Event by The Bibliographical Society of America

Black Bibliography: Dorothy Porter’s “Early American Negro Writings” at 75

Black Bibliography: Dorothy Porter’s “Early American Negro Writings” at 75

Thursday, August 20, 2020 at 3:00 PM to 4:00 PM (EST)
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Since present practice does not provide for catalogue entries under the color or race of author, nor as a general rule does a library classification bring them together on the shelf, existing bibliographical apparatus was of very little use …” Dorothy Porter, “Early American Negro Writings" (click for free access via University of Chicago Press) (1945) 

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Dorothy Porter’s (1905-1995) “Early American Negro Writings: A Bibliographical Study,” published in The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America. Porter’s 1945 essay is a touchstone of Black bibliography; her insistence that African American writing merited a place in the Papers was – and remains – a critique of bibliographical studies more broadly. Through this essay and later work, such as Early Negro Writing (1971), Porter helped define a field of Black authorship that expanded the idea of how, where, and for what purposes Black writers used print in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Challenging a prevailing view of Black subjects as unlettered and absent from early literary history, she revealed a large and rich field of “Negro literature” located in hymn books, orations, almanacs, petitions, newspapers, satires, sermons, and organizational proceedings—as well as in poetry and narrative. For decades, Porter’s expansive and collective understanding of Black textuality has guided bibliographers, cataloguers, literary scholars, and historians. 

Recent work from Laura Helton, Zita Nunes, and Autumn Womack has given us a new appreciation for Porter’s innovative cataloguing practices and use of resources as curator of Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. Her cataloguing system, for instance, centered the African diaspora and created a way of seeing blackness where it was not marked within dominant knowledge structures. As recent social justice movements have brought renewed attention to institutional collecting practices, this webinar convenes an interdisciplinary group of scholars and librarians to reflect on Porter, her unfinished mission to make Black print accessible, and the blueprint she provided to rethink bibliography, archives, and libraries today.

Laura E. Helton is an Assistant Professor of English and History at the University of Delaware. Her current book project, “Collecting and Collectivity: Black Archival Publics,” traces the making of African American archives and libraries to show how historical recuperation shaped forms of racial imagination in the early twentieth century. She has written about Dorothy Porter in “Making Lists, Keeping Time: Infrastructures of Black Inquiry, 1900-1950” (Against a Sharp White Background, ed. Fielder and Senchyne) and “On Decimals, Catalogs, and Racial Imaginaries of Reading” (PMLA, 134.1), which won the Maria Stewart Journal Article Prize from the African American Intellectual History Association, the Donald G. Davis Award from the American Library Association, and honorable mention for the William Riley Parker Prize from the Modern Language Association. 

Derrick R. Spires is Associate Professor of English and affiliate faculty in American Studies, Visual Studies, and Media Studies at Cornell University. His first book, The Practice of Citizenship: Black Politics and Print Culture in the Early United States was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2019 and has been awarded the Midwest Modern Languages Association Book Award and the Bibliographical Society of America/St. Louis Mercantile Library Prize. Spires’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in African American Review, American Literary History, and edited collections on early African American print culture, time and American literature, and the Colored Conventions movement. 

Dorothy Berry is currently the inaugural Digital Collections Program Manager at Houghton Library, Harvard University, where she oversees both large scale-digitization and the creation of new scans serving patron research needs. Following an MLS, and an MA in Ethnomusicology, both from Indiana University, she has built a career focused on improving access to African American cultural heritage materials and primary sources relating to Black History, through enhanced description and improved digital discovery.

Melanie Chambliss is an Assistant Professor of African American History at Columbia College Chicago. Her in-progress manuscript, “Saving the Race: Black Archives, Black Liberation, and the Remaking of Modernity,” explores the founding and impact of early twentieth-century black archives. Chambliss has a forthcoming essay in the edited collection The Unfinished Book about the early years of the Moorland Foundation Library. Her research has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and the Black Metropolis Research Consortium. 

Janet Sims-Wood is former Assistant Chief Librarian at Howard University's Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.  She has also taught at the University of Maryland and served as a librarian in the Washington, DC Public Library System and at Prince George's Community College. A founding associate editor of SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women, she is author of Dorothy Porter Wesley at Howard University: Building a Legacy of Black History (History Press, 2014), the only full-length biography of Dorothy Porter Wesley. Dr. Sims-Wood holds a BA in Sociology from North Carolina Central University, an MLS from the University of Maryland, and a PhD in Women's Studies and History from the Union Institute Graduate School. She is a life member of both the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and the Association of Black Women Historians.

Image Credit: [Photograph of Dorothy Porter Wesley instructing manuscript staff: Thomas Battle, Evelyn Brooks-Barnett and Denise Glelin, Howard University] from the Dorothy Porter Wesley Papers, The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. 

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The Bibliographical Society of America
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Erin McGuirl, Executive Director

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