One of the 8 serigraph prints, created by Faith Ringgold for Letters from Birmingham City Jail
“When you learn, teach. When you get, give. As for me, I shall not be moved.”
- Our Grandmothers, Maya Angelou
As we just celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and are about to celebrate African American History month (in February), I thought that it was a perfect time to honor both with some of the best work by African American authors and artists from the Wilson Collection.
As I mentioned in a previous post about the Limited Edition Collection, the club began including work by African American authors and artists in 1983. Beginning with Nobel Prize winner, Derek Walcott, the Limited Edition Club published Poems of the Caribbean. A poet and playwright, Walcott is better known for the 1990 poem, Omeros. Walcott is a winner of many literary awards, including an Obie Award in 1971, for the play Dream on Monkey Mountain.
Jacob Lawrence, artist
Also published in 1983 by the LEC, Hiroshima is a book by Pulitzer-Prize winning author, John Hersey. The LEC version includes a poem and signature by Kentucky (Kentucky-Tennessee Border) native, Robert Penn Warren. The book is a detailed account of Hiroshima from 6 survivors, after the atomic bombs were dropped in August, 1945.
A cover photo of Jesse Jackson for Time magazine. Created by artist, Jacob Lawrence, in 1970. (Photo courtesy of SPD.com – Society of Publication Designers)
In order to provide the adequate detail that the story calls for, artist Jacob Lawrence was chosen to create the 8, multi-color silk screens for the book. Lawrence’s achievements range from studying at the Harlem Art Workshop for 6 years, obtaining Rosenwald Fellowships for 3 successive years and a Guggenheim in 1946.
That same year, he also painted a cover for Fortune magazine. In 1970, he did a cover portrait of Jesse Jackson for Time magazine.
Lawrence is also known for several one-man exhibitions, the first one starting at the Harlem YMCA in 1938, and eventually had many traveling exhibits of art. In his later years (around the time when he created the art for Hiroshima), Lawrence was a professor of art at several institutions including Pratt Institute and the University of Washington in Seattle.
Lawrence’s feelings toward John Hersey’s book were beautifully translated into illustrations – “I read and reread Hiroshima several times. And I began to see the extent of the devastation in the twisted and mutilated bodies of humans, birds, fishes, and all the other animals and living things that inherit our Earth. The flora and fauna and the land that were at one time alive were now seared, mangled, deformed, and devoid of life. And I thought, what have we accomplished over these many centuries?”
Other great authors of the 20th century (that are included in the LEC) include Margaret Walker (For My People), Maya Angelou (Our Grandmothers), Langston Hughes (Sunrise is Coming After While), and Zora Neale Hurston (Bookmarks in the Pages of Life).
The year that the LEC published Margaret Walker’s For My People marked the 50th anniversary of its original publication (originally published in 1942). Though it was Walker’s first published work, she’d been writing for years. Walker attributes her inspiration for writing to her parents, starting from around the age of 11 or 12 when her father gave her a datebook as a Christmas present.
And Maya Angelou…where do I begin? Well known for many more reasons than being an award-winning author; Maya Angelou was also a dancer, actress, singer, activist and professor. She was the first poet since Robert Frost to make an inaugural recitation at a Presidential inauguration, reciting “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Clinton’s inauguration.
Maya took her acting, literary, and dance talents around the world, always ensuring that her son, Guy, was in good hands. She became involved with social causes as well, serving as the Northern Coordinator of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference). When she worked for a school in Accra, Ghana, she wrote for periodicals there, and in Egypt.
Upon her return back to the States, Angelou began publishing the first volume of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (a book that is also on many school’s banned and challenged lists). Our Grandmothers, Angelou’s favorite poem from the book of poetry I Shall Not Be Moved, was chosen by her for the Limited Edition Collection. Though a short poem, Our Grandmothers is every bit as strong as her autobiographies and her books of poetry.
First Edition of Maya Angelou’s Music, Deep Rivers in My Soul. This book was published specially for the members of the Limited Edition Club.
Another treasure by Angelou published by the Limited Edition Club is Music, Deep Rivers in My Soul. It is a treasure not only for its content, but also because it is a first edition book that was written specifically for the members of the LEC. This is a first for the LEC to publish a first edition book. It was published in 2003, with color etchings by artist Dean Mitchell (chosen by Angelou) and an original jazz composition by Wynton Marsalis. Truly unique, indeed.
Langston Hughes’ biographer described him in these words: “to many readers of African descent he is their poet laureate, the beloved author of poems steeped in the richness of African-American culture. To many readers who love verse and are also committed to the ideal of social and political justice, he is among the most eloquent of American Poets. For still other admirers he is, above all, the author of poems of often touching lyric beauty beyond issues such as race and justice.”
Hughes was revolutionary in his work, whether it be poetry, play-writing, activist work, or a novel. He was one of the earliest pioneers of the writing form, jazz poetry. He was also a leader of the Harlem Renaissance.
Hughes passed away in 1967, many years prior to the LEC’s publication of Sunrise is Coming After While. The LEC received help from Maya Angelou in selecting the poems for the volume. The artist chosen to illustrate the publication was Phoebe Beasley, the only artist whose work has been chosen twice for the Presidential Seal.
Zora Neale Hurston
There are not too many artists out there with an annual festival in their honor, but Zora Neale Hurston has one. In Eatonville, Florida, a town made famous thanks to Hurston’s numerous fictional stories. The year before the LEC published her collection of stories (2000), the festival drew about 85,000 enthusiasts (a small town that’s not too far from Orlando).
It almost goes without saying that she was and is still a popular author. Like Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston was well known for being a prominent writer during the Harlem Renaissance, and for writing Their Eyes Were Watching God. She has influenced many contemporary authors such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Ralph Ellison. The collection of stories chosen for the Limited Edition Collection range from tragic to laugh-out-loud, from the time of slavery to the Harlem Renaissance.
Betye Saar, one of America’s most important artists, illustrated the book with six multi-colored serigraphs. The paper that Saar chose is handmade of cotton and cinnamon, and the afterword was also written by her.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
One of the publications recently published by the LEC, Letter from Birmingham City Jail is an open letter that was written by Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 16, 1963, after his arrest during the Birmingham Campaign. While in jail, King received a newspaper that was smuggled in. It contained a statement from 8 white Alabama clergymen going against King’s methods, and he proceeded to write a response on the same newspaper.
King believed in the power of nonviolent resistance, and defended the strategy strongly in the letter stating that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws.
In honor of all of these notable authors, artists, and activists, the Wilson Collection currently has the following books (and a few news articles) on display:
- Poems of the Caribbean by Derek Walcott. Published by the LEC in 1983.
- Hiroshima by John Hersey. Illustrated by artist, Jacob Lawrence. Published by the LEC in 1983.
- For My People by Margaret Walker. Published by the LEC in 1992.
- Our Grandmothers by Maya Angelou. Published by the LEC in 1994.
- Sunrise is Coming After While by Langston Hughes. Published by the LEC in 1998.
- Bookmarks in the Pages of Life by Zora Neale Hurston. Published by the LEC in 2001.
- Music, Deep Rivers in My Soul by Maya Angelou. First Edition Published in 2003.
- Letter from Birmingham City Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr. Published by the LEC in 2008.
All of these books and several old news articles are currently on display in the Wilson Room, on the 3rd floor of the Main Downtown Library (next to the Fine Arts area). They will remain on display throughout the month of February. The Wilson Room is open to all visitors during regular Library hours.
If you are interested in viewing more books from the Wilson Collection, you can make an appointment by calling either (615) 880-2356 or (615) 880-2363, or simply respond to this blog post.
Stay tuned for more from the Wilson Collection!