As previous posts suggest, I find myself reflecting evermore on my experience as a novice librarian at District of Columbia Teachers College, a public inner city institution that has long since bit the academic dust. What remains for me are vibrant images of a profound late 60’s learning opportunity for which I am increasingly grateful.
One poignant memory is of Walter Williams, collection development librarian extraordinaire, and the only man I’ve ever known who could speak fluently with a pencil tucked under his upper lip.
When the demise of DCTC was imminent Mr. Williams fought back by protecting his treasured collection of African American literature. Experience taught him that these dusty – and presumably irrelevant — tomes would not survive the intrusion of the impending bureaucrats, more interested in efficiency and modernity than in preservation of the literary works of a people. Day after day Mr. Williams would quietly comb the shelves, then stash the books in a secluded back room where they were relatively safe from the invaders. I have often wondered if those rare treasures still grace some library’s shelves and give life to priceless wisdom.
The images, the sounds, even the smells of those late 60’s days have filled my mind these past days since video producer Dan Bergin of TPT thoughtfully emailed me a link to his 1998 documentary on the Archie Givens Collection, a jewel in the Archives and Special Collections at the University of Minnesota Libraries.
Though I’ve known about the Givens Collection, my ongoing quest to learn more about the literary and film legacy of Oscar Micheaux Legacy has led me to more intensive research. What I had failed to understand was the depth of the collection. The documentary offers a beautiful depiction of the Givens Collection as an entry point to our African American literary legacy as well as a context that places Micheaux, the Givens Collection and Mr. Williams’ work in context.
Mesmerized by the hour-long documentary, my thought now is to share the experience with others who, like me, reach for a focus to reflect on the passion of African American writers, from Frederick Douglass to Walter Mosely who, incidentally, will be spending time this month in this community.
My hope is that readers will take time to engage in the documentary as background to enriching the array of opportunities that are exploding in this community. Of special interest are the Givens Black Books series, Penumbra Theatre’s series on Reshaping the Black Image on the American Stage, the rich agenda of reading and book groups in libraries, more inclusive curricula in schools and colleges, the Minnesota African American Museum and Cultural Center and the enduring strength of the Givens collection.
So much to learn, so much to celebrate. Decades after his heroic efforts, Walter B. Williams is smiling, a feat which he alone could accomplish with a pencil securely clutched under his upper lip. I deeply hope the treasures he secured are intact – if not physically in some digital form that would have blown his beautiful mind.