Monday, April 30, 2012

Celebrating Poetry, Part 3

Bob Kaufman's Golden Sardine
(City Lights Books, 1967)
"Abomunists reject everything except snowmen"

So ends the Abomunist Manifesto written by Bob Kaufman, one of the leading figures of the San Fransicsco Poetry Renaissance of the 1950s. Kaufman's poetry embraced the oral nature of the art, as well as the sounds and rhythms of jazz music, and influenced a generation of poets across the United States and in Europe. As Amistad winds up its recognition of National Poetry Month, we celebrate the life and writing of Bob Kaufman and announce the acquistion of a number of his works.

Kaufman was born Robert Garnell Kaufman in New Orleans on April 18, 1925, to Joseph Kaufman, a Pullman porter, and Lillian Vigne, a schoolteacher. Kaufman's upbringing was often shrouded in myths and stories, often perpetuated by Kaufman himself, about a voodoo mother, joining the merchant marines at age 13, and spending much of his early years at sea. In truth, Kaufman came from an established Jewish and Roman Catholic family in New Orleans, and was one of 13 children. Kaufman did join the merchant marines when he was 18-years-old, afterwhich he worked as a labor organizer in New York City and San Francisco.

After settling in San Francisco, Kaufman took up poetry and became one of the leading proponents of jazz poetry, often performing in various clubs and cafes in the North Beach area and on the streets. In 1959, Kaufman founded Beatitude magazine, along with Allen Ginsberg, John Kelly, and William Margolis, which became one of the leading mimeograph literary magazines of the era.

Kaufman struggled with drugs and alcohol during his adult life, and was once given shock treatments in Bellevue Hospital after being arrested for walking on the grass in Washington Square Park in New York City. Following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, Kaufman took a vow of silence that lasted until the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam almost ten years later.

Despite his troubles and withdrawal from public speaking, Kaufman authored a number of poetry books and broadsides, including the broadsides Abomunist Manifesto, Second April, and Does the Mind Whisper?, and poetry collections such as Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness, Golden Sardine, and The Ancient Rain. The Amistad Research Center has recently acquired copies Kaufman's oeuvre in its entirety, which adds his voice to its growing collection of contemporary African American literature -- a voice that can be described as..."Brief, beautiful shadows, burned on walls of night." (from Kaufman's "Bagel Shop Jazz").

Posted by Christopher Harter

Friday, April 20, 2012

Celebrating Poetry, Part 2

Umbra No. 2
Prior to joining the staff of the Amistad Research Center, I had studied and collected "little magazines" - small circulation, avant-garde literary magazines - for a number of years. One of my favorite titles was Umbra, which was published by a group of African American poets in New York City beginning in 1963. Like many "littles," Umbra was short-lived, lasting only a few issues, but it had a profound influence on African American writing and gave voice to many leading poets of the era. One of the greatest (and pleasant!) surprises I found when I came to Amistad was that the Center housed the papers and library of Umbra co-founder and editor Tom Dent.

Dent's library houses the first two issues of Umbra, and his papers provide a wonderful look into the lives and works of the group of writers that became known as the Umbra Writers' Workshop or the Society of Umbra. One of the best histories of the group is Calvin Hernton's "Umbra: A Personal Recounting." Along with Dent and Hernton, members of the workshop included David Henderson, Calvin Hicks, Rolland Snellings, Ishmael Reed, Alvin Simon, Lorenzo Thomas and others.

Dent's correspondence includes numerous letters with Umbra members, in which they discuss their lives and their writing. In addition to the letters, the collection includes essays and interviews by Dent on his Umbra days, as well as a wonderful set of photographs of early Umbra meetings by Alvin Simon. The workshop and his former cohorts are also represented in Dent's poetry, including the following:

"Ten Years After Umbra"
                              - by Tom Dent
we had seen
                our minds reach out
                touch fingertips
                musics crawl in like
                lazy smoke on Friday nights
                taste the wine &
                leave us a whiff of real road

we had seen
                our fingertips recoil
                our minds reel
                from the impact
                of our tounged knives

                                but then

we were naked then
and we stripped our souls
easy as the sun rose
and what went on
in that tenement prison
was something in us
bursting free like
a flash fire.

do you too now feel
the drag of too many jammed years?
Stanley's fades into dream
and so with our touching
our hurting...

as for me
the dirt roads of Mississippi
are a long way
from anywhere

but then the sun will rise
just as easy tomorrow
over this black earth

join me there.

Posted by Christopher Harter

(Image from the Amistad Research Center library collection. May not be reproduced without permission.)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Amistad Completes Audiovisual Assessment

As Amistad’s Audiovisual Project Archivist, I have spent the past eighteen months working on an assessment of audiovisual items at the Center under a grant funded by the National Historic Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). The Center is pleased to report that the assessment has been completed.
Examples of Amistad's diverse
audiovisual holdings.
The results of the project have been tremendous.

Over the past year and a half, Amistad has developed a greater understanding of the rich audiovisual collection in our care. All moving image and sound recordings in the Center have been identified and inventoried, and playback equipment has been obtained for many formats. Items have been organized by format and relocated to Amistad's offsite storage facility, which is equipped for preservation storage of delicate film and magnetic formats.

The experience has been extremely rewarding to me. As Amistad’s first dedicated audiovisual staff member, I have had the chance in many instances to listen to and to view items my fellow archivists and researchers have not had access to due to lack of equipment or item descriptions. I have also had occasion to research and learn about some of the more obscure formats I had not yet encountered in my professional experience.

But the truly captivating part of this job has been coming to know the breadth of the stories and information contained in our collections. From George M. Houser’s films of his travels in Africa, to 1930s recordings of the Talladega College choir in the Lillian Vorhees Papers, to the run of "Just For The Record," a New Orleans-based gay and lesbian themed television program, new worlds have been opened up to me and to the research community through the work done on this project. I look forward to spending more time getting to know these fascinating collections.

Posted by Brenda Flora

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Celebrating Poetry

First page of "Margaret Garner and Her
Child" by John L. Buckner.
 April is National Poetry Month in the United States. This recognition of the poetic arts was inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, and in celebration of all things poetry, as well as Amistad’s literary holdings, we will be posting multiple blog entries regarding our poetry-related holdings this month.

There is no better announcement to make as part of our poetry series than the posting of the new online finding aid to the Buckner-Barker Family papers. The Buckner-Barker Family papers pertain to several generations of an African American family with multi-generational ties to Kansas. The collection consists of typescripts of poems authored by John L. Buckner, but also contains photographs; newspaper clippings; a privately published book of poems by John D. Barker, son-in-law of John L. Buckner; as well as an interview and other documents that relate the family history.

The majority of the collection consists of typescripts and hand scripts of poetry composed by John L. Buckner, who was born in Canada and married Lynette Phillips, who was born into slavery in Kentucky. Buckner was self-educated and penned many poems, including several in the epic form. The poems demonstrate his knowledge of world history, the Haitian Revolution, the racial oppression of his time, and a keen sense of his African heritage.

Show here is the first page of a poem entitled “Margaret Garner and Her Child” by Buckner. The poem relates the story of Garner, an enslaved woman in Kentucky whose story of the 1856 killing of her daughter – rather than allowing her daughter to return to slavery – became a celebrated and notorious narrative of the horrors of slavery in the United States. Garner’s story became the basis for numerous artistic interpretations including of Frances Harper’s 1859 poem “Slave Mother: A Tale of Ohio,” Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s 1867 painting “The Modern Medea,” and Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved, as well as being the focus of numerous historical analyses.

The first page reads in part:

She fled from slaverys cruel grasp,
From bondage terrible and vile
And in her arms were tightly clasped
Her only darling child.

She reached Ohio’s swolen flood,
The waters deep and dark,
Behind her bayed the fierce bloodhounds –
She heard their dismal bark.

Although undated, Buckner’s poem represents an early poetic treatment of the Garner theme. Given his marriage and wife’s upbringing in Kentucky, he likely would have been familiar with the various tales of Garner’s story. Buckner’s work provides an example of late 19th century African American poetry in the Amistad Research Center’s archival and library collections. Look for more examples in upcoming blog posts…

Posted by Christopher Harter

(Image from the Buckner-Barker Family papers. May not be used without permission.)

Edgar G. Brown: Firebrand, labor organizer, lobbyist, journalist, and tennis champion

Among the joys of being an archivist is the near-constant inundation with interesting facts and figures. One of the more interesting figures in recent memory is Edgar G. Brown, whose small collection of papers is held at the Amistad Research Center.

Born in Sandoval, Illinois, in 1898, Brown attended Northwestern University, which was interrupted by his service in the Army during World War I. After his service, he returned to Northwestern and graduated in economics and business. Upon graduation, he worked as an advertising manager of the Madame C. J. Walker Co., as an editor of the Standard News of St. Louis, and as an administrative assistant and editor of the Federal Security Agency in Washington.

Edgar Brown transitioned from his journalistic career into the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) with some assistance from his close confidant, Irvin H. McDuffie, who was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s valet. With the backing of President Roosevelt, Brown gained an administrative position in the CCC, where he served in the publicity section. Although hired primarily to report on activities of African Americans in CCC work camps, Brown also utilized his position to agitate for improved status of African American CCC workers, such as increasing their numbers as camp commanders and medical officers. Brown’s work with the CCC was likely to have culminated in the publication of a booklet, “The C.C. C. and Negro Youth,” but this was likely never published. Brown did publish a few brochures and press releases for the CCC, including “The Civilian Conservation Corps and Colored Youth.”

He quickly drew the ire of CCC director Robert Fechner, who complained to President Roosevelt that “Brown seems to be obsessed with the feeling that he should constitute himself the personal representative of every Negro in our C.C. C. organization.” Brown, as reported by Fechner to President Roosevelt, used his position with the CCC to call upon administrators at the Departments of War, Interior, and Agriculture to criticize the mistreatment or underemployment of African Americans in those federal agencies. Upon the cessation of the CCC in 1942, President Roosevelt again intervened with directors of the National Housing Agency and the Office of Price Administration to secure federal employment for Brown. Despite the President’s recommendation, and despite his role as a prominent member of Roosevelt’s famed “Black Cabinet,” Brown’s services were unwanted by both agencies.

While working as a federal employee, Brown was president of the United Government Employees, a federal workers’ union, from 1934 to 1943. Among his achievements include successfully working toward the elimination of photographs as a requirement in civil service examinations. Brown also worked to secure automatic promotions for federal custodial employees and campaigned successfully for the first language specifically prohibiting racial discrimination in a 1940 civil service law.

After working for the CCC, Brown founded and directed the National Negro Council, a political lobbying organization. As suggested in his Associated Negro Press obituary, this was a controversial organization: “Brown always maintained he was the head of the National Negro Council, an organization for which he collected funds at his many street corner gatherings. However, no one was ever able to obtain information about the group’s membership and officers. Nevertheless, he did maintain an office in Washington as official lobbyist of the organization.” Despite the controversy, Brown enjoyed one key triumph in his lobbying efforts. Brown mobilized a campaign in the 1940s to have the ignoble Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi removed from office. Brown claimed to have gathered over a million signatures on petitions for this cause.

Brown utilized unconventional means to broadcast his views, often acting as a street-corner orator or driving around in an automobile with a loud speaker, according to his obituary by the Associated Negro Press. He was called a “bearded forerunner of black power” by Chicago broadcaster and journalist Warner Saunders, who remembered Brown as the one Chicagoan most critical of racial discord in that city: “Edgar G. Brown, an exciting, fiery-tongued, street corner orator. I remember his soapbox decrying the white power structure and condemning the docility of blacks… Nearly all of his speeches had the same ending: Two burly, red-faced policemen giving him a free ride to jail.”

Edgar Brown was also a four-time singles champion of the American Tennis Association, in 1922, 1923, 1928, and 1929. He also co-founded and served as president of the National Lawn Tennis Association.

He twice campaigned unsuccessfully for the first Congressional district of Illinois in Chicago, running against the incumbent, William L. Dawson, who Brown referred to as the “Black Apologist.” In his campaign to unseat Dawson, Brown had the support of the Chicago Tribune. Brown died while taking part in the Republican primaries for Congress after sustaining a heart attack and crashing into a tree while driving his “sound truck.”

Though Edgar George Brown certainly deserves a more comprehensive biography, it has been fun to piece together a biography from the relics of his life well lived.

Posted by Andrew Salinas
(Image from the Edgar G. Brown papers, Amistad Research Center. Image may not be reproduced without permission.)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Passing of Elizabeth Catlett

The staff and directors of the Amistad Research Center join the art world in mourning the loss of one of the world's true art treasures, Elizabeth Catlett, who passed away on Monday, April 2. Ms. Catlett was for many years a strong supporter of the Center. On the collection of her works and papers at Amistad, she commented "I am pleased that my personal papers and some of my art works are permanently preserved in one of the great repositories in the United States."

Born April 15, 1919 at Freedmen's Hospital in Washington D.C., she was the third child of Mary Carson Catlett and John Catlett. In 1931, she enrolled at Howard University and began her studies as a design major, but later changed to painting. At Howard, she studied under Lois M. Jones, James Herring, James Wells, and James Porter.

Catlett later studied at Iowa University to pursue a master's degree in art and majored in sculpture. In 1940, she would become the first African American to receive an MFA in sculpture from the university. While at Iowa, she studied under painter Grant Wood. It was Wood who encouraged her to work with wood and depict subjects with which she could directly indentify. She took his advice and worked on images of African American women, mothers, daughters, and children. Her thesis piece, Mother and Child, became a characteristic theme of her art.

Elizabeth Catlett at work in her studio, circa 1983.
After completing her studies at Iowa, Catlett studied ceramics at the Art Institute of Chicago before joining the Art Department at Dillard University in New Orleans. She taught drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, and art history. One incident profoundly affected the focus of her art during her time at Dillard. Intending to take her art class to see a retrospective exhibition of Picasso's paintings at the New Orleans Museum of Art, the class had to enter the museum directly from the bus due to the fact that the museum's entrance was through City Park, which was closed to African Americans due to Jim Crow laws. Ms. Catlett discussed the visit in this 2009 interview.

The Julius Rosenwald Foundation awarded Catlett a grant in 1945 to create a series of prints and sculptures on the theme of African American women. The series would be entitled The Negro Woman and conveyed the determination of African American women in the face of overwhelming odds. In 1945, Catlett traveled to Mexico and returned in 1947, marrying painter and printmaker Francisco Mora. The couple had three sons, Francisco Jr., Juan, and David. Catlett joined the Taller de Grafica Popular (People's Graphic Arts Workshop) of printmakers who were committed to maintaining the social and political ideals of the Mexican Revolution. She became a Mexican citizen in 1960.

The political activism of the 1960s and early 1970s was seen in a variety of Catlett's works of that era, such as Black Unity, Homage to My Young Black Sisters, Target, and The Torture of Mothers. She was the recipient of numerous awards and commissions, and continued to work and reside in Mexico until her passing.

Posted by Christopher Harter
(Image from the Elizabeth Catlett Papers, Amistad Research Center. Image may not be reproduced without permission.)