Room with a view

Aug 27, 2008 at 12:00 am

In a small room on the third floor of the Purdy-Kresge Library at Wayne State University, an important part of Detroit's literary and cultural heritage is being collected, sorted and archived. The library already holds a number of special collections, including the Arthur L. Johnson African-American History Collection, but this new project will offer something a little more focused and much more relevant to the city itself.

The development of the African American Literature Special Collection began in April 2005, when Assistant Dean and Development Director Barton Lessin was approached by Don Vest, co-owner (with his wife Hilda Vest) of Broadside Press. Vest proposed an archive of Detroit writers past and present, which would include poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists and other creative writers. Broadside, with its long literary history, was able to make an initial contribution to build upon. The Detroit-based press has published poetry and criticism by many notable writers, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Walker, Sterling Brown and Robert Hayden — each a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

In 2005, Broadside celebrated its 40th anniversary as one of this country's oldest operating black presses. The press was founded by the poet Dudley Randall in 1965. Randall was named the first poet laureate of Detroit in 1981, and he passed away in 2000. (The position is currently held by Naomi Long Madgett, who's now part of the collection's planning group. Don Vest is the chairperson.) It was Randall's literature collection, including many notable books inscribed to him personally and what remains of his papers, that Don Vest offered to Lessin as the collection's core.

Lessin, a trained librarian who's been on staff at Wayne State's library system for more than 18 years, immediately recognized the value of the items to scholars, students and the local community. Sitting at a desk, surrounded by stacks of books and papers, he recalls how the whole venture got started:

"Don showed up in my office one day and asked if we could discuss the possibility of starting an African American Literature Special Collection," Lessin says. "In the next two years, we acquired everything in this room."

The space is stacked to the ceiling with more than 4,500 books, dozens of boxes and hundreds of acid-free envelopes that hold broadsides, drafts, photos and ephemera. Items date from the pre-Civil War era to the present. Miriam Pickens, a retired General Motors worker who's now a trained librarian and project volunteer, has been living inside those walls of books for one year. She spends two days every week sorting and organizing reams of papers and documents. She and Lessin, who is now assigned to the project full time, work with a network of about 300 donors, contributors, advisers and supporters.

While it seems they already have enough material to manage, including an extremely rare book of aphorisms signed by author Booker T. Washington, some items, Lessin regrets, will never be added to the collection — letters, notes and journals belonging to Randall, for instance.

"All his papers were burned toward the end of his life. He was despondent about how people viewed his poetry, not his accomplishments as a publisher, which were well-accepted. It's a huge loss for us."

A leader in the new black poetry movement of the 1960s, Randall was a progressive thinker and activist. His poem "The Ballad of Birmingham" was written about the bombing of a Baptist church that killed four black children and became an important artistic expression for the civil rights movement. But Randall didn't want to be pigeonholed. He expressed this in his poem "A Poet is not a Jukebox":

I repeat, A poet is not a jukebox for someone to shove a quarter in his ear
and get the tune they want to hear,
Or to pat on the head and call "a good little Revolutionary,"
Or to give a Kuumba Liberation Award...
A poet is not a jukebox
So don't tell me what to write.

Some items will be sorely missed, but there's no shortage of material to document Detroit's cultural legacy, in poetry or theater. Lessin flips open a folder and holds up a vintage flier for Concept East, a nationally recognized black theater that was located on East Adams on Detroit's east side. The theater, housed in a renovated bar, opened in 1962 and produced critically acclaimed plays, many by black playwrights, until it closed in 1978. The flier advertised a workshop series there with poet, playwright and activist LeRoi Jones (who adopted the African name Amiri Baraka), playwright Ron Milner, producer Woodie King Jr. and actor Cliff Frazier. King and Frazier ran the theater till producer, director and writer David Rambeau took over managing it in 1969.

Rambeau, also the executive director of Project BAIT (Black Awareness in Television), and author Garland Jaggers created a Gathering of Writers series to bring attention to the collection. In 2007, the series focused on everything from Detroit booksellers to a celebration of the anthology, Eyes on Fire: Witnesses to the Detroit Riots of 1967 (Aquarius Press).

It's amazing that any single fading piece of paper can convey such a lineage and legacy, but that's the point. People have come out of the woodwork, having scoured their attics and shelves, to donate rare and relevant items to the project. And now that so many of these treasures have been unearthed, it's very clear just how essential they are. In other words, as the thing progresses, it makes its own importance very clear.

"It's much more than books and poems," Lessin says. "It's history."

The collection also includes books from Detroit's Lotus Press, which published Madgett's work. And it has received support from Jay C. Levine, a local high school counselor who made a substantial donation in honor of Gwendolyn Brooks. Levine has agreed to future gifts from his personal library of rare and collectible African-American literature, which contains more than 17,000 books, many signed and first editions. Playwright, poet and Wayne State professor Bill Harris donated a large volume of his own work, including drafts of poems and plays. But these are just a few names on an extensive list of donors.

While the focus is mostly on works by African-American novelists, poets, critics and playwrights from Detroit and the metro area, there are a surprising number of notable non-Detroiters represented because of their connection to city. Each day Lessin receives a call, an e-mail or a donation from someone new.

"The intention of this collection was to be Detroit-centric," he says. "But it's not necessarily Detroit exclusive."

Lessin pulls down a rare copy of Countee Cullen's poetry book, The Black Christ, published in 1929. The cover art depicts a stunning art deco image of Jesus in black and white. In 1974, Broadside Press published a book about Cullen's work titled A Many-Colored Coat of Dreams by the African-American literary scholar Houston Baker.

In the next few years, Lessin says, there are plans to move the special collection from the upstairs office to a permanent space in the library. While the project is not funded, it will continue to grow with the help of donors and volunteers. Someday, the planning group would like to see much of the content digitized to make it accessible to researchers now and for generations to come.

Norene Cashen is a poet whose recent book is The Reverse Is Also True (Doorjamb Press) and a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]