October 27, 1997
Volume 50, No. 10
Men with drills climb ladders around Randall Burkett's small office on the top floor of Woodruff Library and make noise-a racket all the more jarring amidst the aged stacks and glass showcases of Special Collections-and more men outside labor to finish the building's new addition.
Burkett is contributing to the construction of Emory's library, albeit in a different way from those wearing hardhats and tool belts. As the new African-American studies bibliographer, he is charged with building a collection of overlooked and underappreciated materials from America's culture.
In fact, sitting around Burkett's desk, still in boxes of various shapes and sizes, are fragments of just such a collection, old books, pamphlets, manuscripts, photographs. Many are ragged and yellowing with age, but underneath all is hidden a whole culture, a part of America from long ago that too few know much about.
"Take a look at this," Burkett said, picking up a paperback volume about the size of a scholarly journal. "This, to my knowledge, is the only surviving copy in any library in the world of Banket's Official Colored Society Directory, published in 1891 in New York. These black city directories appeared very early, and they're a wonderful way to reconstruct what black social, political, economic life was like in this period.
"We bought this book at auction, bidding against major research libraries around the country, and I'm happy to say it lives here now."
Burkett, who's been at Emory since the spring, wishes he could say he lives here, too, but currently he's "commuting" from Worcester, Mass., where his wife Nancy is the librarian at the American Antiquarian Society. It was through an Antiquarian Society program on the history of books that Burkett found his passion.
He'd been collecting texts on black religious history for years, starting in his graduate school days at Harvard Divinity School. His doctoral dissertation at the University of Southern California examined the connections between African-American clergy and black radicalism in the early 20th century. And Burkett noticed the Antiquarian Society's program didn't give full attention to print culture in the black community. "Few people in the history of the book in America have been looking at black books," he said.
Armed already with a substantial research library of his own, Burkett saw the opportunity at Emory to focus on black history as told by the people who lived it. "The research collections have materials related to African Americans, but it's mostly plantation records of slaves or collections such as that of Joel Chandler Harris," he said. "They have tended to come from the white side; we need to balance it with African-American voices."
Emory's collection was improved recently by the addition of author James Weldon Johnson's papers and those of alumnus Michael Lomax, an Atlanta political figure who is currently president of Dillard University in New Orleans. Actually, it was Lomax who was partly responsible for bringing Burkett to Atlanta; when he donated his papers to his alma mater, Lomax insisted Emory make an effort to acquire more African-American materials, and that led to the creation of Burkett's position.
Having been a collector for the past 25 years, Burkett knows many book dealers around the country and already has his ear to the ground for choice acquisitions, but sometimes it's just blind luck. He recently met his wife in Chicago where she was attending a conference and spent his free time wandering Windy City bookshops. One dealer had a collection, which he was just about to advertise in his catalog, of papers and other articles of Victoria Spivey, a blues singer of the '20s and '30s.
"This was a 3,900-item collection of a black woman entrepreneur, a blues singer, with original lyrics in manuscript, autobiographical fragments, business records and a lot of print material about the sales of her records," Burkett said. "This was just being in the right place at the right time. Immediately I put it on hold, called [Emory] and said, 'This looks very interesting. Do you think we should get it?' Every faculty member I consulted with was excited."
And sometimes the collections come to him, as was the case recently when Atlanta collector James Allen deposited at Emory his collection of lynching photographs, a gallery of grisly images that will be shown in an exhibition early next year.
Horrifying as they may be, Burkett feels the lynching photographs, along with all the other materials he's collecting, are invaluable in teaching people about American, not just black, culture. People sometimes point out the uniqueness of an African-American studies bibliographer who is not black, but the United States has always grappled with the issue of race, and we all have something to learn from it, Burkett said.
"Once it's clear that I'm not just a casual observer, that I know the field and I have something to offer, people respect and welcome that," Burkett said. "It's no more-and no less-difficult for me to get inside African-American culture than it would be for me to get into the history of Byzantium or Greece.
"The issues of black and white are very much what America is about. There are lots of problems with respect to race in America, but we are not Bosnia. There are many points of ethnic pride [in African-American studies], but it's also an exciting field of scholarly inquiry, and students ought to see this is interesting and important, and there's work to be done."
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