Africana Archives: Making Art at the Schomburg

Published July 1, 2015

Howard Dodson, former director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and current director of Howard University's Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, delivers the keynote address at the 2014 Callaloo Conference held at Emory University. The following conference paper is published in full in Callaloo vol. 38, no. 3 (Summer 2015).

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Callaloo, a journal of African diaspora arts and letters, held its 2014 conference at Emory University from October 15–18. This event brought together creative and critical voices from in and outside the US to present and discuss artistic expressions ranging from poetry, the visual arts, fiction, and music to archiving and cultural preservation. Southern Spaces video-recorded this remarkable conference and, in collaboration with Callaloo, presents a series of highlights. Southern Spaces thanks Callaloo founder and editor Charles Henry Rowell, managing editor Jackson Brown, and Emory provost Claire Sterk for their support of this conference and series.

Howard Dodson

Howard Dodson, Making Art at the Schomburg: Africana Archives as Sites of Art Making (Part 1 of 3), 2014.

Art making has been a critical aspect of the human experience since time immemorial. Among the earliest evidence of human beings as art makers are the rock carvings and engravings found throughout the African continent that date back to the sixth to eighth millennium BCE (6000 to 8000 BCE). The purpose of these art renderings is unclear, but their existence is evidence of the creative and aesthetic sensibilities and impulses of their creators. This ability to create art was and is one of the attributes that separates human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom.

This creative impulse, which is part of what makes us human, likely found expression in other media. Among African people, diverse forms of artistic expression defined and gave meaning to their unique cultures. Rituals and ceremonies of a religious, spiritual, or secular nature included music, dance, and dramatic performances as well as sculptures and other visual art objects. In one sense, art was the expressive dimension of African cultures and an integral part of African peoples' day-to-day living and being. Art making then, has likely been an integral part of life-making among African people (and humankind) since the beginning of human societies and human civilizations.

This conference is an exploration and assessment of that millenniums-long phenomenon in contemporary Africana life and culture. Like its sponsor, Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts & Letters, this conference's focus is on the literary arts. But its scope embraces other forms of artistic expression and includes people of African descent from the African continent and its diasporas. I have been asked to speak on the theme "Archiving Africana" with an eye towards helping you rediscover Africana archives as repositories of Africana art, as places of historical significance in their own right, and as places and resources for Africana art making and creativity.

Africana archives in the United States trace their origins to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The need for black people to establish such institutions was expressed by Victoria Earle Matthews in 1895. She said:

The lesson to be drawn from this cursory glance at what I may call the past, present, and future of our Race Literature, apart from its value as first beginnings, not only to us as a people but literature in general, is that unless earnest and systematic effort be made to procure and preserve for transmission to our successors, the records, books, and various publications already produced by us, not only will the sturdy pioneers who paved the way and laid the foundation for our Race literature be robbed of their just due, but an irretrievable wrong will be inflicted upon the generations that should come after us.1

Victoria Earle Matthews, poet, novelist, journalist, and social worker, delivered the address from which this passage is excerpted at the first national conference of black women which was held in Boston, Massachusetts in July 1895. Entitled "The Value of Race Literature," the speech emphasized, "the importance of collecting the writings of black men and women, including histories, biographies, sermons, speeches, essays, and articles in order to preserve the culture and contributions of people of African descent."2

Two years after Matthews's speech, in March 1897, the American Negro Academy, an association of African American "men of science, letters and art or those distinguished in other walks of life" was founded in Washington, DC. It's purpose was to encourage research, writing, and publication of scholarly works dealing with the global black experience. The members were also encouraged to develop an archive of materials by and about peoples of African descent.

Howard Dodson, Making Art at the Schomburg: Africana Archives as Sites of Art Making (Part 2 of 3), 2014.

The Academy and its members were part of a national network of what anthropologist St. Clair Drake used to call the "vindicationist school" of black intellectuals. Responding to what I have called the reigning unwisdom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—the myth that black people were biologically, intellectually, and socially inferior to whites—these intellectuals sought to refute this myth through their writings and publications. By the first decades of the twentieth century, a network of "vindicationist collectors" had also emerged in the African American community. By 1916, many of them had become members of the American Negro Academy.

In conjunction with the annual meeting of the Academy in December 1916, John Wesley Cromwell, a founding member of the Academy, convened a meeting in his residence in Washington, DC, of black bibliophiles who were members of the Academy. The purpose of the gathering was to establish a Negro Book Collectors Exchange whose purpose would be to centralize all literature written by "colored people." To achieve this objective, the Exchange would establish a union list of books by and about blacks by asking all known "Negro book collectors" to register the names of the authors and titles of books in their collections with the Exchange. Equipped with this master database, the Exchange would serve as a clearinghouse for information on black-related materials and a vehicle for trading duplicate copies of books amongst members. There is no evidence that the Negro Book Collection Exchange ever met again or carried out its ambitious agenda. But the collections of the bibliophiles in attendance became the foundation of today's Africana archives eco-system. The Library of Congress's Africana Collections began with Daniel Alexander Murray's collection. Henry Proctor Slaughter's collection figured prominently in the development of Atlanta University's Africana Collection. Jesse Moorland's gift to Howard University sparked the development of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. And Arturo Alfonso Schomburg's Collection at the New York Public Library has evolved into the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. This presentation will focus on the Schomburg Center as an Africana archive and its role as a resource for Africana art making and as an art making institution. While I will focus on the Center's art making activities during my twenty-seven year tenure there, I will also call attention to its earlier role as a place where Africana art was made.

The Schomburg Center: History and Mission

Rivers, Langston Hughes Lobby, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, New York, New York, May 22, 2011. Flickr photograph by Matt Kingston. This public art installation and peace memorial honors Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes and Arturo A. Schomburg. Creative Commons License CC-BY 2.0.
Rivers, Langston Hughes Lobby, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, New York, New York, May 22, 2011. Flickr photograph by Matt Kingston. This public art installation and peace memorial honors Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes and Arturo A. Schomburg. Creative Commons License CC-BY 2.0.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research unit of the New York Public Library (NYPL), is generally recognized as the leading public research library in the world devoted exclusively to documenting and interpreting the histories and cultures of people of African descent. With collections numbering in excess of ten million items including books, manuscripts, correspondence, personal and professional papers of individuals, archived records of Africana institutions and organizations, as well as films, photographs, radio and television programs, and oral histories, the Schomburg Center is also generally recognized as a repository of documentary evidence on the global black experience—an Africana archive. For much of its eighty-nine years, it has been widely recognized as a place where scholars—professional and lay—and the curious general public go to find reliable, accessible, authoritative information on the black experience. For much of black America—then and now—it has been a place where one goes in search of the truth about the black experience, historically and contemporarily. As such it is for many the authoritative Africana Archive—a trusted repository where the information gathered has been assembled with an eye towards discerning the truth about the black experience. This was, in many respects, the intellectual and political intent of Arturo Alphonso Schomburg when he started assembling his founding collection at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was also the intent of his generation of late nineteenth and early twentieth century black bibliophiles and collectors.

Mr. Schomburg's sense of mission as aggregator of information on the global black experience (and I suspect this was true of all of the vindicators of the race), was not simply one of gathering evidence. Collecting was a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Schomburg, perhaps more than his bibliophile peers, was actively involved in using his archive to pursue an educational agenda. He used the assembled information and knowledge to educate and empower black people; to debunk the myths of black inferiority amongst blacks and whites; and to transform white Americans' consciousness of who people of Africa descent were and what they had achieved as human beings. Throughout his life, both before and after he deposited his collection at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, Schomburg organized and curated exhibitions, published articles in newspapers, scholarly and popular books, and journals, and also lectured widely. He transformed the information and knowledge he had amassed in his archive into educational resources that could be used to elevate the consciousness of black people and challenge the prevailing social, political, and cultural discourses about black people—their history, cultures, and intelligence. His fellow bibliophiles shared his sense of purpose, but Schomburg appears to have had the most comprehensive approach to using his collection as a resource in shaping public understanding of Africana history and culture making.

Howard Dodson, Making Art at the Schomburg: Africana Archives as Sites of Art Making (Part 3 of 3), 2014.

I embraced Mr. Schomburg's practice of using collections to empower people and was further encouraged to do so by an admonition of one of my intellectual and political mentors, historian Lerone Bennett, Jr. He said, and I paraphrase, "the challenge of the hour is to get the books off of the shelves and out of the stacks and into the minds and muscles of the people." Bennett was speaking about books containing knowledge about the black experience and his "people" were people of African descent who he believed could and should use such knowledge to empower themselves. At the base of his dictum was the oft stated assumption that knowledge is power. He believed that black people with knowledge about themselves would be empowered to change their current conditions and create healthy and humane futures for themselves and for their worlds. As instrumentalist as this kind of thinking is, I believe that this is what black scholars and institutions committed to using their intellectual powers to create and support the development of a better world for black people are called to do. My work at the Schomburg Center and now at Howard University and the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center has been guided by these principles.

Archival institutions are best known as repositories of records documenting the past. As such, they are commonly thought of as resources for the study of history. From its inception, the Schomburg Center's collecting mandate was broader than that. It's original name as a resource center in the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library was "The Division of Negro History, Literature, and Prints." Schomburg's original collection also included African and African American art. Currently, the Africana archives at the Schomburg Center are organized into five divisions based on format. Books, serials, and microforms are managed by the General Research and Reference division. The Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books division houses those formats and there is a separate division for photographs and prints. An Art and Artifacts division and a Moving Image and Recorded Sound division house paintings, prints, sculptures, and artifacts and film, audio and video tapes, and sound recordings, respectively. As a consequence, the Schomburg Center as an Africana archive documents Africana art and culture, as well as Africana history. Expressive art forms include the visual arts, dance, theater, music performance, and the literary arts, as well as genres of vernacular culture that incorporate elements of dance, music, and theater in sacred and secular rituals. The Schomburg Center, then, is at once an archive of Africana history, art, and culture. The availability of this rich variety of resources for documenting and interpreting the global black experience makes the center an ideal intellectual and creative partner for scholars and artists who would seek to make art integrating or celebrating the history, heritage, culture, and art of people of African descent.

Making Art at the Schomburg

I want to focus the remainder of this presentation on some of the things we did during my tenure at the Schomburg Center that used its archive and collections to "make art". While this conference is heavily focused on the literary arts, I want to explore some of the ways in which the Schomburg, as an institution, as well as various scholars and artists at the Schomburg, used Africana archival materials to create or make art in a variety of genres, including, but not limited to, the literary arts.

I should say, by way of preface, that technically, archives are organizational records. However, the term is widely used to refer to collections of documentary materials of all kinds. I'm using the broader definition. Most people view archives as the special, almost private, playland of scholars and intellectuals—scholars who essentially critique art and other forms of historical, political, social and cultural production or who mine the evidence contained in the archive to create new knowledge about the past. Because archives are records of the past, the assumption is that they are the special preserves of historians, philosophers, archeologists, and others who specialize in creating new knowledge about the past. Too often, this combination of disciplinary bias and misperception blinds other inquisitive, intelligent, knowledge-seeking people from engaging the content—or even thinking about consulting the documentary resources—of past experience. I'm thinking here of writers, poets, visual artists, musicians, playwrites, actors, producers, journalists, etc. The most naïve of sorts actually have the audacity to ask, "What could the records of these old folks possibly tell me or show me about living a black life in the twenty first century? And as a creative artist and intellectual, what can I learn about the black experience that would be worthy of "elevation" to the status of art?" My response is, "Everything you could possibly dream of or hope for!"

Books Are Weapons, poster by NYC WPA War Services, 1941–1943. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, WPA Posters Collection, LC-USZC2-1124.
Books Are Weapons, poster by NYC WPA War Services, 1941–1943. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, WPA Posters Collection, LC-USZC2-1124.

My first formal relationship with the Schomburg occurred before I was hired as its director. Almost one year earlier, I was contacted by the New York Public Library to help the Schomburg staff create an exhibit based on the Center's holdings and collections that would compliment its NEH-funded major exhibition on "Censorship in America."

I took the job and eventually worked with the Schomburg Center staff to create the exhibition "Censorship and Black America." But the exhibition wasn't a black face echo of the major theme of the NEH project that focused on book publishing and the printed word. Rather, the Schomburg's exhibition explored the historically documentable thesis that black people, in all aspects of their presence and being in America, were a censored people. Through laws, texts, images, and publications, the exhibitions documented this fact for a broad public audience.

Artistically, though it was my first exhibit, I took significant aesthetic risks. Against the advice of the Schomburg staff and others, I painted the gallery walls black. Images and documents were framed in blonde oak wood with red and white double mats. The text panels and captions featured white text on black matte backgrounds. Aesthetically and intellectually, the exhibit was a stunning work of art fashioned out of the collections of the Schomburg.

Over the years, I came to look at the Schomburg collections as resources for rescuing and reconstructing the historical and cultural heritages of people of African descent, as well as inspirations for creating twentieth and twenty-first century public engagements with that historical and cultural past. During my tenure at the Schomburg, I curated or co-curated more than three dozen of the more than eighty exhibitions on African and Africana themes. Most were either inspired by or based on the objects, content, and themes documented by the Center's archival holdings. Making exhibitions is a time-honored way in which museums, libraries, and archives make art.

I share this with you because all too frequently, scholars and intellectuals come to archival institutions like the Schomburg with singular, and more often than not, limited and limiting questions and expectations. Archives, especially those that document the black experience, have much, much more to offer if you choose to interrogate them. The archives need more interrogators, more artists, more creatives capable of mining their content and using it to create new art.

I'm convinced, moreover, that artists—visual, musical, dance, theater and others—who would create and present works of art about the global black experience need a sustained engagement with an appropriate and compatible Africana archive. Those who have done so have improved the quality of the art they produced because of their willingness to immerse themselves in Africana archives.

The Schomburg Center had been a site of art making long before I arrived on the scene. In addition to collecting books and other documentary materials, Mr. Schomburg was also a collector of Africana art. He sponsored and curated annual exhibitions of African American works during the 1920s at the Brooklyn and Queens YMCA Carlton Avenue branch, the "colored" YMCA, as well as the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library and future home of the Schomburg Collection. He also provided financial support for several Harlem Renaissance visual artists and both collected and exhibited the works of many prominent black creatives.

Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery through Reconstruction. Mural panel by Aaron Douglas, 1934. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts division, The New York Public Library.
Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery through Reconstruction. Mural panel by Aaron Douglas, 1934. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts division, The New York Public Library.

Jacob Lawrence and Aaron Douglas used the resources of the Schomburg Collection to document and inspire many of their works. Lawrence researched virtually all of his visual narrative painting series (Toussaint L'Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and John Brown) at the Schomburg during the 1930s. The American Negro Theater, featuring artists like Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Ruby Dee, produced plays in the Schomburg building during the 1940s. Numerous other writers, poets, visual artists, musicians, play writes, actors, producers, filmmakers, and journalists found inspiration and authenticity in the archival resources of the Schomburg.

While he was living in New York City, Denzel Washington frequently disguised himself and came to the Schomburg Center to study films, develop his characters, and familiarize himself with the period of a given project using the Center's archives. Documentary filmmakers, especially Bill Miles, St. Clair Bourne, and Bill Greaves used the resources of the Schomburg Center (photographs, documents and storylines) to produce many of their award-winning documentary films.

Deidre Bibby, former curator of art at the Schomburg Center, decided to update the Center's holdings of artworks by Harlem-based African American visual artists. After conducting a survey of the artists of African descent working in Harlem, Bibby organized an exhibition of the works of over forty artists. "Who's Uptown Harlem?" became a stunning art exhibition surveying the nature and quality of Africana art making in Harlem in the 1980s. In addition to the exhibition that publicly showcased the art, the project resulted in the Schomburg Center adding several new works by Harlem artists to its collections.

The acquisition of collections and other special occasions often provided the Center with an excuse to celebrate the life and work of an artist. Some celebrations would take the form of artworks in and of themselves. Major tribute programs were produced and presented in Broadway Theater venues—the Shubert, and Majestic Theaters, and Carnegie Hall—featuring Broadway-quality artists who celebrated the lives and works of Paul Robeson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Ella Fitzgerald, among others. These productions were marketed as gala fundraisers for the Schomburg Center featuring leading artists of the time in tribute to Africana artists past. The 90th Birthday Paul Robeson Tribute at New York's Shubert Theater for instance, featured Christopher Reeves, Uta Hagen, Joeseph "Joe" Papp, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and included dramatic excerpts from theater, music, dance, and other artistic productions that showcased and interpreted the life and times of this extraordinary African American artist, intellectual, and political activist.

Bassist and composer, Larry Ridley, and his group, "Jazz Legacy," were artists in residence at the Schomburg for ten years. Each year, they would produce and present two to four concerts featuring the music of an accomplished jazz artist. What was unique about their concerts was that Larry used images of the artists drawn from the Center's archives to illustrate a biographical and historical narration which he had researched at the Schomburg. Though billed as jazz concerts, the events were actually forms of musical edutainment based in jazz idiom that celebrated the artists and their music. Virtually all of the concerts sold out and were videotaped for historic preservation. They now form part of the Center's archives. The Center also produces and presents an annual Women's Jazz Festival, featuring leading women jazz instrumentalists, ensembles, vocalists, and solo artists in live concert performances. Most of these more than twenty years of performances are now part of the Center's archives.

Cover, Susan Goldman Rubin's Jacob Lawrence in the City (San Francisco: Chronicle Kids Books, 2009).
Cover, Susan Goldman Rubin's Jacob Lawrence in the City (San Francisco: Chronicle Kids Books, 2009).
Community, ceramic tile mosaic on lobby wall of the Joseph P. Addabbo Federal Building, Jamaica, Queens, New York by Jacob Lawrence, 1989. Photograph of mosaic by Carol M. Highsmith. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Carol M. Highsmith Archive, LC-DIG-highsm-02817.
Community, ceramic tile mosaic on lobby wall of the Joseph P. Addabbo Federal Building, Jamaica, Queens, New York by Jacob Lawrence, 1989. Photograph of mosaic by Carol M. Highsmith. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Carol M. Highsmith Archive, LC-DIG-highsm-02817.

The Schomburg Center's Junior Scholars program is actually structured around transforming the content of the archives into new art forms. Established over a decade ago, the program annually engages over one hundred students, aged eleven to eighteen, in a variety of learning experiences dedicated to enhancing their knowledge of black experiences. This is a six-month Saturday school program in Africana Studies that includes readings, research, lectures, films, and other encounters with resources to enhance participants' knowledge of the black experience. Students work together in project groups throughout the year creating songs, theater productions, dances, exhibitions, publications, radio programs, websites, and other interpretive means to convert content into art. The closing program is a day-long presentation of the art the students collectively create.

I share these Schomburg art making stories with you to underscore the fact that archival institutions do not have to be passive repositories. Indeed, in today's world, Africana archives are challenged to develop strategies for mining their collections and producing programs and events that help elevate their public visibility. In today's world, such public recognition of their services to the community is essential to raising public and private funds to support their services.

I'm convinced that producing and presenting exhibitions, concerts, theater productions, dance performances, and other interpretive programs was as critical a factor in establishing the Schomburg's reputation as the leading Africana archive in the country. What we managed to achieve institutionally awaits the curious, inquisitive, innovative creators who have the courage to immerse themselves in Africana studies.

Historians are encouraged to stretch their minds beyond the monographs and journal articles they frequent the archives to research. Beyond these formats lie stories and resources that can be turned into exhibitions, performances, programs, music, poetry, and dramas based on the rich and diverse lives and experiences of African peoples documented and preserved in Africana archives. I also encourage Africana archives to invite groups of writers, dramatists, producers, visual and performing artists, exhibit curators, and journalists to special events where archivists can introduce some of these creative possibilities. Teams of digital humanities scholars will find rich and rewarding opportunities to create new art and scholarship in today's Africana archives eco-system. All that's needed are fresh questions and a creative imagination; the stories and objects are there for the taking, promoting, and interpreting. Africana archives are natural, freely accessible partners to those artists and creatives who would explore the richness and diversity of the global black experience. I invite each and every one of you to find your archive partners. And don't even think about doing anything creative about the black experience without them. I promise that your ventures into their holdings will be richly rewarded. If nothing else, you will create more substantive, authentic art on the peoples and experiences documented in Africana archives.

About the Author

Howard Dodson is director of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. For more than twenty-five years, he served as director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. In that role, Dodson assisted the Schomburg Center in its acquisitions of the diaries of Malcom X, the papers of Nat King Cole and Lorraine Hansberry, the collections of Melville J. Herskovits and St. Clair Drake, and the prints of Harlem photographer Austen Hansen. Dodson has published widely, including Becoming American: The African-American Journey (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2009).

  • 1. Victoria Earle Matthews, "The Value of Race Literature," in The New Negro: Readings on Race, Representation, and African American Culture, 1892–1938, eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Gene Andrew Jarrett (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007), 287–297.
  • 2. Jessie Carney Smith, editor, Notable Black American Women: Book One (Detroit: Gale Research, 1991), 738.
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