While African Americans have long shared the goals of improving their lives and combating injustice, there have been many different visions and strategies used to achieve them.
Those often competing strategies, which have been preserved through literature and other print media, serve as the focus of the “Issues and Debates in African American Literature” exhibition in the University of Delaware Library’s Special Collections Gallery on the second floor of Morris Library.
The exhibition highlights rare and significant items that illustrate the varied strains of African American literary and intellectual life in play over the past hundred years—many of which remain relevant discussions for today.
Visitors will find a first edition of the seminal 1903 book, The Negro Problem, which contains the first printed versions of two essays that set the terms of one of the key social debates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the essay “The Talented Truth,” W.E.B. Dubois argues that a small, cultured Black elite should guide the way toward African American progress. In contrast, Booker T. Washington promotes trades and practical skills as the best way forward in the essay “Industrial Education for the Negro.”
Both writers were reacting to a restriction of rights in the Jim Crow South and pervasive discrimination in the North—and both positions formed the ideological cores of later social movements and organizations.
Also on display will be material from the Harlem Renaissance, including a facsimile of the rare, one-issue journal Fire!! from 1926 that features poems and prose by Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and other “young lions” of the New Negro movement. Some older African American reviewers initially harshly critiqued the now-canonical text. They considered the themes and subjects to reflect badly on African Americans. The younger writers, however, wanted to break down conventions they saw as stifling Black expression.
Works by Stokely Carmichael, Sonia Sanchez, Martin Luther King Jr., Clarissa Sligh and others on display represent the contrasting strategies and goals of the Black Power movement and the movement for nonviolent resistance.
Curated by Curtis Small, senior assistant librarian in Special Collections, the exhibition also features artwork and photographs; and explores feminism, Black Gay and Lesbian literature, the meaning of the Nation of Islam, 20th- and 21st-century literature about slavery, Afro Futurism, and more.
An online version of the exhibition will be available here: http://exhibits.lib.udel.edu/exhibits/show/issues-and-debates-in-african-.