chronology Wiley (2nd edition), September 2001, $24.95, ISBN 0-471-40173-0

The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Oxford University Press July 2002, ISBN 0-195-15770-2

The Schomburg Center Guide to Black Literature: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present, edited by Roger M. Valade, III and Denise Kasinec Thomas Gale, November 1995 $145, ISBN 0-787-60289-2

Jubilee: The Emergence of African-American Culture by Howard Dodson, Amiri Baraka, Gail Lumet Buckley, John Hope Franklin, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Annette Gordon-Reed and Gayraud S. Wilmore, National Geographic Books, February 2003 $35, ISBN 0-792-26982-9

Standing in the Need of Prayer: A Celebration of Black Prayer Foreword by Coretta Scott King, Free Press, November 2003 $27.50, ISBN 0-743-23466-9

RELATED ARTICLE: Howard Dodson: a helmsman for the cultural legacy.

AFTER I COMPLETE MY BOOK THE HARLEM Reader (Three Rivers Press, May 2003), there was the additional task of getting Howard Dodson to write the Foreword. At first, I was reluctant to even ask him, given his busy schedule. But the worst he could say was no, which would have crushed me. Fortunately, he agreed to do it, and I was able to exhale. That exhalation became jubilation once it was submitted and I discovered how finely wrought it was.

The world knows Dodson as the chief curator at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a role he has filled more than adequately for a score of years. What they are gradually learning is that he is also a raconteur with a wicked sense of humor, a historian of great breadth and immense talent, and a writer who knows how to dispense large dollops of complicated black culture with panache and ease.

Dodson, 66, began to acquire this finesse and facility with black history and culture as a child coming of age in his hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania. He has often remarked of his keen interest in hearing the stories from elders who regaled him and other youths with memories of bygone days, particularly tales of prominent African Americans who overcame great obstacles to achieve fame and fortune.

"It is from those who have gone before and often made supreme sacrifices that I've gathered an understanding of black history," Dodson related one night outside of Chicago as we celebrated his induction into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. While it is rewarding to hear Dodson's eloquence from the podium, it is equally instructive to catch him in relaxed moments when he is free to release the full complement of knowledge at his disposal.

A Career of Distinction

That evening witnessed a wide-ranging discussion, and many of us were hearing for the first time about his academic career and intellectual background that began when he was a student activist at Villanova University, from which he would earn his master's degree in history and political science in 1963. He regaled us with snippets of moments during his years with the Peace Corps and later his five-year (1974-1979) stint at the Institute of the Black World (IBW) in Atlanta. "This was perhaps the first real black think tank in the country since the demise of the American Negro Academy back in the last century," Dodson explained.

During his stay at the IBW, where he was a resident scholar, Dodson was also teaching at Emory University. In 1979, he became a consultant at the National Endowment of the Humanities, while retaining his affiliation as a program director at the IBW. Five years later, he was appointed chief curator at the Schomburg, a position that has brought him global acclaim, particularly for his expertise in the African Diaspora.

Since his arrival at the Schomburg, Dodson, who lives in Harlem, has become one of the most recognized authorities on the history of black New Yorkers. Of the first Africans to arrive in the city, he told Linda Tarrant-Reid of the Daily News, "The impact has been far more than those initial people who came. I would say that the position that people of African descent in United States have in virtually every form of literature, music, art, theater and dance has been, in some respects, either fashioned here in New York or given voice and presence here in New York. New York's own, if you will, identity has been in many respects shaped by the cultural creativity of the production of people in the Harlem community, specifically, and New York, in general ... dating back to the 19th century."

Any occasion is an opportunity for Dodson to sing the praises of the Schomburg and the primacy of black New Yorkers in world culture, and in all of his books, essays, introductions and prefaces, this is a theme that he addresses with passion and conviction.

Here is an example of Dodson's eloquence from the Foreword to The Harlem Reader as the talks about some of the entries: "They reflect the ever-changing, ever-evolving public consciousness of Harlem as a community, a center of cultural creativity, and an icon of the best and worst that urban black America has produced."

If Harlem is the living microcosm of black America, past and present, and the Schomburg its potent center, then Dodson is the helmsman who oversees the five million pieces of information that are so invaluable to our scholarship and research. "It is an awesome task, and I am proud to have this important position, to have the responsibility as the guardian of this veritable treasure trove," Dodson told a reporter.

For more information, visit the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York, NY 10037-1801; call 212-491-2200, or log on to: http://www.nypl.org/research/sc/sc.html. H.B.

Herb Boyd is the author of numerous books, including We Shall Overcome: A Living History of the Civil Rights Struggle Told in Words, Pictures and the Voices of the Participants (Sourcebooks, October 2004).
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Author:Boyd, Herb
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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